Tony Scott’s Domino. Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared. Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces. Michael Davis’s Shoot ‘Em Up. These films, guided by the work of others in previous years, spawned what I’d like to refer to as Cubist Action Cinema, a sub-genre of modern action films that are seemingly shot through the aesthetic lens of a painting by Picasso. These films have a hyper-realistic quality to them, and while they aren’t meant to be taken 100% literally, they traffic in real ideas, themes, and emotions. The imagery in these movies (and in other films that fit this mold, of which there are many) are seemingly jacked and juiced for maximum impact, while their respective narratives jumble and blur into a cacophony of freewheeling expression (both verbal and visual) and overall flamboyant artistry. The phrase “in-your-face” applies, but only in the crudest sense of the term; yes, these filmmakers are hurtling their visions at their audiences, but not without serious intent or regard for the form and the content they’re purveying. It’s the maximization of the medium, and these movies are as engrossing and as accomplished as this sort of fare will likely get. Movies such as Domino and Smokin’ Aces and Running Scared and Shoot ‘Em Up are a blitzkrieg of color, sounds, movement, and filmic ferocity that slap the viewer wide awake, never letting them off the hook for a second, winking a sly wink one minute and then playing for keeps the next.
After the stylistic cinematic experimentation that he developed on 2004’s Man on Fire, Tony Scott brought out all his directorial tricks for his magnum opus and career-defining masterpiece, 2005’s Domino, which is easily the *Toniest* Tony Scott film ever crafted. A pulsing, racing, fever-dream biopic of the famed female bounty hunter Domino Harvey (the fantastic Kiera Knightley), this was Tony Scott unleashed, uncompromised, and totally off the reservation. Independently financed with no bean-counters sitting over his shoulder to tell him no or what to do, Domino was his Freedom of Expression Movie, the film where he was able to cut loose as an artist and be the filmmaker he always wanted to be. Critics hated it (except for a small, passionate core of supporters). Audiences ignored it (though it’s becoming something of a cult-classic). And it sent Tony back to the Bruckheimer well (2007’s underrated and experimental-in-its-own-right Déjà Vu) for a more popular styled hit. Many complained that Scott’s directorial tricks and kinetic editing patterns were a major problem in Domino but I couldn’t agree any less. First off, lest anyone forget, the film is framed through the P.O.V. of a main character who is tripping on magic mushrooms – that should be the first sign to the viewer that the film is going to be a bit off-kilter. Daniel Mindel’s super-saturated, kaleidoscopic cinematography bleeds and jumps off the screen, assaulting and overwhelming the viewer’s senses. It’s a wild, semi-true, semi-insane movie that genuinely does new stuff when it comes to the moving image, and stands as Scott’s undying love letter to cinema as a whole.
Arriving after one of the best cop films of all time – 2003’s Narc – writer/director Joe Carnahan unleased the extra-crazy and wildly entertaining action/comedy Smokin’ Aces in 2006, and despite critical swats and mediocre box-office, it’s become something of a cult-favorite and talking point for extreme action-cinema lovers. Boasting an immense and varied cast (Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Common, Jeremy Piven, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Martin Henderson, Chris Pine, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson, and a hilariously sleazy turn from Jason Bateman), this is a hyperactive ballet of chases, arguments, shoot-outs, vulgar humor, plot twists, reversals, showgirls, cocaine, FBI agents, gangsters, and lots and lots of high-powered ammunition. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore goes the glossy and gritty route, concocting extremely stylish images all throughout, while the frantic editing creates a mad-cap sense of lunacy and dangerous thrills. There’s some solid social commentary throw in for good measure, and there’s a lot of jet-black humor that graces the edges of the screenplay. I loved how each rambunctious character in Smokin’ Aces gets enough time to shine, and because of the oversized personalities, the oversized filmmaking technique fits the proceedings like a glove. I get the sense that Carnahan was at times tipping his stylistic hat to Scott, knowing that his frenetic energy was channeling the late auteur’s magic. Excessive, loud, potentially obnoxious, and over the top in all the best ways, Smokin’ Aces is unapologetic blood-letting that goes for broke at all times.
Speaking of go-for-broke-cinema, Wayne Kramer, the fiercely independent and tremendously gifted writer-director of the Oscar-nominated drama The Cooler (2003), made a splash in the extreme action genre in 2006 with his underrated and supremely stylish hybrid actioner Running Scared. This is a movie that takes elements from the traditional cop film and mixes them with magical realism (the nastiest kind, naturally), gritty 70’s flourishes, and modern violence ‘n mayhem which results in an intoxicating brew of kitchen-sink-cinema. Roger Ebert’s famous review of Running Scared says it all: Speaking of movies that go over the top, "Running Scared" goes so far over the top, it circumnavigates the top and doubles back on itself; it's the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness. I am in awe. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Then it throws in the kitchen sink, too, and the combo washer-dryer in the laundry room, while the hero and his wife are having sex on top of it.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself. This is one of my all-time favorite action flicks, a joyous celebration of all things wild and wooly, with an engaging lead performance from the late Paul Walker, a terrific supporting turn from Vera Farmiga, and tons of great character actors showing off their gruff faces. The narrative pivots on a gun used in the murder of a cop; it’s up to gangster underling Jimmy (Walker) to dispose of the weapon in question without it ever being found. But when the gun goes missing, all hell breaks loose, and he’s on the run looking for the pistol while trying to evade the dangerous crosshairs of corrupt cops, psycho pimps, child killers, and the Russian mob. This is a dangerous, perverse, adult-oriented flick, replete with graphic violence, sex, nudity, and the liberal use of the “F” word. In short – it’s terrific fun, a movie in love with its own movieness, while still operating within the parameters of genre entertainment. The cinematographer Jim Whitaker goes berserk, filming the action in jagged, extreme close-ups and slick Steadicam to create a sense of danger and immediacy. Oh, and it must be mentioned – for once – the thankless role of the “on-looking wife” has been given some heft and texture thanks to Kramer’s inventive screenplay. Instead of relegating Farmiga to the sidelines after so memorably introducing her character, the narrative involves her in interesting and complex ways, giving her character her own arc, and giving the film a menacing edge it might not otherwise have had. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just say this: scumbags get what they deserve in this outrageous world that Kramer created.
Shoot ‘Em Up is the silliest of all of these movies but amazingly fun on its own terms. Playing like a Looney Tunes adventure on a few hits of crystal meth, this is pure comic-book-movie shenanigans, but instead of superheroes from outer-space, the characters in this oddly eccentric actioner bounce off one another with crazy glee and nasty aplomb. There’s a lactating hooker, a shoot-out in the middle of coitus, and enough scenery chewing from Paul Giamatti as one of the most incompetent villains in the history of action movies to choke a horse. Clive Owen basically reprised his role from the BMF Films short series, this time with a carrot fetish (you’ll see!), as a take-no-nonsense Driver who shoots first, steps on the gas second, and rarely has time to ask questions. Pseudo-amateur filmmaker Michael Davis famously got this film made by showing New Line execs the entire movie via pre-viz artwork, and it’s a shame that someone with this level of creativity hasn’t been allowed to work since (the movie flopped big time at the box office despite mostly positive reviews). There’s a careening sense of ebb and flow to Shoot ‘Em Up, with the film’s wicked energy level never stopping for a moment. This is a playfully violent, R-rated cartoon that while being less graceful and artistically inclined as the other films up for discussion, still manages to talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to extreme, outlandish thrills.There’s a post-MTV quality to all of these films – let’s call it Pre-Futurist – with filmmakers like Oliver Stone paving the way for auteurs like Scott and craftsman like Kramer and Carnahan to branch out on their own both stylistically and narratively. Stone’s seismic contribution to the landscape of world cinema, 1994's Natural Born Killers, represents both the apex and a new jumping-off point for this sort of adrenaline-fueled aesthetic. That film acted as a crescendo of sorts for Stone, who had refined his aggressive filmmaking style over the years with films such as Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and The Doors, but seemingly influenced Scott with his handling of many elements in his brilliant 1995 film True Romance. It’s no coincidence that both Natural Born Killers and True Romance were birthed by the pen of Quentin Tarantino, that man of many, many genre influences. Graphic violence mixed with black comedy would become a staple element of these types of movies, with abrupt and forceful tonal shifts signaling the idea that anything’s possible. All of the films discussed herein demonstrate a common sense of excitement and openness to the idea of what genre cinema can and should be, and have blown open the stylistic doors so that other filmmakers can sample the goods and develop new trends of their own (Gareth Evans, here’s looking at you, kid!)