Action films should be judged by genre norms

More often than not, filmgoers think of action films as popcorn flicks: mindless entertainment.

And there’s good reason for that: Consider The Fast and the Furious franchise, the Transformers trilogy and a handful of comic-book movies in between.

Game changer · Rian Johnson (left) directs Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the futuristic action film Looper. Though the movie makes use of genre conventions, it is a prime example of how an action film can transcend expectations through innovative techniques and thought-provoking themes. – | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Publicity

Action films in general clearly entertain and tend to perform well at the box office, but often prove formulaic: Cars, girls, action, repeat.

Don’t get me wrong, readers. I love — and I mean love — a good action film. I rank Independence Day among the top of my favorite ’90s films, and The Bourne series — with the exception of The Bourne Legacy (sorry, Jeremy Renner) — is my go-to pick-me-up.

And as far as The Fast and the Furious franchise is concerned, I know I’m not the only one anxiously counting down the days until the sixth installment hits theaters. The awful, endlessly quotable dialogue is as bad as the action is good, and you can never really have enough Vin Diesel — seriously.

But as enjoyable as they are, The Fast and the Furious flicks — particularly Tokyo Drift — are not mind-blowing, well-crafted films, working to change the face of the industry. Instead, the pics — and action films in general — are typically considered to be low-brow entertainment that does little to advance the film medium as a whole.

But this assessment is a one-dimensional approach to analyzing action films, one that restricts the genre to archetypes. We need to broaden our snap judgments to consider the context in which we are watching the film.

People tend to think there is some universal rule that defines what makes a great piece of cinema. That just isn’t true. Our perceptions vary from genre to genre, and with that being the case, the way we criticize film needs to vary from genre to genre.

Just take a look at some of the films that are already in theaters or will be shortly. Viewers and critics can’t compare Taken 2 to The Master. They simply aren’t working on the same spectrum because they are built upon different foundations — they have completely different aims.

If Taken 2 is anything like its predecessor, it will adopt rapid-fire editing and high-speed action to pick up the pace of the story in an effort to entertain — key word: entertain — its audience. The Master, on the other hand, utilizes a slow-burn pace to play up dramatic moments and thought-provoking themes of religion, control, love and so forth. This is a film that has something to say about the world, and director Paul Thomas Anderson wants to make his audience think — key word: think. In an effort to reach their aims, the two films just operate differently by nature.

Mind you, this isn’t a disclaimer for action films. Viewers need to be critical of what they’re watching. In the process, however, they should not hold mindless action films to lower standards, but rather different ones. See, every single cinematic device — be that style, narrative, pace, themes or motifs — is informed by genre, and that needs to be taken into consideration while viewing a film. Tokyo Drift will not revolutionize the face of film, but it’s a favorite guilty pleasure of mine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes a film just needs to be taken for what it is and nothing more.

Looper, however, is one of the rare exceptions to the commonplace action film. Writer and director Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller has only been out for a little more than a week, but critics have already hailed it as a progressive action film.

Rotten Tomatoes summed up the critical responses to the film, saying, “As thought-provoking as it is thrilling, Looper delivers an uncommonly smart, bravely original blend of futuristic sci-fi and good old-fashioned action.” The film has received a 93 percent critical average to match.

But for every Looper there are 10 Red Tails, for every The Dark Knight Rises there are 20 Battleships. Hyperbolic, yes, but the idea still stands: There is no denying the influx of poorly constructed action films. Perhaps Looper will serve as a catalyst for future thought-provoking, innovative action films. For now, action films seems to be happy to merely entertain viewers. But like I said before, there’s really nothing wrong with that.

With the exception of a few brilliant films like Looper, if viewers want to assess these films fairly, the solution here is plain and simple: Critique action films under the guise of their own genre. Heck, The Fast and the Furious films are not cinematic game-changers, but they’re great for what they are, and that’s what needs to be taken into consideration while viewing.


C. Molly Smith is a junior majoring in communication. Her column “Keepin’ it Reel” runs Wednesdays.