The American action movies of the 1980s and ’90s could be cheesy, reactionary, and dumb, but at the same time, they could possess a brawny, brutal grace. Take Die Hard, for instance. The movie’s fun has a lot to do with form; John McTiernan’s use of camera movement, wide-angle lenses, and anamorphic lens flares, which streak horizontally across the frame, is integral to the action. The iconic shot of Bruce Willis shimmying down the ventilation duct depends on claustrophobic framing and a camera that moves at the same speed as the actor. The camera isn’t filming action; it’s partnering with Willis to create it.
The problem with most contemporary American action movies isn’t that they’re dumber than their predecessors; in fact, they’re often paralyzed by self-awareness and plot. The problem is that, in many cases, they shun the stuff that made action movies compelling in the first place.
Released earlier this year, A Good Day To Die Hard is a Die Hard movie in name only. It contains one of the most complicated and expensive car chases in film history, though you’d hardly know it. The scene is a grab bag of contemporary action clichés—jittery handheld cameras, smash zooms, nonsensical cuts—that doesn’t work as action and isn’t artful enough to be appreciated as texture. All it takes to stage a convincing car chase is to establish some kind of relationship between the camera and the cars, which the movie doesn’t bother to do.
A Good Day To Die Hard is the worst of the recent crop of “late” action movies, nostalgia pieces in which aging action stars joke about their infirmity and obsolescence before kicking ass in the third act. If A Good Day, The Expendables 2, and The Last Stand are to be believed, the classic action genre has run its course. The movies will never be as entertaining as they once were; the best they can do is reference past triumphs.
Of course, this isn’t true. At the turn of the century, as big-budget action movies began to lose those integral relationships—between actor and camera, action and editing—a new generation of action movie directors began to appear. Inspired by John McTiernan, Walter Hill, Renny Harlin, John Woo’s Hong Kong-era films, and the Jean-Claude Van Damme/Ringo Lam collaborations, these filmmakers went to work in the direct-to-video, B-movie industry—which is where they’ve stayed ever since. Behind such unpromising titles as Undisputed III: Redemption, 12 Rounds 2: Reloaded, Universal Soldier: Regeneration, U.S. Seals II, and The Marine 3: Homefront is some of the finest action filmmaking of the past decade—and, in some cases, some of the finest filmmaking, period.
The world of direct-to-video action constitutes its own separate sub-industry, with its own stars and big-name auteurs, as well as its own industry town—Sofia, Bulgaria, which doubles (often unconvincingly) for everything from Russia to the United States. It’s where old-guard action stars who aren’t interested in parodying their screen personas—like Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme—do most of their work, where pro wrestlers and martial artists get top billing, and where leads are expected to be able to do most of their own stunts.
The major hurdle for viewers isn’t access; anyone with a Netflix account can see most of the sub-genre’s major works. The problem, as is often the case in the age of instant everything, is knowing that this stuff exists. Because these films are neither shown in theaters nor on TV, they exist outside of the cultural conversation, which is still tailored to traditional models. They aren’t shown to the press, their trailers don’t run in front of new releases, and their titles and cover art are generic. Stateside, their audience is largely limited to action buffs and MMA fans.
It shouldn’t be that way. Direct-to-video action may be an isolated genre, but its strengths go beyond mere niche appeal. It’s a vibrant, interconnected scene that is continuing the traditions of the classic action movie without being caught up in reverence. In the process, it’s produced some of the most purely entertaining movies of the last few years—movies that often outclass their big-budget counterparts.
Take, for example, one of DTVA’s most popular and prolific directors, Isaac Florentine. A martial artist by training, Florentine spent most of the ’90s as a stunt coordinator and director for the Power Rangers franchise before breaking through—or whatever the direct-to-video equivalent of “breaking through” is—with 2001’s U.S. Seals II. Since then, he’s amassed a cult following thanks to an appreciative style, founded on his experience in stunts and martial arts, that uses wide-angle lenses to emphasize the way that the performers move through, or dominate, a space. His handheld cameras are choreographed with the action, emphasizing force and momentum.
Florentine’s plots are typically ludicrous. For the most part, their purpose is to provide circumstances for cool-looking fights: Bridge Of Dragons is set in a fantasy world that mixes Vietnam and World War II costumes with medieval imagery; Cold Harvest takes place in a strangely colorful, pseudo-Western post-apocalyptic future; U.S. Seals II takes place on an island where a single gunshot will ignite a nuclear explosion (don’t ask), forcing the characters to fight exclusively with swords; and 2009’s Ninja stars Englishman Scott Adkins as, well, a ninja.
And yet categorizing Florentine as an expert choreographer with little interest in narrative or characterization wouldn’t be completely accurate, either. Undisputed III: Redemption, for one, is a surprisingly weighty movie which turns his preceding film’s heavy, a Russian prisoner played by Scott Adkins, into a hero. Its focus on bodies under stress—a staple of the genre—makes for a surprisingly effective portrayal of personal transformation. It helps that Adkins, direct-to-video’s biggest original star, happens to be a skilled actor with expressive everyman eyes that more than equal his talents as a physical performer. He represents DTVA’s baseline strengths—its focus on physicality and movement—and its growing ambition to use the genre to explore themes that go beyond the revenge-endurance-perseverance spectrum.
Florentine’s work seems flashy in comparison to that of Jesse V. Johnson or Roel Reiné. Though the Dutch-born Reiné—who has directed both of the direct-to-video Death Race sequels, as well as a handful of WWE Superstar vehicles—often acts as his own cinematographer, there’s no visual grandstanding in his work. His focus is practicality, not beauty; however, it’s the kind of practicality—unfettered and up-front—that can have a beauty of its own.
What separates the contemporary direct-to-video directors from those of the previous generation—Albert Pyun, for example—is their focus on craft. The films may be cheaply made, but they’re not sloppy or exploitive. In many cases, they exhibit a better awareness of framing and space than most Hollywood blockbusters.
At their best, Florentine and Reiné produce what critics call “termite art”—a term coined by Manny Farber to describe movies with modest agendas and single-minded focus on one goal. The films produced are a sort of minor art distinguished by its industriousness, efficiency, and unpretentiousness. (Significantly, Farber focuses on termite art, not termite artists; an important component of the termite-art formula is that the people behind the camera aren’t setting out to make art.)
This makes John Hyams the odd man out in the direct-to-video world. Art-school-educated, Hyams started out with the little-seen 1997 indie One Dog Day before moving on to documentaries, of which the HBO-produced The Smashing Machine is the best known. His comparatively high-brow background might help explain why his two most accomplished films—Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning—are also the headiest and most ambitious movies to come out of the direct-to-video action renaissance.
Hyams’ Universal Soldier films are death-haunted meditations on identity and memory. Though both are canonical sequels to Roland Emmerich’s original Universal Soldier (1992), there’s no trace of Emmerich’s influence in either; Regeneration takes its visual cues from Andrei Tarkovsky and David Fincher, while Day Of Reckoning’s David Lynch vibe (think Lost Highway or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) is mixed with over-tonal references to Videodrome, Enter The Void, Funny Games, and The Shining. Both films feature Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren reprising their roles from the original film, though they function as thematic poles rather than leads; this is especially true in the case of Day Of Reckoning, where—yet again—Scott Adkins serves as the protagonist.
Both movies demonstrate how much an action movie can accomplish without ever attempting to subvert the genre. Regeneration and Day Of Reckoning are, first and foremost, expertly crafted action movies, marked by intensely choreographed, brutal violence that expands on the themes instead of negating them. They do what the best classic action movies did: turn the struggle and endurance at the center of the genre into a portrayal of something bigger.
At their core, action movies are about bodies—bulging veins, swelling muscles, chests and foreheads drenched with sweat—and what those bodies are capable of. When there’s a sense of unity between what the body is doing and what the camera is doing, the result can be sublime. A body framed a certain way becomes figurative art and takes on a meaning that goes beyond the context of narrative or character. Space becomes sculptural, and movement becomes musical. That’s the essence of what made action movies a vital, exciting genre to begin with. Hollywood seems to have lost that sensibility, but in the direct-to-video world, it remains as striking as ever.