Action Movies Don't Have to Suck

A lament for lost carnage—and coherence

I never thought it would come to this, but clear action has been left to art house directors. Steven Soderbergh's Haywire showcases some of the most exhilarating fights of recent years by combining the "realistic" MMA-inspired fighting preferred by Post-Action directors with the long takes and unobstructed shots they fear. (I think he used a new technology called a "tripod.") Joe Wright's Hanna has an Eric Bana–versus-four-guys fight scene that's done in one uninterrupted Steadicam shot, showing the whole fight instead of implying it through editing. Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, despite being sued by that lady for not being enough like Fast Five, punctuates its slow-burn story with superb car chases.

But most of the good stuff these days is hidden outside of the mainstream in direct-to-video movies. It's a refuge not just for aging icons like Seagal, Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, but also for a talented new wave that includes Austin (Damage), Scott Adkins (Undisputed II through III), Michael Jai White (Blood and Bone), and "how the hell hasn't a studio thrown money at these guys yet" directors Isaac Florentine and John Hyams. I maintain that Hyams's 2009 Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a more thrilling action experience than 95 percent of what studios have released in theaters in several years. The opening hurls us into an intense abduction-car-chase-shoot-out-helicopter escape while always keeping the vehicles and victims clearly in the center of the frame, making it a DTV classic before we've even seen Van Damme or any superpowered fighting.

Like Seagal in Hard to Kill, old-school action has emerged from its coma and is retraining itself. Soon, it will sit on top of a small hill, it will hear the call of an eagle, and it will be ready for its revenge. But we might have to persuade the dads who used to take their kids to Marked for Death that now the thing to do is to buy them the fifth Universal Soldier.

Vern is the author of Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal. Find his reviews at outlawvern.com.

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