Thursday, March 09, 2006

History Lessons

Manny Farber lamented the death of the male action film in his seminal essay, "Underground Film." He's one of those guys, like Sarris, who had no art-film pretensions, films were good if they got under your skin, if they heaped on dirty little details, framed a face you haven't seen before. Farber names Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, William Kieghley, the early, pre-Stagecoach John Ford, Anthony Mann as these unpretentious icons. They get into the grit. Aside from Kieghley (whom I need to look up ASAP), these names still resonate with cineastes, film buffs, etc. So why are the male action films of today pushed aside with the same disdain as Hawks and Walsh were in their day - even among the so-called film literate? Snobbery is still rampant, it's easier to seem intellectual if you're praising Hong Sang-soo rather than The Bourne Supremacy, even though to these eyes Hong's tales of modern malaise are far more bound to cliches (art-film instead of action) than Bourne's invigorating studies of bodies in action.

The only guy regularly championing genre filmmaking with the polemical gusto (but without the stylistic chops) of Farber these days is Armond White, which makes him indispensable despite his tendency to go off the hyperbolic deep-end. So while wavering between seeing Night Watch and Running Scared, I did some research and found a White rave and a reluctant Sarris endorsement of RS, so my decision was made.

Wayne Kramer's follow up to his tepid debut The Cooler is an 1 1/2 hour chase film that, as White points out, re-connects action with virtue, as Paul Walker's small time hood tries to a recover a stolen gun. The key is the neighbor's son, Oleg, who lives under the brutal regime of his dad, a Russian immigrant with a tattoo of the Duke on his back. There's a surreal scene where the father is watching The Cowboys on TV, yelling at Wayne not to get shot, as the 8mm copy he wore out in Russia didn't contain that scene. He's looking for a big Hollywood (or Tarantino) action film, where blood barely spills amidst the explosions and where actions hold no consequences. Here every action has its price, and much of the energy of the film comes from the thought that goes into each one before the bullets fly.

The shit hits the fan when Oleg calls Wayne a faggot and shoots his Dad in the shoulder. This thread is paid off at the end of the film when the father's redemption comes with his realization of that Wayne's persona was based on his virtue, not his indestructibility.

An admission. I was apprehensive after the opening shootout at a drug deal that I was dealing with a Tony Scott disciple. Edited to hell with jumpy camerawork and grainy stock, I girded myself for a Man on Fire level monstrosity. But thankfully, Kramer restrains himself a bit, enough for the actions to register, each scene of physical violence from then on becomes more textured and lucid, enough to see the trajectory of a hockey puck slam into Walker's face.

The pace is relentless, as Paul tries to protect his son, his wife, and Oleg as they dive into a parallel Alice in the Underworld universe of pimps, pedophiles, and n'er do wells. Vera Farmiga is fabulous as the take-no-shit wife who rescues Oleg from the most fantastical part of the film, a candy colored apartment of child molesters where each shadow holds monsters. I'm down with the fairy tale nastiness of the scene - but he thrill killing that follows throws the moral balance of the film out of whack. I didn't say it was perfect.

But then, back on track, and it throws itself into a ridiculous conclusion that hopes for better things. Why not. It's earned it.

And I have no issue with Paul Walker here. He was solid.

So, please, give the modern male action film a chance.


Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Mr. Sweeney,

I must say that you are, among your colleagues, the closest heir to your website's exhalted name sake. This is less a value judgement -- I would never wag-off the prolific Matthew Singer, whom you should all seek to emulate in terms of your quality output -- than it is the recognition that you have almost completely divorced yourself from all middle brow tastes, be it in film or in music. And that's something! What I would say, vis-a-vis your mention of Sarris as another of these fellow travelers, is that in actuality, he is far more likely to defend the middle-brow over the low-brow (for which of course you and Mr. Singer share a preference) which I saw him do explicitly in print a few years back. This is just to say that few people are so dogmatic in distancing themselves from middle-brow tastes. Keep up the good work, even if I still plan on sticking to my cliche-bound Hong Sang-soo.

10:11 AM  

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