So if Arnold Schwarzenegger is the penultimate movie star… then who is the last movie star? Whilst there are still bankable, charismatic actors working today (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington spring to mind) there are none who are able to get funding for their films on their name alone. Even our subject has had to rely on building a handful of franchises (of which this film can retrospectively be seen as the first entry in one) in order to maintain the level of funding to which he is accustomed. Tom Cruise is our last movie star. In itself this is a curious statement; why are we assuming that there won’t be any more after him? Star actors are so necessary to the success of movies. Why is it that we have devalued them so? I’m as big an auteurist as the next person, but that central, charismatic performance is what drives cinema. You can choose your angles and edit your footage as much as you want, but we go to the movies to see the close-ups of these impossibly beautiful, deeply captivating actors.
It’s strange to think that as Cruise has got older, he has become a more physical performer. Nowadays, the vast bulk of his career is consumed with action pictures, each one containing an extremely dangerous set-piece that Cruise performed himself. He is one of the most reliable performers in the business, and even when the film as a whole does not add up to that much, there is a certainty that Cruise will be giving it his all, and watching him will be a pleasure. But in the early days of his career, Cruise actively distanced himself from the action genre. Instead, he chose to serve a form of apprenticeship, choosing to take parts in the films of notable, established directors such as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack. It was a bold decision, especially when we consider that the ideal of stardom (that of Schwarzenegger) was utterly concerned with stunts, explosions and running very fast.
Indeed, once Cruise finally took the plunge into the action genre he chose an established, New Hollywood director to helm it. Even today, he prefers to work with stolid, workman-like directors (your Christopher McQuarries and Ed Zwicks), rather than anyone too flashy – Cruise has always been a classicist at heart. Mission: Impossible was our first sight of Cruise pushing himself physically, and from this point, there would be no going back to understated supporting roles. Cruise has a total commitment to verisimilitude; if there is a stunt or action he can do himself, he will. This allows the directors he works with to have a greater freedom of shots – they can place the camera close to him during his performances, and in doing so, draw us closer in to him. We are drawn to Cruise because on the big screen we can glimpse what he is capable of, and understand the genuine danger he is in during these moments.
Whilst the action sequences in Mission: Impossible may feature fewer explosions and car chases than the other films of the nineties, they annihilate them when it comes to inducing tension in the audience. The meticulous planning and choreography of De Palma ensured that a simple act of Cruise abseiling down into a room became almost iconographic in its execution. Using the heist sequence of Topkapi (1964 – Jules Dassin) as a launching pad (in itself a quiet rebuke to those who dismiss De Palma as a mere Hitchcock rip-off), De Palma ensured that a simple bead of sweat could cause us to grasp the armrests of our chairs.
And that is the great beauty of this film. It does not fully reveal to us what Tom Cruise would ultimately become capable of in his career, but it does show us how pace, close-ups and the simple cut from shot to shot can cause us to be enthralled. The first thirty minutes of this film are about as perfect a sequence in the history of cinema. From the very start, a complex web of screens, masks and lies indicate that there will be a level of unreality to the film. As the IMF team handle their heist upon the elite party, we realised as an audience that there are things going on in the background of shots that are as important as what is happening in the foreground. De Palma cemented his use of the split-diopter lense into the very narrative of the film. In doing so, he reminded us of the great pleasure of his films; that his tricks, his use of the camera, is the vehicle for telling the story.
Many of these tricks, particularly his use of first-person shots, lent themselves well to the spy genre. And like all of De Palma’s method, it’s invisible until you start to look for it. Mission: Impossible is one of many entries in this genre that occurred in the nineties; films such as Patriot Games (1992 – Philip Noyce), The Peacemaker (1997 – Mimi Leder) and The Saint (1997 – Noyce again) followed the form, or used the narrative tropes of multiple identities, double-crossing and isolated agents to tell their stories. They also feature a retrospectively charming understanding of the still infant internet within their plots; Mission: Impossible has a sequence where Cruise posts on usenet bulletin boards. But the constantly escalating narrative of ‘missions gone wrong’ became highly influential in itself.
(Indeed, one of the loveliest aspects of this movie was the fact that the masks worn by Cruise within the film ensured that the studio prevented Val Kilmer from using too many false identities in The Saint, thus denying us all of too much of a good thing…)
The emphasis on carefully constructed set-pieces in action movies was broadly rejected by the industry – one only has to watch Mission: Impossible 2 (2000 – John Woo) to see how little impact it made – but it did seem to open the door for Tom Cruise to explore how pure physical performance was essential to being a star. In that sense, Cruise recalls the great performers such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. For that we can be truly grateful. But for a survey of the action genre in the nineties, Cruise simply did not have any great impact. It would only be in the decades to come (perversely as he got much older) that we began to see Cruise emerge as one of the greatest physical performers of all time.
The beauty of film is that it is alive. You can watch dance sequences from The Band Wagon (1953 – Vincente Minnelli) featuring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, two performers both long since deceased, and feel that there is a vitality and life on screen more vivid than anything physically beside you in the room. Like all great texts, films morph and change each time you see them; not because they have altered in any way, but because you bring new obsessions and perversions and observations to the viewing process as you get older.
The Matrix is one such film for me. It’s not a film I am particularly fond of, but the memories I have of it are immediate. I remember seeing the trailer for it with my first girlfriend before some terrible Adam Sandler comedy – I wanted to see it, but to my shame then, which in the intervening years has turned to pride, we saw eXistenZ (1999 – David Cronenberg) instead. My first viewing of it came on VHS on a small telly we wheeled into our classroom at school over three successive lunchtimes. It blew my mind. After seeing the sequels at university (one in IMAX) I rewatched the first film on DVD and openly ridiculed it, laughing at the preposterousness of lines such as “No, officer your men are already dead.” Years later, I revisited the series on BLU-RAY hoping to find a redemptive reading – whilst I was entertained, one significant issue stuck in my formatively (and supposedly) progressive mind. And now I see it again, hoping to find links and patterns I have never seen before.
I wanted to write this project as a chance to look at some of the films that affected me profoundly and talk about the vitality and depth of interest to be found in an oft-derided genre. Nothing best exemplifies this, than when looking at The Matrix.
Keanu Reeves was now a star. But stars occupy a precarious place in the world. Directors are allowed to make bad films. Stars are not. If one of his films failed, Keanu would be blamed – and for an actor whose skill and talent were not immediately visible in his choice of style of acting, this was a dangerous place to be in. It was, as indeed it still is, very easy to say that Keanu can’t act. He was continuing to balance performances in big budget action flicks – the underwhelming Chain Reaction (1996 – Andrew Davis) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995 – Robert Longo), a film which is thematically similar to The Matrix, indicating the specific interests of Reeves – and smaller independent movies. But where previously he was starring in movies made by Gus Van Sant, Reeves was now working with insubstantial nobodies such as Alfonso Arau and Steven Baigelman, names that feel suspiciously close to pseudonyms. Movie stars always need hits, but Reeves needed a hit sooner rather than later.
One of the extraordinary features of The Matrix is that it is perilously close to a first film by The Wachowskis. Siblings Lana and Lilly had only one screenwriting credit to their name – the convoluted Sylvester Stallone vehicle Assassins (1995 – Richard Donner) – and one directorial credit, the supposedly salacious neo noir Bound (1996). Bound isn’t an essential film by any stretch of the imagination, and its success could be in part due to the fact that it was released before widespread use of the internet made access to sex a whole lot easier. It is usefully progressive in its depiction of gay relationships – we’re currently patting ourselves on the back for paying lip-service to them is such dross as Power Rangers (2017 – Dean Israelite) – but Bound is remarkable is its representation and honest depiction of the closets that we all hide in.
But nothing found in Bound could prepare the world for what was coming next…
One of the uncommented upon features of The Matrix, is that it features the death of subtext. From now on (and the work of Christopher Nolan is essential to this phenomenon) movies will have characters explain the themes of the film through lines of dialogue. As movie makers grew ever more confident in the audience’s ability to patch together a stream of quickly edited visual images, they grew less confident to trust them to reflect on the ideas of the film afterwards. In The Matrix there will be a lot of discussions about ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. This has the same authenticity as any evangelical church preaching the truth – it will provide a degree of insight into some of the predicaments of society and existence, but the answers they provide will be just as false as the lies they suppose to discount. At times, The Matrix can have the slight air of being caught in a tedious conversation with a stranger at a pub; they’re very insistent on explaining to you some idea or other, but you just want to get back to your friends.
(Who am I kidding – I’m the tedious stranger.)
So despite the occasional sophomoric lecture that bogs down this film – and make no mistake, The Matrix is a film that features as much exposition as it does action – the true pleasures of the film are not vocal, but visual. The Matrix transforms the caricatured biker, black-leather culture that was seen in the early nineties, into a genuine outsider community. For the most part, the heroes of the film are a counter-culture that isn’t actually very counter-cultural; they still adopt the same social restrictions and norms that exist within society. But isn’t that true of any counter-culture – ultimately they operate within a state of capitalist realism. Even Keanu Reeve’s discomforting, alien, hairless appearance when he awakes in the real world is discarded in favour of a form of fashion magazine anorexic-chic.
In amongst the black leather and gun straps (none of which are used to explore ideas of bondage), the movie cleverly adopts a vivid green light strategy. Oft unseen in cinema, it lends a level of unreality to proceedings, and firmly harkens back to those early computer monitors we all had. Whilst The Matrix, seeks to adopt a level of futurism, most of its production design choices refer back to an industrial age. Theirs is the technology of phone lines and hand pumps. It is neither fortunate or unfortunate that all realism within sci-fi films is heavily influenced by Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott); if something ‘space-y’ needs to look used and lived in, it must be grimy and greasy and consist mainly of metal grills.
If some of these paragraphs read like criticisms, they’re not meant to be. The sins of this film (primarily I wrote in my notes ‘I don’t think Morpheus has actually read Alice in Wonderland’) are no greater than those of any other action movie. They all think they are more clever than they actually are. Human history has not actually always been dependent on machines as the movie states (this is only a relatively recent feature of humanity – see childbirth rates etc.)
The Wachowskis took a genuinely innovative visual approach and hung it onto the Skynet plot from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron) – artificial intelligence gains sentience and mankind tries, largely unsuccessfully, to eliminate it from existence. (Much of the floppy mirror CGI effects in the film also lives in the shadow of that hugely influential picture.) Like all the best action movies, The Wachowskis knew that the primary thrill of these films comes from their action sequences. This seems like stating the obvious, but any number of modern ‘action’ directors – Brett Ratner, Stephen Sommers et. al. – could do with understanding this. The Wachowskis fused the kung-fu films of their youth, the visual stylisations of John Woo, and cutting-edge visual technology, to create something truly special.
There is a moment three minutes into the film when you realise you are about to watch something extraordinary. Trinity hangs motionless, poised in the air, like some gothic praying-mantis, and the camera swirls around her, before the action resumes, and she devastates her opponents. It is as if the orgasmic slow motion of Sam Peckinpah’s death scenes has been exploded to the nth degree. In addition to some extraordinarily well-crafted fight scenes, the film employed a technique which allowed multiple stills cameras to fire in sequence around a performance – it was a technique so influential, so popular, that the general public learnt its name… ‘bullet time’. It was the perfect tool for action cinema as it entered the new millennium; it blended physical performance, new technology and computer-generated-imagery in a few stunning shots of ethereal delight. From this point onwards, a fist hitting a face would not be enough. We now expected our fights to have a greater impact than sheer physicality.
And one of the greatest beneficiaries of this was Keanu Reeves. He learnt all the lessons since Kathryn Bigelow had placed her trust in him. He became completely dedicated to choreography, martial arts and weapon training. Watching any training footage of him reveals him to be an utterly dangerous human being. Yet Keanu did not swagger. Subversively, he took all this physicality and kept it to himself. He never attempted to dominate others, or make another individual feel weak. The musclebound heroes of the early nineties (and of today’s cinema) are all about assertiveness. But for a few brief years at the turn of the century, Reeves pioneered a new vision of masculinity; one of dedication, tolerance and peace.
Despite the complete showiness of the film – and there are moments of pure gorgeousness within the film (such as the apple-core pillars in the aftermath of the tower-block lobby battle) – occasionally the film displays some duff notes. I’m sure there is a more interesting non-gendered reading of the film to be made, but for my money, the film completely mishandles its female lead. Initially, Trinity is presented as a woman of capability and agency. She is a stylised and amped-up version of Lori Petty in Point Break (1991 – Kathryn Bigelow) all cropped hair and emotional reserve, and as such, both textually and sub-textually coded as queer. ‘I thought you were a guy,’ comments one of her crew mates to her at dinner, ‘most people do,’ is her response.
But Trinity’s agency is lessened within the final moments of the film. Her assertiveness and belief in others is revealed to be centred upon an infatuation with Neo – a man with whom she has spent very little time. It is an infatuation based almost solely upon inconsequential actions. By making her pivotal moment in the film to be one of physical attraction to a man, The Wachowskis dilute the determination and resilience they had previously imbibed the character with.
So The Matix is a long way from perfect film. It textually has a lot less going on than it thinks it has. It could do with having taken a few more minutes reflecting on its use of women before concentrating so much on its revelations of truth (a criticism that seems equally valid for Christopher Nolan and his endless stream of dead wives and girlfriends). But as a visually pleasurable movie; as a movie which is enjoyable to watch… The Matrix is wonderful. And too often we forget, or through our own self-loathing and pretentiousness deny, that that is what good cinema is all about. Enjoyment.
As action cinema entered the twenty-first century, The Matrix proved to be the defining text. The clear visuals of the film were easily pastiched (see the not-completely-worthless Scary Movie 2 (2001 – Keenan Ivory Wayans)), but the dystopian, leather-clad aesthetic, and bullet time style effects became de rigueur in cinema. X-Men (2000 – Bryan Singer), Charlie’s Angels (2000 – McG), Equilibrium (2002 – Kurt Wimmer), Underworld (2003 – Len Wiseman), Aeon Flux (2005 – Karyn Kusama) and season finales of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are amongst a handful of media directly ripping-off The Matrix one way or another. It goes without saying that they are all diluted versions of the original film. More widely, the use of CGI for action scenes became prevalent. Ignoring the sheer physicality of The Wachowski’s work, studios became convinced that the signature action sequences of their films should be visualised, composed and composited within computers. Green screen work was now standard. The early 2000s feature a dearth of decent action films, such was the genres reliance on flimsy, ineffectual computer generated imagery. It would take the arrival of The Bourne Supremacy (2004 – Paul Greengrass) to convince filmmakers that physical action, and talented second-unit action directors, were valuable and necessary to a film’s success.
Keanu was once again a superstar… but little consideration was given to his talents by the cognoscenti. He continued to work steadily in and around the action genre in the years since The Matrix’s release. There are worthy films made in these years – Constantine (2005 – Francis Lawrence) is particularly pleasurable – but like Nicolas Cage, Keanu’s distinct talents seem destined to be underappreciated throughout his career. Whilst lesser actors are given their ‘McConaissance’ periods, Reeves seems to be stuck with a wooden perception. Not that it seems to have bothered him; if anything, he has knuckled down into his naturalistic, calm screen presence. John Wick (2014 – Chad Stahelski & David Leitch) featured Reeves as the titular hero (with a similar dress-sense and demeanour to Neo), and allowed him the opportunity to demonstrate that his physicality was as impressive as ever, even though he was pushing fifty. No longer was he Bill and/or Ted proving himself in an unfamiliar genre.
Quite deliberately, I’ve chosen to not mention the two Matrix sequels he appeared in directed by The Wachowskis. The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were filmed back-to-back, and are largely disappointing. Portentous and overlong, they sought to accelerate The Wachowski’s live-action anime style. Whilst they both feature some decent action sequences (the second film’s motorway sequence holds up pretty well, even if it is obviously filmed of a manufactured stretch of set) they add little to the enormous thrill that we all felt when we saw the first film. With the major studio’s timidity towards new ideas, it is little surprise to hear that they are talking about making another sequel in the years to come…
Of more interest is The Wachowski’s choice of projects in the subsequent years. Delving deep into their thematic exploration of individuals coming to recognise their own true identity, they crafted three wildly differing pictures. Speed Racer (2008) is a vividly colourful, almost video game aesthetic movie, which underlines the evils of capitalism. Where most films seek to deny their roots (think of how the contemporaneous Slumdog Millionaire (2008 – Danny Boyle) is almost ashamed that it is based on a television gameshow), Speed Racer embraced its cartoon origins is a hyperkinetic family film. Heavily indebted to George Lucas’ distinct visual mise-en-scene developed across his Star Wars prequels, Speed Racer blends deep focus CGI backgrounds, physical props and extraordinary matte paintings within single scenes, using whatever was necessary in each shot. It creates a true fantasy world, quite unlike the one we are used to. Jupiter Ascending (2015) is more of an action picture, but one that gets bogged down in pointlessly dull exposition scenes. There is a strong coherence to the action sequences, but they carry little weight, as it is tremendously hard to stay invested in the plot mechanics of the film.
Both films were critically and commercially disappointing. As was their other film made in this period, Cloud Atlas (2012). Whilst that is a somewhat understandable response to the other films, Cloud Atlas (which was co-directed with Tom Tykwer) is a small masterpiece. It is a beautiful, beguiling films, that is a masterpiece of narrative editing, such is its dedication to cross-cutting across timelines with related lines of dialogue or images. Whilst committed to a presentation of extraordinary racial and gender politics, the film seemed curiously ignorant of the fact that having white actors ‘black-up’ is a highly-politicized act. The argument was made that all actors play character of different races, regardless of their given skin tone, but this ignores the fact that the majority of the cast identify as white (and male), so true equality seems impossible. Regardless of this, it is a film of extraordinary scope and imagination, and it deserves further exploration.
For a brief moment at the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that action cinema had found a way forward. It was able to subtly incorporated new computer technology and had found heroes that stepped outside the previously prevalent toxic depictions of masculinity.
There’s been a strange movement in the past few years to recast Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan) as a Christmas film. Now I hate Christmas, but one of the few pleasures of this period is sitting down and watching Trading Places (1983 – John Landis), or trying to figure out how close Serendipity (2001 – Peter Chelsom) is to being a good movie (it’s a long way away – I figure it needs more jokes, better continuity and a complete rewrite of the Kate Beckinsale section) or indulging in any one of Shane Black’s movies. Why is it that some ordinary films have picked out to be counter-intuitive Christmas films and not others? Is it just to satisfy the boring opinions of certain men on twitter? If Die Hard, why not End of Days?
I think it’s because whilst End of Days is set at Christmas, that aspect is placed into the background whist coming to the fore is that other great international celebration… Y2K. Like there only being four TV channels, smoking in pubs and the popularity of boob tubes, Y2K is one of those strange, alien aspects of the nineties that is almost impossible to explain to a young person nowadays. But we were genuinely worried that computers would crash and planes would fall out of the sky come New Year’s Day in the year 2000. The first thing we did after midnight (we hadn’t gone out – New Year’s Eve is always a disappointment) was switch on our computers to see if they were okay. And then we went back to watch the Queen grumpily mumble along to Auld Lang Syne. Happy times and places.
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There is nothing quite like the death of a cultural figure to bring out the most asinine reflections of others. Last year we had to process the pantomime that was everyone you know describing Bowie as profoundly important upon their lives, regardless of whether they’d ever valued him previously. Cinema is often like that too – witness the sudden appreciation for the widely denigrated Tony Scott after his death. Movies are vital. They are better than this garbage world in which we live. They are beautiful and interesting and capable of giving us insight into the worlds, lives and innermost thoughts of others (this is uncommonly known as ‘wisdom’.) But one day, those directors you love, those directors who exist outside the canon, your Bernard Roses and Brian Trenchard-Smiths and Lee Daniels and so on, will have fawning, suddenly-appreciative profiles written on those pedestrian websites that pass for film criticism nowadays. And you will feel like your special thing, the part of you that no one else understood, your cultural mythology has been tainted by other people.
Now Peter Hyams hasn’t died. Far from it, he’s currently revelling in his tenuous connections to O. J. Simpson in one of those eight-hour self-important documentaries that Netflix produce. But inevitably, he will die, and suddenly people will talk about a director who they previously ignored, with affected affection. Hyams isn’t a great director; he’s not even technically that good, such is the needlessly excessive editing technique that hampers some of his latter work (though on my most perverse days I would make the case that he is actively trying to counter the slow cinema movement). But he has a body of work that is impressive, and has helmed a large number of proficient and enjoyable movies, and in an industry that calls Len Wiseman ‘visionary’, this is a profound achievement. If we believe in an anti-auterist, anti-canonical cinema, that is based on enjoyment alone, Hyams becomes impossibly important.
Whilst his C.V. is littered with the legal thrillers and buddy cop movies that make up the bread and butter of most workmanlike directors, it his trilogy of sci-fi films that reveal his true talent of nurturing engaging lead performances within grounded, efficacious settings. In Capricorn One (1977) he confronted the dominant naturalistic acting style of the era (performed by Eliot Gould, Sam Waterston and Hal Holbrook amongst others) against a Saturday morning serial background, and subsequently creates an effective piece of conspiracy theory, that reflects on Kubrick’s possible imagined involvement with a faked Moon landing. Outland (1981) can be favourably compared with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), such is the effectiveness of the rotten, run-down production design, but benefits, as most films do, enormously from a genuinely charismatic central performance from Sean Connery. And 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) is worthily irreverent to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in its genuine exploration of the banality of bureaucracy and petty squabbles of our species. It is a more human film than Kubrick’s meditation, and one that benefits from actually having moments of tension in its runtime.
The latter few decades of Hyam’s career have been characterised by a working relationship with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Timecop (1995) could initially be seen as an attempt to build on the success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron), but its romantic plot links it closer to The Terminator (1984 – James Cameron). It lacks either movie’s focus however. Time travel, explosions and accented, muscular leads are all very well and good, but they need to be employed with precision; watching the movie, it is hard to keep track of even which year each scene is set in. Sudden Impact (1995) is a more focussed affair – a film which employs the Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan) premise of bombs being planted and hostages being taken in a single location – in this case, the domed Pittsburgh Civic Centre. The film sees Hyams move closer to the frenetic editing that is observed in End of Days, but also revels in some lush, rich cinematography from Hyams himself. The success of the film depends on your patience for watching ice hockey matches…
So Hyams was beginning to movie away from his workmanlike background, into a key figure of the nineties action movie scene. All he needed to do now was work with the biggest star on the planet…
Arnold Schwarzenegger had begun to experience some doubt. Since Last Action Hero (1993 – John McTiernan) he had starred in his two greatest comedy films (Junior (1994 – Ivan Reitman) and Jingle All the Way (1996 – Brian Levant), a decent action picture (the plane sequence in Eraser (1996 – Chuck Russel) is extraordinary) and a wonderful film that blended the two (True Lies (1994 – James Cameron’s last hurrah). But the, somewhat unwarranted, reception to his villainous role in Batman & Robin (1997 – Joel Schumacher) was very poor, and he was beginning to experience some health issues. The Adonis was starting to crumble. It’s extraordinary to imagine that this box-office behemoth had not even appeared in a movie for two years by the time End of Days came along. The film almost imagines what has happened to him in the intervening years.
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What’s strange, is that for a man who was one of the last movie stars on the world, one of the final people who was able to get any project produced simply on the value of their surname, Schwarzenegger has been a strangely absent actor. His health issues in the years prior to End of Days removed him from our screens, a pattern that has continued since; from 2005 – 2011 he did not appear substantially in a single film whilst he focussed on his political career, and even recently, filming has taken a back seat to his one season hosting of The Apprentice. Schwarzenegger’s appetite has always been voracious; we’ve seen this in his determination to become an action star, then a cinematic icon, then a comedy actor. Schwarzenegger was always restless.
But to the audience of the nineties, his absence was felt. He had already seen off the Jean-Claudes and Dolphs (the great pretenders) that sought to steal his throne, and his great rivals – Bruce and Sly – were bogged down in their ongoing concern for legitimacy. Only one potential rival was breaking out – the last movie star: Tom Cruise. Curiously, End of Days began life as a potential vehicle for Cruise, though it’s hard to imagine that Cruise would have been prepared to personify the damaged recovery required by the role. End of Days takes the wound of the missing Schwarzenegger and turns it into the text of the film itself. His character is worn down, exhausted and unable to escape his past. It was a depth of performance that Schwarzenegger had never demonstrated before.
Arnold has never been widely acclaimed for his acting (lest of all by his co-stars – Emma Thompson is particularly indiscreet on chat shows). But even if we ignore the truly terrifying horror of his relentless man/machine in The Terminator Schwarzenegger has an enormous capacity for demonstrating sorrow. His face is lined and creaked with trauma and he is distinctly capable of switching off the light in his eyes. For an actor who had relied so clearly on his unique charm and charisma in the past, to see a Schwarzenegger lost and self-destructive is genuinely unsettling. From his opening scenes, we realise that we’re not watching any kind of Schwarzenegger action picture that we’ve ever seen before.
By placing Schwarzenegger (the most inhuman male ever conceived) into the everyman role, the film is forced to re-present him to the audience. An early scene of his features him blitzing and blending an unholy mix of pizza, alcohol and vegetables into a breakfast smoothie, cleverly lampooning the extreme diets body-building athletes undertake to maintain their physiques. But for the first time in his career, Schwarzenegger is forced to become a more physical performer. As an ‘Average Joe’ he is unable to stand around mowing down enemies with large machine guns as is his usual routine. Instead he lunges at people, and uses his enormous physicality to batter his opponents – even that in itself, the chaos of bodies falling, is a sight we have not seen in a Schwarzenegger picture before.
Schwarzenegger has been no stranger to self-sacrifice as a climax in his pictures, and you can argue that in such a religious movie, the use of a Christ-like (the first ‘suicide as heroism’ narrative) death is necessary. But Hollywood’s use of suicide is one of its greatest lies; alongside the trope of schizophrenia and psychopathy as charismatic complexes, suicide is regularly presented as a brave act. The truth is that it is rarely so, and it benefits no one to present it with such nobility. Then again, if the early Christians rewrote the execution of their leader as an atonement story, why can’t Hollywood do the same…
End of Days falls into a peculiar time in the history of Christianity. It is symptomatic of the religiously-influenced films of the time (count among them The Ninth Gate (1999 – Roman Polanski) and the Keanu Reeves starring The Devil’s Advocate (1997 – Taylor Hackford) that indulges in the most pedestrian of cinematic presentations of Christian iconography to explore the reality of evil. They present ideas from Christian history with little consideration for the theology behind them – in End of Days the name Thomas Aquinas is presented for no reason other than it is part of the Christian mythology that is likely to familiar to most of the intended audience through cultural osmosis at the very least. The fact that these films present the Devil as a very ‘real’ threat (a strangely sincere concern for believers) would ensure that the film’s violent and sexual content would be forgiven by the audience. In the nineties the church was in a state of ‘managing decline’ and the morally uncomplicated presentation of religious ideas would not continue for much longer. The interlinked rise of religious terrorism, the shift in the church to fundamental Pentecostal theology, and the growing identification of an aggressively antagonistic atheism ensured that religion could never be used as background decoration for plot again.
By the end of the decade, the films of the early nineties have already moved into cultural touchstones. End of Days is a film enormously influenced by Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not least in its central star, but in the quiet intrusion of CGI villains into a still-physical framework. Action cinema was not yet at the stage where entire sequences were constructed with PCs, and instead, this burgeoning technology was used to augment very real actors, in very real locations. Strangely, this seems to ‘date’ the film as much as its quaint presentation of Christianity. But the film is pioneering in its use of editing; it is one of the first few action films to take on board the MTV music video montage cut and apply it to a narrative. Hyams was recognising that the audience was growing in its ability to maintain an understanding of physical space across rapid cutting. It’s not always used judiciously – at one point Hyams employs five different shots just to show Schwarzenegger passing from one railway carriage to another – but it does begin to show the way action cinema was going to go.
There is a solid construction to the movie, but despite the plethora of iconic deployment (its religious overtones) and destruction (the erosion of Schwarzenegger’s carefully constructed movie star persona), the film is strangely flimsy. So it just didn’t come together for Hyams; he hadn’t made the film that would propel him into the major leagues. And had Schwarzenegger been able to convince us that his range was larger than quips and explosions?
* * *
Peter Hyams continued to direct intermittently, though his most significant work in the action genre since remains the two direct-to-video films where he acted as cinematographer for his son John Hyams: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012). Whilst big budget action cinema descended into sloppy CGI-dependant franchises, in the new millennium some of the most exciting action cinema work has been found in the DTV arena. The fight sequences within these films would stand in opposition to the messy, lazily cobbled-together editing that dominated the mainstream; they consisted of extended brawls, often shot in mid distance using long takes, that showed a clear understanding of physical geography. They are exhilarating and exhausting, and showed a mature return to the more traditional composition that Hyams employed in End of Days.
Arnold Schwarzenegger continued his work in the action genre, but the directors of James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven’s stature were not available. He inevitably returned to the franchise that made him a star in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003 – Jonathan Mostow). It’s a film that is not dreadful, though it limps its way through a near note-for-note re-tread of T2, and defies its own interior logic repeatedly (as the appeal of the film was little more than the presence of Schwarzenegger himself, the T-850 defies develops a form of consciousness that directly counters its programming – Schwarzenegger was too clearly a hero by this stage to be a simple robot). Realising that perhaps his time was up, Schwarzenegger threw himself into a new challenge, and was elected governor of California.
At the end of this questionably successful period, he wrote his autobiography Total Recall (which is fascinating, largely because how deeply in love he was with his ex-wife at the time of writing) and returned to movies, firstly with the entertainingly nonsensical The Expendables (2010 – Sylvester Stallone) and the subsequent sequels in which he performs on little more than the nostalgic appeal of his iconography.
However, he proceeded to star in a trio of extraordinarily well-crafted action films: The Last Stand (2013 – Kim Jee-Woon), Escape Plan (2013 – Mikael Hafstrom) and Sabotage (2014 – David Ayer). Schwarzenegger was able to understand that the cinematic landscape had changed since his early retirement and that he could no longer headline the tentpole summer blockbusters. Instead, he adapted his performance to suit the mid-budget action film level; in each movie, Schwarzenegger is capitalising on his age. The films feature nuanced performances that reflect the moral ambiguity that can only come from an individual who has operated in the political sphere. He brought a lifetime of regret to his roles (in that sense End of Days prefigures this attribute), but demonstrated that there was still a cinematic thrill to be felt by Arnold doing what he does best – terminating the oncoming hordes with a giant gun of some form.
But Schwarzenegger was never one to rest on his laurels, and began to push himself even further in his chosen profession, expanding his range even further. In Maggie (2015 – Henry Hobson) and Aftermath (2017 – Elliot Lester) Schwarzenegger began to perform with a degree of naturalism, shedding the easily caricatured quipping bodybuilder performance that had fuelled his career. He plays lonely, achingly-compromised individuals in both films, roles that are about as far away from a straightforward hero as possible. He even quite wonderfully spoke in his native tongue on screen for the first time in Escape Plan. It’s as if old-age had finally brought a comfort of self to the restless businessman who changed his whole physique to achieve is dreams.
Schwarzenegger is a more influential performer than many in Hollywood care to realise. Most modern day action stars (generally called Chris something-or-other) imitate his heady mix of violence and one liners. Male action stars torture themselves to re-sculpt their bodies to something close to the Schwarzenegger ideal through mixture of relentless exercise and boiled chicken dinners seven times a day. Filming schedules are built around the intensely erotic scenes where they will take their top off, with the actor often dehydrating themselves for days to shed excess water in their bodies. The effort they expend making themselves appear heroic is extraordinary. But for Arnold, it never was. He made it seem easy and he lived his life with a degree of self-aware humour that punctured the sacrificial burden of training and dieting that has dominated his whole life. He was an inspiration to us as a child; we knew the world was a little safer because he existed, and he is an inspiration nowadays (he wrote in his autobiography about denying yourself the excuse of ‘I have no time’ with twenty-four hours in a day; this article would never have been written without reading those words).
Arnold Schwarzenegger never acted the hero. He was the hero.
I saw the poster for this movie long before I saw the film itself. Sitting for forty minutes on a bus each way to-and-from school ensured that the smallest change in the landscape became an event in and of itself. Advertising was scrutinised from a distance whilst we waited for red lights to change. Movie posters were the best… imagining what pleasure were in store once I could eventually see the film. The cinema was, as it is now, a treat, and trailers and posters and articles in Empire magazine only built the anticipation and developed that treat.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why Nicolas Cage’s name was above Sean Connery’s head though…
My dad’s favourite film is Sliding Doors (1998 – Peter Howitt). I don’t know why, because he finds Gwyneth Paltrow as insufferable as the rest of us, but he adores it (I resist the inner arsehole in me that wants to tell him about Blind Chance (1987 – Krysztof Kiewslowski)). Sometimes, our love of a film has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather the people we saw it with, childhood friends, first dates, our dads. I wonder if this is the case for him. I should ask him.
So much of the appeal of an action movie can come from sitting there beside your father whilst watching it. It’s a kind of paternal imprimatur that defines a sense of masculinity. Which is so unhelpful for anyone sitting outside the most basic definition of a man. So many of these types of films are grounded in a pathetic conventional denotation, that the movie stars that exist outside this – for us this has most clearly been Keanu Reeves (others may find it in the nerdy, sexually-ambiguous determination of Tom Cruise) – that their mere presence on screen becomes something essential. They stand in opposition to a preening, overwhelmingly narrow idea of gender roles, and move queerly within worlds defined by the most toxic causalities of the male ego, namely violence, both physical and sexual.
Nicolas Cage is one these essential movies stars.
In recent years, Liam Neeson has become one of western action cinema’s cornerstones. His shambling, lumbering, haunted frame looms onto our screens once or twice a year in some cheaply made vaguely European action thriller. His move away from what is traditionally called ‘serious’ acting into a more pulpy genre has often been lazily presented as a reaction to the sudden death of his wife and the realisation that existence is meaningless. It’s an attractive idea (and only really psychically manifests itself Joe Carnahan’s 2011 masterpiece The Grey) and one that speaks to an admission of purposeless existence that we are quick to deny ourselves. But the casual sidesteps between action cinema and other less enjoyable forms of acting, have been made by numerous actors. Sylvester Stallone, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, and Nic Cage, all have as many Oscar-bait pictures to their name as they do action flicks. But Nic Cage stands apart from them as a unique screen presence and a pioneer of a new style of screen acting.
Rather simplistically, the first screen performers were often fighting against the technical limitations that surrounded them and were thus forced into a heightened, expressionistic style of performance – one that clearly held its roots in the theatre (I can’t be alone in finding every trip to the theatre profoundly embarrassing… It’s unbearable to know that the ridiculous, artificial acts on stage are being performed by an actual person.) As sound entered the frame, and movies stopped moving, the dominant mode of performance was an unnaturalistic rapid-fire rattling of dialogue. In the fifties, movie performance began to shift towards naturalism, which was often convincing, and often dull. British actors rarely succumbed to the artificial stammering and bizarre speech-rhythms that even the laziest American television actor is capable of bringing to a part. Across every decade, movie stars relied on the same bag of highly charismatic quirks and moments that they would bring to every part, whether they were playing a poet, priest or politician.
Alongside the movie stars, were the less attractive actors. They played best friends. And below them, the ordinary looking people. They were (and are) by physical definition, known as character actors. No less quirky than the stars, they just employed a slightly wider range of moments and tics across their roles. By the eighties, a number of up-and-coming actors were trying to blend a movie star career with character actor performances. Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp and Nic Cage can all clearly be lumped together in this sub-genre of acting. But where Hanks and Deep provide clear demarcation between their ‘straight’ and ‘performance’ movies, Cage refused to do so. He would often perform both within the same scene.
Cage is a singular screen presence. He is magnetic and maniacal and entirely concerned with moments. He has little interest in creating fully-rounded roles and instead ensures that he is as interesting and engaging as possible in every second he is on screen. As such, his parts don’t often make sense – in The Rock alone he plays a violent, Beatle-loving, supposedly stream-of-conscious spouting chemical scientist, who sits in pants for no reason; one of these traits alone would be enough for most actors. But because of this, he is never anything less than interesting. He has an utter conviction to his performance that most screen actors lazily refuse to explore, such is their preciousness towards their ego.
Fairly early in his career, Cage played the part of a literary agent (one of those jobs people only have in movies – Jeremy Piven’s ‘obituary writer’ in Serendipity (2001 – Peter Chelsom) is a personal favourite) in Vampire’s Kiss (1989 – Robert Bierman) who begins to lose his sanity. An insanity that manifests itself in his character’s conviction that he has become a vampire. A sister-piece to writer Joseph Minion’s After Hours (1985 – Martin Scorsese), it is the story of an ordinary man drowning in bizarre, only slightly-off key characters and situations that are only found in the movies. The film does not readily present what is reality and what is a delusion of Cage’s character. Most actors would let the audience know, primarily to illicit sympathy from them. Cage has no such qualms, instead walking the fine line of conviction, hysteria and violence with a dedication and energy that belies his talent. He is a joy to watch and utterly compelling in every strange, nostril-flaring moment that he has conjured up.
As such, Cage was pioneering a whole new style of acting. One that had little interest in naturalism or stage theory. It harkened back to the earliest days of cinema; it is expressionistic. Entirely formed from subjective reactions to isolated moments and scenes, it is heightened and defiant and one of the greatest special effects the world has ever seen.
It has, of course, been completely rejected by the vast majority of other actors. The humourless wankers.
There’s a tendency to reduce action films to elevator pitches – where plot is boiled down into one-sentence, high-concept ideas. It’s a frustrating punishment for action cinema, which so often relies on tone, mood and framing to create its identity. The Rock, can be simply described as ‘a scientist and an aging James Bond break into Alcatraz.’ We’ve seen how ‘scientist’ utterly fails to describe the mania of a Nic Cage performance, but the fact that he is an ordinary working man, clearly puts this movie in the tradition of Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan), whereby an everyday, albeit habitually wise-cracking, man is placed into a thoroughly dangerous circumstance.
An ‘aging James Bond’ is a more difficult position. Clearly, John Mason is an elderly version of the Connery Bond – he’s a snobbish thug, who was explicitly incarcerated for being a spy and makes a series of asides and double-entendres. Whilst he lacks Bond’s naval background, his complete disregard for authority marks him out as the same man. This is a Bond who was disowned by the officers who replace Bernard Lee’s M, and he is filled with nothing but contempt for the order of things.
The James Bond films have often been cornerstones of action cinema. The nasty, quick-cutting violence of From Russia with Love (1963 – Terence Young) proved highly influential. Never again would a karate-chop to a shoulder suffice. In the seventies, the Roger Moore Bond films pioneered the family-friendly, humorous and spectacular action film tradition that The Rock clearly belongs to. By the time the series had reached the eighties, Moore and Connery, returning to the role in Never Say Never Again (1983 – Irvin Kershner), ensured that audience believed that Bond would always be an old man – a tired remnant of the British Empire.
But in 1996, the series had managed to have one of its regular ‘return-to-forms’. Pierce Brosnan had become Bond’s latest regeneration in GoldenEye (1995 – Martin Campbell) – a glorious, unravelling of tattered British and Russian Empires that led to betrayal, explosions and sex. Whilst the remaining Brosnan Bonds were to become some of the most tedious entries in the series, Brosnan himself was being hailed as the best-Bond-since-Connery. In that regard, The Rock can be clearly seen as a defiant marking of territory. Despite his difficult relationship with the role that made him famous, he had returned to it twice before, and The Rock is his way of showing that even as an old man, and wearing another one of his preposterous hairpieces, he was still a more engaging, charismatic screen presence than the breathy interloper who was beginning to get good reviews.
‘Alcatraz’ is a whole other prospect. Films set in San Francisco occupy a special place in the cinematic canon. The surrounding sea and immediate weather patterns give it an openness within its urban spaces that no other cinematic American metropolitan area can propose. The acceptance of the local community has proven ripe for direct contrast with some of the most sickening aspects of society. And the steeply hilled streets have been responsible for – directly echoed in The Rock – of some of the most thrilling, dangerous car chases in the history of cinema. It’s close enough to L.A. to be neighbours, but far away enough to be a world apart.
By setting his film in and around San Francisco, Bay has sought to tie it into the pervy obsession of Vertigo (1958 – Alfred Hitchcock), Out of the Past (1947 – Jacques Tourneur) and Basic Instinct (1992 – Paul Verhoeven); the seedy, dystopian nothingness of Point Blank (1967 – John Boorman), Bullitt (1968 – Peter Yates) and The Conversation (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola); the dark underside and brutality of Dirty Harry (1971 – Don Seigel) and The Game (1997 – David Fincher); the action adventure of Big Trouble in Little China (1986 – John Carpenter) and the fevered desperation of Escape from Alcatraz (1979 – Don Seigel). His creates a cinematic landscape within which his movie can play, drawing upon the beauty of the landscape and the weight of image to lend tension to his film. Ultimately, we are more invested when we care about what is going to be destroyed.
For an action director, Michael Bay rarely employs monsters. He refrains from using the snivelling, often British, traditional villains that dominate the genre, and has rarely resorted to the CGI nonsense that is found when someone like Alan Rickman or Jonathan Pryce isn’t available (the Transformers films are a notable exception to this.) Bay will always seek to make the antagonist of the piece an individual with at least some reasonable motivation. The military are often presented as failures within his films – and resourcefulness comes not from institutions, but from the work of individuals. Which presents a quandary for Bay in this movie; he wants us to sympathise with Ed Harris, but at the same time understand the misguided cruelty of his actions. To achieve this, he first places Harris as working alongside/against unscrupulous mercenaries, and then by placing him in direct opposition to Bay’s biggest enemy… politicians. Those working in politics are unfailingly presented as pathetically self-aggrandising and intellectually weak. It’s hard to disagree with this presentation.
As much as Bay has sought to place this film within a long tradition of San Francisco movies, he also seeks to use the cinematic shorthand of placing characters and moments within other films in order to elicit understanding from the audience. There are the car chases from Bullitt, an aging James Bond, cart chases from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984 – Steven Spielberg), and heart-piercing from Pulp Fiction (1994 – Quentin Tarantino). These references allow Bay to use a broader canvas than the frame allows. Whilst he is not fully in in his quick-cutting, multiple camera, different format style of shooting, he still relies on an audience working quicker than 24 frames a second. Similarly, this film lacks the soft-rock ballad that would come to play a part in his style of filmmaking over the next few years. The formula is not quite complete.
This referencing shorthand, and non-traditional framing of movies has led many to dismiss Bay. There are legitimate reasons to criticise him – the presence of a few too many angry black people in minor roles is uncomfortable viewing – but what is rarely appreciated is how Bay is a director who treats his audience with respect. He knows that we can make quick connections as spectacle unfolds in front of us, and that subtext should be as visual as it is textual in cinema.
What is rarely commented upon though, is how much Bay uses talented actors to lend real weight to the unfolding action. He ensures that throwaway lines, quick gags written by uncredited punch-up writers, and nonsense exposition are as engaging as any special effect. In addition to Cage, Connery and Harris, The Rock features John Spencer, William Forsyth, Michael Biehn, John C. MicGinley, Philip Baker Hall, Xander Berkeley and Tony Todd in supporting roles. Any one of these actors is enough to light up the screen. The fact that Bay spends so much of his budget on employing such talent in minor parts should not be neglected. It is impossible to find a Michael Bay movie tedious; the reason we have stars is because we don’t want to ever be bored in the cinema – Bay promises us that even in the moments the stars aren’t on screen, we will have an image lit up by prominent character actors spitting out dialogue far beneath them.
The movie lacks any significant female presence – only nineties babe Claire Forlani pops up to reduce the alarming levels of testosterone dominating the screen. But Bay ensures that his men are defined as being in opposition to traditional masculine structures. Nic Cage is regularly belittled in the movie, and denigrated by his inability to perform essential male roles, such as ejaculating a gun. By ensuring that his hero is a strange, socially awkward man, and one defined by his intellect and not his physical prowess, he ensures that his presentation of gender is more nuanced than the movie poster would have you believe. The ideal man is heroic, but not essentially violent. Equally, his heroes will often be outsiders due to their class or race. Heroism is an outcome, not a character trait, a distinction rarely qualified within action cinema.
In many ways, Bay was the perfect director for Cage – both were concerned with immediacy above all else. Towards the end of the movie, when Bay shoots a desperate Cage silhouetted against a setting sun, he has little concern as to whether this aesthetically aligns with the shadow and blue of the rest of the movie; no, it is a beautiful image and thus one worthy of putting on screen. Complete coherence is not a priority. Bay’s tendency towards this would only grow as he widened his use of multiple camera set-ups using different film stocks – ultimately mixing formats completely when digital video gained primacy over traditional film. What worked in the moment, worked in the moment.
The Rock is often belittled by contemporary cinephiliacs for its status as one of the early releases from the Criterion Collection. But its use of cinematic shorthand, non-conventional presentation of masculinity and sheer visual pleasure ensure that it rightly deserves to be canonised. After all, no-one like Vertigo when it came out…
We’ll continue Nicolas Cage’s career in Chapter VIII.
Broadly speaking, directors who came to prominence in the sixties made their name in television (Altman, Lumet etc.). In the seventies they became known for their student films (Carpenter, De Palma, Scorsese). In the eighties it was for their work in advertising (Ridley Scott) and in the nineties it was for their work on music videos (David Fincher). Bay was firmly in the latter group, and his early motion pictures cemented him as a key figure in the future of action cinema. Previously, we have looked at the figures who achieved success initially in the eighties (McTiernan, Cameron), or directors whose impact was limited (Woo), but now we were starting to glimpse the future.
Bay would begin by making the Spielbergian move into producing. This is often an act of folly by most directors – their energy is spent wasted on support lesser filmmakers or tossing-off half-arsed ideas that have little appeal – but allows certain directors to cement their dominance in the market. By creating the Platinum Dunes studio he moved himself into a brand. The films produced by the studio are of limited appeal, and broadly consist of accessible remakes of seventies horror classics – is the A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010 – Samuel Bayer) significantly more interesting for using CGI effects rather than practical effects, or for making Freddy Krueger’s paedophilia explicit?
Bay himself would forge an interesting, if somewhat inconsistent career. His success was cemented in Armageddon (1998), a preposterous but spectacular affair where he would cast blank male leads surrounded by a plethora of talented character actors to work their way through some nonsense plot. A soft-AOR song would soundtrack the blandest of heteronormative relationships. But it seemed like a successful formula, and Bay was determined to repeat it.
Pearl Harbor (2001), isn’t quite as bad as any lazy internet joke would have you believe, but it’s a long way from being good. In the most part it suffers because the climax of the movie, the veritable attack on Pearl Harbor, comes at the centre of the film’s running time. Which of course, as an isolated incident, was a failure for America. Familiarity with the victory of history was not enough for cinema’s audience, so Bay adds a further hour or so to the film’s length to ensure that there is a significant act of revenge for Ben Affleck. It leads to a disjointed, arrhythmic movie.
The most enjoyable movies Bay has made since this presumptuous disaster are the more personal, non-franchise projects. The Island (2005) and Pain & Gain (2013) are crass, colourful and employ a unique visual style. Bay has delighted in placing cameras in any number of bizarre places, ensuring his movies are full of shots that no-one has ever seen before. Developments in technology have only aided this interest. He employs a rapid-editing style, with cameras largely placed low to the ground. Exceptions to this are his rapid crane work shots, where the image will soar in and around the actors. This style comes alive in the wonderful car chases he makes sure he includes in every film. He has maintained an integrity of physical performance and stunt work when most of cinema has denigrated into CGI slush. He has a specific sense of place, and the Miami of Bad Boys II (2003) is as real as the San Francisco of The Rock.
Even in the dross that passes for the Transformers movies he is capable of producing work of sublime beauty. Mark Kermode, a critic paid largely by an inescapable tax to repeat the same opinions across a number of media outlets, has called these films ‘the death of narrative cinema,’ which only seems to be an insult if you believe that narrative cinema deserves to be the dominant use of the form. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) is complete sensory experience produced (as is explicitly referenced in the film) during the dying days of physical form. Using nine different recording mediums, Bay crafted a story of visual wonder, where the very nature of reality was questioned. The films no longer sought to present a threat to the real world, instead subversively documented an imagined world where hostility was an everyday experience. Within this, his usual plethora of talented actors grounded the film against the extraordinary stereoscopic action scenes that were unfolding in front of our eyes.
Bay, and by consequence The Rock, began to point the way forward. Action stars could also be some of the most talented, interesting actors of their generation, not just muscle-bound freaks of nature. Physical performance and stuntwork would still have a major role to play. But equally, he moved action cinema towards a space where it would rely on a safe formula than one where a director’s vision reigned supreme. Women would continue to be pushed towards the margins, a he would present a visual style that was easily misunderstood, ensuring a legion of incoherent images would smudge he screen in years to come.
Bay was the last director to get in through the door; he should have left it further ajar.
At the end of 2016, I can’t help but think about the inevitable death of some of our most favourite actors. What on Earth is the world going to be like when Tom Hanks dies (and will we ever truly appreciate him?) Seeing an internet filled with lazy, gold-bikini studded tributes to Carrie Fisher, I dread to think what will happen once Michael Douglas passes… just lazy references to sex addiction I suppose. Yet Douglas is a hero, a phenomenal actor (including in the much-derided genre of erotic thrillers) and broadly unheralded producer of some extraordinary movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975 – Milos Forman) and Starman (1984 – John Carpenter) both exist successfully due to the nurture he gave to these projects.
So too, was Face/Off…
* * *
The history of Hollywood is littered with talent magpied from the rest of the world. When cinema was silent (the great leveller) directors were able to operate universally. F. W. Murnau came to Hollywood in the twenties and directed Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) a sweetly expressionistic exploration of how community and physical space can impact a relationship. Following the outbreak of World War Two, many directors fled to the U.S., anglicised their names, and continued to operate within the studio system. Would the history of British cinema be more widely regarded if Selznick hadn’t tempted Hitchcock in the forties? Actors also were continually repackaged, remade and domesticated, up to and including the great hero of this book, Schwarzenegger himself.
With this in mind, John Woo can seem like another name on a list. But his almost absolute failure to produce anything of high regard in America defies an assumed career projection.
Why is that? Why do we hold Woo’s American films with utter disregard? When his Cantonese films snuck onto western screens they were met with unbridled enthusiasm. A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990) are visceral, imaginative films. They feature balletic gunfights and enveloping first-person camera angles. These films arrived at the start of true gaming culture, as computers sought to immerse the players within the action. There has always been a hint of snobbery when watching ‘foreign’ films – dreadful dialogue is easier to forgive when delivered in an alien tongue. But who, other than (retch) Aaron Sorkin, gives a toss about dialogue? In the late eighties, the goofy humour of his Hong Kong films is well placed alongside the populist comedic action-adventure films riding slipshod over the multiplex (to squeeze in Michael Douglas again, Romancing the Stone (1984 – Robert Zemeckis) is a clear example of this). By the nineties, cinema was moving into a more serious zone.
Ultimately, it comes down to the difference between doves and pigeons.
Hard Target (1993) was Woo’s American debut. It features Jean-Claude Van Damme as a preposterously hairstyled merchant seaman who kicks a lot. Van Damme is ostensibly a cut-price Schwarzenegger rip-off, all muscles and outrageous accents, but Van Damme was a mobile, lithe athlete capable of performing some extraordinary stunts. He is also a talented actor – he injects all his characters with an air of sorrow, as if he knows that they shouldn’t have ended up living with the level of violence that they do. Filmed with a roaming, zooming Scorsese-like camera, it begins as a fairly pedestrian presentation of Van Damme as a samurai-like loner protecting the weak, before moving into a far more entertaining man-hunt (and it is presented as an actual hunt) in the second half.
Woo liked to use slow motion in his fight scenes. This was a regular tool used by action filmmakers since the days of The Wild Bunch (1969 – Sam Peckinpah). It would ramp up tension by stretching out moments of pain or terror to an extreme. Woo would underline the hazy, phantasmagorical nature of these moments by releasing doves on the screen, whose wings would slow to a flutter. But in Hard Target, he releases pigeons. The truth was, despite Woo’s clear status and talent, in Hollywood he was a nobody, and as such he was only being provided with vermin.
Which brings us to John Travolta.
Which is a crass introduction… but few actors sum up the waste of potential than Travolta. A remarkable talent, he has thrown it all away on vain mediocrity not once, but twice. Like rats and pigeons he is a thing once removed from beauty. After becoming a star with some beautiful performances covering up a simmering undercurrent of danger (most purely seen in Saturday Night Fever (1977 – John Badham) and Blow Out (1981 – Brian De Palma)) Travolta fell out of favour. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino chose him to star in Pulp Fiction, as one of his first ‘career resurgence’ actors that would come to populate his oeuvre. Once again, Travolta was a star, and we all remembered why we loved him – he was chilled and sarcastic and he moved like an angel. But even by 1997, the rot was beginning to creep back in.
* * *
There’s a book to be written somewhere about the history of those bad mustard yellow shirts that people seemed to wear in the nineties (maybe that’s what I should be doing instead of this…) They’re as distinct as Cages’ acting style – vulgar. Cage does everything he can in the opening sequence of the film to distract us from his charisma. He serially indecently assaults (and murders) women and children and generally behaves in an appalling manner. His acting style stands in stark contrast to Travolta – Travolta has always been about moments of thoughtfulness and the quiet reflection within everyday life. Here, Travolta, is given the same origin story as The Punisher, but instead of vigilantism, Travolta is quite clearly struggling with mental health issues whilst going about his demanding job.
Why are some heroes given families? Are they an extension of the layer of heteronormative conventionality that is applied to our action stars to distract for the queer lust that permeates these films? It can’t quite be that – parenthood is quite separate and distinct from this lust. Used with the standard lack of imagination that prevails in Hollywood, they are another tool for motivation in the way that women are – the hero must save someone they love, or avenge the death of a loved one. But children represent the inherent contradictions of humanity. In the same way that we can love (and not actually like) someone, children represent both the absolute devotion of one soul to another, and the growing understanding that you have created something that will replace you, and quite possibly hate you. They are every technological advancement – something initially useful that will grow to overthrow you with attitudes and actions that will seem utterly alien to your understanding of the world.
With perhaps a slight sense of knowing wit, Face/Off underlines the essential interchangeability of movie stars. When Brad Pitt appears in World War Z (2013 – Marc Forster) it is easy to imagine almost any other individual playing the role. Fantasy recasting is a popular act of cinemagoing (this will be particularly important when we reach Chapter X). Stars have to give the perception that they are valuable to the success of this movie, that their talent is distinct. Denzel Washington has a type of part that he likes – faithful, noble, the slightest hint of charm – but his utter conviction and ability to command attention means he can seem irreplaceable, when on paper, anyone could have led The Equalizer (2014 – Antoine Fuqua). Tom Cruise has an underappreciated ability to command a frame, even when silent and motionless, that means he seems invaluable. Arnie seems unique, largely because of his bizarre frame and outrageous accent.
Travolta was unable to maintain his success because he could not capitalise upon his natural ability. Cage is such a mercurial talent that he appears idiosyncratic. Despite the interchangeability of the plot, Face/Off weirdly underlines that these two actors are not the same. Cage is a more compelling watch than Travolta, and is cast, despite the opening sequence, in the more conventional part of our hero. How much more exciting would the film be if we could watch him as Castor Troy for the whole film? The inability of the filmmakers to comprehend what the potential appeal of the movie could be is what leads to an air of tone-deafness. This is also seen in the underlying incestuousness of some scenes – it can’t help but be perceived as utterly misguided when it is not commented upon.
The only regard in which we can understand how these two actors can swap roles is that they both seem to be individuals of extraordinary talent, who do not seem to have fully capitalised on it, and in some regards, squandered it on movies that did not engage them and their abilities.
But Face/Off is interesting in its exploration of identity. To a greater or lesser extent, we all wear different faces to cope in life. We are different person at work, at home, with love. We are enormously contradictory and complex individuals. Face/Off takes this an extreme, and turns it into a nightmare scenario – what if the person we are at work (crass, violent, domineering) came home one day? What if those around us began to see through the masks? What if we could not recognise which person we were meant to be? Ultimately Face/Off is frustrating, because it returns to conformity – the safe, suburban family life is seen to be the dream – but the way it hints at these broader questions is effective.
Woo is director with pneumatic energy. He does like to return to the same settings again and again though. Gunfights surrounded by smashed mirrors and dove in darkened spaces was seen in Hard Target. The (admittedly spectacular) final chase sequence and squabble on a beach will be repeated in Mission: Impossible II (2000). This is not a distinct a feature as some have made it out to be – Michael Bay has been reusing the same car sequence from Bad Boys II (2003) for over a decade now – but it became another tool with which Woo could be diminished. He never quite grasped the illusion of innovation that is essential to surviving within Hollywood. Like the heroes of this film, he was unable to define his identity beyond the visual pleasures of his work. Retreat was going to be the only option.
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John went on to direct Mission: Impossible II (2000) where he replaced Brian De Palma’s tricksy identity politics and precise scenes of extraordinary tension with a pummelling Notorious (1946 – Alfred Hitchcock) spin that delivered his usual visual energy. Its pleasures are peripheral. It was the highest grossing film of the year… but still led to no greater respect. He would follow this by reuniting with Nic Cage for Windtalkers (2002).
His (apparently) final Western film is Paycheck (2003). Eschewing his usual visual pyrotechnics but continuing his wronged man riff (Woo is one of the forgotten Hitchcockians), Paycheck is an unpretentious thriller that plays precisely with time. The joy of experiencing it comes in how it uses everyday objects to escape from seemingly impossible circumstances. However, it starred an actor of limited appeal in the form of Ben Affleck. It’s not that Affleck is hateable, it’s just that he has never been unable to escape the awful stench of smugness that surrounds his movies. There is a great disconnect between him and the audience, the one thing that stops him being a star (who trade on a perceived intimacy with the viewing public), and he seems utterly unaware of this. He is an undeniably smart man, but would benefit from knowing that he needs to spend a good few hours in front of a mirror practising how to smile, rather than smirk.
Once again, Woo had cast a pigeon when he needed a dove. Even, the modicum of respect that had existed in Hollywood, and he retreated to China, where he makes epic historical films. They’re very long, and I haven’t seen them.
Nic Cage’s career seems to have gained sentience; it is the living embodiment of his approach to acting. It careers from sense to nonsense, it is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, it makes no accommodation for the environment it is being produced within. He will be Oscar nominated and mocked. And because of his innovative approach, he will be misunderstood and ignored and rejected. All pioneers are. But here are eight films from the following years that feature Cage in his manic, compelling glory, and that demonstrate how excitingly fearless an actor he truly is:
Snake Eyes (1998 – Brian De Palma) – where he is nervy and alive within De Palma’s meticulously long take shots.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999 – Martin Scorsese) – where he is burnt out and subjugated by a city.
Adaptation (2002 – Spike Jonze) – where he plays dual roles of barely fictional brothers.
Matchstick Men (2003 – Ridley Scott) – Scott’s underappreciated black comedy sees Cage isolated and alone and desperate for affection
The Wicker Man (2006 – Neil LaBute) – will always be ignored when taken in regard to its progenitor, but Cage embodies true terror within the film.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009 – Werner Herzog) – Cage is hypnotising as a man on edge of losing himself to himself.
Joe (2013 – David Gordon Green) – is an atmospheric drama where Cage always seems on the edge of violence.
Dog Eat Dog (2016 – Paul Schrader) – Cage shines in Schrader’s manic, imaginative late-period masterpiece.
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Cage and Woo could not be contained by Hollywood. Their energy was too much for most people. It seemed that audiences wanted their heroes to be far more conservative…
I grew up in the days before DVD and in a household that didn’t make regular trips to the video rental shop. Most of my formative cinephilia came from reading exciting movie reviews in my parents’ paper for whatever was going to be shown late night on telly. I am enormously nostalgic for those days when I would uncover brand new worlds on a small square screen. The feeling of coming in halfway through Assault on Precinct 13 (1976 – John Carpenter) and being unable to tear myself away until early the next morning is a feeling of such dumb transcendental bliss that I hope to grasp it again each time I view a new movie.
One of the hardest things we’re fighting against in this project is the way that the nineties action movie scene has become caricatured. The films are dumb. The stars are talentless, sweaty, steroid-enhanced mannequins. If we were to follow this logic, and simplify and codify the 1990’s action blockbuster, two actors would be seen to tower over the landscape. Schwarzenegger and Stallone and they would be seen to be much of a muchness. But Sylvester Stallone struggled throughout the nineties to find meaning. His films were often empty, hollow shells, devoid of interest or entertainment. Why is an individual so tied to a decade when in truth he was completely out of sync with taste and popularity?
I’m nine years old and in my favourite place in the world – the toy section of the Petts Wood Woolworths. Scattered in amongst the rows of toys I know and love – Mighty Max, Monsters in my Pocket – are unfamiliar action figures. I know I will never be able to buy these, my mum will never allow them in the house due to some arbitrary religious declaration of toy morality. If I’m lucky, I may get to play with them one day at a friend’s house. My only knowledge of Ghostbusters (1984) comes from other people’s playthings.
For seven years the money sat waiting to be taken. It’s unimaginable today that a successful film failed to be followed up for seven years. In a world where sequels can follow annually, that they took the time for James Cameron to be ready is extraordinary.
James Cameron has waited seven years (and counting) to shoot a sequel to Avatar (2009).
Keanu ejaculates his weapon into the air. He is fury. Impotent with desire.
An indelible image, one that will be referenced and re-referenced within films for decades to come. For now, our rage represents those bullets. Every snarky joke, every ironic enthusiast. Every inferior remake that exists for no apparent reason, shorn of the original’s hunger and rough edges into a bleak commercial inconsequence. The bullets are useless; they waste away in the air.