Join The Grumps as we bring you a selection of what’s new and now in the Action genre. Strap in for Round-house Round-Up!
THE ADAM PROJECT (2022) [NEW IN THEATERS AND ON NETFLIX]
Our old friend Ryan Reynolds is back again, and now he’s trained a child to act just like him! As if we weren’t lucky enough with that alone, The Adam Project is a circular time-travel story helmed by director Shawn Levy, who’s partly responsible not only for your bookish sister’s “Justice for Barb” t-shirt but your overweight uncle’s “Scoops Ahoy!” ball cap. With that kind of modestly quirky fanbase, it’s no surprise Levy would be working with Reynolds in two PG-13 blockbuster-ish films within the past two consecutive years, 2021’s Free Guy and this one, The Adam Project.
Now that all my snark’s out of the way, let’s seriously take a look at this picture. Levy’s got a lock on the traditional “kid in peril” trope; a tricky subgenre to navigate without dipping toes into the nostalgia pool. It helps that The Adam Project is mostly set in 2022, so any nostalgia is only captured in the feel of the movie, not the look of it. The action may teeter toward the generic side (those scenes are more thrilling than impressive), but that might be the price we pay for something that is decidedly kid-friendly. Several themes permeate this picture; one is of letting go of resentment. Often in the face of discomfort, the easiest thing to do is be a judgemental wiseass, but it takes real growth in order to be a gracious person. That involves not taking your relationships for granted, whether it be father/child, mother/child, or a romantic partnership. And although this is a boy-centric story, it succeeds in not excluding anyone from relating to it.
All Ryan Reynolds jokes aside, though, the man does a commendable job at being earnest in this one, essentially playing “older brother” to himself. And for real, I can’t stress enough how amazing young Walker Scobell is at capturing the Reynolds-ness put forth by his co-star. Let’s just hope Ryan doesn’t go all Norma Desmond on the kid later.
THE LOST CITY (2022) [NEW IN THEATERS]
As a romantic comedy and light-actioner, this adventure in the jungle is a fantastic choice for date night. It’s got everything you need: a strong but flawed heroine (Sandra Bullock), an inept but well-meaning love interest (Channing Tatum), a competent but cocky professional rescuer (Brad Pitt), a supportive but overstressed best friend (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), and a sophisticated but comically dickish villain (Daniel Radcliffe). Reviewers may note plot and conceit similarities to 1984’s Romancing the Stone, but it’s got much more going on than that. For one, scattered throughout are startling action setpieces that are surprisingly severe and bloody. But mostly it’s Bullock and Tatum sharing a building chemistry that makes their characters’ unlikely romance seem believable, especially when Tatum’s Alan/Dash comes forth with a tenderness and unexpected fortitude that eventually sweeps our heroine off her feet. The chemistry between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner back in the ’80s is infamous, but watching their films now…eh, it just doesn’t seem as natural as reputation states. So it’s good we have modern updates to classical stories, even if they’re not exactly remakes, because of course our sensibilities of fun and romance change and progress. To add to that freshness, we have brothers Aaron and Adam Nee commanding this film, who provided us with the single-best Tom Sawyer adaptation, 2015’s Band of Robbers (one of my favorites from the last decade), and who are tackling the upcoming and newly-acquired-by-Netflix Masters of the Universe film together. That should be fun!
AMBULANCE (2022) [NEW IN THEATERS]
Oh, here we are again with the insufferable roundtable discussions of whether or not Michael Bay’s work falls into auteur territory! With Ambulance, Bay himself seems in on the ridiculousness of that passe rhetoric; as the film is just getting going, two police officers have a short, friendly exchange referencing Bay’s film The Rock, signifying the director coming full circle with self-congratulatory acknowledgment of his own cultural impact and auteurship. It’s a fun moment, and if Bay really is self-referencing his own ego, what a punk move from a guy whom cinephiles love to hate, but secretly just love. Impressive.
Otherwise, Ambulance is still an impressive film. Bay spends little time on emotional setup, efficiently arranging just enough facts about his characters that we’re raring to go when the intensity starts. I like that in a film: character traits revealed throughout the action so we’re not bogged down with overlong and monotonous foundational motivations from the beginning. When the action hits, it’s unrelenting: all high-speed chase and gunplay, with an insane sprinkling of unexpected surgical-style body horror. Serious heebie-jeebies there! But, back to Bay: he excels in not only building but keeping momentum, with his signature swooping shots and camera movements that mimic a roller coaster. Ambulance is no exception: Michael Bay should really be the only film director allowed to use a drone shot. What I also like about this picture is that it is distinctly a Los Angeles movie, but doesn’t try to make love to the city like a lot of others–nor does it say “L.A. is a piece of shit.” Bay shows the “boring” or “bad” parts of L.A. in the daylight without really commenting on them or romanticizing them in the slightest; there’s not even any insincere “our city is gross, but we love it!” type stuff. In this film, Los Angeles is just a city like any other, and it simply exists as host to this ferociously intense and violent story.
ROBOTRIX (1991) [NEW TO BLU-RAY FROM 88 FILMS—STANDARD EDITION release]
“I’ve got some news for you/
fembots have feelings too”
Robotrix is a Hong Kong Category III sci-fi/action film centered around a female scientist who’s developed a way to transplant the consciousnesses of the recently deceased into fully functional robot bodies. One of those recently deceased happens to be a female police officer, and after the reanimation process, they team up with the scientist’s assistant (another fembot) to take down an evil robot who’s terrorizing the town one prostitute at a time. If that whole, you know, “robot cop” thing kind of sounds like Robocop, well, it does, but the worldbuilding here is less…intentional. However.
One thing that’s unexpected about Robotrix is how well it deals with women in power, women using their sex for power, and men (namely police) exploiting all of that. These women are strong, ideal, fashionable, and obviously smart, but show vulnerability and naivete too. The police set up a prostitution sting and employ the fembot assistant, who wonders out loud something to the effect of “I’ve always wanted to know what whoring is like.” It seems kind of childlike, but you also get the picture she’s excited to be using her wiles (read: robo-tits) for some kind of purpose. The scenes that follow are played for laughs and involve that tired trope of men going crazy in the presence of a pretty woman, but they’re a good (almost sweet) antithesis to the more malicious scenes in the film with the villain brutally having his way with other women.
The film is lightly reflective and peculiarly moral, thinly introducing ideas about coming to grips with death and the reality of a new cyborg life. In the end, the scientist and assistant have a casual conversation about giving the police officer-bot the ability to access memories from her former life, laughing at her from a distance as she whines to her old boyfriend on the street about some trivial thing that probably only women care about. There’s a conflicting message! Women in power even hold power over other women. Eh, it’s probably more realistic than we think.
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022) [NEW IN THEATERS]
Film directors with careers in music video tend to make the most interesting-looking movies, don’t they? The Daniels may be the latest (but not last) in a long line of hip filmmakers who cut their teeth shaping visually stimulating, avant-garde music videos for cutting-edge artists. If efficient storytelling is the art of music video, even if it’s just a “band video,” then the restrictive nature of the medium often turns out beneficial for creatives, helping them reign in some perhaps too lofty ideas when making the jump to feature filmmaking. Did it help The Daniels? Maybe.
Everything Everywhere All at Once certainly employs some of those music video-style tactics: fast editing and trick camerawork, just to name a couple. But is it an action movie? Science-fiction takes the lead spot, as the film’s conceit involves the increasingly popular notion of a multi-verse, but it would be careless to waste Hong Kong action royalty Michelle Yeoh and veteran actor/stunt choreographer Ke Huy Quan on just a quirky sci-fi movie. So we throw in some electrifying fight sequences that get our engines running, and before we know it, we’re hooked. The film shines in these initial moments, the momentum-building just before the dam of what’s-really-going-on breaks. The character work, too, is pretty stellar: the actors and filmmakers seem to be working in perfect congruence to create this idiosyncratic take on modern life (I haven’t been this impressed with Jamie Lee Curtis since True Lies). But from there I’ll say the film suffers from heavy-handedness; we’re subjected to the same kind of diminutive parent/child reconciliation story imbued in a Pixar film–but dressed up in anarchic clothing (A coworker of mine said, “I’d want my nieces and nephews to see it if it weren’t for the butt plug stuff.”). And in that, the film doesn’t really know what it is: aside from sci-fi/action, it touches on romance, family, existential crisis, and Adult Swim-style nonsensical comedy without fully committing to resolving more than one of the characters’ issues–and seemingly abandoning aspects of what made the initial plot so interesting in the first place. No doubt the film is clunky and doesn’t quite hit on full emotionally immersive status (we’re along for the ride, not necessarily in it), but it looks pretty, is imaginative, and makes us feel decent in the end, so that’s good enough.
THE BATMAN (2022) [new in theaters and hbo max]
For some reason I was under the impression that this iteration of Batman lore took place in the early 1990s; I’m not sure if it was the use of the most downcast Nirvana song or that the Gotham presented in the trailer implied a dystopia only the pop-nihilism of the ’90s could produce. Regardless of my incorrect time period assumption, though, this Batman still seems the most Gen-X of any caped crusader that Hollywood has ever given us. Under the dark exterior and charcoal-smeared eyes, Robert Pattinson’s Batman is a defeated soul whose obligation to vengeance usurps any he may have to philanthropy. He’s moody and often bummed out, and when he fights, he doesn’t really care if he gets hit. His style of offense is even emotionless; his brawler-style hits are calculated and tactical with no flair whatsoever. But he’s not a machine, either. He’s just a man begrudgingly doing what he has to do. Sort of makes him the most relatable Batman ever, don’t you think?
This film is very long but doesn’t exactly feel it. What pads out the runtime is nothing to dismiss, however: we actually get to see Batman be a detective. Movies typically take that aspect of his character for granted, often Bruce Wayne is depicted as some smarmy douchebag whose interest in gadgetry takes precedence over his actual smarts. But his characterization in The Batman gives us the impression he genuinely wants to help solve crimes, just with no emphasis on heroics. It’s weird that such an emotionally detached version of Batman can be so refreshing, but maybe in the wishy-washiness of 2022 we need that kind of unruly dark material to make us feel whole again.
BLACK CRAB (2022) [new on netflix]
Noomi Rapace takes cool roles. She’s proved time and again she can work in any genre and carry whatever she’s doing conscientiously and with ease. So with Black Crab we see her once again take on the role of “normal woman who’s strong” and excel at bringing a character to life who isn’t flashy or cartoony in the way she shows her strength, doesn’t “act like a man” to do it, and doesn’t rely on an overly-theatrical interpretation of maternal instinct in revealing her motivation. Not only is Noomi capable of expressing concise and complex emotion, she always shows her physical competence, too; she may not be a jiu-jitsu princess or blow anyone’s minds at hand-to-hand combat, but she isn’t afraid of rising to the challenge of a physically demanding role. Let’s be fair: Noomi really deserves more credit in the action/thriller sphere.
Black Crab is a bleak film, visually and thematically, and the photography reflects the increasing intensity of that bleakness as the film progresses. The protagonist team’s mission involves transporting biological weaponry through a tundra, with most of the action taking place as they ice skate over large masses of frozen ocean. The ice skating scenes are beautiful: widely shot and scored with that mystery ’80s synth sound while featuring battlefield-like gunfire flash lighting mixed with smoke rising from the ice. But this is an interesting film because the action is in defense against an unnamed enemy; all we know is that whom our protagonists are fighting against must be bad. So it feels like a Red Dawn type of situation but we don’t really know which side might be the totalitarian overlords. Which, given the tribalism of first-world 2022, the ambiguity is commendable because it adds a “Are we the baddies?” vibe. Sometimes it’s less important to make a distinction.
SPIRITWALKER (2020) [NEW TO BLU-RAY]
This stylish South Korean import is just now hitting blu-ray in America, blessing us with an original take on body-swap sci-fi/action. Our protagonist is more or less an amnesiac who wakes up after a car accident and is horrified to inexplicably find himself inside a new body every 12 hours, with each jump adding more to his confusion. But of course he begins to figure things out as he goes along, mostly by a semi-chance meet up with an agent of some vaguely clandestine government agency who seems to be a former lover. And not to mention all the bodies his consciousness ends up in happen to belong to henchmen from the corrupt circle of agents within this same organization who are trying to strike it rich dealing some new experimental mind-altering drug. Okay, this movie may be a little convoluted, but just go with it.
Spiritwalker is one that you have to pay close attention to the plot and all the switcheroos, but that doesn’t take away from the art of it. This film has tremendously exciting action sequences: quickly-edited fight scenes that hit so hard you might turn your face away, thrilling car chases that feel like you’re in the backseat with them, and superhuman stuntwork done by main actor Yoon Kye-sang. There’s also a beautiful nightclub sequence in which the set decoration is used to create that popular neon-noir look, but done inventively without the actual use of neon gels or lights. This movie is absolutely a ride, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up with an American remake.
THE NORTHMAN (2022) [NEW IN THEATERS]
If a film is artfully done does that make it an art film? No doubt Robert Eggers is a director with a clear vision, but is he a visionary? His films are daunting, complex, and brimming with period research; his auteurism could almost be more effectively described as obsessive than visionary. But that obsessive tendency works to his advantage as he continually sets out to breathe life into ancient stories without doing them the disservice of framing them through a modern lens. The themes of female ascendency and toxic masculinity in The Witch and The Lighthouse are at best accidental. Eggers exercises the same amount of thematic control in The Northman, which might be the best evidence of his vision yet.
An art film would reveal the beauty that lies within brutality, but where in The Northman is that beauty? That we all know Viking berserkers were terrible beasts doesn’t help anything; via this film, we volunteer to endure the harshest, most inhuman physical and emotional violence from these men. Most of the time when any small army of beefy dudes is on-screen, there are clues and cues leading to an indirect reference to sex (queer-coding included), but the berserkers in this film are rightfully shown in no romantic way; their physical valor is not at all highlighted in grotesque sexual objectification. There is no beauty; there is not even sex; there is only swift and ruthless violence. The act of vengeance is not romantic, nor is it erotic. In the Viking world, vengeance is only cruel.
So where is the beauty? It’s in sacrifice. The Viking legend of Amleth is wrapped around vengeance and the action we see in the film is a callous representation of that. But it’s not until after Amleth learns of some critical deceptions that he considers what kind of man he wants to be. He confides in an ethereal but earthly knowledgable spellcaster, now his unspoken life partner, and sacrifices a love-filled and fruitful life with her and their not-yet-born children in order to finish his story of betrayal, vengeance, pride, and honor. But still, is his decision righteous? Will his budding family be hunted as he presumes if he stays with them? Or is he only afraid of being haunted by the pride of his bloodline if he does not complete his mission? Somehow with more at stake, the whole thing seems more poetic. And that’s what makes this an art film, and Eggers a visionary: the assemblage of a human element together with a shocking depiction of how shamefully cold-blooded man can be.
THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (2022) [NEW IN THEATERS]
Nicholas Cage has finally achieved Chuck Norris status: a beloved legendary actor who has been unnecessarily elevated to mythical hero prestige. That’s no insult, just a remark on popular culture trends. So it’s no stretch that a man who is so larger-than-life stars as himself in a movie that’s larger-than-his-life, a film that blends autobiography and fiction in fun “meta” ways. It’s all fine and pleasant enough–kind of toothless for an R-rated film–but honestly, it’d be more novel if JCVD (2008) didn’t exist.
Is this now what we’re doing to our most treasured stars, though? Reducing their personal existential crises to slapstick comedy for our mere entertainment? If the audience is king, then Nic Cage is our jester, pathetically playing out his battle against Hollywood-aging and declining self-worth so we may be titillated by some medium-grade action sequences, cool stunt driving, and cute movie references, and laugh at the buffoonery of his annoyingly hard-charging inner voice. I heard somewhere Nicolas Cage said he wouldn’t ever watch this film. And it doesn’t matter how endearing Pedro Pascal is in it, I kind of don’t blame him for not.
dreadnaught (1981) [new to blu-ray from eureka entertainment]
Action films are sometimes burdened by the need to communicate. What they can’t always say with words as easily as other genres can is communicated via physical theatrics: acrobatics, stunts, choreographed fighting, even comedy routines. Older kung fu films like Dreadnaught provide us perfect examples of how classical theatrics (like Peking Opera) are used in creating timelessly entertaining action farce.
Yuen Biao (who attended Peking Opera school) is crazy-adorable in Dreadnaught, from his comically cowardly actions (not only opposite the story’s villain–the downright scary White Tiger–but with his own cattish sister) down to his character’s name, Mousy. Every scene is played with precision and pathos; even though Mousy is a bit chicken-hearted, Yuen Biao is able to subtly communicate something present in his demeanor that will eventually transform him from wimpy to plucky. And after a horrific scene (seriously, it’s like it becomes a weird slasher all of a sudden) that’s strangely reminiscent of James Wan’s Malignant years before it existed, he does just that. This film is beautiful: the set decoration, props, makeup, fights, all of it. It also has heart, and ends on such a splendidly satisfying note. Eureka puts out a lot of old kung fu films, some more interesting than others. But especially if you’re an American looking for overseas blind-buys, Dreadnaught (whatever that title means) is honestly a sure-bet.
Can’t get enough Action? Take a look at last month’s Round-house Round-Up for more!