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Dumb and Dumber

Once there were films like ‘Bullit,’ and ‘Lethal Weapon,' now we get junk like ‘Walking Tall’ and ‘The Punisher.’ Where have all the smart action flicks gone? By R.S. Griffith
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Revenge seems to be all the, ahem, rage these days, what with “Walking Tall,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” “The Punisher,” and now “Man on Fire” spooling up on screens nationwide, and while I’ve only caught two of these recent releases (“Walking Tall” and “The Punisher,” if you must know) to date, I’d seen enough to get me wondering — fretting really — about how disappointing and utterly mind-numbing the recent spate of action flicks has been.

Is it just me, or has Hollywood forgotten how to make, at least with any consistency, a good, smart bang-bang-shoot-em-up that will keep your orbs (and heaven forbid, maybe even your brain) happily, giddily peeled to the screen from start to finish? Now implausible I can take, as long as it’s done well and inventively, like, say, “Face/Off.”  This movie had plotlines that made our president’s case for WMD in Iraq seem Boy Scout-credible. But what was lacking in believability was more than made up for in cinematic style and panache, thank you very much John Woo.

Over-the-top, overly violent, whatever — a mediocre or far-fetched story bugs me far less than a pedestrian or uninspired execution of that idea. And there’s no more lethal a kiss of action pic death than that of leaving the audience bored.

Mission implausibleNow maybe asking the typical action movie to be “smart” (as in brainy or brilliant) is overreaching, and I know quite a few women, many of whom we guys drag with us to said films, who’d wholeheartedly agree that action movies aren't brilliant by design. But, really, is it too much to ask for an intelligent, entertaining ride that will leave me feeling like I haven’t just wasted another Friday night or summer afternoon, not mention 10 bucks and irreplaceable gray matter?

This isn’t to say that Hollywood hasn’t cranked out a good, solid action yarn in recent memory. They have. But for every “The Rock,” “Con Air,” “Bourne Identity” or “Italian Job” (Mark Wahlberg notwithstanding), there seem to be like five “Walking Talls” or “Mission Impossible 2’s” or “2 Fast 2,” um, “Furiouses.”

So why is it that these films, well, suck? (And I’m talking about on the entertainment level.) Let’s first put aside the foremost culprit: the industry-wide notion that every mega-release pic has to be the blockbuster box office king on its opening weekend or it’s a flop, tens of millions in grosses be damned. This almost desperate striving to be the biggest swinging you-know-what come Monday morning manifests itself in test marketing and focus grouping and re-editing ad nauseam in a vain attempt to please every member of the movie-going masses. Not only an impossible task, but a misguided one as well.

Add to that a certain pandering skewed to the younger end of the male moviegoing demographic (let’s say the 14-21 crowd) that dumbs down everything to the point of idiocy, leaving the older and, yes, more mature (though barely) viewer virtually brain-dead. Piece of advice to moviemakers: Stop ignoring us geezers, and stop underestimating the kids.

Sleepwalking tall

**RETRANSMISSION TO FIX SPELLING OF SCOTT'S FIRST NAME**Actors The Rock, left, and Seann William Scott are shown in a scene from Universal Studios action adventureM. Aromwitz - Universal Studios / UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

Take “Walking Tall,” the remake of the 1973 classic featuring Joe Don Baker. My first gripe: Why did they change the lead character’s name from the original? Come on, has there ever been a better handle for a good ole boy bad-ass than Buford T. Pusser?! OK, so maybe it’d be hard to sell The Rock as the real-life, and very Caucasian, Pusser. But then I seriously doubt anybody going to see this current rendering would have a clue as to who Pusser even was, black or white. Anyway, the protagonist’s “new” name is Chris Vaughn, which packs about as much tough-guy machismo as, oh, Ryan Seacrest.

More to the point, they’ve taken a great (and true) tale of frontier — well, the Deep South — vigilantism spiced with compellingly decrepit, vice-ridden villains and put it through the current Hollywood SOP of script and story by committee. (Four writers are credited with this new production.) In other words, they’ve gleaned it of any urgency, narrative or otherwise, and tossed out another by-the-numbers, career-enhancing (or not) vehicle for The Rock.

Now I like The Rock. He was great in “The Scorpion King,” and I think he’s going to carve out a comfortable place for himself in the Schwarzenegger School of Action Heroes. He just needs something better, something more fleshed out to sink his “Smackdown!-sculpted frame into, and The Rundown” was close, if not for Seann William Scott’s typically one-note snarky turn. I rented “Bulletproof Monk” the other day, and I swear, S.W.S. turned in the same exact smart-ass performance, just with more kung fu.

Lethal injectionWhen Hollywood gets into a “please all the people all the time” mentality, and more to the point, rewrites a story umpteen times based on test market feedback, too often the death knells start a-tolling before a frame of film is shot.

That’s why films like “Lethal Weapon” and “Bourne Identity” and classics like “Dirty Harry” and “Bullitt” all work so well. They started with a great story, and from there even better casting, directing and voilà! — a killer movie. I have the same high hopes for “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” thanks in big part to two words: Quentin Tarantino.

It’s also why such disasters as “Hollywood Homicide” — eek! — failed so miserably. A lousy, hare-brained story and casting that stank of an older action star (I won’t name names, but it rhymes with bored) trying to revive a declining career with the flavor-of-the-week young hunk (and vice versa for Josh Hartnett trying to get a leg up) spelled nothing but flop from the first “Action!”

Despite all my kvetching, I’m still a very optimistic sort when it comes to new movies. Quite simply, I love them — and I love going to them, which is why I’m going to go see “Kill Bill Vol 2” and “Man on Fire” this weekend. I still can’t help feeling ripped off, though, by the majority of recent Hollywood action flick fodder. Which, sad to say, takes me back to “The Punisher.”

“This isn’t revenge. It’s not vengeance,” says the grim-faced “hero,” Frank Castle, when explaining the (ir)rationale behind his payback-fueled killing spree. “This is punishment.”

Pretty much sums up how I felt having to sit through this movie, too.

R.S. Griffith is a Los Angeles-based writer who you probably won't find at a screening of “New York Minute.”