The best cinematic action of 2017 in three parts from the movies of SXSW.
It was heavier than I had anticipated. At the age of 16, if my memory serves me correctly, it was the first time I’d ever held a real gun. In the midwest, surrounded by a family full of avid hunters, this was a right of passage. At some point an uncle or two would want to show you the awesome power of a real firearm, both as appreciation for the weapon’s power and as a lesson in the seriousness of its deadly potential. The weight of the revolver in my hand brought both of these concepts to life with immediacy. It’s hard to hold a real gun and not be in awe and at least a little terrified. It’s a feeling I’ll never shake, perhaps one of those moments in which a teenager’s journey toward adulthood was accelerated a bit.
Despite the fact that I never took up the mantle of hunting for sport – or even firing guns at all – I’m long left with the indelible impression of that first encounter. The weight of it. The terrifying reality that when loaded, said weapon could take a human life. The tonal shift in conversation between myself and my general jovial uncle about responsibility and safety. This single experience may account for what I believe to be a healthy separation between the reality and the fantasy of action films. Because even though there’s plenty of joy for me in a shoot-em-up at any level, there’s never been any confusion as to what real guns can do. The only downside to this is that it’s hard to see any action movie living up to the awesome experience of firing a real gun. Because it’s all fake, after all. No matter how many squibs they employ or how much CGI blood is sprayed, there’s never been a film that has simulated the raw power of a simple firearm.
That was what I believed until recently. Because as I zipped through another fast and furious year of films at the South by Southwest Film Festival, I found three action films that will undoubtedly hang around my Best of the Year list for the next 9 months. And in our tour of these three fine actioners, we begin with one that did what I previously thought impossible, capturing some of that raw, harrowing power.
At the heart of Ben Wheatley’s single-location gun deal gone wrong shoot-em-up, there’s a brewing charm offensive. On one side, Armie Hammer plays a slickly dressed late-70s arms intermediary. The kind of guy who smells richly of beard oils and wisecracks his way into the most dangerous rooms on the planet. He’s clearly in it for himself as he leads a group of Irish freedom fighters (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Enzo Cilenti, and Sam Riley) in to buy guns from a zany South African dealer (Sharlto Copley) and his offbeat crew of associates. On the other side is Copley, often a cinematic airhorn of unintended camp and almost cartoonish desperation to be funny. Only here, in Wheatley’s carefully constructed 70s underworld, Copley is the perfect mix of skeevy and endearing. His character, Vernon, spouts platitudes like “Live and Vern” and goes on manic charm tirades. He’s exactly the sort of neurotic, unbearable presence that might be less than helpful if a gun deal should go wrong. So when it does go very wrong very quickly, he’s a delightful oasis of self-preservation. That is all to say that in a film where the likes of Brie Larson and Jack Reynor give splendid performances imbued with grit and wit, Hammer and Copley still steal the show.
But right, we’re talking about the awesome power of firearms and movie magic. Let’s not get lost in the personality, even though Free Fire is awash with it. The other thing Free Fire has in droves is gunfire. And not your average Hollywood gunfire that cackles around the surround sound lightly. This is chest-thumping, full-throat gun sound. Heavy, pounding shots that shake your core. It’s a brilliant bit of detail work from Ben Wheatley and his sound department, led by Martin Pavey. The kind of attention to detail that elevates the level of consequences that exist within this otherwise flashy, silly situation. Through this accomplishment in making the gunfire feel real (as opposed to simply looking real or sounding real), Wheatley and team add to the consequential nature of what’s happening. Sure, Armie Hammer has plenty of charming banter, but when someone pulls the trigger, the audience is given realism with immediacy.
These little combinations, that of technical details and fun performance-based story, make Free Fire a good ride. The kind that absolutely begs to be seen in the largest, loudest format possible. It’s that sonic movie magic that gives rise to something better than your average shoot-out.
Speaking of sonic movie magic…
In Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, we are presented with what is arguably the culmination of Mr. Wright’s early work. While technically The World’s End put his Cornetto Trilogy to rest, there’s so much stylistic residue in Baby Driver that it’s hard not to see this as an extension of, culmination of, and perfection of those early works. Take the fast-cutting, rhythmic sequences in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. Most notably, the sequence in Hot Fuzz where Simon Pegg’s Sgt. Angel travels to the country where his new job awaits. Wright uses Angel’s phone to show us how far out in the country we’re traveling, while using kinetic editing to move things along. We’re watching Simon Pegg ride a train with a plant, but there’s something almost balletic to the sequence. Wright goes a smidge further in a later scene where Nicolas wakes up and goes for a run, syncing the first part of the sequence to The Kinks’ song, “Village Green Preservation Society.” These are little bits and bobs of Wright playing with the idea of syncing his action to music.
With Baby Driver, he takes all of these ideas to the next level. His opening sequence shows us Baby (Ansel Elgort) driving the getaway car for a bank robbery perpetrated by hardened criminal types – Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, and Eiza Gonzalez. As the robbers get to robbing, Baby sits in his car listening to “Bellbottoms,” a song from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. When it’s time to get away, the crew fly around the streets of Atlanta in perfect sync with Baby’s song of choice. It’s a sequence – and ultimately a movie – driven as much by the soundtrack as its own propulsive story, a story that involves danger, deceit, young love, and the ages old tale of how one simply doesn’t walk away from organized crime.
The concept of an action musical – think La La Land meets The Transporter – is something Wright played around with in the 2002 music video for “Blue Song” by Mint Royale. It’s a vibrant, fun way to shoot and choreograph action, though I’d imagine it is painstaking to get everything from screeching tires to gun shots to sync up perfectly. But it’s this level of attention to detail that will delight fans of Wright’s early work as well as those who would like to see him take the next step to something more grand. Somehow Baby Driver is both. And it has a cast that can light the world on fire. To the extent that a manic Kevin Spacey might be the fourth best performance in the film. Even though it doesn’t have all the familiar faces from Wright’s previous work, every fiber of Baby Driver feels like an Edgar Wright film in the most delightful way possible. I dare say that it might be his best film.
Free Fire deals in charm and explosive sound work. Baby Driver innovates in a way that would make both Luc Besson and Jacques Demy proud. But our final action film, Atomic Blonde, does something that only a few very notable action movies have done in recent years: addressing the consequences of bludgeoning combat.
Director David Leitch (co-director of John Wick) opens his film in a cold, almost colorless bathroom with a 1950s decor. Inside a large white standalone bathtub full of ice is our pale-haired heroine, played by Charlize Theron. It could be one of those typical opening sequences – the kind that show our tough-as-nails hero getting ready to go out and kick ass. But it’s not. Atomic Blonde opens with long, patiently staged shots of Charlize Theron’s nude form, copiously covered with bruises and wounds. In its first five minutes, Atomic Blonde sets the stage brilliantly for a two-hour sprint of wanton violence by showing us the cost of all this punching and stabbing. If you spent any time considering what John Wick’s body might look like at the end of either of his two films, Atomic Blonde has your answer right up front.
The rest is an exercise less in “will she survive” and more in “how did all of that happen.” As Theron’s Lorraine, a Cold War era British spy on a mission in East Berlin to secure a missing list of double agents, fights her way toward her goal, that vision of her battered body stays with us. Right up until the end, we know that she’s in for more punishment. Which makes her wins that much more satisfying. Because if she survived to become one giant bruise, we can’t wait to see what the other guy looks like.
For Leitch, Atomic Blonde could have turned out to be a toiling exercise – a warm-up for his work on Deadpool 2 – but he really knocks it out of the park. The film has a mean streak of violence and an infectious vibe. It gets quality supporting performances from Sofia Boutella (Kingsman) and James McAvoy. And in the end, it delivers all the promise of “Charlize Theron gets her own version of John Wick” and then some, adding a bit of stylish dalliance into the world of espionage. That’s all to say that Atomic Blonde flat-out kicks ass. There’s no better way to put it.
As we move further into 2017, there are certainly plenty of potential action winners. There’s that Ghost in the Shell film, another Fast and Furious film, a new Alien movie, Wonder Woman, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Blade Runner, the Kingsman sequel, and plenty more. Even Star Wars: The Last Jedi might deliver some great action beats. But it’s very hard not to think that we’ve barely reached the end of March and we’ve already experienced the 5 best action films of the year (if you including John Wick 2 and Logan). That might not prove true by the end of the year, but these films will certainly be hard to beat.