Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Something very unusual is being released on Friday:
A straightforward action movie. With an old-school action hero.
It's a movie called 12 Rounds, and it stars professional wrestler John Cena. This is Cena's second movie, his first being the 2006 actioner The Marine. Everybody's favorite hack, Renny Harlin, is directing.
If you aren't familiar with Mr. Cena, he looks a bit like Dexter's Michael C. Hall, except inflated by a bike pump into a massive hulk.
I actually watched The Marine, and it wasn't even so I could write a quick and dirty review of it; considering the high likelihood of it being total schlock (and it was), I thought it'd be available for me to review, but lo and behold, another staffer claimed it first. No, I watched The Marine because I know a guy who appeared in it. He's in about the first 15 minutes, and he plays the buddy role. Just to show you how inept the screenplay was, he never makes another appearance. That's too bad for an additional reason other than poor plot structure -- my friend was the best part of the movie. The rest felt like a weird anachronism, something that slipped out of time from 1987.
I'm not going to try to tell you that the action movie is dead, like I once tried to tell you the thriller is dead. But I am going to say that mainstream movies haven't seen an action star like Cena in ages. Guys like Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren may still work, but their movies go straight to video. Arnold Schwarzenegger has retired to the governor's mansion in Sacramento. Sylvester Stallone is still making Rocky and Rambo movies, but they are intentional throwbacks, with a certain winking irony to them. Cena's movies, on the other hand, are basically unironic continuations of a formula that hasn't been truly viable since the mid-1990s.
It's not every day that we consider the transformation of action movies over the decades, but long gone are the days when you would expect to see a movie like Commando get green-lit. Action movies today must be much higher concept, so you almost don't think of them as action movies at all -- The Matrix is a good example. Most of today's action movies are a hybrid of action and some other genre, since an undiluted action movie seems to have a certain stigma attached to it. And even though it's as popular as ever to talk about cinematic violence, no longer are there movies where waves of faceless minions just get machine-gunned down mindlessly. Today's action movie is held to a higher standard of intelligence, relying a lot more on wire work and smartly choreographed fisticuffs than brute force.
Or it could just be a change in the profile of the action hero.
Cena is an imposing behemoth of a man, with a square head and biceps like mailboxes. That's all we wanted in the Ronald Reagan years, as we were proud of the massive hurt we wanted to put on anyone who got in our way. We took relish in our role as Goliath.
Today, things have shifted a little bit left of center. Even during eight suffocating years of George W. Bush, we didn't see old-school action heroes take back control of Hollywood. In their place emerged different types of action heroes, who possessed more street smarts or genuine intellect than bulging muscles. Today, we want the little guy, someone we can identify with, to serve as our hero. Not some steroid-infused giant whom you'd give a wide berth at the gym, on the off chance he'd take you out by grazing you with his shoulder.
The American national psyche has always been an interesting study in contrasts. As much as we purportedly celebrate capitalism and reward the strong -- until lately, anyway -- we also are huge fans of the underdog, most often in sports and in the movies. And even though Arnold Schwarzenegger had to fight dozens if not hundreds of bad guys in order to get Alyssa Milano back in Commando, he didn't really feel like the underdog, did he? Not enough for today's audiences anyway.
So what does the modern action hero look like? I'll tell you.
1) The Scrawny Guy. In the 1980s and 1990s, it would have been unheard of to cast an eccentric and fey post-adolescent like Toby Maguire as Spider-Man, but today, it doesn't even surprise us. That's because most action heroes are like him. Edward Norton as the Hulk -- his rippling muscles in American History X notwithstanding -- is another example. Even Matt Damon as Jason Bourne is basically just a scrawny guy who hit the gym enough to seem like an appropriate ass-kicker.
2) The South London Thug. The busiest action hero in 2009 is almost certainly Jason Statham, as the guy has made three Transporter movies, and his second Crank movie is about to be released. But he's not the only British heavy capable of knocking your teeth in, despite not looking like a pituitary freak. Daniel Craig is basically this guy as well, and if Vinnie Jones still made movies, you could throw him in too. One of Hollywood's biggest stars, Christian Bale, qualifies, especially given some of his recent brutish behavior. Clive Owen would almost qualify except he doesn't really do that much action, and he's a bit more cultured. These guys ruled in the 1960s and 1970s (Michael Caine was one), and they have now made their triumphant return.
3) The Kung Fu Star. With the advent of wire work came the advent of the Hong Kong fighter as action star. This shift in the tides, started by Jackie Chan, has made Jet Li a rich man. It's not like kung fu movies have never been popular before, but they haven't had great commercial viability in the U.S. until the last ten years. At least, not since the days of Bruce Lee. The real shift has been guys like Li starring in Hollywood films that would not otherwise be described as kung fu movies.
4) The Former Thespian. It's amazing how much the definition of an action movie has changed when you consider that Nicolas Cage is widely considered the world's most recognizeable action star. In truth, most of Cage's films are not straight-up action movies, but he has appeared in a number of films produced by one-time action king Jerry Bruckheimer. And while it may be a little bit of a stretch to call Cage a "thespian," he is an Oscar winner who was once highly respected by his peers. With his hangdog, everyman face, he almost fits into the "Scrawny Guy" category, and in keeping with that, he was once considered for the reboot of Superman, when Tim Burton was briefly attached.
5) The Comedian. No, not the guy in Watchmen. There are a growing number of guys who came from a history of making people laugh, and somehow found themselves in action movies, such as Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr., even Owen Wilson -- don't forget Wilson showed up in Behind Enemy Lines. I'm still waiting for the first action movie starring Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell.
6) The Chick Who Kicks Butt. The list of these gals is too long to mention, but I'll try anyway: Milla Jovovich, Kate Beckinsale, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie, Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Garner, Natalie Portman, Geena Davis, Carrie-Anne Moss, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Biel and Malin Akerman, to name just a few who come readily to mind. Not only has the chick action movie become possible in the last decade, but the chick who kicks butt is one of the most familiar archetypes in modern action movies -- possibly a further extension of our love of the underdog.
7) The Multi-Ethnic Brooder. Vin Diesel is the sole personification of this category, though you could add Dwayne Johnson if he brooded more. Both of these guys have sort of typical action hero credentials -- The Rock more than Diesel -- but something about their mixed ethnicity makes them a more modern, more complex entity, and quite different from the white Europeans with poor English skills who dominated in the past.
8) The Cartoon Character. A prediction more than anything else: After Kung Fu Panda, animals who kick butt are going to be all the rage. As long as it's PG-rated butt.
There may be other categories or sub-categories, but this more or less covers it.
So where does Cena fit in? To whom does he appeal? That remains to be seen. This weekend's box office will tell us something. My prediction is that 12 Rounds will do a lot better than The Marine, which scraped up only $18 million back in 2006. For one, they're putting more money into advertising this one, and I'm guessing it'll put together at least $30-$40 million by the time all is said and done, on increased awareness alone. However, that's still not a great take for an action movie, at least by the old standards.
There's sure to be one demographic to whom Cena will appeal: those same people who voted in Reagan, and gave us the first wave of modern action heroes. Yep, there's something fringe about Cena, and I'm proud to say that "fringe" now equals "Republican." The same rednecks who watch Cena crack heads in the wrestling ring will undoubtedly want to watch him crack heads on film.
Whether they'll be enough to earn a third action film for this throwback star has yet to be determined.