With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Bad Boys (1995)
Movie directors who broke through to the mainstream in the ’90s tended to do it one of two ways, either through independent film or music videos. The music-video route was probably the less respectable one, but plenty of genuine auteurs still came up through that farm system: Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, the one-movie wonder Hype Williams. But music videos also produced plenty of big-screen hacks: McG, Brett Ratner, Gore Verbinski, Simon West, Marc Webb. The music-video world only produced one auteur hack, and that was Michael Bay.
Before he became every movie dork’s favorite punching bag, Bay—a former Wesleyan frat boy with feathery hair and a strong jawline—was in the trenches, making videos and TV commercials. In the early ’90s, he was probably more famous for the commercials; the ubiquitous early-’90s “Got Milk?” ads were his. But it’s in his videos that you could really see his style taking shape. Consider his early masterpiece: the video for Meat Loaf’s majestic 1993 cheese-fest “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” That video has a story, of sorts—something about Meat Loaf, in sympathetically deformed monster makeup, fleeing from police to woo a beautiful lady. But it’s not the story that you remember. It’s the individual images: helicopter blades cutting through the night, tongues chasing each other, a chandelier falling, a settee levitating, a mad-with-frustration Meat Loaf smashing all the mirrors in his ornate castle. It’s film as sensation, not as storytelling.
Bay’s biggest influence, I’d argue, wasn’t Steven Spielberg or Tony Scott or Martin Brest. For my money, it was Russell Mulcahy, the crazy Australian who pretty much defined the whole early-MTV aesthetic. Mulcahy was probably the first big-time music-video director to make the leap into features; he did the first two Highlander movies and the Denzel Washington vehicle Ricochet before pretty much torpedoing his career with the big-budget bomb The Shadow. Like Mulcahy, Bay was big on smoke machines and moving shadows and quick cuts. He just blew all those ideas out even further and added something new: aggressively, noisily dumb comedy. And that’s the combination that gave us Bad Boys—Bay’s first movie and, in a weird way, a hugely important movie in the history of action cinema.
Early on in Bad Boys, a crew of elite international mobsters breaks into a police station to steal a few hundred million dollars’ worth of confiscated heroin. They kill one of their own before the robbery even starts, supposedly to serve as some kind of diversion, and their whole break-in plan involves carts that slide through underground pipes at crazy speeds. Think about the way a director like Michael Mann would’ve filmed that robbery: with calm precision and icy tension, its violence fast and brutal, its grim-faced professionals intent on doing their jobs and getting out as fast as possible. Bay goes the opposite way, jerking his camera around and hacking things up in editing so that you’re not quite sure what’s going on, what these people’s plan is, why they needed to shoot that guy. The whole thing goes by in a hazy blur of action, and we’re not even entirely certain what happened until the good guys’ chief is grumpily explaining it the next day.
Those two good guys, of course, are Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Both were massive sitcom stars at the time, and neither one had been given the chance to carry a movie. To the extent that Bad Boys works at all today, it does so on the charm of those two. Lawrence has to do most of the comedic work, theatrically bugging out at every new ridiculous situation and delivering most of the big laugh lines. (As a very tall teenager, I spent the second half of the ’90s being told to sit my lengthy ass down.) Smith, meanwhile, was smooth and charismatic and stolid. He was always going to be a movie star, though the scene where he chases after the villains, gun clutched in his hand and shirt blowing open, probably helped him get there a whole lot faster.
It matters that Smith and Lawrence are both black and that black actors, especially ones who hadn’t proven themselves as movie stars, did not often get to carry movies in the ’90s, even mid-budget ones like Bad Boys. In recent years, Bay has earned a reputation for throwing casual, buffoonish racist humor into his movies. And when he does something truly indefensible, like the minstrel-show robots in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, he always cites the way he fought for Smith and Lawrence to be cast in Bad Boys as evidence of his own character. And yeah, he deserves some credit for that. Producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson had reportedly envisioned the film as a Dana Carvey/Jon Lovitz vehicle, which would’ve been really different. But that racism is there in Bad Bays, too, as in the scene where a freaked-out foreign liquor-store owner pulls a gun on Smith and Lawrence.
And when you consider that Bad Boys came from a music-video director—and that one of its stars was one of the most charming figures of rap’s first late-’80s golden age—the soundtrack is a fucking mess. There is plenty of rap—including, for a few blessed seconds, Tupac—but most of it is frantic garbage. The movie’s most memorable music cue is probably KMFDM’s industrial banger “Juke Joint Jezebel,” playing during a nightclub scene. Bay would fix that problem by the time he got around to making 2003’s Bad Boys II, a bad movie with an all-time great pop-rap soundtrack.
Bay was probably a little too aware he had a couple of sitcom stars on his hands when he was making the movie. Plotwise, Bad Boys plays out like a way-too-long sitcom episode with action scenes stapled on. An excruciatingly long stretch of the movie is a bullshit mistaken-identity subplot, with Lawrence’s family man attempting to fool fellow sitcom star Téa Leoni’s freaked-out witness into thinking that he’s really Smith’s slick playboy. (In an endearingly nonsensical touch, we learn that Smith’s Mike Lowrey—much like Sylvester Stallone’s Tango in the tonally similar Tango & Cash—is a rich guy who only works as a cop, because that’s what he always wanted to do.) Bay barely bothers to work up a reasonable explanation why Lawrence would be lying to both Leoni and his wife, but Lawrence commits to it completely. This is the sort of movie where the characters ask each other if they farted immediately before discovering a dead body, or where their chief smokes a cigar while shooting baskets, which is something that nobody has ever done in the history of humanity.
Bay reportedly hated the script, so he let Smith and Lawrence ad lib their way through it. That worked just fine for both of them, since they rode that movie to a whole lot more screen success. (Smith did that more than Lawrence, obviously, but Lawrence was still headlining movies for years afterward.) But that frantic style helped make the movie’s plot incomprehensible. Action set pieces that could’ve been intense and hard-hitting in another director’s hands, like Lawrence’s big fight in a nightclub bathroom or the final airport shoot-out, become vague smears of motion.
That vagueness, sadly, would become Bay’s great legacy. Soon after Bad Boys, just about every American studio action movie would have chaotic, indistinct fight scenes, and directors would yada-yada the scenes that should’ve been the real selling points. The Paul Greengrass Bourne movies get all the credit and blame for introducing the hectic, choppy shaky-cam style. But that style really got its start with Bay and Bad Boys. That movie introduced a two-decade epidemic of shitty and hard-to-follow action scenes, and we’re only just recovering from it now. That, more than the insulting comic relief or the “America, fuck yeah” jingoism, is Bay’s greatest cinematic sin. May he rot in hell for it.
Other notable 1995 action movies: It’s up for debate whether Michael Mann’s lowlife masterpiece Heat even counts as an action movie; after all, its biggest scene simply revolves around Robert De Niro and Al Pacino sitting across from one another in a diner. But the movie also features a few absolutely transcendent action set pieces, and its central robbery, among the best ever committed to film, would influence pretty much every bank-robbery scene that would follow. So Heat, which might not even be an action movie, still gets runner-up honors for 1995.
Meanwhile, with Desperado, Robert Rodriguez got a chance to make a studio sequel to his zero-budget debut El Mariachi, making Antonio Banderas into a Hollywood star by casting him as a mythic vengeance demon with a guitar case full of guns. It’s as silly a movie, in its own way, as Bad Boys, but its action scenes, the closest an American director had ever come to John Woo’s gun-fu theatrics at the time, are just infinitely better. (I could say the same about its acting, its characters, its setting, and its story. We would be living in a better cinematic world if Desperado had turned out to be as influential as Bad Boys.)
With Rumble In The Bronx, Jackie Chan finally got what he’d been wanting for a decade and a half: an American breakthrough. The gloriously fun and cartoonish Hong Kong movie, full of Day-Glo punk heavies straight out of a Double Dragon game, played in American theaters, made a shit-ton of money, and finally alerted Stateside audiences to the reality that Chan was one of the world’s greatest movie talents. (The year’s other big Hong Kong export was Tsui Hark’s operatic kung-fu epic The Blade.)
It was a good year for action movie sequels. Die Hard director John McTiernan returned to the series with the breathlessly fun Die Hard With A Vengeance, with Samuel L. Jackson stepping in as John McClane’s pissed-off de facto partner and Jeremy Irons playing Hans Gruber’s even nastier older brother. It’s easily the best Die Hard sequel and on a short list of the greatest action sequels ever made. With GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan came in to resuscitate the left-for-dead Bond franchise, giving it one of its best non-Connery entries. And while Steven Seagal’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory wasn’t in the same league as those other movies, it was a decent-enough Die Hard rip-off with an awesomely over-the-top villainous turn from Eric Bogosian, of all people.
Speaking of Die Hard rip-offs: One of the all-time greats is the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Sudden Death, in which rogue Secret Service agents hold the vice president hostage at game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. This is a movie where Van Damme, as an arena security chief, kills a bad guy disguised as a mascot and ends up making a game-deciding save when he’s forced to disguise himself as a goalie. It fucking rules.
This was the time when Hollywood studios were clumsily feeling their way around computer technology, and that made its way into plenty of 1995 movies. So Keanu Reeves got to foreshadow The Matrix by playing a dystopian computer-program smuggler in the beautifully confused, William Gibson-written Johnny Mnemonic. (It’s not a good movie by any stretch, but it does have Ice-T and Henry Rollins and Takeshi Kitano and Dolph Lundgren as a deranged, gospel-spouting hitman, so you should probably watch it anyway.) In Virtuosity, Denzel Washington had to track Russell Crowe’s virtual-reality serial killer made flesh. And while it doesn’t get into computer stuff the same way, the ultra-cheap American manga adaptation Fist Of The North Star presumably never could’ve existed without the internet. But the year’s real technology breakthrough was Mortal Kombat, Paul W.S. Anderson’s stupidly entertaining CGI-heavy video-game adaptation, which correctly figured out that the game was already pretty much an Enter The Dragon rip-off with some goofy interdimensional nonsense thrown in.
The year also saw its share of big-budget bombs. Kevin Costner’s notorious Waterworld was essentially an aquatic Mad Max rip-off, with a villainous Dennis Hopper reprising his scenery-chewing Speed schtick. (I haven’t seen it in decades, but I remember liking it at the time.) Sylvester Stallone had the misfortune of starring in the disastrously dumb Judge Dredd adaptation and the dull Banderas team-up Assassins in the same year. But one of my favorite movies from the year is another one that lost a ton of money: Sam Raimi’s endlessly inventive The Quick And The Dead, which reinvented the Western as zippy action cinema, with Sharon Stone at its center. In retrospect, the movie’s cast was just dumbfoundingly great: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Gene Hackman, Keith David, Lance Henriksen, and Gary Sinise all working to bring life to a gunfighter-tournament story that was, in its own delightful way, another Enter The Dragon rip-off. God bless Enter The Dragon rip-offs.
Next time: Michael Bay gives us The Rock, his cinematic opus, and somehow makes an action star out of Oscar winner Nicolas Cage in the process.