Lights, camera, but no action

May 26, 1994|By David Kronke | David Kronke,Special to The Sun

The mega-budgeted, mega-noisy, mega-violent action film is about to meet an ending as tragic and predictable as that of a sidekick cop who loves his family and is mere days from retirement.

That's the consensus of a handful of respected action directors and one producer.

"Action movies are sort of the bastard child of Hollywood," says Renny Harlin, director of such adventure films as "Cliffhanger" and "Die Hard 2: Die Harder." "All the studios want them, yet somehow they appear to be somewhat disrespectful of them. Serious writers won't seem to touch them."

The formula appears to be wearing thin. The high-profile "Last Action Hero" did a high-profile belly-flop at the box office, and action films released this year -- "On Deadly Ground," "The Getaway" and "The Chase" among them -- proved box-office disappointments. On the other hand, Andrew Davis' "The Fugitive" and Wolfgang Petersen's "In the Line of Fire" -- action films driven more by character and plot than by special effects and stunt work -- were among the year's biggest critical and financial successes.

None of this comes cheaply, and with budgets for these films typically weighing in at $60 million to $70 million before marketing and distribution -- one summer action movie, "True Lies," is said to have cost more than $100 million -- they're no longer the sure-fire money machines that, say, "Last Action Hero" was touted as being.

"The problem is that while the studios want and need them, it's different today," says producer Mace Neufeld ("Patriot Games," the upcoming "A Clear and Present Danger" and "Beverly Hills Cop III"). "You have to face the actual costs of making them."

But the law of diminishing returns states that there is a point at which bigger and noisier action simply won't mean better, and filmmakers feel that point has not just been reached, but long passed.

"I hate it," says Richard Donner (the "Lethal Weapon" series and the just-opened "Maverick") about the trend of one-upmanship. "If it's gonna go on, it's gonna go on without me."

Flexibility is key

Says Mr. Harlin: "Big effects and stunts make movies more exciting, but audiences have seen it all. In the future, story and characters are going to be the key.

"In the '70s actions movies, characters were very complicated," Mr. Harlin continues. "In the '80s, though, things got out of hand. It was all superheroes, all muscle and gun-power. There were loads of superheroes. The Reaganite period created that, but that's dead now."

Mr. Davis says flexibility is the key to making exciting action movies. Despite the precise conditions under which "The Fugitive's" memorable train wreck was shot, he says, "It's important to be able to improvise. If you storyboard a film and shoot just the storyboard, it'll feel too tailored and not spontaneous. If things are supposed to be out of control, you don't want things to feel too in-control."

Of course, smashing up a real, live train doesn't come cheap. Few things do when it comes to the blockbuster action movie. And while the filmmakers are unapologetic about the bloated budgets, they acknowledge some belt-tightening is in order.

"For an event action movie, it's important to have a big enough budget to do things the right way," says Mr. Harlin, whose "Cliffhanger" is said to have surpassed the $70 million mark. "The audience is quite sophisticated these days. They've seen pretty much everything. So, to impress them, things have to be bigger, better and more surprising."

But director Paul Verhoeven says studios have become cost-conscious and may balk at certain extravagances. "Jim [Cameron] reached the last possible balance [on "T2"] -- spending a lot of money, but making more back. If you want to do something as good, it would be extremely expensive to the point of being economically inconceivable. The motorcycle-and-truck chase in that film, the shots are so fantastic, and they're not done in an easy way; it's very complicated. The time to set them up and get so many of them -- it's one difficult shot after another. In economic terms, if you were able to surpass that sequence if you spent another $10 million on top of your budget, you would not be allowed to today."

No self-censorship

A key aspect that can dictate the success or failure of an action film is the degree and tone of the violence. Even though Hollywood is now in an era when violence in entertainment is coming under fire from Washington, each agrees that the director should have the freedom to create as bloody or as sanitary a film as he wants.

Mr. Verhoeven says that when he's working, "I'm not thinking about the violence offending or upsetting them, or causing copycats, like the Disney case," in which new versions of the film "The Program" were sent out, deleting a scene that had inspired fatal copycat incidents. "The moment we say we can't do this in a movie because someone might copy it, then we have failed as filmmakers. We should not engage in self-censorship."

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