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Summer 1997-8
(Filed January, 1998)

Reviews this issue include:

In & Out
Her Majesty Mrs Brown
The Jackal
As Good as it Gets
The Rainmaker
The Boxer
Red Corner
Boogie Nights
Cop Land
Soul Food
The Edge
Hard Rain (Terry)
Hard Rain (Ali)
The Boxer
there's more, see the review index
Big Budget, Big Star, Big Movie Dumbness
Hi. I hope that your film watching has been cringe-free over the holiday break, but I doubt it. You’re all wise, perceptive, movie-savvy folk who know the difference between Truffaut and True Lies and so there’s bound to be some part of some movie you saw over the New Year break that filled the back of your throat with acid and made you wish you had picked up that copy of the 1950 Jose Ferrer Cyrano de Bergerac for five bucks when you had the chance. (I picked up four or five of them. They made good gifts and encouraged friends to appreciate films that are a) in black and white and b) more than five years old.)

Anyway, this time I’d like to talk about dumbness in the movies. Not Jim Carrey/ Jeff Daniels dumbness but eight figure budget, big star, has its own shockwave web site, publicity budget equals the film production budget, featured tonight on Entertainment Tonight movie dumbness./TD>

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I’ll give you an example of what I mean. This kind of movie scenario.

Scene: suburban street, spring time. Lawn sprinklers sprinkle with cute dogs trying to drink from them, postal delivery people are putting letters into boxes, the birds are singing and somewhere in one of the houses, someone’s has a radio on that is broadcasting Donovan’s Sunshine Superman.

Music strikes a dramatic note and a keening, gravel crunching noise begins offscreen.

Cut to a blurred closeup view of the roadway whizzing past. Pan up to a fast moving wheel, then up to the face of a determined looking five year old riding a tricycle.

Flashback to the kid’s preparations for his ride. A dramatically lit bedroom, horizontally striped in light and darkness by the venetian blinds. Close up on him loading his cap gun with precise movements. Exaggerated clicks as he closes the gun and slaps it into the holster his mum made him out of an old car-washing chamois. Sudden flurry of movement and a slow motion image of a teddy bear flying parabolically past a Rugrats poster on the wall.

This kid’s lethal to fluffy toys. We hardly saw him move. We follow him as he walks through the house. Closeup on a kitten cringing away from him in the corner behind the couch.

Back to the present. The kid rounds a corner and goes up a driveway onto the footpath. The dramatic music waxes louder. He slaloms around toys left on the pavement with the smoothness of an olympic skier skimming the flags on a downhill run. He rounds another corner on two weeks and we zip-pan to the view ahead.

Some moron has parked a pick-up truck dead ahead. Close up on the kid’s face. His brow wrinkles into a determined frown and he moves the chuppa chup he’s sucking from one side of his mouth to the other. He begins to pedal faster, pudgy kid-legs a blur of action.

Cut to a view from the front of the pickup as the tricycle and kid fly over it in slo-mo. Cut to a view from under the truck as the trike lands, bounces and rights itself. Zoom in ahead as a station wagon pulls out of a driveway directly in front of the kid.

Kid: Bum!

He wrenches the tricycle sideways and ditches, skidding on the grass until a recycling bin full of name-brand product placement soft drink bottles stops him. Cut to the trike as it hits the back wheel of the station wagon and both vehicles explode into a twenty metre wide fireball that blows out house windows across the whole block, scorches every tree in six front yards and rains debris into swimming pools as far as four blocks away…

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But something similar happened in every action film of the last five years. Music creates the tension that plot should, the flashback shows how dangerous the character is. Laws of physics are ignored conveniently. And explosions are way out of line with the reality of the collision.

Compare any motorcycle jump sequence – say, the one across the helicopter in Tomorrow Never Dies, to the Steve McQueen jumps across those barbed wire barricades in The Great Escape. Which has more real tension in it? We desperately want McQueen’s character to make it across. He’s been chased by Nazis on motorbikes, he’s cocky, resourceful and he’s the Energizer bunny of World War Two. Every time they catch him, he sits out solitary confinement with a baseball to keep him busy and as soon as sunlight hits him again, he’s going to try to get away. He is human persistence in a leather jacket.

So the rule is this: if an action sequence in a movie is dumb, to find out why, look at a movie where a similar sequence works well. Older movies are the way we evaluate newer ones. Without some kind of knowledge of movie history, you’re going to buy the shoddy goods moviemakers are trying to sell us these days and think that they’re quality goods.

Yes, we do sometimes go to movies to escape the humdrum of live. And it isn’t as if we don’t have legitimate things to escape from. In a lot of ways the world is becoming a crueler and uglier place. But if we’re going to escape into fantasy for a couple of hours, surely we want to be seduced rather than molested. We want our seducer to respect our intelligence, to be responsive to our needs, to give us full value for our time and money. But too often the films are dumb, rough, stupid and lacking in any form of sequentiality.

Take Con Air for example. Dumb. A cargo plane prangs into a casino in Vegas after chewing up the Strip. It doesn’t blow up, of course. The big explosion was back at the air strip they just left, so there’s no available inflammable substance west of the Mississippi. You do get all those sparks, character actors staggering around and almost everyone either dead or suffering a couple of grazes on their forehead. (Nobody important ever breaks a bone in an action film, unless some baddie busts their little finger during a torture session in a dramatically lit chamber.) But that’s not enough for these moviemakers. They then zip-pan to this dumb fire engine ride with Nick Cage clinging to the back of the ladder like fluffy dice while John Malkovic stomps on his fingers and John Cusack hassles the big hairy biker who’s driving the rig. Cage has been wandering around for most of the movie trying to save the fluffy bunny he got his daughter while he was in gaol and killing any crime who "touches the bunny". Malkovic has been campily menacing and Cusack’s been playing "The only cop who really knows what’s going on".

Action films should go back to basics. Big balls of flame aren’t a substitute for suspense. The best action films are one person against many, with very little help. (Die Hard, 36 Hours, The Naked Prey.) Laurence Olivier put more threat into the tip of a dental drill in Marathon Man than every James Bond villain had in their combined nuclear arsenals, crotch-aimed laser beams and sidekicks with teeth like chain saws. Why? Because he as a grandfatherly type with a calm, slightly concerned voice and a polite, deferential manner who calmly and gently said and did monstrous things. Marathon Man did have one advantage that most other action films lack. A script by William Goldman.

Goldman is a master at knowing what an audience is expecting - including the things they think might be turned around 180 degrees and suddenly taking the plot off onto a wild but logical tangent. Take Babe's brother Doc, in Marathon Man. Roy Scheider plays him as a witty, sophisticated, deadly character who dearly and protectively loves his brother. Doc's in love with someone called Janey, with whom he works. Only later, when Doc has been killed by Olivier's character Szell, do we find out that Janey is a character called Janeway, played by William Devane, who betrayed Doc. The tough, resourceful, secret agent character we've learned to like and admire, is betrayed by his homosexual love for a cold-hearted total bastard.

This would play in a more modern action film, too. A heroic character is pursued by villains for some reason and keeps trying to get in touch with his lover. He leaves passionate answering machine messages because the lover isn't there. Each time he goes out of his way to use a phone, it endangers him further but he knows it's worth it. He wants to hear that voice. He needs to. Only at the end of the film do we find out that the muscular action hero with the grazes on his forehead and the minor bullet wound that doesn't hurt much, is gay. I'd love to see that kind of spin on the genre.

I want moviemakers to be savvy enough to play against the expectations of the audience. Or have the female protagonist be a lesbian in a committed relationship. Or have the villain steal the nuclear weapons because the Army general who's guarding them is secretly going to steal them himself and use them in Bosnia so U.S. soldiers can go home sooner. I think that moviemakers should be messing with our heads, throwing plot twists at us instead of obvious and superfluous C.G.I. effects.

But that requires taking a risk and having script writers who aren't following an eleven step plot that they learned in a UCLA film school class from some character who studied the last fifty movies that made over $100 million profit and distilled their common essence into something he could flog to the wannabees.

Let me make a prediction here. I'll give good odds that some American is going to copy The Full Monty some time in the next few years. Know why? Because it's one of those rare birds: a sleeper movie that nobody picked would be an enormous hit. American moviemakers try to emulate success. Pulp Fiction spawned a dozen imitators and a hundred parodies. As William Goldman said, nobody really knows which films are going to be successful before they hit the screens. They guess, they chart, they copy things that did work. Die Hard spawned the modern action film and not even its sequels have done it as well. It's time that the modern, fire-blossoming, karate kicking action flick started moving away from the new clichés it has spawned and looking at ways of playing against those clichés. Action flicks are in a tough, kevlar laminated, ablative armoured envelope right now and someone should be out there burning their way through that envelope with a thermic lance of originality.

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More from Terry Frost

See you in a darkened room where all the seats face the same way,

Terry Frost

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Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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