Screenshot: Snowpiercer trailer

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

Snowpiercer (2013)

About midway through Bong Joon-ho’s 2013’s apocalyptic class-warfare fable Snowpiercer, we get to the scene with the fish. In the movie’s world, a sudden man-made global freeze has exterminated almost all life on earth, and the last few surviving humans are cooped up on a train that’s persistently, endlessly rocketing around the icy world. On that train, a brutally enforced class system reigns, with rich folks enjoying surreal luxury at the front of the train and the oppressed, huddling masses being consistently abused at the back. Chris Evans, leading a pack of rear-dwellers, is trying to fight his way to the front when he finally meets the first real sign of what he’s up against: a small army of masked, silent assassins, all of them brandishing axes. And one of them has a fish.

In that one scene, the lead masked assassin holds up a big dead fish, making sure to show the befuddled revolutionaries. Then he takes his axe and cuts the fish open. He passes the fish back to the rest of his axe-fighter team, and all of them dip their weapons in it, too. And then the fighting stars. We never learn what the fuck was going on with that fish. Maybe the guards’ weapons, when dipped in fish-guts, somehow became more lethal. Maybe they were just showing that their weapons were functional. (Early in the movie, the rebels overcame another group of soldiers whose guns, it turned out, had just been for show.) Maybe it’s just a general intimidation tactic. Or maybe—and this is my favorite explanation—we’re just not supposed to know. Maybe things in this movie’s world just aren’t supposed to make perfect sense to those of us who are alive before the freeze.

Snowpiercer is a glorious mess of a movie, one that’s perfectly content to be goofy and nonsensical. Everything in the movie—every character, every situation—seems exaggerated and distorted and strange and wrong. The actors in the movie’s ridiculously impressive cast (Evans, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Ed Harris among them) all seem to think they’re in different movies. Swinton, in particular, takes her evil authority figure to cartoonish extremes, doing something resembling a grimly hilarious Margaret Thatcher impression. Early on, a disgruntled rear-dweller has his arm frozen and then broken off, a heinous act of cruelty that the movie almost plays for laughs. And while the movie starts out with the dark-and-grimy aesthetic that most of us associate with postapocalyptic movies, it eventually gets more bright and surreal as the survivors fight their way to the front of the train, encountering greenhouses and aquariums and one nightmarish classroom.

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And the movie’s lunacy isn’t just aesthetic. Snowpiercer is as politically and philosophically radical as a reasonably big-budgeted movie can be. The whole thing is clearly one massive allegory for rigidly enforced class structures and for the Machiavellian ways that the powers that be keep those structures in place. Even more than something like The Matrix, it presents the constant struggle of humanity as something with no real structure, showing systems so deeply embedded that even the revolutionaries only know how to take over. The first scenes of rebellion are deeply satisfying in a primal fuck-the-man sort of way. But as the movie progresses, it forces you to rethink your assumptions and sympathies. In the end, its hero is someone who’s done terrible, inhuman things, and its villain is the person who’s merely trying to keep humanity alive at all costs. Its very idea of life on earth is almost unremittingly bleak, and the only way it can imagine hope at all if people can shake off every learned concept of society, if they’re willing to take the plunge and venture off on their own.

Snowpiercer is a deeply weird movie, and Bong Joon-ho really only makes deeply weird movies. Before Snowpiercer, he made 2006’s The Host, an excellent creature feature about a pollution-created monster wreaking havoc in Seoul. The Host works in the ways that monster movies are supposed to work, but it has all these sly little political undercurrents; one hero is a student who fights the monster by throwing molotov cocktails. And it’s also got a slapsticky sense of humor; characters keep slipping and falling in vaudeville-comedy ways. (That happens in Snowpiercer, too; Chris Evans eventually slips on that fish like it’s a banana peel.) After Snowpiercer, Bong made this year’s heartening and harrowing and delightfully strange Netflix giant-pig movie Okja. So Snowpiercer is of a piece with Bong’s filmography, but that doesn’t mean the world was ready for it.

I went back and forth on whether Snowpiercer could reasonably considered an action movie, whether it even made sense for this column. Clearly, it’s not just an action movie; it’s sci-fi and a dark comedy and a political meditation and an art film with blockbuster pretensions. Hurt’s character is named Gilliam, which seems like a pretty direct homage, since the bugged-out visions of Terry Gilliam are probably the movie’s closest antecedents. And nobody would ever call Terry Gilliam an action filmmaker. But one of the thrilling things about Snowpiercer is the way that Bong plays with the conventions of action filmmaking, using a thrilling and violent and crowd-pleasing spectacle as a vehicle for all these ideas and images.

The Host and Okja aren’t action movies, but both have great action scenes: The first monster attack in The Host, the crazy giant-pig chase in Okja. Bong clearly knows what he’s doing in that area. And while some of the early action scenes in Snowpiercer have some of the hectic, disorienting camerawork and editing that plagued so many action movies of that era, as the movie settles in, Bong takes clear delight in some of the ridiculous action scenes he can pull off. There’s a gunfight when the train goes around a bend, letting people in different cars shoot at each other. There’s a brawl outside a nightclub train-car that echoes the last stand in a zombie movie. There are a number of showdowns with a brutal, silent henchman who’s out for revenge after his lover, another hulking and silent security guy, gets killed.

I think of Snowpiercer as the right pick for 2013 because of the way it presents a strange and global vision of what an action movie can be. Bong made Snowpiercer after The Host had been, for a time, the highest-grossing movie in South Korean history. (It’s still top five.) He could’ve made a more conventional movie. That’s what Bong’s fellow South Korean auteur Kim Jee-woon did. Kim was the force behind vivid, visceral South Korean movies like A Bittersweet Life, I Saw The Devil, and the great madcap adventure The Good, The Bad, The Weird. In 2013, the same year that Bong made Snowpiercer, Kim made his own English-language debut with The Last Stand, the first real action-movie vehicle that Arnold Schwarzenegger made after his political career ended. The Last Stand isn’t a bad movie, exactly; I had fun with it when I went to see it at a discount theater. But it’s deeply unremarkable, and it shows almost no trace of the freaky intensity of Kim’s South Korean movies. It bombed, and now Kim’s back to making South Korean movies.

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Bong, by contrast, didn’t play the Hollywood game. Instead, he got the guy who plays Captain America to lead a cast of American, English, and South Korean actors. He adapted a little-read French graphic novel and filmed the whole thing in Prague, with South Korean money. The Weinstein Company, on the strength of the script and a few early scenes, optioned the movie to release it in the United States. But Harvey Weinstein, piece of shit that he is, wanted to cut 25 minutes out of the movie, making it less weird and more palatable for a wide American release. Bong refused, and Weinstein only ended up giving the movie a tiny release in the U.S. Snowpiercer ended up making most of its money in South Korea and China anyway; it earned back its $40 million budget twice over. And it found enough of an audience in America that FX is about to turn it into a TV series, with Jennifer Connelly on board to star.

In recent weeks, we’ve all learned about the insane depths of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory villainy. But Weinstein’s always been a famous bully, and he’s always pushed around filmmakers. If you love action movies, you probably already hated him; The Weinstein Company has made a habit of buying up the American release rights for foreign action movies and then releasing them in incomprehensibly chopped-up forms, with slapped-on soundtracks and incoherent ad campaigns. Bong is a visionary weirdo who took on Weinstein and won. In recent years, international-coalition movies have become much more commonplace; think of the ill-fated American/Chinese team-up behind this year’s controversy magnet The Great Wall. But Bong showed that these forces can also serve a visionary weirdo’s ideas. He showed that it can be done. And now Bong gets to make his movies for Netflix, where he’ll presumably get all the money and creative leeway he needs. That’s a miracle. And miracles, to quote another great and weird action movie about train travel, is the way things ought to be.

Other notable 2013 action movies: I came very close to writing this column about another strange and glorious international co-production. When Keanu Reeves made his directorial debut, he went to Hong Kong and China, shooting an underground-fighting movie that’s mostly in Chinese. Man Of Tai Chi is a great fight movie, and it’s also a vehicle for Tiger Chen, who was a stunt coordinator for Reeves on The Matrix. Reeves himself plays the rich asshole American villain, and The Raid’s Iko Uwais gets in a cameo. Yuen Wo-ping, the great fight choreographer who also worked on The Matrix, contributes to the beautifully laid-out bouts. Man Of Tai Chi is a brutal, economical, gorgeously filmed action movie and a love letter to action movies in general. It set the stage for Reeves to once again revolutionize the genre with John Wick.

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If the best action movies of 2013 were international co-productions, that should serve as a signal that Hollywood didn’t have much going on that year. It did have Fast And Furious 6, which had that absurd and great endless-runway climax. And it had The Wolverine, in which director James Mangold managed to mostly remake the superhero as a low-stakes, personal action B-movie. (Mangold would do that much better with this year’s Logan.) But most of the year’s American action movies were total fucking hokum like Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, the jingoistic and blazingly stupid one-two punch about renegade Secret Service agents forced to protect American presidents from invading forces. Or like A Good Day To Die Hard, the one Die Hard movie that erased itself from our collective memory the second it was over. Or like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which was a whole lot less fun than Step Up 3D, another movie from its director Jon M. Chu. Or like Escape Plan, on which Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone teamed up about 25 years too late. Or like the aforementioned The Last Stand, which didn’t do anything for Kim Jee-woon or Schwarzenegger.

2013 had decent English-language action movies, but you had to dig to find them. The year’s best, non-Snowpiercer division, was probably the Scott Adkins/Isaac Florentine straight-to-DVD sequel Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear, a beautifully unpretentious old-school ninja-revenge movie. Jason Statham made the Richard Stark adaptation Parker, which utterly fails as a Parker movie but which is pretty fun on its own merits, and Homefront, a Stallone-scripted bayou-justice movie in which James Franco plays a villain named Gator Bodine. Homefront is not a great movie, but I love it. Snitch, meanwhile, is an effective no-frill thriller that is probably the last B-movie that the Rock will ever make. And then there’s a pair of U.K. movies: Welcome To The Punch, a fun and straightforward hard-boiled cop-vs.-master-criminal movie, and Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, which, for a comedy, has some shockingly great fight scenes.

South Korea, by contrast, had a way, way better year. Hwayi: A Monster Boy is a beautifully fucked-up coming-of-age story about a teenage hitman who’s being raised by a violent criminal gang. The Berlin File and The Suspect are two gritty, Bourne-style thrillers about North Korean agents on rampages. Secretly, Greatly is also about North Korean agents, but they’re forced to pose as idiot kids, so it’s an action-comedy. Cold Eyes is a tense and breathless bank-robbery movie where the heroes are all surveillance-expert cops. And the crime epic New World, while it’s mostly about mob-family politics, features an elevator knife fight that stands as one of the great action scenes of recent years.

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In Hong Kong, Wong Kar-Wai put his delicate, restrained personal stamp on the Ip Man story with The Grandmaster. A lot of people love that movie, and it’s sumptuously beautiful, the way all Wong Kar-Wai movies are. But I’d like it better if Wong wasn’t the one Hong Kong filmmaker who never learned how to shoot a clear and compelling action scene. Donnie Yen played a neck-tatted undercover badass in Special ID, a goofy movie with some exceptional fights. Andy Lau played cop hunting a team of elite masked bank robbers in the explosion-happy Firestorm. And Stephen Chow had a lot of fun with the antic, ridiculous, CGI-heavy demon-fighting blockbuster Journey To The West.

Meanwhile, Japan gave us Shield Of Straw, in which Takashi Miike uses virtuoso blockbuster moves to tell us some deeply fucked-up things about his view of human psychology. It’s a movie about a team of cops who are tasked with protecting a serial killer so that he can stand trial. But a billionaire has placed a massive bounty on the killer’s head, so everyone in the country is trying to kill him, and meanwhile the killer keeps trying to sneak off and kill more people. It is a great and disturbing movie. Japan is also responsible for the gonzo meta-movie Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, in which a team of punk-rock film students gets caught up in an actual gang war. And the Philippines also got in on things with the brutal crime movie On The Job.

Next time: Keanu Reeves is the one you send to kill the fucking boogeyman in John Wick.

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