THE LATEST ACTION HEROES
on ATOMIC BLONDE, BABY DRIVER, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD and DOG EAT DOG
So, this is the current state of American action thrillers in the super-hero/franchise era: unlikely action heroes, starring in sarcastic, post-Tarantino actioners full of bantam-weight wink-wink wisecracking and hyper-realistic, ultra-violent bloodshed. Comic books in genre vestments, trying to pass themselves off as what they’re not; mash-ups that want to be at the same time utterly retro and of its time, but all of them trying so hard they end up trying too hard.
At least, Baby Driver does not attempt to say something serious about the state of the world — it’s just a pop heist romp from the manic genre-subverting imagination of Edgar Wright (the Brit genre collagist of the “Cornetto trilogy” with Simon Pegg), about a young getaway driver who gets more than he bargained for. Atomic Blonde is the worst offender in this case: this adaptation of an actual comic book tries to have its John le Carré cream tea and its Tony Scott high-gloss sundae and eat them both, with pretty disconcerting results.
Charlize Theron is note-perfect as an MI5 agent thrown headlong into the wasps’ nest that it is 1989 Berlin, just as the Wall is coming down, channeling all sorts of Cold War style icons from Debbie Harry to Nico to Monica Vitti. But the hardboiled nature of her dialogue and the world-weariness of her performance don’t jell with the flashy, hyper-stylized neon gloss of David Leitch’s kinetic handling.
The script’s constant switchbacks, double and triple crosses and elaborate macguffins are so confusing that you get very quickly lost about who is doing what to whom, its attempts at grey-area gravitas coming off as hackneyed as soon as Theron starts disposing of all sorts of baddies like a blonde avenger. And yet, one scene makes the film come thrillingly alive and engaging: a superbly choreographed fight scene in a Berlin building, set up in almost real time in a hand-held shot where you feel every gut punch and hard tackle, the mere strength and effort needed to survive in such surroundings. This is what could have been if Atomic Blonde had opted for gritty, dour espionage drama instead of day-glo pop video.
No such luck for The Hitman’s Bodyguard: on paper, the idea of Deadpool and Shaft together in a 1980s buddy action comedy is alluring; and it’s hard to think of two contemporary action stars that can play up the comedy aspect to the hilt while still delivering the bad-ass. But if Atomic Blonde is a comic book trying to get serious, The Hitman’s Bodyguard looks like a serious thriller hijacked by comic-book throwaway humour halfway through production, unhelped by Aussie director Patrick Hughes’ formless direction.
Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson are perfectly matched chalk and cheese in this tale of a washed-up bodyguard that becomes the only chance of getting an eyewitness to a human rights trial in the Hague alive — said witness being a contract hitman who is literally unkillable. Salma Hayek almost steals the show as the hitman’s mercurial Latin wife, but the film is more interested in the banter between mismatched professionals and in the elaborately constructed chase setpieces than in giving its actors anything serious or interesting to bite into. The stars coast on their charm and professionalism, but they can’t help Hughes’ Michael-Bay-wannabe more-is-more maximalism. The result is a loud, noisy, interminable and often plain dull film that can be incredibly tone-deaf in its juxtaposition of righteous violence, crime story cliché and sitcom humour.
Baby Driver, again, is the outlier here, but it’s not necessarily a good outlier; if you’ve seen Wright’s previous work, you may think of it as a mash-up of his British and American work, Baby Driver vs The World, if you’d like. The early goings have the right balance of sweetness and cheek, action and humour, before the third act’s descent into Tarantino-esque violence goes South with a vengeance.
All three films have this obsession with pop music as a shortcut to its characters — the techno sheen of New Order, Depeche Mode or Falco soundtracking the late-eighties decadence of Atomic Blonde ends up as more of a mood-setting distraction from the film’s energy; the blues and soul references of The Hitman’s Bodyguard over-signify the “realness” of Jackson’s character, all but drowning an unexpectedly bombastic score that is itself pulling the film down. Baby Driver is the one where the music feels actually organic, with the idea of Baby setting its getaway runs to iPod playlists synchronized to the second being the film’s saving grace. Baby Driver isn’t so much directed as it is choreographed.
But Wright’s is also the one film that runs the risk of settling in with the fetishism of 1960s obscure soul sides and “those were the days” analog (or in this case early digital) technology. It’s the one film that tries to take up Tarantino’s blueprint and do something different with it — kind of Tarantino 101 for PG-13 audiences — and though it fails, it’s a worthy shot, much helped by the way its actors flesh out the archetypes Wright’s given them, from Kevin Spacey’s phlegmatic boss to Jamie Foxx’s quiet psychopath. That’s what makes it a shame when it descends into cluelessness and anarchy in its third, endless act (all three films extend their welcome by at least 30 minutes, most visibly in The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s continuous piling-on of false cliffhangers).
Where does this leave Paul Schrader? Dog Eat Dog is a late addition to this list, but it is an addition that has some of the Tarantino pedigree I’ve been skirting around. It is based on a novel by the late ex-con and character actor Eddie Bunker, Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs and author of the book that inspired Straight Time; and its juxtaposition of high-gloss genre and deadpan satire, of self-image colliding head-on with reality, is straight out of Tarantino’s crime inspirations.
Like Baby Driver, it’s another “last-heist-and-we’re-out” film, with three clueless ex-cons way in over their heads: fresh out of jail, utterly dislikeable people looking for some sort of redemption, but denied it by their utter incompetence at their chosen trade. Fall and redemption is a recurrent motif in Schrader’s work, both as a screenwriter and as a director; and, as all of his films, Dog Eat Dog is essentially an actor’s piece, with his regular collaborator Willem Dafoe all but stealing the film with a haunted, mercurial performance as the trigger-happy psychopathic Mad Dog. Even Nicolas Cage, carried over from Schrader’s previous, ill-fated Dying of the Light, is a cut above his usual phone-ins, his tired heavy-handedness making sense in this tale of lambs heading to the slaughter of their own accord.
But Dog Eat Dog isn’t so much an actioner as an intriguingly grotesque carnival of a black comedy that veers wildly between the outrageous and the tragic, held together by the performances and Schrader’s sheer glee in breaking the rules. You can read it as an acid nightmare of modern-day criminal America, and the director wouldn’t disavow it, but he’d point out this was made as a palate-cleanser after the bad taste of Dying of the Light being removed from Schrader’s hands and hacked by the producers. If Baby Driver is a kind of Tarantino 101 for PG-13 audiences, Dog Eat Dog explores the limits of bad taste and low budget to see how far you can get away with if you want to go that far. It turns out Schrader did go far, just in another, and not as satisfying, direction.
Directed by David Leitch; written by Kurt Johnstad, based on the comic-book by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart; starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones; US, 2017, 115 minutes (Focus Features/Sierra Pictures)
THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD
Directed by Patrick Hughes; written by Tom O’Connor; starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Élodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida and Richard E. Grant; US/BG/HK, 2017, 118 minutes (Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment/Millennium Media)
Directed and written by Edgar Wright; starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx; US/GB, 2017, 112 minutes (Tristar/Sony Pictures)
DOG EAT DOG
Directed by Paul Schrader; written by Matthew Wilder, based on the novel by Edward Bunker; starring Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Omar Dorsey, Louisa Krause, Melissa Bolona, Rey Gallegos and Chelcie Melton; GB/US/CN, 2015, 93 minutes (RLJ Entertainment/Arclight Films)