Lights, camera, but no action

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The mega-budgeted, mega-noisy, mega-violent action film is about to meet an ending as tragic and predictable as that of a sidekick cop who loves his family and is mere days from retirement.

That's the consensus of a handful of respected action directors and one producer.

"Action movies are sort of the bastard child of Hollywood," says Renny Harlin, director of such adventure films as "Cliffhanger" and "Die Hard 2: Die Harder." "All the studios want them, yet somehow they appear to be somewhat disrespectful of them. Serious writers won't seem to touch them."

The formula appears to be wearing thin. The high-profile "Last Action Hero" did a high-profile belly-flop at the box office, and action films released this year -- "On Deadly Ground," "The Getaway" and "The Chase" among them -- proved box-office disappointments. On the other hand, Andrew Davis' "The Fugitive" and Wolfgang Petersen's "In the Line of Fire" -- action films driven more by character and plot than by special effects and stunt work -- were among the year's biggest critical and financial successes.

None of this comes cheaply, and with budgets for these films typically weighing in at $60 million to $70 million before marketing and distribution -- one summer action movie, "True Lies," is said to have cost more than $100 million -- they're no longer the sure-fire money machines that, say, "Last Action Hero" was touted as being.

"The problem is that while the studios want and need them, it's different today," says producer Mace Neufeld ("Patriot Games," the upcoming "A Clear and Present Danger" and "Beverly Hills Cop III"). "You have to face the actual costs of making them."

But the law of diminishing returns states that there is a point at which bigger and noisier action simply won't mean better, and filmmakers feel that point has not just been reached, but long passed.

"I hate it," says Richard Donner (the "Lethal Weapon" series and the just-opened "Maverick") about the trend of one-upmanship. "If it's gonna go on, it's gonna go on without me."

Flexibility is key

Says Mr. Harlin: "Big effects and stunts make movies more exciting, but audiences have seen it all. In the future, story and characters are going to be the key.

"In the '70s actions movies, characters were very complicated," Mr. Harlin continues. "In the '80s, though, things got out of hand. It was all superheroes, all muscle and gun-power. There were loads of superheroes. The Reaganite period created that, but that's dead now."

Mr. Davis says flexibility is the key to making exciting action movies. Despite the precise conditions under which "The Fugitive's" memorable train wreck was shot, he says, "It's important to be able to improvise. If you storyboard a film and shoot just the storyboard, it'll feel too tailored and not spontaneous. If things are supposed to be out of control, you don't want things to feel too in-control."

Of course, smashing up a real, live train doesn't come cheap. Few things do when it comes to the blockbuster action movie. And while the filmmakers are unapologetic about the bloated budgets, they acknowledge some belt-tightening is in order.

"For an event action movie, it's important to have a big enough budget to do things the right way," says Mr. Harlin, whose "Cliffhanger" is said to have surpassed the $70 million mark. "The audience is quite sophisticated these days. They've seen pretty much everything. So, to impress them, things have to be bigger, better and more surprising."

But director Paul Verhoeven says studios have become cost-conscious and may balk at certain extravagances. "Jim [Cameron] reached the last possible balance [on "T2"] -- spending a lot of money, but making more back. If you want to do something as good, it would be extremely expensive to the point of being economically inconceivable. The motorcycle-and-truck chase in that film, the shots are so fantastic, and they're not done in an easy way; it's very complicated. The time to set them up and get so many of them -- it's one difficult shot after another. In economic terms, if you were able to surpass that sequence if you spent another $10 million on top of your budget, you would not be allowed to today."

No self-censorship

A key aspect that can dictate the success or failure of an action film is the degree and tone of the violence. Even though Hollywood is now in an era when violence in entertainment is coming under fire from Washington, each agrees that the director should have the freedom to create as bloody or as sanitary a film as he wants.

Mr. Verhoeven says that when he's working, "I'm not thinking about the violence offending or upsetting them, or causing copycats, like the Disney case," in which new versions of the film "The Program" were sent out, deleting a scene that had inspired fatal copycat incidents. "The moment we say we can't do this in a movie because someone might copy it, then we have failed as filmmakers. We should not engage in self-censorship."

Mr. Harlin says finding that right amount of blood and guts can be a crap shoot.

"I've had interesting results at test screenings. We interviewed a core group after a 'Cliffhanger' screening and asked them who thought it was too violent, and about half the group raised their hands. Then we asked who thought it wasn't violent enough, and the other half of the group raised their hands.

"It's tricky. To please everybody, you have to have enough violence to get an action fan's adrenaline lifted to a serious enough level without offending other potential moviegoers."

"From the beginning, we wanted 'The Fugitive' to be PG-13," says Mr. Davis. "With Harrison Ford, you have an opportunity to reach everybody, younger kids and older people. We could've chosen to make a tougher version of it, but we chose not to."

Mr. Verhoeven, originally from the Netherlands, has found that -- unique sensibilities that serve directors well in their homelands can get them into trouble with the Motion Picture Association of America, which has slapped several of his films with X's or NC-17's.

"It's a horrible process. No director would like to go through it," says Mr. Verhoeven. And even though his films "Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct" pushed the MPAA's R rating to its absolute limits with their violence and sex, he insists, "I haven't been trying to test the MPAA's boundaries. This just started when I began working in the American market. I just shoot it, and that's what I get. My European upbringing gives me a certain sensibility regarding sex and violence that simply is not corresponding with the MPAA's guidelines on movie content.

"I'm easily disgusted, but I am easily bored," he says. "My feeling is, if I like it, then the audience will like it. If a sequence is considered too violent, then that shows the discrepancy between my character and the character of the audience. And if you do that too often, you won't be making movies too much longer."

Safety on the set

The degree of violence is also dictated by the viability of the stunts described in the script. Safety on the set became an issue again last year, when Brandon Lee was killed by a prop gun during a routine stunt.

"A lot of stunt people don't like me," says Mr. Donner. "I think we're illusionists. I like to create the magic steeped in total safety and trickery. I pull [stunt people] back. I don't believe in hurting animals or people" for a movie.

"An action film is unique -- you're playing with lives. You have to have control over every second of the situation. If you turn your back, a stunt man will push something. Even Mel [Gibson] will. If we discuss a stunt, I'll make sure that Mel's gonna have training wheels on a motorcycle. But if I turn my back, I'll see Mel riding the bike through blinding steam.

"Action films are more about disciplining other people more than yourself. On ["Lethal Weapon 3"], on the very first shot, there was a lack of communication between two stunt men in the car chase, and I heard this terrible explosion," Mr. Donner recalls. "Two cars hit one another head-on, right at the beginning. Thank God no one was hurt; there was a sprained ankle. But that was lucky -- lucky not because of the accident, but because it set the tone for the movie immediately. Once I saw everyone was OK, I went ballistic. That changed the attitude for the whole film. It was important, because they all knew if something else happened, I'd kill 'em if they didn't do it themselves."

All agree that what making quality action flicks boils down to is finding decent scrips with interesting characters. Mr. Harlin turned down "Cliffhanger" twice before finally relenting and doing the picture. "The script was originally very simple -- the dialogue was all along the lines of 'Let's go!' and 'Look out!' " he says. "It's frustrating when you have the tools and money to make a movie -- and if you just had the material, it could be really great."

"No matter how imaginative you are with the action, if you're not invested with the characters and the stories, it doesn't mean anything," Mr. Davis says. "There's probably some incredible sequences that you have never seen in action movies that are really good . . . but no one talks about them because the rest of the movie is junk."

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