Today I take a departure from my regularly scheduled complaining to talk about something I love with a passion uncontested.
Low Budget action films
Anyone who really knows me knows that Prince music and B Action movies are my thing….. I mean REALLY my thing. Literally, I don’t feel right if I go more than 2 weeks without watching something directed by John Carpenter. And it absolutely breaks my heart that cinematic masterpieces like “Hell Comes to Frog Town” and “House 2: The Second Story” go largely ignored by the american public.
Cobretti, Frank Dux, Jack Burton, Conan, Corp. Hicks. If you don’t know these names we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. So I’d like to talk about what makes a truly great bad action movie. Schlock is a funny thing, while it’s easy to take a “I know it when I see it” approach, lets get into the actual nuts and bolt of what makes a good bad movie work. First I’ll give you the recipe, then I’ll give a list of film recommendations so thorough that it would make Leonard Maltin decide to throw the towel in. And there’s a lot more to these movies than big guns and a protagonist who’s a piping hot slice of American beefcake (Please see above photo for reference). So let’s get to it, the Formula breaks down into 5 parts:
-Part 1: Snappy One Liners-
“It’s all in the Reflexes.” “O K USA!!!” “First SubZero, Naughow Plaayne Zero!” “I’ve come here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum….” Hopefully you already know most of these lines and try to work them into your weekly office meetings as often as is appropriate. If none of the above lines ring any bells “I’ll be back” should be something you’re familiar with. They say punning is the lowest form of humor, so it makes sense that one liners are such an integral part of making an action movie work.
Could you really imagine the Austrian Oak throwing a machete through that henchmen in Predator, leaving the guy stuck up on the wall, and then….. casually walk away saying nothing? Neither can I. The line “stick around” makes you smile. Or at least groan and smile slightly. These lines add an extremely light hearted feel to the films. They let you know that what you’re watching isn’t supposed to be a thought provoking, oscar winning political statement, but you’re about to have a good time… it’s almost as if these films were designed to be fun….
-Part 2: Low Budget Charm- Did you know that Aliens was made for $18.5 Million. Adjusted for inflation that about 42 million dollars. That’s roughly half the budget of Jack & Jill…. The Thing still has some of the best practical effects ever filmed and adjusted for 2017 dollars it cost about 40 Million dollars as well. Low budget doesn’t have to mean low quality at all. In fact a lot of the biggest franchises in hollywood started on a very modest budget. That being said, even if you can tell they were pinching pennies at every turn, it doesn’t actually have to effect the overall enjoyment of a film. Remember that 120 million dollar 2016 Ben Hur remake? Don’t worry, no one else does either. Big budgets and making everything “epic” doesn’t translate to a decent film that makes you feel something. Sometimes budget limitations can add to a films overall package. In a lot of ways a low budget action film is like a comic book brought to life, and when the sets also look like something out of a comic book it’s actually more congruent with the themes and tone of the film.
-Part 3: The Action-
This section is going to be very long, but it’s the area in which so many modern action films fall short. An action film having really good action sequences seems like it should be a no brainer, but alas it isn’t so. In today’s era of Marvel products, an “action scene” often consists of a pair of actors floating in place while suspended on wires in front of a green screen shooting CG lazers out of their hands. The irony being, though the computer animators put thousands of man hours and millions of dollars into creating the most fantastical backgrounds that a computer can make, it’s obvious by the actors movements that they are actually barely moving around, they are really on a very small set without a lot of room to move around, they
are hanging in an uncomfortable harness, every shot has to cheat to hide the actors lack of mobility and make sure the harness is not seen. The human eye is hard to fool, and when the actors are restricted in this way something seems very ‘off.’ Anytime you’re in front of a movie screen, on an intellectual level you know what you’re watching is make believe. It is the films job to trick your imagination into thinking these characters are fighting for their lives. We all know factually that Freddy Kruger isn’t really about to chop up these co-eds, but if suspension of disbelief is done correctly your heart rate is up to 120 beats per minute. Anything that breaks the suspension of disbelief is a net negative, no matter how much money is spent. It absolutely pains me to say this, but to be honest the modern uber crappy “actors on suspended wires green screen” fight sequences are on the better end of things. Beginning with ‘The Borne Idenitity 2″ someone figured out you could save money and not have to spend time choreographing a fight scene as long as you crop the shot SUPER close and violently shake the camera so the viewer can barely tell what’s happening. We’ll call this “Shaky-Close” from now on. This style of action doesn’t interest me and if it interests you, you haven’t seen Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David go at it in the underrated classic “They Live” Again, suspension of disbelief needs to be kept up at all costs, we need to be able to tell what the hell is happening. It needs to be clear where all the characters are in relation to one another and where they are in regards to the terrain. Are they about to trip over a couch? If it’s 3 on one where are those other 2 guys? What is the physical state of the character, are they hurt? (no one could tell how injured Kylo Ren was and it made the lightsaber fight in TFA clunky and we ALL know it). The fight doesn’t even have to make a ton of sense as long as our brain can understand what’s happening IE the group of 5 henchmen that attacks the hero one at a time. The Shaky-close style fight scene has been getting worse and worse for the last decade or so, it just keeps getting closer and more shaky. Eventually the shot is going to just be a tight close up of the actors eyeball as someone swings the camera back and forth in a 90 degree arc. Below is actual video of how fight scenes were filmed for the Matt Damon turd “Elysium”
If this doesn’t immediately strike you as a big sign somethings wrong I don’t know what to tell you. Even worse is that there is now an unholy culmination of shaky-close AND green screen CGI restriction: the Transformers franchise. Not one action sequence in these films has been even mildly decipherable, much less entertaining. You are watching cartoon robots breakdancing and then they call it a fight scene. Again this is done to save money. Light doesn’t reflect off the transformers correctly. They appear to not weight enough. Why isn’t the pavement cracking with every step they take? So instead of taking the time to do the fight scene correctly they move the transformers around really fast so you can’t tell what’s happening and you won’t notice how bad the effects are. Sometimes the old ways are just plain better. A well choreographed fight scene with some bad CG works better than expensive CG with poor choreography. A prime example of this is Blade 1. Every time Wesley “I shouldn’t have to pay my taxes” Snipes stakes a vampire the vampire melting effect looks pretty bad, but the scenes as a whole still hold up great due to the slick fight choreography. And why do we even need CG in a fight scene at all? I understand that sometimes it’s necessary for the story, but a lot of times it really isn’t. A clear cut example of this is Batman
v Superman. The ending consists of a bunch of cartoons hopping around in ways that defy both reality and gravity. Batman is supposed to be a normal human, but the way he gets slammed around would snap the spine of any person. Your brain realizes that this characters can’t be hurt unless the plot wills it to be so, all tension is lost. You start checking the text messages on your phone, before the lady behind you starts yelling at you to put your phone away, to which you shout “Your kids have been talking through the WHOLE MOVIE!!!!” (not that this is a strangely specific interaction). Juxtapose the ending of Batman v Superman against the ending of another movie with the exact same super hero: the 1989 Tim Burton Batman. Batman Literally just fights some random henchmen that the Joker has hanging around, but this fight scene is infinitely more engaging than anything in any Transformers film or DC movie. It’s not huge and epic at all, but it keeps you on the edge of your seat. The Joker accidentally ruined Bruce Waynes life, causing him to be batman, and Batman accidentally mutilated Jack Nicolson, ruining his life and causing him to become the joker. The entire movie has built to this fight. There’s a ton of tension. Batman isn’t invincible, he’s bloody, when he gets punched he gets hurt and groans. Even with all his skills and equipment, batman is just a normal person like any member of the audience. If he makes a mistake he can totally die a normal death. The guys he’s fighting aren’t some bizzare CG monstrosities that looks like a wax action figure left out in the sun too long (cough cough Doomsday). The thugs batman fights in the bell tower seem like some actual scary gang members. They look like really rough dudes you could bump into at the parking lot of a Raiders game. It’s almost as if they’re REAL people and your brain can relate to that level of real world Threat. Even though there are some composite shots here, there is a large set the actors can move around in and they use ever square inch of space they have. When they smash into stuff dust flies everywhere. It feels like a real place, and as such it all feels real. The action needs to feel
real and you need to be able to tell what’s going on. This means you’ve got to spend the time and money to get a well choreographed, visually interesting fight scene where at least a decent amount of the footage is shot in a medium frame. To have an action movie with lazy, sub par action sequences is equivalent to creating a musical where all the dance numbers are shot so close you can’t see the dancing and it is completely incoherent as to who’s singing to who and what’s even happening.
-Part 4: Charismatic Lead- Whether we’re talking about Mark Dicoscous or Dolph Lundgren, the lead will absolutely make or break these films. Oftentimes your lead can have so much “it” factor that it doesn’t matter if the rest of the film around them is terrible (Cough Cough Guy Pierce in Lockout cough cough). Attributes a lead aught to have: Being built like a marble statue definitely helps, but isn’t required (Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis). Having the physicality to perform some of the action without over relying on stuntmen helps a lot. The more you have to cut to hide the stuntman the more goofy shots you’re going to have to use, and consequently the more it takes the audience out of the moment. Van Damme once said “In a Dramatic film you act in the Drama, but in an Action film you need to be able to act in the Action”. While a lot of what Van Damme says can be brushed off as the incoherent ramblings of your old Belgum uncle, it takes a certain kind of comedian to sell Jim Carey esque physical comedy, and in that same way, it takes a certain kind of performer to sell the physical action. They need to be able to convey toughness, worry, and intensity all at the same time. There are plenty of great dramatic actors who can’t ‘action act.’ Again it’s a “I know it when I see it situation”. Something did strike me while writing this, most of these leads aren’t modern hollywood “generic model” good looking. Faimed fighter Renzo Gracie Once said that being a truly attractive man was about “A lot of Manliness mixed with a little bit of Ugliness” and reviewing most competent action movies has lead me to agree with this. Imperfection and ruggedness in the male face is a large part of what makes a man unique and attractive. While you definitely have some guys who look like they stepped off a runway (michael Beihn, Michael Dudikoff ) the majority of them aren’t beautiful as much as they are interesting looking. They just have a real likable quality about them. They are charming, and charm beats looks any day of the week.
-Part 5: The Weapon-
Any craftsman can only be as good as his tools. And if your trade mainly consists of viciously maiming henchmen and hired Jabonies, you don’t want to bring faulty equipment to the jobsite. Almost every action movie worth it’s salt features a distinct, bad ass weapon. This Weapon can be a firearm, a Melee weapon, flashy fight skills (usually Martial Arts), or even a vehicle. Quick, think about Arnold in Terminator 2. Did you think of
Arnold on the motorcycle with the shotgun, or on the balcony with the gattling gun? The entire plot of the first Conan film is the fall out from James Earl Jones stealing high quality swords. In films where people are non stop trying to hurt each other the means by which they hurt each other becomes important. How would you feel if you went to see a Van Damme flick and he didn’t pull off the jump spin kick in slow motion while yelling “NNNNNHHEEEEAAAAAAAAA!!!!!” You’d feel short changed, sort of like you just watched ‘Nowhere to Run.’ Even Zena had that metal hulla hoop she threw at everyone. Giving your hero a distinct weapon can really cement that character in your head. I maintain that sales of the Tec-9 submachinegun are still receiving a boost due to being featured so prominently in Big Trouble in Little China. There are definitely first rate movies that are exceptions to this rule (Die Hard &…. that’s literally the only one I can think of), but by and large the Weapon is so integral to the hero that if you want the hero to be memorable, the weapon needs to be something memorable as well. The weapon needs to be an avatar for the protagonist. The Terminator is big, strong and blunt, so he doesn’t use a 38 special or a PPK with a silencer on it, he uses big strong blunt guns. In the absolutely bafflingly good Blind Fury, Rutger Hauer is quick and sneaky, you never suspect him until it’s too late, so his super sharp sword is hidden in his cane. Lara Croft is a skilled and methodical millionaire, so she uses precise, expensive HK USP Match 9mm handguns. Name of the film? Cobra. Name of our protagonist? Cobretti. What’s engraved on the handles of his custom guns? Twin Cobras. This tells us EXACTLY what type of movie we are watching. The Jedi are ‘knights’ who live in a fantastical universe, and as such use a fantastical knight weapon. On the flip side of this, for the love of god, if you give your protagonist a cool robot arm, make sure they use the robot arm to do something cool at some point in the film instead of doing NOTHING AT ALL with it (I’m looking at you Fury Road, you over rated pile of junk).
-Part 6: The Sidekick- The sidekick is the films get out of jail free card. It’s the scripts jack of all trades. The sidekick can be a lot of things. A rookie (brandon lee in SHowdown in little Tokyo), a babe/hunk (Gabrella, Benjamin Brat), a chimp (Clive), a robot (Uma Thurmon….wait, that’s just how bad of an actress she is…. nevermind), or comedy relief (Steve Buschemi). The sidekick is one of the most versatile tools for the script writers. Whatever a script is missing the Sidekick can supply. Imagine diehard without John McClain having the walkie talkie… it would be 100 minutes of Bruce Willis looking at office walls interspersed with him shooting at guys with Eruo-trash accents. But put Carl from family matters on the other end of the CB and we’ve got ourselves some of the most classic action dialogue in film history. Film not funny enough? Comedy side kick. Film needs a woman’s touch? Lady sidekick. Film a little too hard edge? Talking animal sidekick. If our hero is someone who’s tough to identify with, the sidekick can be the everyman who helps ease the audience through the wild, strange world of the film. A perfect example is Franka Potente in Bourne Identity. She is the reason the first movie worked so well and she is the missing element in every other film in the series. The Sidekick tells us a lot about our protagonist. The Road Warrior is quiet, brooding, and willing to kill you for half a fill up at the Vallero, so he enjoys the company of a quiet but vicious dog. They eat from the same can of food. Our hero’s had such a rough time the only sentient being in the world he would consider showing love to is a dog. The Sidekick can be a reflection of the hero, or can supply what the hero (or the screenplay) is lacking. And the very best screen writers will weave the sidekick into the story so well you don’t even realize they are the sidekick (bet you didn’t realise Obi Wan is actually Luke’s sidekick in New Hope).
So in no particular order, here’s a list of action films you need to see immediately. Movies in bold are perfect candidates to ease you or a small group of friends (this is the best way to watch them) into B Action movies if you don’t have much previous experience. Movies that are italicized are for seasoned B movie experts only, and are under NO CIRCUMSTANCES to be watched until you’ve viewed a few dozen B films to develop an appreciation for truly great low budget trash. Watching an italicized movie too soon may throw you off b movies all together. Now you might be saying to yourself “Hold on Uncle Crabby! Some of these movies aren’t even that low budget!” This is true, but the high budget films are PURE SCHLOCK, and thus make it into the B movie category. Furthermore some of these technically fall into the SciFi or Horror genres, but were too good not to include:
-Big Trouble in Little China (one of the greatest films ever made)
Miami Connection (this is the citizen cain of cheesy martial arts films)
-Blind Fury (80s version of blind samurai flicks)
-BloodSport (Van Damme at the peak of his powers)
-Universal Soldier (Van Damme also at the peak of his powers. This movie walks a razor thin line between schlock and a classis action film, a very good argument could be make that this is not a B movie at all. Dolph Lundgen gives the best performance of his career)
-The Blood of Heroes (aka Salute of the Jugger)
-The Last StarFighter
-Escape from New York (Not escape from LA. That’s too campy even of me)
-American Ninja (cause when I think ninja, I think blue eyes and blonde curly hair)
-Universal soldier: Regeneration
-Tremors (one of the tightest buddy movies ever)
-Deadbeat at Dawn
-Evil Dead 2 (Sam Rami earns his stripes)
-Megaforce (deeds, not words)
-The Final Sacrifice
-The Punisher (1989 Dolph Lundgren version. All other Punishers are far inferior)
–I bought a vampire motorcycle (not quite as good as the title would have you believe. Contains a little too much gross out humor for most people’s taste, but so many bizarre shifts in tone it’s worth a watch)
-Death Stalker 2
-Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (#1 is classics horror. #2 is….. #2)
-Showdown in Little Tokyo
–For Your Height Only (Weng Weng 1)
–The Impossible Kid (Weng Weng 2)
-Death Race 2000 (1975 version)
-Hell Comes to Frogtown (dance of the three snakes, anyone?)
-Tag Team (Roddy Piper & Jesse Ventura)
-LionHeart (an on the cheap version of bloodsport, but with varied fight locations and fun costume changes)
-Class of Nuke em’ High
-The Rollerblade 7
-Hard Ticket to Hawaii (really anything directed by andy sidaris is on this list)
-Masters of the Universe (Canon films can do no wrong)
-The Long Kiss Goodnight (What ever happened to Gina Davis??? Oh yeah, cutthroat island)
-The Street Fighter (Starring Sunny Chiba, Not ‘Street Fighter’ starring Van Damme, though now that I think about it…..)
-Street Fighter (starring Van Damme. This movie has aged like wine)
-Point of no Return
-The Last Boyscout
-Assault on Precinct 13 (The original)
-Rapid Fire (Alas poor Brandon Lee, we hardly knew ye)
-Wanted: Dead or Alive (aka Rutger Hauer vs Gene Simmons)
-The Apple (the only musical on this list. Sort of Scifi-ish I guess. This film is so bizarre I had to include it.)
You’ve got your homework. Now get in front of your TV and get at it!