Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Critique: Give ‘Em a Thrill: Action Films Past and Present

What are the common staples of the action genre? Set pieces, heroism, violence, villainy, an explosive climax. Buster Keaton’s The General is an excellent and revolutionary example of an action film, and indeed solidified many tropes of the genre that continue to be used; 1988’s Die Hard is one example of a film that employs these elements.
The General strikes the perfect balance between story and action; never do we feel that either element is overplayed or laid on too thick. This being said, however, the story is really only there to provide a skeleton for the action to rest upon. Nearly two thirds of the film depict action set pieces, most of which are centered on trains. The whole reason the film was made was to stage these highly original and breathtakingly impressive real-life train stunts. This is the purpose of every action film, to give the audience a thrill. The story, however sparse, is still critical, as it gives us a reason to care about the people imperiled in these cinematic feats of daring.
When The General was released in 1927, audiences had never seen anything like it. The stunts were thrilling and, sometimes, actually threatened the lives of the performer, namely Buster Keaton. A reason for this might have been to impress the audience, or perhaps it was due to the limited filmmaking technology of the time; there was no green screen, no stop-motion, no CGI. Keaton actually had to run atop trains and demolish bridges in order to depict these events on screen.
The General may seem typical to today’s audiences because its tropes have become so familiar. Take, for example, Die Hard, perhaps the greatest action film of the 1980s. From a literal perspective, these two films are not very similar, but if we ignore the specifics of their respective story lines and focus more esoterically, we can see how they are in fact quite alike. Each concerns an everyman who finds himself in an extraordinary situation: a high speed train chase in the case of The General, and a terrorist takeover of a skyscraper in the case of Die Hard. Also, both films are set in and around familiar, ordinary constructs, trains in one, a high-rise office building in the other. And, as with The General, the story in Die Hard is only there to give the action a framework. But even if we focus more specifically, the similarities between the two films remain. Die Hard’s protagonist, John McClane, begins the film outside the good graces of the woman he desires, much the same way Johnny Gray does in The General. But, through heroism and rising to the occasion, each man proves himself and wins the heart of the girl in the end. A trial by fire to obtain what one desires is one of the main tropes of the action genre. The locations and time periods are different, one film is silent while the other features extensive synchronous sound, but they are akin in their use of action to entertain the audience.
What is the goal of an action film? The goal is to give the audience a thrill. Through an engaging yet sparse story line, sympathetic characters, and heightened, exciting situations, action films as varied as The General and Die Hard thrill the audience, whether the year is 1927 or 1988.

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