Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Action - Revisiting Personal Cinematic Landscape

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My first stop on the journey through my updated personal cinematic landscape is the action genre.
Action and adventure are almost always mentioned together. The genre itself is marked with a slash between them. If there’s so much as single explosion or fight scene, it’s marked as action/adventure. I’ve never agreed with that. I don’t think all actions are adventures, and vice versa.
For instance, one of the first movies I mentioned in 2018 for the action genre was Die Hard (1988). As action-packed as Die Hard is, I don’t think anyone would rush to call it an adventure. Because it’s not. John McClane doesn’t go anywhere. He spends the entire time in one building. As exciting as it is, it’s certainly not adventurous.
I see action and adventure as two very separate genres that complement each other. Much like romance and comedy do. As a result, I will only be touching on the action genre in this article.
Aside from Die Hard, I also talked about how Kill Bill (2003-2004), Gladiator (2000), and Battle Royale (2000) all shaped the way I perceived other films of the genre. You can read about those opinions in my Week One: The Effect of a Personal Cinematic Landscape ( article. The way those flicks affect me hasn’t changed, but I’ve seen 2 movies since then that have reshaped the way I look at the genre.

I’m going to start with Extraction (2020).
If you follow the blog at all, then you’ve seen me go on and on about Extraction. It was a great film, but it had some of its slightly off moments. I’m not saying it’s the next Die Hard. That’s not why it’s here. If anything, it’s not even the film that shapes my perspective, really. It’s the director.
During my research into Extraction, when we were setting up our Top 20 article for the month of its release, I looked into Sam Hargrave (Thor: Ragnarok, Atomic Blonde, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) and found an impressive stunt resume behind him. He had 80 stunt credits to his name at that time. There was everything from Avengers: Endgame (2019) to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) on his credit list. He’d stunt doubled for Chris Evans, Hugh Jackman, and Jensen Ackles (among others). He was credited with just about every stunt job in Hollywood. But as a director, Extraction was the first full-length feature film on his list.
It made me seriously consider what it meant for a stuntman to move into a director’s seat. I found myself researching other films that had been created by people better known for their stunt work and found a bit of pattern. A high number of those movies had some of the best action sequences. I put my prediction up that Extraction would go that same route and Hargrave proved me so right.
The action sequences in Extraction raised the bar for other action films. Not only that, but there were scenes that only a stuntman could have caught. In one case, he took the camera and jumped off a building with the protagonist just to get a unique point of view and it was insanely memorable.
Extraction altered how I saw new directors in the action genre. Now, whenever I see a new name credited as a director, I don’t just research what else they’ve directed. I investigate their background work. What they did as crew members affects what I expect from them in that director’s chair.

Then, there’s John Wick (2014).
I’m just going to say it. The first John Wick had the worst marketing. I was convinced that it was just going to be another bullshit, fast-made, low-quality, old-guy in an action flick. As a result, it took me over a year to even bother to see it. Even after the great reviews started coming out.  
When I did watch it, I found that it was a whole new experience.
From the very first frame of the film to the very end, the character of John Wick is easy to sympathize with. The story goes hard straight from the jump, but it doesn’t give you a real glimpse into the world the story takes part in until you’ve already decided you’re on Wick’s side.
Then the story starts to unfold into these complex layers of underground societies, gangs, favors owed, and strange relationships that are impossible to look away from. What was marketed as just another straight-up, kill ‘em all, action actually had a unique world with gloriously blooming roles and complex figures in it. It wasn’t a turn-your-brain off anything. You needed every inch of your mind to follow the threads of plot and connection the flick was showing.
Even more impressive was that the quality and world building spread out and continued into a second, third, and fourth film. Every one of them hovering around the same quality as the first. That’s unheard of.
I’ll still watch fun action films with much more basic stories and be fine, it’s not as often that I’ll go out of my way to offer them significant praise based on the setting, though. I might go hard to praise their banter, or their characters, but very little compares to the world built by the John Wick writer, Derek Kolstad (Nobody, The Package, One in the Chamber).
Where Extraction raised the bar for the combat in an action film, John Wick raised the bar on story quality.
Between Extraction and John Wick what I expect from the quality of an action film has changed completely. I now see exactly how good certain aspects of these films can be. With the bar raised, I still find greatness in other action films, but I expect more from their writers and directors.
In the next installment of my personal cinematic landscape examination, I’m going to look at the adventure genre.  

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