'Taken' and 'Chocolate' and the state of the art of the action film in 2009
Luc Besson's got a nice little business going for himself in France. And Prachya Pinkaew's got a fairly sweet deal going in Thailand, too. Both of them have set up these action-movie factories that crank out a dependable stream of similar product, and both of them have strong signatures on all of their films. Right now, I'd say there's no one out there who is consistently better at making pure action movies than these two guys.
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Luc Besson is interesting. As a director, he has no fixed identity, and I'd argue even he doesn't know what "a Luc Besson film" is. His first two movies are very rough, exercises in style more than anything, but with his third film, "The Big Blue," he probably came the closest to doing something biographical, personal. His parents were professional divers, and most of his early life was spent in or around the ocean. He even considered becoming a professional until an injury meant that he was out of the water for life. Besson says he didn't grow up with an interest in film, which makes his flawless eye for composition doubly-impressive. It was really with "Nikita" and "Leon" that he made the jump into the world of action, and he's never looked back. Both of them are slick, impeccably-shot and rigorously staged, action movies with soul. Besson always seems enamored of his actors, and not just because he keeps marrying them. He seemed to really love discovering new actors and capturing these raw, vital performances before they got bogged down with technique. Anne Parrilaud in "Nikita" is a wild thing, and young Natalie Portman in "Leon" is better and more natural than she's ever been as an adult. Both of them were shot in a way that made their performances almost feel accidental, like they just happened. And he would always surround these new females faces with the same basic reperatory company of rock-solid character actors. Tcheky Karyo. Jean Reno. Jean-Hughes Anglade. Gary freakin' Oldman.
His right turns as a director into films like "The Messenger" and "The Fifth Element" seemed to confuse not only his audience but himself. I like both those movies, but they're far messier, far more unfinished than his earlier action films. And now, as he diddles around with those Minimoys books and films, it all just feels impersonal to me, disconnected from what made Besson relevant in the first place. Even "Angel-A" may be stylish and offer some pleasures, but it's even less cooked, less complete, continuing his slide away from the focused, efficient action filmmaker it looked like he was going to become.
That energy didn't disappear, though. Instead, he chanelled it into becoming a producer of modestly-budgeted action films that all seem to reflect the same basic aesthetic as "Nikita" and "Leon." For a while, the "Taxi" films were his signature. But once he hooked up with Robert Mark Kamen (screenwriter of "The Karate Kid") and the two of them realized they shared a deep affection for kung-fu films, one of them must have looked at the other and said, "So why aren't there more French kung-fu movies?" And then lightbulb over the head and they got into the kung-fu movie business in a huge way. They typically write the scripts for the films together, with Besson producing. "Taken" is, if I'm not mistaken, the 873rd film they've made together since 1997.
With "Chocolate," Prachya Pinkaew continues to refine the style he's been developing, and he's actually growing as a director from film to film. I don't think Scorsese's gotta start sweating yet, but Pinkaew seems aware of his own limitations and he seems determined to deliver more than "just" action scenes. There was a jump from "Ong Bak" to "Tom Yum Goong," and there's a big jump from that film to "Chocolate," which is just as much a melodrama about star-crossed lovers and their autistic child as it is a bone-crunching martial arts film.
Obviously, Besson works with a radically different per-film budget than Pinkaew does, but even so, neither of these films can compare, cost-wise, with a typical Hollywood production. This is a town where even a middle-of-the-road romantic comedy can cost $75 million and no one seems ruffled. When Hollywood does action these days, they think of Michael Bay or "The Bourne Identity" or the reinvented Bond. Shaky-cam. Lots of CGI. The philosophy of escalation. Everything's always got to be bigger and bigger. Crazier and crazier, no matter what. Story? Barely matters. Character? Who'd notice? Spectacle is king in mainstream action these days.
But there's something to be said for the simple virtues of crazy stuntment willing to get permanently fucked up on camera for our entertainment, and no amount of money or CGI can top it. The main visceral kick to any great action movie is the knowledge that we're watching someone do something dangerous. The more you make it obvious to an audience that the danger isn't real, the harder you have to tapdance to keep them engaged at all. That's why so many giant budget action films seem so frantic... they're making up for the lack of reality. When I saw "The Road Warrior" the first time, what hooked me was that feeling that no one could have possibly walked away alive. I was sure George Miller had killed a couple dozen crazy Aussies to get those car stunts on film. The spaghetti Western mythology is what's great on top of and it makes the film feel mythic, but the stunts... oh, those beautiful stunts.
So when Liam Neeson wades into a fight like a furious Scottish bear or when Jeeja Yanin wades into a fight against an entire slaughterhouse full of knife-wielding thugs, it's exciting because there is a reality to it. In both films, the leads are playing against expectation, making it even more enjoyable when bones start breaking. Liam Neeson, for example, is a huge surprise in "Taken," and he gives the movie an unexpected kick. When you see Jason Statham or Jet Li as the lead in one of these movies, you know what sort of ass-kickery you're going to get. When one of these films stars the dude who invented parkour, it's a pretty safe bet you're going to see some parkour. But Liam Neeson brings a sincerity and an emotional credibility to the film first, and then delivers on the action with brutal efficiency. He's huge (I think he stands around eight and a half feet tall), and director Pierre Morel makes exceptional use of that size. When Neeson puts a hurting on something, you believe they're not getting up again. And in keeping with the trend since Bond rebooted and Bourne started searching for his identity, Neeson plays a human-scale superhero, a guy who has exceptional skills but who never seems to push the impossible. And when you first see Jeeja Yanin, it's sort of the opposite. She's a little whisper of a girl, cute and slight and completely non-threatening. But unlike many of the little Hollywood post-Whedon girls who kick ass (practically a cliche at this point), Yanin doesn't look like she's running through a routine she memorized at Bally's Total Fitness. This is no cardio workout. You watch the last giant fight scene in this film... and watch the way she hurls herself at one opponent after another, up and down the outside of a building, and you tell me she looks like she's faking it, or like it's all just for show.
Both of these producers benefit from having stunt teams who realize that it's not about being bigger and more ridiculous each time, but instead is about making sure you sell every beat of every fight. It's about taking full advantage of each space, each performer, each idea. These films engage us because the filmmakers are actively engaged from scene to scene, from moment to moment. They don't feel phoned in or perfunctory. They feel alive, and that pulse is what makes an action film great.
Neither of the films is perfect. "Taken" trades on a certain flavor of paranoid xenophobia that I'm not completely in tune with, but the crude set-up allows for a few fantastic payoffs, where action meets emotion in all the right ways. And "Chocolate" does play things fairly broad. There's not a word for "subtle" in Thai, evidently. That's okay. Once you go with it, "Chocolate" becomes a very particular kind of pleasure. This is why I got hooked on watching kung-fu movies in the first place, the idea of watching someone slowly but surely fight their way through insane physical odds to right some wrong. It's a structure that the gaming industry absorbed and implemented in the way levels and bosses work. "Chocolate" is structured very, very well, and so the melodrama works, the engine that puts Zen in those situations, each one a greater test, until she finally has to burn the whole damn world down at the end.
As symbols of the industry right now, I am glad to see "Taken" do so well, and I hope "Chocolate" gets rented like crazy. And I hope the current economic climate forces studios to aim for more solid singles and doubles like this instead of always chasing the empty home run. Real action films. Human beings doing crazy things. Danger. Bliss.
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