With the new movie Inception lighting up the cineplexes there is a lot of buzz about so-called Smart Action movies. A movie with edge of your seat thrills that also works your brain. Is this possible? Several sites have put up lists, including this dreadful one at IGN. We asked some folks who might better understand the intersection of brains and adrenaline. As always, let us know what you think.
Mistah Pete – Left Foot Red Productions
First things first, what “smart” in an action movie is not: Smart is not using big words in your endless dialogue. (Looking at you, Michael Mann.) Smart is not taking for-damned-ever to get to the fun parts. (And now a nation turns its tired eyes to you, Christopher Nolan.
So, with those two examples to contrast –
If you want a smart crime thriller to get Michael Mann’s Heat off your shoes, take a look at John Boorman’s 1967 classic, Point Blank. It’s not only got Lee Marvin at his Lee Marvinest (hard as flint, delivering perhaps the first filmed Roshambo in Hollywood history), and Angie Dickinson unclad (I should just stop here, you don’t need anymore reasons to watch this), but the story is one to keep you thinking long after the credits roll. It’s been forty-three years, and film geeks are still debating what really happened to Walker on Alcatraz. I watch it at least once a year, usually with the excellent commentary from director Boorman and his disciple, Steven Soderbergh (who has made some smart thrillers himself).
Now, if it’s the smell of Dark Knight you can’t get out of your clothes, it’s pretty slim pickings in the world of smart superhero movies. (Perhaps that’s why some people think Dark Knight is smart.) But two come to mind — neither of them adapted from funnybooks, which says something right there…
From 1984, W. D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is one of those movies that’s so wonderful it was doomed from the start. Peter Weller (playing a dandified Doc Savage-type with a low-key charm that tiptoes just this side of Adam West) is a science-hero who — with his musical band of rock-and-roll PhDs, the Hong Kong Cavaliers — battles an all-star-before-they-were-stars cast to save the world from the Red Lectroids and Orson Wells. Sort of. It is chock-full of fun and science and adventure and a watermelon. Too bad it didn’t do well enough at the box-office to deliver the promised sequel, Buckaroo Banzai vs. the World Crime League.
And in 1987, Paul Verhoeven delivered the most subversive superhero movie of all, Robocop. Again with Peter Weller, this time he’s honest cop Murphy who gets killed in the line of violent, violent duty, and reborn as a robot version of himself. The movie explores a lot of what it means to be human in a robot body, but the truly thought-provoking moments are the satire of the near-future world seen through television clips and advertising. We have gotten damned close to that “near-future” now, and frankly, it’s scary!
Jeff from Hyperbubble
Vanishing Point from 1971, director by Richard C. Sarafian. (not to be confused at all with the Vanishing Point remake from 1997)
On a bet, ex-cop, ex-soldier, ex-racecar driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) agrees to deliver a Challenger muscle car from Denver to San Francisco within 15 hours. He’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there, but that’s where the Smokey and the Bandit comparisons end. In this particular high-speed tale, our amphetamine fueled hero blasts down the existential highway, symbolism at every turn, while being hipped to the whereabouts of the police force by his main man, DJ Supersoul (Cleavon Little), who almost steals the show with this spine-chilling transmission:
“And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, Blue Meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the Electric Centaur, the, the Demi-god, the Super Driver of the Golden West! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin’ closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his Soul Mobile, yeah baby! They’re about to strike. They’re gonna get him. Smash him. Rape… the last beautiful free soul on this planet”.
Keep your eyes on the road, and your hands upon the rewind button, ’cause this baby’s loaded.
There’s still a lot of action after the jump…
When it came to the question of intelligent action films my brain did its usual turn toward the apocalypse. While these two films don’t pack the hyperkinetic thrills of modern actions films they deliver the goods where it counts. A Boy and His Dog (1975), based on a novella by Harlan Ellison, presents a post World War III America where a man will kill you over a can of beans and raider packs train their dogs to sniff out women. Here we find Vic (played by a very young Don Johnson) and his dog Blood, with whom he shares a telepathic connection, wandering the wastes looking for food and females. The gritty, brutal wasteland also serves as a great backdrop for the great dialogue between Vic and Blood. From the start it’s clear that dog is smart one who does his best to educate his boy and to steer them to greener pastures. Then you throw in Jason Robards as the leader of one creepy group of underground vault dwellers who have a nefarious eye on Vic and things just get stranger. It’s the greatest talking dog movie that is totally inappropriate for children ever.
Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle) (1983): French filmmaker Luc Besson’s first feature film is a gritty black and white visual narrative where the world is in such ruins that the air is no longer even fit to allow speech, except for a few gasping words spoken around an oxygen tank. So there are no subtitles to deal with, we just follow The Man along on his odyssey from a wasteland of buildings swallowed by sands into the ruins of a city with only a few inhabitants. Here he finds what could be a friend in the form of The Doctor, a resourceful man who saves the protagonists life after an encounter with The Brute. The character of The Brute is superbly handled by Jean Reno (from The Professional which is another kick-ass action film from Luc Besson) who blends in just enough comedy with the menace of his character to make him feel believable. The movie having no dialogue really requires you to pay close attention to what the characters are doing and how they express themselves and for the viewer to figure out what they are thinking and feeling. That might not be what everyone is looking for, but it is a movie that really wants you to engage with it.
Chris Holm – Chris Holm Comics
Equilibrium: This film is often compared to the Matrix for it’s visual style and highly choreographed fight sequences. What makes it smart is it is more of an Anti-Matrix. In that the main character isn’t struggling to be a one dimensional machine like Neo, but is covertly learning to cope with being a human being. Although, the audience, at first, might not get why such things like listening to classical music or petting a puppy might be revolutionary actions to the main character. In the context of the film, where “feeling” is chemically desensitized, those actions are enough to warrant a revolution. And the action scenes are way cool too.
Night Watch/Day Watch: This is a film series about the supernatural side of Russia’s secret society of “Others.” Here, a series of somewhat random and unrelated events end being setups in a race against time by the forces of Darkness and Light. And we see these events unfold discovering that they were planned centuries ago. And it is fun watching the Overlord of Darkness practice his attack on a PlayStation 2. This film reinvents the modern witch into something almost like a superhero. What’s smart is we see the main character try to have a relationship with his estranged son while destiny throws everyone around like pawns in a chess game since the fate of the world is always in the balance. The good guys aren’t always so good. And even a bad girl regrets her actions in a love lost.
Casshern: This film is full of killer robots and supermutants. Science and divine intervention clash in one doctor’s struggle to save his dying wife. His son becomes a soldier against his wishes and is killed in war. But once his research is literally struck the lightning of god(s). His wife is stolen away by super mutants born in the accident, while his son’s body is brought to his complex for a funeral. Using the same pool of life that birthed the super humans that now wage war on humanity, the doctor resurrects his son, giving him superpowers, to rescue his wife. The son, now Casshern, struggle with his sins and all the torment he saw in the previous war. Lots of action and emotional insight. In one scene, the Dictator’s son, after staging a coup, examines the pool of life. He scoffs at it, saying that is everyone has a second chance, then why live life to the fullest at all? Each character is haunted by their pasts in one form or another.
Paprika: An adventure about a dream warrior know as Paprika. Think Freddy Kruger as a cute anime chick. The characters in this film deal with their emotional baggage literally as they try to unravel a mystery about stolen dream technology that could drive the world mad. It’s surreal action will always keep you guessing, and on your toes as reality will sometimes slip from out under your feet.
Ultraviolet: A vampire movie that reinvents the vampire condition. Instead of a curse that makes everyone beautiful and glittery, Vampirism in Ultraviolet is treated as a disease. Society has evolved into a paranoid germophobic locked down society. There are a few scenes where advanced technology is used but not really explained. Like, a ball that can affect one’s gravitational pull or a dimensional portal in your pocket used for storage. Aside from that, seeing the new black plague with vampires and outrageous action only Milla Jovovich can deliver is refreshingly entertaining.
Rene A. Guzman – Geek Speak
Raiders of the Lost Ark (sorry, I just can’t bring myself to call it Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) : You want smart action? How about an archeology professor who thwarts the bad guys with his wits as well as his whip? “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is quintessential action/adventure, no doubt, but with a brawny brilliance behind the popcorn serial. And nobody typifies that clever toughness better than Dr. Indiana Jones. Whether he’s outrunning giant boulders, outwitting big bad thugs or outlasting Nazi tomb raiders in a horrific climax of Biblical proportions, Indy always has the right tool for the job. We speak, of course, of that mighty gray matter beneath his well-worn fedora.
Jon Gillespie – The Overtime Theater
My pick is an acknowledged classic but for good reason: North by Northwest. Still one of Hitchcock’s absolute best, it’s filled with action, from the UN Building, to a secluded mansion, an art auction, and of course the final confrontation on Mount Rushmore. What makes it smart? How about master screenwriter Ernest Lehman writing the words, which are performed by the all-star line-up of Cary Grant, James Mason, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll, and Eva Marie Saint, all directed by the master.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: Reviled by critics at the time of its 1974 release for its graphic violence and grim world view, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has since achieved cult status as the film that stays truest to the vision of its hard-living director, Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs). The movie follows Bennie (brilliantly played by the gritty Warren Oates), a down-and-out American piano player in a Mexican brothel, as he and his prostitute girlfriend chase the score of their lives. That score, of course, is the head of a young Romeo who has impregnated the daughter of a powerful Mexican named El Jefe. See, Bennie and his girl know that Garcia is already dead, and carting his head to the big boss for a hefty cash reward is easy as digging up a grave. Or so they think. What follows is an unrelentingly bleak odyssey across the dusty backroads of Mexico as Bennie attempts to follow through his grisly task and sinks lower and lower into violence and madness. Through Bennie’s decline, Peckinpah holds up a cruel fun-house mirror to the audience’s expectations about what constitutes a Hollywood action picture. Instead of a feel-good buddy flick with guns, we get a glimpse into the lives of sad desperation that most men of violence actually live.