John Woo's first Hollywood film was only a modest success. In 1993 Hong Kong's master of ballistic action was little-known in the west, and Hard Target didn't take off in the way it deserved to. To really make it with American audiences, Woo needed to make American movies - and that meant blowing up some helicopters.
The exploding helicopter is one of the images synonymous with action cinema in the west. By the '80s a helicopter's very purpose in an action film was to explode. On a poster or in a trailer, an exploding helicopter is almost the ultimate visual shorthand for excitement. Even on The A-Team, a show where no-one could ever die, a chopper had to be taken out from time to time - its crew inexplicably climbing unscathed from the wreckage.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) [IMDB]
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Kurt Russell
The team of misfits that form a comic tangent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe get a second run-out in James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. While the CGI action is more numbing than exciting, this spacefaring sequel has charm and wit to spare.
By 2014, the MCU was well-established and lucrative but in danger of becoming stale. Guardians of the Galaxy felt fresh, deftly introducing a new team of eccentric heroes without the years of buildup the Avengers had required. Better yet, Starlord and his crew were shown to exist in relative isolation from the rest of Marvel's universe, offering a degree of freedom from the straitjacket of continuity.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ian McShane
Free up a chair at the High Table of modern action films - John Wick: Chapter 2 has arrived and it is glorious.
There's been a clear trend in action films during the last several years: the number of films that fit squarely in the genre is quite small, and mediocre efforts outnumber the accomplished ones. Once or twice a year, however, a film is produced which immediately enters the pantheon of true greats. With their directorial debut John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch did exactly this in 2014. Combining their vast action design and second-unit experience with the total commitment of star Keanu Reeves, they forged one of the most exciting American action films of the decade.
Directing alone this time, Stahelski has gone and done it again. Chapter 2 is a blistering continuation and expansion of everything that made the original so intoxicating - the unique fictional underworld, the beautiful cinematography, Reeves' performance as "the man, the myth, the legend" that is John Wick and of course the astonishing action sequences. The sequel reaches a level of intensity and accomplishment in action cinema that, in recent years, is matched only by the likes of The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road.
The nominations for the 2017 Oscars were unveiled today. While the 24 categories cover most creative and technical aspects of film-making, there's a conspicuous lack of recognition for stunt co-ordination, choreography, and performance.
Of course, like the domination of La La Land in this year's list, this is no surprise. The Academy's resistance to recognising the men and women who bring action to the screen is stubborn and longstanding. Stunts and action sequences have thrilled audiences almost since the dawn of cinema, but the Academy has never seen fit to reward those who make this possible, even at the risk of life and limb.
The Oscar-nominated Steven Seagal vehicle Under Siege hit screens in October 1992. A significant hit, it opened the floodgates for a wave of films which attempted to recreate the magic of John McTiernan's Die Hard, Suddenly, four years after the release of the Bruce Willis classic, every studio was putting a relatable everyman (or sometimes Steven Seagal) up against armed terrorists within a relatively confined space: a ship, a train, an airliner.
Even today, the "Die Hard scenario" remains popular and the films which attempt this approach form an intriguing subgenre. Surprisingly, though, there is one film which very successfully copied the format of Die Hard which isn't too often discussed - and that's the film's very own sequel, Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2.
Recently I've really been getting into Italian crime fiction in a big way. I began by reading Roberto Saviano's amazing and chilling non-fiction book Gomorrah, then sought out the equally superb TV series. Last night, I watched Suburra, a 2015 crime epic directed by Stefano Sollima, one of Gomorrah's three directors.
Like the TV series, Suburra is an intensely detailed and bleak account of systemic criminal corruption in Italy. As opposed to Naples, where Gomorrah takes place, Suburra is set in Rome - meaning that senior politicians, the Roman mob, and even the Pope are implicated in all the seedy events that take place. It's brilliant, harrowing stuff driven by a great script and a fine ensemble cast. It's quite labyrinthine, so I decided to create this chart showing just some of the complex relationships. You can download a PDF copy below.
Stefano Sollima is the son of Sergio Sollima (1921 - 2015), director of three of the best Italian western films ever made. Right now he's working on Soldado, the sequel to Denis Villeneuve's 2015 film Sicario, which was also a favourite of mine - it's in safe hands. Suburra is also being made into a Netflix series - so there's plenty more Italian crime goodness still to come.
Lethal Weapon may not have launche the buddy-cop genre as such - Walter Hill's 48 Hrs. (1982) was just one of its antecedents - but it definitely helped to cement and popularise this enduringly popular idea. Played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover respectively, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh are now the archetypal buddy cops. They reunited for three sequels up until 1998, were parodied in Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), and have been re-imagined and re-cast for a 2016 TV series.
Besides launching the franchise and boosting the buddy-cop subgenre, Lethal Weapon was a trendsetting film for a number of other reasons. It launched Mel Gibson's career in the US, turned Shane Black into a screenwriting superstar, and is even a milestone in the use of martial arts sequences in American action films. The film's commercial success and continued influence are clear enough, but were the product of a very specific set of ingredients combined together by veteran director Donner.
The Accountant (2016) [IMDB]
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal
In 2016, Hollywood has continued to labour under a pall of familiarity. Ever in search of "sure things", the big studios have doubled-down once again on sequels, remakes, reboots, "re-imaginings", and spin-offs. Where something new is promised - as with, say, Doctor Strange - we're often left disappointed. That's where The Accountant comes in: a genuinely somewhat novel, if flawed, thriller which serves as a breath of fresh air.
Doctor Strange (2016) [IMDB]
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton
Conscious of the risk of superhero fatigue, Marvel has made much of the idea that Doctor Strange deviates from their usual formula. Some particularly dazzling visuals aside, it actually largely retains the feel of previous films in the MCU - with the strengths and weaknesses that tends to imply. However, powered by the performances of a strong cast, it overcomes the flaws in its story and should keep Marvel's fire burning well into 2017.
Recently, Paul Bramhall of City on Fire published an important article on the corrosive impact of piracy on martial arts and action cinema. In it, Bramhall explains how the decline in the budgets of today's independent action films is caused in part by piracy, which cuts the profitability of new productions. The article also discusses the apparently low demand for new (albeit sometimes dubious) Blu-Ray releases of older Asian action films. I broadly agree with Bramhall's points and they're worth a read.
I wanted to pick up some of the issues in the article and and to look at what I think is the other side of the problems action cinema is facing. In addition to a crisis of piracy, we also have what might be called a crisis of availability. What I mean by this is that in 2016, Asian action cinema is less visible and less widely available in the West than it has been for years - despite the advent of video on demand. These two crises are feeding into one another, creating a downward spiral: as fewer Asian action films see legitimate releases in the West, more consumers watch pirate releases. This in turn creates a sense that legitimate releases are not viable, and fewer occur. Clearly, this is not the only reason for piracy; there will always be those that choose not to pay. But like piracy itself, the crisis of availabilty is, for me, contributing to the existential threat to Asian action cinema fandom in the Western world.