Every great film is an action movie.
That goes for Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (1944 and 1958), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and My Dinner With Andre (1981).
It doesn’t go for 300 (2006), its sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) or any other picture of their ilk – no matter how much posturing and slow-motion violence permeates them. The reason: they’re not good. So we need another category to describe them.
How about “Cynical Pictorials Filled With Macho Posing”?
Right. Like that’ll happen. Still, I think it’s about time we redefine the action-movie genre. Because if all great flicks are action movies – owing to the powerful flow of the action involved rather than, say, any bursting blood squibs or whizzing bullets – then the label isn’t appropriate for the category as a whole.
And I won’t be convinced that something like 300 is any good because of the washed-out-looking cinematography or arty production design. The self-consciousness of the shots makes them less appealing, while the quality of the composition is more pedestrian than elevated. Better-crafted celluloid may be found elsewhere, especially within the war-movie genre.
The problem, however, is that the public has come to accept the word “action” as a cinematic trademark, and this shouldn’t be the case. The word, to me, describes activity incited by dialogue and plot, as well as context and good direction. It’s not just bang-bang-you’re-dead. There’s something more to it.
And I think we’ve lost that idea in the theatres.
So what can we do? Not watch 300? I have to confess, as much as I dislike the film, I’ll turn to it on TV sometimes when it’s on to marvel at the poor craftsmanship while seeing if it gets any better with age. It never does, and of course, if The Seven Samurai (1954) or something better is on, forget it – the channel changes.
Films such as 300 are popular, however, and there’s got to be an explanation for that. There have been tales told about the 300 Spartans before, so the subject’s nothing new. And the Frank Miller graphic-novel treatment was better applied previously in Sin City (2005), making its ancient-Greece successor look even poorer in comparison.
Maybe there’s something in those chiseled faces and six-pack abs that I’m missing from a cinematic standpoint. Or … maybe not.
I’m worried, though. The scene that always comes to mind when I think of 300 is this ridiculous, tracking-style shot of the Spartans spearing and hacking away at their Persian opponents in the Thermopylae pass while alternating between grisly slow-motion and normal speed. So what you get is a lot of cosmetic killing in creative, “exciting” ways. Not action.
There’s a precedent for this, though it was done much more artistically. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) features multiple scenes of people dying in spectacular fashion – a segment in the raid at the beginning of the film shows a man twisting around each time he’s hit by a bullet – but I think there was a perspective there rather than just a taste for blood. We’re being shown how violent the Bunch’s protagonists are, how they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want, despite their own code of honour.
In 300, it’s very different. We’re supposed to cheer the Spartans on, revel in the gore. Just because they’re the heroes. And I don’t think that’s an outlook worth promoting.
Not that the Persians, the film’s debauched villains, are so much better in the movie. But from a context-less viewpoint, there’s no reason to go tell the Spartans how much fun they are to watch. They’re basically portrayed as boors, and violent ones at that.
What’s the moral, here? Valour is good? Decadence is bad? I don’t find that valid. It’s just too simplistic.
The fact is, the film’s probably more of an attempt to gain the teenage-boy audience than to create a work of art (the dreadful dialogue points that up; Wild Bunch, you have nothing to worry about). To a certain extent, 300 succeeded, becoming a huge hit. Will that be the benchmark for all other such bloody costume dramas? Perhaps.
What should be the benchmark, however, is The Seven Samurai, especially if you’re talking slo-mo. There’s no reason why the teenage set wouldn’t go ga-ga for that one if it ever becomes more widely available than the Spartan war stories of today.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that’ll happen anytime soon. Yet when it comes to real action, all great movies are accessible when provided to an open-minded audience. The trick is to foment the opening of those minds, and that’s something we can do. With this blog. By talking about good movies. While creating new names for categories such as “action.”
We can achieve this. I have a label for them already: “Movies You’d Want to See.”
And I’m putting Ivan the Terrible at the top of that list.