1. i’ve seen some good action films of late, to celebrate my freedom from Communism: first, The Raid:

i didn’t have much interest in it from the trailer and reviews, as it sounded like a film of a particularly 2-dimensional computer game. However, it’s extremely well done, with Penkak Silat to boot. The pacing is particularly sensitive, a necessity in a film consisting mainly of combat. It’s a good example of how a formulaic work can excel by adhering to the genre and respecting the difficulties and necessities thereof. The film doesn’t try to build sensitive character portraits; it gives enough that you have some idea who these people are, and the action scenes do the rest. Bad action films have bad action, showing up the sketchy characterisation; or they try to do things you can’t easily do within the genre, and fail. They often have bad directors shooting bad actors playing cartoonish characters uttering cartoonish quips. In such films the scripts are bad, the directors are hacks, the actors can’t act.

The interplay of director, script, and cast is crucial. A bad script can’t be rescued. But a halfway decent script, with a good director, can be worked up into some worth watching. Predator, for example, has an excellent script, an excellent director, and a mixture of limited to terrible actors, who all give excellent performances – i think they act so well here because the director (John McTiernan) created an atmosphere where they did not need to move beyond their range; and within that range, they are fine. It’s a strange fact that many of these actors seem cartoonish and weak, insubstantial, in other films, but here they have a mesmerising physicality, a presence. i can’t find any of the scenes i like on youtube, but you see this physicality in, for example, the way the men move down a steep hill in the forest, always maintaining formation and discipline; or the stillness with which Billy (Sonny Landham’s 6 ‘ 8″ native American) stares into the trees, when he feels the creature watching.

2. In an action film, character is revealed in combat. The extreme nature of these situations brings out the inner lineaments of soul. And fighting is certainly as individual as the way you breathe or write or walk. A good action film develops enough character by plot and dialogue, that combat is not merely combat – it is a further development of the individual. My favourite action film, Lethal Weapon, is unusually character-heavy: but this would, i think, not have worked without a great actor in the lead. Mel Gibson has always had an edgy, lunatic energy to him; his best characters cannot be satisfied by mere life; they have lost too much. The character is a 30-something suicidal Vietnam vet (a sniper), who just lost his wife and is now unswervingly headed to his own death. Here, for example, is Gibson’s cop Martin Riggs, answering an emergency call (this is a deleted scene):

With a lesser actor, this would have been another cartoonish moment. Gibson’s fragility, those wounded eyes, make it real. In a later scene, he tells the staid family man Murtaugh: “When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could have made that shot. [pause] It’s the only thing I was ever good at.” Having lost his wife, Riggs becomes devoted to death, the only thing he was ever good at; but he isn’t seeking to kill: he wishes to be killed.

3. A few days ago i saw Jack Reacher. The critics were unanimously anti-Cruise, as they generally are; admitting that everything is very good but Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise and nobody likes him, oh, and he’s only 170 cm (that is, about 5′ 8″ – the average height). The film is in fact very good and Cruise is, as ever, somewhere between highly competent and superb. If anything, his merely average height and build help: it makes it the more likely that the 5 local punks who jump him would be so cockily over-confident; and also that a final mano a mano showdown with a 185 cm brute would begin with the tall guy sneering confidently, proceed to desperation, and end as these things end.

Jack Reacher was as good as The Raid but for different reasons. The Raid is pure action with a dash of character. JR is about 80% plot and character, and 20% violence. It also makes room for quietness, giving the actors room to breathe; there are more long shots than are normal in such films – something i value, as it encourages a sustained concentration, whereas too many cut shots make me feel tricked, and my deeper attention often disengages as my VDU-brain just admires the pretty changing images. Whereas bad action films feel a need to punctuate the violence with cartoonish scenes where the characters say supposedly funny and manly things, Reacher has some good moments of genuine quietness, which make the acceleration into action more powerful. Character is developed partly by having good actors (Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall), partly by small but well-placed details. For example, with a few remarks you feel the rivalry between the Marine Corps and Army (Duvall’s character is ex-Corp, Reacher is ex-Army), and this gives, as it were, a momentary glimpse into a rich and extensive country on the other side of the door.

It’s also a surprisingly funny film; whereas “comedies” usually leave me with a grim, Kurpian scowl, scenes like this amuse me no end:

The violence is fairly realistic, for once. Cruise takes a few blows and in the final fight, both men are winded and gasping after a few brutal punches. What else? There’s a good chase scene where Cruise’s stolen Chevrolet Chevelle slips all over the road like a drunken Viking (a BMW would have taken those corners).

Reacher is covered in scars and the film doesn’t try to make him look younger than he is (Cruise looks younger on interviews for the film). And Werner Herzog is Werner Herzog.