This past weekend, the latest installment of The Fast & The Furious' multi-million dollar franchise - titled [Furious 7](movie:264263) - dominated the box office by making over $147 million on its opening weekend alone. While truly groundbreaking in audience demographic and sales, the franchise finds itself constantly looped in with many modern action films, the apparent bane of many critics' existences that simply cannot compare to the classic action films that defined the genre originally.
A quick search on the term "modern action movie" will promptly turn up a handful of articles from the past five years that belittle, criticize and generally poo-poo on most post-90's action films, though many particularly focus their criticism on the rise of superhero franchises. Actor Daniel Radcliffe, who is lining up to star in a drama based around the controversy of the Grand Theft Auto games, bemoaned the modern action film in an interview with The Telegraph last year:
'People think that the romantic comedy genre (has) had a bad time recently, and I get that, but I don't think it's as bad as the action movie ... there is never a character involved in any of those films,'' he said.
''It's just the same people thrown in different cities with different cars."
Everyone's entitled to their opinions. Unfortunately, like most things we grew up with, what entertained us so richly as kids will often secure a higher rank in our personal opinions than new ideas that are made in more modern ways. Nostalgia prevails in many well-intentioned, but poorly executed reviews, clouding judgment based on the cherished (and still great, mostly) films of our personal pasts. It's hard to shake that feeling, and we are often simply wired to cherish fond memories.
Nostalgia, of course, is also okay - modern action films aren't trying to diminish the foundation that they were built on, but rather add to it. A term coined back in 2011 by film critic Matthias Stork, "Chaos Cinema", set off alarms throughout the blogosphere due to it's accusation that the increasingly popular use of shaky camera work and flashy effects was cheapening and diminishing action films as a whole. There's so much more to this, of course, so please make sure to watch his two-part series for more context.
Stork successfully launched a huge conversation about the direction action films, primarily fueled by a group of writers who grew up in what I consider the Golden Age of action: the 1980's. Rambo, Indiana Jones, The Terminator, along with countless other action heroes who possessed the grit, passion and humor that made action films iconic. Often, these films stand in our memories are precious, personal moments, and it's not wrong to prefer them over modern films. The problem lies in bias and the misunderstanding of film evolution.
What gets me, though, is that so many film critics and fans don't see or understand what action is in our modern age. Audiences change, their preferences and needs change, and so movies evolve with us in the respect. The Fast and the Furious' franchise has a dedicated and passionate following of fans from every walk of life. The appeal to widespread audiences doesn't just stay within the action, but the evolving plot and the increasing improvement in the development of that plot. These movies do make money because they present a team of heroes that anyone can identify with, but more than that, the very core of the series rests within the relationships of the characters and their determination to protect one another throughout the different (often not-super-legal or safe) situations that they find themselves in.
Such is the case with many present-day action franchises: the heart is still there, and while old-school action lovers may not be keen on the abundance of superhero films or gravity-defying car chases, many of these films revolve around a the classic idea of what being a hero is: caring about others and making the world a better place.
True heroes shine on our screen just as they did decades ago, and while the CGI may be too much for those of us who grew up in a time where practical effects were the only presentable choice, it's a little simple-minded to think that filmmakers would not have used it if they had access to the technology that we do today. Really, CGI back in the day wasn't all that great, and we're quite lucky that we don't have to see our heroes take action, with rigid black lines around their silhouette, in different lighting than the surroundings they're edited in to.
The core of action is finding strength within yourself in the face of adversity. This is what makes an action hero: their motivation is ever so often based entirely on human emotion, and that gives our heroes power. Whether an astute, rogueish archaeologist or an emotionless cyborg that learns about empathy, these heroes act on emotion. Even back in the 80's, we saw 'blank' action heroes, but they did not take away from the well-rounded action stars of our past.
Here, now, we are drowning in franchises, and an outward perspective on the current presence of the action film genre might immediately bring the over-saturation of marketing and product pushing to the forefront of their opinion. But experiencing the utter breathlessness of watching a hero like James Bond chasing an enemy down a narrow, high path on a supercharged motorcycle... isn't that what action is all about? Isn't action, at it's core, about the adventure, the goals, and the superhuman challenges that the hero must face in order to achieve that goal?
This, I guess, is a plea for open-mindedness. We are moving in to a new era of action, where the memories and foundation that these films stand upon has not been forgotten. This is an era of action where CGI and shaky-cams have been tested for solidity, and the diverse opinions of the audience have determined new subgenres of action for themselves.
Furious 7 saw the feature film return of Tony Jaa, the legendary martial artist, actor and educator that stormed the American film scenes with his insane, iconic fighting styles in films like the Ong-Bak series and The Protector. Jaa is far from finished, set to have us on the edge of our seats once more in Skin Trade this May. Jaa's ideals are crafted around his martial arts idols such as Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan - to name a few. Jaa holds a prominent place in my heart as one of my favorite action stars for his unique mixes of drama and insane physical humor within the high-octane action of his stunts. He may not have the longest IMDb page, but he certainly has one of the most impactful.
Stars like Tony Jaa, who hold the good old days of action in high regard and take those precious memories to new, unchallenged platforms is what action needs. You can not succeed without the inevitable challenges of trial and error. Films don't improve by staying the same. Sometimes, the results aren't exactly what we as audiences want, and other times, we walk out wondering if the movie was made with us specifically in mind. It's worth giving action a chance to evolve before dismissing it as a whole and missing out on the growing, changing definition of an "iconic" action film.