Action has always been at the centre of cinema. From The Great Train Robbery of 1903 through the vaudevillian exploits of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd to the muscular he-men of the ‘80s and ‘90s, audiences have flocked to watch athletic men – and, occasionally, women – complete death-defying acts and demonstrate their physical prowess on-screen.
In 2018, action is as strong as ever. But the boundaries of the genre have been redefined in the wake of the superhero genre’s dominance over the box office. Once, superhero films like Blade, Batman and Spawn were offshoots of action; a subgenre with its own defining features but that, nonetheless, sat underneath the action umbrella. That’s no longer true. No-one going to see Black Panther or Justice League says that they’re checking out an ‘action movie’, and the superhero (sub)genre has accumulated its own set of tropes and traditions that are flaunted or subverted at will.
Action films lacking capes and superpowers have adapted by carving out their own niche in the commercial cinema marketplace, either emphasising physicality – as in films like the widely-celebrated Mission: Impossible – Fallout – or personality, in action-comedies like The Spy Who Dumped Me. Fallout attracts audiences through the promise of incredible stunts and setpieces; the marketing puts helicopters and HALO jumps and motorcycles front-and-centre, with characters and story a distant second. The Spy Who Dumped Me, meanwhile, promises popcorn entertainment and laughs, but its primary selling point is the charisma of its leads, Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon.
Fallout’s marketing strategy is distinct from superhero films but shared by many of its action compatriots. Marvel Studios films, for instance, rely on attracting audiences with the promise of familiar characters – Spider-Man! Iron Man! Captain America! – in an equally familiar, even formulaic, storyline. These films inhabit the fantastical; their action counterparts dwell in a kind of heightened reality; they’re not real, but the stunts are intended to be. Skyscraper sells itself on that (frequently parodied, certainly impossible) leap from a crane to its titular building. Tomb Raider’s marketing centred on how fit Alicia Vikander had gotten, how precariously she hung from high places. Even the Fast and the Furious franchise – the action series to most consciously model its storytelling on superhero films – promises a new big stunt with each film, with fervent behind-the-scenes YouTube videos proclaiming how difficult it was to parachute real cars from the sky or whatever.
Fallout is the epitome of this iteration of action films. Early films in the franchise centred on rubber marks and espionage antics (an, uh, Limp Bizkit theme songs), until Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol showcased the mother of all stunts: the Burj Khalifa setpiece. Rogue Nation continued the “Tom Cruise risks his life for your entertainment” bit with a ludicrous opening scene; Fallout takes it to the next level, with a half-dozen stunts on the level of Rogue Nation’s plane stunt (though, it must be said, nothing quite on the level of Burj Khalifa). Tom Cruise jumps out of an aircraft – for real. Tom Cruise rides a motorcycle through Paris – for real. Tom Cruise learns to fly a helicopter – for real. Tom Cruise even – in true Jackie Chan style – breaks his leg for real.
When it comes to stunts – the ambition, the execution, the sheer audacity of it all – Fallout will be remembered for a long time. Critics are already praising it as one of the best action films in years. That level of praise isn’t misplaced. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie brings a sense of rhythm and playfulness to the film after his competent yet unexciting work on the previous film. We get the plot out of the way quickly – there’s an info-dump at the start and then it’s pretty much pedal-to-the-metal thereafter – with enough surprises in the action and plotting to avoid complacency. Sure, the villain is obvious from the get-go, but McQuarrie’s screenplay is well-stocked with minor twists here and there (no big surprise from the man who brought us Usual Suspects). Much like the Fast and the Furious franchise, the franchise is finally starting to lean on its continuity. Thankfully, it’s a strength rather than a weakness, providing meaningful character motivations without the need for extended introductions. Rebecca Ferguson’s return to the fold as MI6 operative Ilsa Faust is especially appreciated.
Fallout isn’t quite the perfect movie that its proponents pretend it is, however. Some of its stunts are only truly impressive when you realise they were done for real; scenes like the HALO jump and the helicopter showdown have been so effectively simulated by special effects in recent history that you don’t immediately parse them as ‘real’ unless you’re familiar with the behind-the-scenes promotions. My favourite action scene of the film is actually one of the simplest; a bathroom showdown between Cruise, Henry Cavill and stuntman Liang Yang that’s awe-inspiring in its speed, brutality and physicality.
Similarly, while Fallout does a good job of incorporating the sense of humour and pacing that made Rogue Nation so effective (well, for its first ~70 minutes, at least), its forward momentum sometimes sacrifices tension. One of Fallout’s most engaging scenes is a simple interrogation between Hunt (Cruise) and nemesis Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) as Luther (Ving Rhames) tries to remove a tracking device implanted in Lane’s neck before a stopwatch hits sixty seconds. There’s nothing really happening here, but the intense sense of anticipation is something that the rest of the film calls out for.
Still, there’s no denying that Fallout is the apex of recent action moviemaking, only really eclipsed by the utterly-bonkers Mad Max: Fury Road. Back in the ‘90s, when audiences were happy for Bruce Willis to throw out some one-liners or Jean Claude Van Damme to kick someone in the throat, the idea of a genuine A-lister like Tom Cruise throwing himself out of an actual fucking aeroplane would’ve seemed ludicrous. But when you’re got to compete with billion-dollar juggernauts like the Avengers, these are the limits you’ve got to go to.
On the other side of the coin, you have a film like The Spy Who Dumped Me. Beyond the female leads and female director, there’s little to distinguish the core of action-comedies like this from similar films popular in the ‘80s. Think Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, etc. Such films promise easy-going entertainment for viewers; some action (though nothing truly innovative, of course) and some quips. In fact, take away the magic powers and super-suits, and you’ve pretty much got the underlying model for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’d argue there’s been somewhat of a resurgence in this genre recently; over the past year we’ve had comedy-actions like Game Night and Tag and action-comedies like Incredibles 2 and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. And that goes without mentioning (almost) anything starring Dwayne Johnson. What I particularly appreciate about the resurgence in action-comedies is that they bring a degree of structure to a genre – talking comedy, here – that was suffering from too much looseness. Action scenes demand tight choreography and pre-planning, and therefore tend to attract directors who bring more structure to the comedic aspects of the film than Apatow-inspired riffing and improv.
The Spy Who Dumped Me is far from the best of the recent batch of action-comedies, but it’s a good example of what works in the genre. The casting is pretty perfect, for starters; the four ‘leads’ (Mila Kunis, Justin Theroux, Kate McKinnon and Outlander’s Sam Heughan) are attractive, endearing and – with the arguable exception of Heughan – funny. McKinnon, in particular, is given free rein to indulge in her anarchic sense of humour throughout, even if the film seems desperately conflicted as to her character’s sexuality throughout. (If you’re going to let McKinnon do her thing, just let her character be gay af!) The fundamental appeal of such movies is spending time with likeable people, and The Spy Who Dumped Me certainly hits that mark.
What makes this film exemplify the contemporary action-comedy genre for me is how well it balances the demands of action and comedy. The action scenes are at a higher standard than you would’ve expected a decade ago; well-edited, well-constructed and genuinely impressive. The theme of this film is ordinary people getting thrown into a Hollywood spy movie, so the precision of the action is necessary for the gag to work. The film’s detractors complain that the level of violence undercuts the comedy – I levelled a similar charge at Rampage earlier this year – but, for me, director Susanna Fogel does an excellent job of injecting enough levity and absurdity into the action to keep it from detracting from the gags. Equally, where there are certainly better jokes out there, the baseline comedic energy of the film (largely thanks to McKinnon) keeps things humming along nicely.
Part of what drives both The Spy Who Dumped Me and Fallout is the need to bring audiences into the cinema. With bigger domestic TVs, better sound systems and easier streaming, it’s getting harder and harder to justify spending big bucks to see a low-key romantic comedy or light-hearted drama on the big screen. While neither of these films are worlds apart from the franchise filmmaking lamented by Chicken Little critics, they demonstrate that there’s still plenty of fun to be had in the cinema outside of comic book adaptations. Long live the action movie – in all its forms.