The World in Action

Curator's Note

Well into the summer action-movie season, Hollywood’s prestige fare such as Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood may be a distant memory as such genre staples as The A-Team, Predators and Salt cycle through global multiplexes. The higher than high-concept The Expendables lands imminently. Entertainment publications and pop-crit handicappers have issued think pieces on this season’s action heroes—paleo men, nancy boys or metrosexuals?—and on CGI's sophistication or creeping philistinism.

Yet now, as ever, the most salient feature of action cinema is its pervasive internationalism. Whether harnessing stars and crews from around the world, filming on location to exploit foreign scenery or tax credits, or simply earning distribution in territories amenable to showcases of stylized mayhem, action cinema in 2010 continues the mode’s mission of global saturation. To grow its East Asian markets, Hollywood regularly casts Asian or Asian-American actors: Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid (coproduced by the China Film Group and with the more accurate title in some overseas markets of Gongfu meng, or The Kung Fu Kid), Jet Li in The Expendables, Louis Ozawa Changchien in Predators, K-pop star Rain in last year’s Ninja Assassin and more. Likewise, Expendables distributor Lionsgate's most recent annual report specifically promotes coproduction agreements and pursuit of location-based tax incentives.

Meanwhile, regional variants of action cinema continue to flourish. Russia's action/horror/sci-fi extravaganzas Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) have earned writer-director Timur Bekmambetov entry into B+ list Hollywood. Kazakh coproductions such as Nomad (2005) and Mongol (2007) have joined the ranks of historical epics in the mold of Gladiator (2000) and Hero (2002). France’s Banlieue 13 films (2004, 2009) and others from Luc Besson's Europa Corp. have stoked the screen popularity of parkour and free-running styles. Europe continues to deal the occasional wild card, most recently the Danish/British epic of one-man violence Valhalla Rising (2009). Oceans away, Tony Jaa’s kineticism has facilitated international distribution of the Ong-Bak series (2003, 2008, 2010) and other Thai action vehicles. From South Korea, Seung-wan Ryoo’s frenetic action-comedies City of Violence (2006) and Dachimawa Lee (2008) build on the model of Hong Kong cinema’s 1980s and 1990s action heyday, as do recent Vietnamese entries The Rebel (2006) and Clash (2009). Japan still corners the market in goretoonish ultraviolence with films such as 2008's The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police. And East and Southeast Asia continue to incubate female action stars.

The combination of domestic talent, migrating performers and craftsmen, increasingly economical digital post-production, and niche-attentive distribution networks have enabled action cinemas to travel regionally and worldwide. Hollywood activities still dominate film discourse, but the true richness of popular cinema today lies in our opportunities to see much of the world in action.


Hi Mark - Thanks for continuing this week's theme with another great post!  You add a nice industrial/labor perspective that really rounds out the discussion.

Having only seen about one-third of the films you mention, I admit I'm no expert, but I do see a kind of "world action aesthetic" evolving in these films, which is no doubt tied to the internationalism of production that you discuss in your post.  I'm speaking specifically of things like long takes of action sequences unbroken by cuts, sweeping/circular camera movements of fight scenes, and a focus on elaborate sets.  There also seems to be the use of a similar color palate - deep, rich colors and high contrast - something like a "digital aesthetic."  Is this something you also see, or am I overgeneralizing?  I'd also like to hear your thoughts about the connection between shared labor forces and aesthetics.

Another thing that comes to mind is the marketing of these films.  Since they are marketed internationally, do you see a difference in advertisements and trailers?  As I was watching the clip you posted, my partner commented that the film "looked like a parody."  She isn't familiar with this genre of films, so her reaction is understandable.  However, if these kinds of action films aim to be international, then you'd expect them to be marketed in such a way as to attract a more diverse, cosmopolitan audience.  Is this something you've found or do these films aim for a more niche audience?

Thanks again for a thought-provoking post, and I look forward to hearing your comments!

Action movies are a global phenomenon, I agree, but why do you think this is the case? The reason that usually gets cited – i.e., the emphasis on spectacle over dialogue – has never satisfied me because a lot of spectacle-heavy genres (e.g., musicals) aren't nearly as popular the world over. You seem to suggest calculated business decisions are at the root of the situation, but I wonder if we can't trace it to our deep-seated fascination with violence or something more primal.

Thanks for your comments, Drew and Matt. The parodic element does stand out, particularly if you watch these various fight sequences and trailers in a single viewing. Many of them virtually demand an ironic viewing position, e.g. with Raging Phoenix's trailer promising "real injuries" and "flashier than ever." At some level we might find it problematic to read as parodic film sequences from underdeveloped countries with which we have little familiarity--the films themselves tend toward an earnest address and are heavy on the virtuous suffering--but I suppose it's largely a consequence of our fragmented encounters with smaller nations' media output. (For the record, I myself had thought this trailer was an arch parody of a "foreign art film" but realized I was incorrect.)

As to the global aesthetic, while averse to totalizing claims, I think that many of the films in question do look alike because they've all utilized digital intermediates in post-production, with colorists turning all dials to 11 to meet a perceived international standard for genre cinema. And as to deep-seated fascinations, Matt, I'm still unconvinced that our reptilian brains seek out commercial moving-image texts, though I can say with some certainty that my own does.

The interesting flip side to this post is those actors who seem poised to become the next action stars, but who never quite make it because they test so poorly internationally. Vin Diesel, for example, seemed a natural up-and-comer, but he tested terribly for Asian audiences. There go those international profits - and, so, although he's done OK, he's struggled for roles, ending up in quasi-family-fare such as The Pacifier. So it's interesting to think about what kinds of stars (and characters) are selected out as a result of this globalization.

Hi Mark - this also made me think about European action and its exchanges with Hollywood.  The Italian westerns are examples I know well, but there have been many more recent examples of European action which get remade (Nikita) or which play in the US.  I was also thinking about the ways in which the US attracts European (and other) filmmakers interested in action - perhaps because of the sums involved? 

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