Is there a great stagnation in action movies?

Chris MacDonald asks me:

Should we expect stagnation, or continued improvement, in the action film genre? The new Bond flick, Skyfall, is getting rave reviews, with some calling it the best Bond film ever. Hyperbole aside, it is indeed very good. Should we expect the next Bond film to be less good (regression to the mean) or is this one of the fields — like baseball management — where mechanisms exist to facilitate further improvement on a fairly reliable basis?

I was less crazy about Skyfall (“M, pull out your cell phone and call for aid!”) but that’s neither here nor there.

As for the stagnation issue, there are two main developments.  The first is a resurrection of sorts, namely 3-D, which is a very real gain, but in my view it is a significant plus for fewer than ten movies, most notably Avatar.

CGI is a gain for some movies (e.g, Troy, Life of Pi, Lord of the Rings), though it often makes action scenes less visceral and more distant.

The main drawback for Hollywood action movies has been globalization, which leads to too many explosions and not enough subtle dialogue and characterization.  The other main drawback has been high marketing costs, which encourages tent pole franchises with prior name recognition with a core audience.  That often means too much clunky plot exposition, too many comic book characters, too great a need to heed the wishes of the hard core audience base, and too few surprises about the characters.  There is one very good Spiderman movie but overall I call this trend a negative.

Still, there has been major progress in action movies, at least if we are willing to accept a particular semantic switch.  I much prefer Goldfinger to the newer Bond movies, but I also don’t think of it as an action movie.  It doesn’t have much action, although I don’t think people at the time felt that way.  By my possibly distorted standards, the Bond movies start being action movies only with Diamonds are Forever.

King Solomon’s Mines is a very good movie, under-watched these days, as is Thief of Baghdad.  Nonetheless prior to the 1970s I think of the action genre as virtually non-existent.  I was stunned when I first (1981) saw the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, though these days it isn’t especially impressive, just well-executed.

One possibility is that each generation thinks it is the first to have had action movies.

To sum up, for all of the contemporary excess, we have been living in a Golden Age of Action Movies. Even a scorned movie such as Lara Croft is pretty awesome on the big screen.  And Asian action movies have reached their peaks only in the last twenty years, including early John Woo.  Call that the plus side of the globalization equation.

That said, a few impressive 3-D movies aside, the last five years have brought more negatives than positives, a’la “Transformers” and various overinflated, noisy, character-stuffed, and self-important Hollywood monstrosities.  We’ll get over it, but in reality stagnation is something we might have wished for instead.

Here is one list of the greatest action movies of all time.  Not many pre-70s movies can stand up to these for action.

The next trend will be RCT-like audience studies to find out exactly which action tricks, with which timings, thrill us and which do not.  Great directors have an intuitive sense for this but it could be made much more scientific.


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