The World in Action
by Mark Gallagher — University of Nottingham
August 11, 2010 – 00:01
Well into the summer action-movie season, Hollywood’s prestige fare such as Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood may be a distant memory as such genre staples as The A-Team, Predators and Salt cycle through global multiplexes. The higher than high-concept The Expendables lands imminently. Entertainment publications and pop-crit handicappers have issued think pieces on this season’s action heroes—paleo men, nancy boys or metrosexuals?—and on CGI’s sophistication or creeping philistinism.
Yet now, as ever, the most salient feature of action cinema is its pervasive internationalism. Whether harnessing stars and crews from around the world, filming on location to exploit foreign scenery or tax credits, or simply earning distribution in territories amenable to showcases of stylized mayhem, action cinema in 2010 continues the mode’s mission of global saturation. To grow its East Asian markets, Hollywood regularly casts Asian or Asian-American actors: Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid (coproduced by the China Film Group and with the more accurate title in some overseas markets of Gongfu meng, or The Kung Fu Kid), Jet Li in The Expendables, Louis Ozawa Changchien in Predators, K-pop star Rain in last year’s Ninja Assassin and more. Likewise, Expendables distributor Lionsgate’s most recent annual report specifically promotes coproduction agreements and pursuit of location-based tax incentives.
Meanwhile, regional variants of action cinema continue to flourish. Russia’s action/horror/sci-fi extravaganzas Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) have earned writer-director Timur Bekmambetov entry into B+ list Hollywood. Kazakh coproductions such as Nomad (2005) and Mongol (2007) have joined the ranks of historical epics in the mold of Gladiator (2000) and Hero (2002). France’s Banlieue 13 films (2004, 2009) and others from Luc Besson’s Europa Corp. have stoked the screen popularity of parkour and free-running styles. Europe continues to deal the occasional wild card, most recently the Danish/British epic of one-man violence Valhalla Rising (2009). Oceans away, Tony Jaa’s kineticism has facilitated international distribution of the Ong-Bak series (2003, 2008, 2010) and other Thai action vehicles. From South Korea, Seung-wan Ryoo’s frenetic action-comedies City of Violence (2006) and Dachimawa Lee (2008) build on the model of Hong Kong cinema’s 1980s and 1990s action heyday, as do recent Vietnamese entries The Rebel (2006) and Clash (2009). Japan still corners the market in goretoonish ultraviolence with films such as 2008’s The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police. And East and Southeast Asia continue to incubate female action stars.
The combination of domestic talent, migrating performers and craftsmen, increasingly economical digital post-production, and niche-attentive distribution networks have enabled action cinemas to travel regionally and worldwide. Hollywood activities still dominate film discourse, but the true richness of popular cinema today lies in our opportunities to see much of the world in action.