Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lights, camera, but no action

One of the great pleasures in life is seeing a stylish and smart new action film at the cinema, but I barely get the chance any more, because they just don't appear at the cinema at all. My severe disappointment at the news that John Wick is going straight to DVD inspired this rant, which was originally written for

Keanu Reeves might be an unlikely action star, but in the right film, he can be spectacular – no modern actor could have matched his perfect performances in Point Break, Speed and The Matrix.

At first glance, John Wick - Reeves' latest film – looks ridiculous, with Reeves going on a rip-roaring rampage of revenge after evil gangsters kill the dog that his dying wife gave him - but it just might just be a worthy addition to this minor pantheon of Great Keanu Action Flicks, according to overseas critics. But Kiwi audiences will have to take their word for it, because it is not going to screen in New Zealand cinemas.

Despite having a cinema release date for some time, John Wick is now destined for a DVD debut in this country. It performed fairly solidly at the US box office, (making more than double its production costs), and its impressive 84 per cent Rotten Tomatoes rating shows it has struck a chord with many critics, (47 Ronin, Reeves' previous major release, which did appear on our screens, scored a lamentable 14 per cent rating), but Roadshow NZ has decided that nobody in this country needs to see it in the theatre.

It's frustrating, but it probably shouldn't come as a surprise – there has been a real drought of decent action films at local cinemas for some time, even though they are out there being made. There are some notable exceptions, and brilliant action films like The Raid 2 get a short window, but that is becoming increasingly rare. For the rest of 2014, the only film with any kind of action is the third Hobbit film. There are plenty of fluffy romantic comedies, worthy dramas and kids flicks, but almost nothing that would get the blood pumping.

And 2015 isn't looking much brighter, with almost all of the action movies on offer so far being dull, bloated blockbusters with more CGI than actual stunts, or tired retreads like Taken 3, proving that even the awesome sight of Liam Neeson punching people to death has sharply diminishing returns.

New Zealand film distributors might have figures and algorithms that prove they can only make money in certain demographics, but they're killing the joy of going to cinema if you don't fit into one of their boxes. There are loads of kids films, especially over the summer holidays, and there are plenty of nice, safe and slightly patronising movies about old people falling in love, but the pleasures of seeing something original and interesting for anybody in-between are being lost.

It's not just action films – the only horror films that get released are the boring jump-scares of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, while genuinely tense and innovative horror films like You're Next, Kill List, Berberian Sound Studio and It Follows make brief appearances at film festivals, before slumping out on DVD, even though they are designed to be experienced in the cinema.

Horror films aren't for everybody, but there is surely an audience hungry for cheap thrills that is being totally ignored. In the golden age of action cinema (otherwise known as the late 80s), it felt like there were truly great action films at the cinema every other week, with classics like Die Hard, Aliens, Lethal Weapon, Predator, Terminator 2 and Robocop receiving wide releases, but those days are gone.

The Guest, a follow-up from the makers of You're Next that stars Downtown Abbey's Dan Stevens, is another interesting and stylish action film that is being ignored, (and it's sitting at 91 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes), and it's no use getting excited about anything else that looks interesting on the horizon, because we just won't get to see it.

It's particularly frustrating, because there has never been more choice in entertainment, with punters offered more opportunities to see things in a huge variety of formats. But the cinema is still the best place to see intense and original action films, and it's the one place you can't see them.

There is still some great action on television – the fight choreography on Game of Thrones is breathtaking- and there remains a healthy, happily direct-to-DVD market for cheap and cheerful action films, with minor stars like Scott Adkins building a cult following with his extraordinary physical prowess, (honestly, Undisputed III: Redemption might just be the greatest action film of the past decade).

But that thrill of seeing something a stylish, slick and smart action film in a theatre, sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers, is one of the great pleasures of cinema, and it's a thrill we are constantly being denied.

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