Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe sucks up all the multiplex screens in America, leaving little space in theatres for movies where good-looking people find themselves in dangerously violent situations that don’t have budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but interesting things are nonetheless afoot with the action film genre. There’s a real need for on-screen fisticuffs and gunfighting, among the oldest of film genres, and the Disney films (along with pretty much every other blockbuster) no longer satisfy it. Instead, driven by the destructive possibilities of computer generated imagery, they are disaster films: movies designed around the obliteration of space, of increasingly elaborate digital representations of our world. The model for the modern blockbuster is not the action film: the buddy cop and sci-fi adventure/horror movies of the 80s and early 90s, or even the epic adventures of early 2000s hits like the Lord of the Rings series or Gladiator. Rather they’re variations on the disaster films revived in the mid-90s by Jurassic Park and Independence Day. Even when a Disney film tries for a different sort of template, say Shang-Chi with the Hong Kong wuxia film, it devolves in the end into a movie in which pixels fly around, make a lot of noise, and cause a lot of ultimately meaningless damage.
And yet there are still action movies being made, but on the margins of the industry. Jesse V. Johnson has built a solid career for himself as a director of straight-to-video action films, movies in which beefy men punch and shoot each other. His films star guys like Robert Davi, Tom Berenger, Tony Jaa, Billy Zane, Eric Roberts, and, above all, Scott Adkins (whose One Shot is another fine recent antidote to Disney blockbuster bloat). A former stunt man, Johnson makes movies with actual action performed by actual stunt performers, not actors dancing with ping pong balls in front of a green screen. Hell Hath No Fury switches up Johnson’s formula, in that it stars a woman, Nina Bergman. She’s a French woman who has be imprisoned for collaboration with the Nazis in 1944. Four American soldiers have “rescued” her from the local mob, with the understanding that she will lead them to a bagful of Nazi gold, hidden somewhere in a cemetery. Most of the movie takes place in this one location, as the soldiers encounter Bergman’s erstwhile companions in the French Resistance (her true loyalties are a matter of question for most of the film) and a group of Nazis led by Bergman’s former lover, who are headed their way. The action is clean and focused, making effective use of its location, finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for traps and daring escapes, the kind of filmmaking that only really works out in the wild.
Largely a collection of classic WW2 movie tough guys, Johnson gives the generic character types a twist by making everyone just a little bit weirder, a little more demented, a little more savage than we’re used to seeing. The result is a film of admirable nastiness, more effectively conveying the brutality of war on both physical bodies and psyches than would be allowed in a more prestigious war film (say, 1917). In this Bergman’s physicality is central: head shaved by a mob, covered in mud, bruises, and a slip of a dress, she nonetheless never shrinks from the world of cruelly violent men she finds herself in. It’s a war movie that isn’t the least bit about heroism, but about the struggle, the will to survive.
Johnson’s dusty images capture the dirtiness of this world, a rare case of modern gray-scale cinematography serving an expressive purpose. Another recent action film goes the opposite direction. While Kate shares with Hell Hath No Fury a brutal physical performance from its lead actress, director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan opts for a palette of deep blacks accented by neon blues and pinks, what might be called the John Wick style, after one of the few blockbuster franchises that does understand the primal joy of seeing stunt fighters at work (like Johnson, John Wick director Chad Stahelski was a former stunt man—I’ve said it before and it remains the case: stuntmen make the best movies). Nicolas-Troyan started in visual effects, working for years with Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Weather Man, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), so it’s no surprise that his images would pop more than Johnson’s, or that his action would be less convincing. Though that’s no fault of the film’s star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a fascinating actress who should have been a major star but never quite broke through.
Winstead plays a professional assassin who is poisoned by someone and has 24 hours to figure out who it was and exact her revenge before she drops dead. It’s the plot of the classic noir DOA of course, except with a sociopathic and unnervingly childlike killer as the hero rather than an accountant. Prowling the back streets of Tokyo, she sorts her way through the various factions of a yakuza group, before coming to the inevitable conclusion that she was betrayed by the two biggest names in the cast: Woody Harrelson, her handler/father figure, and Asano Tadonobu, an ambitious lieutenant in the gang. (Asano, one of the finest actors in the world, simply has to be admired for his determination to rack up cash being underutilized in American genre films. See, for example, the Thor series.) The action is solid but unspectacular gun and fist fights, with Winstead enduring even more punishment than Bergman: shot and stabbed and bruised on top of the debilitating effects of the poison she’s been given, it’s a wrenchingly tactile performance. Yet the film pulls its punches, so to speak, in a way that Hell Hath No Fury does not. Winstead is given a sassy teen sidekick, the granddaughter of the yakuza boss, and flashbacks creating a poignant backstory (she’s been killer since she was a kid, literalized by her obsession with a particular brand of lemon soda). It’s more conventional story-telling, and the film is all the less effective for it. In the end it doesn’t end up feeling any more real than any other franchise film, with their lab-tested and handbook-approved screenplays. But at least it’s got actual people in it.