A recent reappraisal of Con Air set Twitter afire this past weekend; an article that claims the mid-level slice of Jerry Bruckheimer junk somehow “changed everything”. Why anyone would pick Con Air (of all the mega actioners from the 90s) as their world-shaking example escapes this writer*, but it also kick-started a conversation regarding nostalgia for a time when our big budget adult blockbuster fare would pack multiple stars playing maniacs into a plane and then crash it onto the Las Vegas Strip. In a pre-Marvel/DC arena, action films had to rely on establishing unknown characters and scenarios that were thrilling, allotting performers a chance to chew a chunk of scenery before the bullets began to fly. This might account for the yearning found in the aforementioned assessment – a starry-eyed look back over one’s shoulder, searching for the type of movie that isn’t necessarily made the same way anymore.
Problem is: there’s no need to be nostalgic nowadays because the current crop of action cinema is just so damn good. Even if you’re bored with the latest cape and cowl adventure (or attempt at establishing a “Dark Universe”, blech) that features multiple digital characters punching each other against a pixelated backdrop, ’17 has a bevy of options for fisticuff junkies to consider as alternatives. The mid-range thriller is alive and well, both on the big screen as well as the idiot box in your living room. As action criticism granddaddy Outlaw Vern pointed out in his State of Action Filmmaking ’17 “the renaissance is real.” We’re experiencing a golden revival of the sort of testosterone fests that dominated the 80s and 90s.
Is this throwback resurgence a conscious revolt against the comic book storytelling that dominates the modern box office? Probably not. However, it is a welcome revamping of the muscle-headed practical stunt shows that served as quick shots of adrenaline for those who grew up devouring Cannon VHS trash and its excessively silly Simpson/Bruckheimer mall crowd counterparts. Even old masters like Walter Hill are even getting in on this game, albeit to mixed results. Yet it’s a wonder we’re getting new movies that pay tribute to Hill, all while the old-school pulp curmudgeon tries his hand at crafting antiquated exploitation. The year’s only halfway over, and there have been some seriously impressive highlights.
John Wick: Chapter 2
An existential nightmare wrapped up in a mythology-expanding dance of bone, blood and bullets, Chapter 2 is as good a piece of pure action movie craft as we’ve ever witnessed. Presented as a series of escalating (and visually stunning) set pieces, our grieving Baba Yaga (Keanu Reeves, iconic as always) enters an underworld that’s filled with Greek Tragedy-levels of melancholy double crosses, and a test of being that evolves into one of the more sneakily effective takes on the ways human beings mourn the losses of those they love. In the sequel, Wick is an action movie Orpheus, descending into Hades while hoping to hold onto the memories of his beloved Eurydice. Only the deeper he dives, the less chance he has of ever being able to return to the goodness she’d brought into his life. It’s a movie about the dangers of staring into one’s past instead of moving forward; only in place of ponderous monologues we get subway car martial arts and a mirror room shootout that plays like a surrealist re-envisioning of Enter the Dragon’s similar glass showdown. The climax leaves us on a cliffhanger that repurposes Batman’s final dash from the authorities at the end of The Dark Knight, John’s place in his world of violence now altered forever because of this film’s narrative. If we got a new Wick picture every two years, we’d all be better off. They’re just that great.
XXX: The Return of Xander Cage
Vin Diesel’s return to the extreme sports spy franchise feels like a Roger Moore Bond movie written by someone tripping peyote at Coachella. Xander Cage (Diesel) is now a man of the people, delivering cable in Cuba via skateboard before being called back into service so that he and a crew of MacGruber-esque “specialists” can hunt down Donnie Yen, who’s stolen a chaos device that can take down satellites with the push of button. Everybody who’s been labeling the Fast and Furious films “our new Bond franchise” is out of their minds. This is the series that should be delivering globe hopping nuttiness every few years, as it resurrects 007’s sportiest elements (the opening’s basically the X-Games version of every Bond skiing scene) while simultaneously selling the sex and sunny fun of that series’ goofier entries. But really, how can you not love a movie that starts in space, follows up with Samuel L. Jackson recruiting you into the Mountain Dew Avengers, and then contains copious amounts of Yen and Tony Jaa ownage? The Return of Xander Cage is pure joyous nonsense from start to finish, and should be celebrated for never taking itself too seriously.
The movie some believe shouldn’t exist at all. Undeniably Problematic™ in terms of its approach to transgender people (as Michelle Rodriguez’s vicious hitman is transformed from man to woman as punishment for his sins), it’s still enjoyable to see a movie lean into such a sleazy premise with wanton disregard for modern social politics (the script was apparently written during the 70s, which is easy to believe). Much like ’12’s Bullet to the Head, you can feel the classically jittery neo-noir stylings Walter Hill made famous with his 70s and 80s output peeking out beneath the often goofy comic panel transitions. Sigourney Weaver’s mad doctor quotes Shakespeare in numerous too long monologues and Rodriguez shoots henchmen down with ruthless proficiency. We’re probably never going to get the same reckless curmudgeon who crafted The Warriors and Streets of Fire back, but The Assignment is still a solid reminder of an auteur who had zero need for anything remotely resembling reality.
Boyka: Undisputed IV
Scott Adkins has roughly 213 movies coming out in ‘17, but the one you should be most excited for is Boyka: Undisputed IV. Returning to the Russian cage fighter’s never-ending quest for redemption, Boyka is the modern equivalent of an early JCVD vehicle (think: Death Warrant). There’s even a hulking, ostensibly indestructible final baddie for Yuri to square off against in the ring. Adkins is a treat as always, his commitment to being the best onscreen physical performer in this arena on full display during the expertly choreographed and cut fight sequences. There’re no tight close ups or choppy editing during the multiple melees. Instead, cinematographer Ivan Vatsov (who’s been an action movie camera operator for years) keeps the frame wide and steady so that Adkins’ spin-kicking skills can wow his ever-growing fan base. Boyka is the perfect example of how the DTV market is producing sturdy cheap thrills on the reg, and is primed to melt faces when it hits VOD August 1.
To be fair, the last two entries on this list are something of a cheat, as you’ve still gotta wait to see both. Nevertheless, Baby Driver is the most exciting movie this writer has seen thus far in ’17. Edgar Wright chopped and screwed Walter Hill’s The Driver with Michael Mann’s Heat, while adding a heavy dose of Phantom of the Paradise as an intoxicating spike. This non-traditional musical adjusts every beat of its practical driving sequences and shoot outs so that they sync with a mixtape Wright’s been listening to since Walkmen were en vogue. Opening with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” and hitting everything from Queen to Kid Koala to Run the Jewels along the way, Baby Driver tosses decades of action film grammar into a blender and then puts it all to a beat. The fact that this movie exists at all is a miracle, and I can’t wait for everyone to finally get the chance to see it so we can revel in another Wright masterwork. Above all else, Baby Driver is further proof that there’s no need to look to the past, when Wright’s so intent on creating a cool formal futurism by scrambling the best we’ve already been through.
*In either the genre or the career of Nicolas Cage – who won an Academy Award two years prior for Leaving Las Vegas, co-starred in the The Rock the year before, and then John Woo’s Face/Off the same month in ’97.