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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Action Hero Respawned

A lone hero against almost insurmountable odds. Slim chances of survival. A constant barrage of bad guys with big guns and unlimited ammo. These are the makings of an action movie from my childhood. After Star Wars allowed the Science Fiction genre to make the jump to hyperspace, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg set their sights on terra firma and the old days of the Republic Serials. Instead of robots with lasers, Nazis with lugers were the bad guys. A treasure with biblical ramifications was the MacGuffin if you will, or plot device that grabs your attention, pulled you along the story towards its conclusion.

Regardless of the plot or other devices like Big Dumb Objects and Alien Space Bats (look them up), Raiders of the Lost Ark and the rest of the Indiana Jones movies, save the last one, all had one distinguishing feature that changed the action adventure genre, the not so good, good guy. After all, Indiana Jones was labeled a tomb robber and he didn’t exactly wear a white hat. His neutralities aren’t explicit but he’s willing to not give a shit about someone if it doesn’t figure into his plan. He even grabs one women by the throat and threatens to choke her. He does however, take umbrage at child abuse and slavery in the second film. Yet, for his lack of true north on a moral compass, Indiana Jones also possesses a sense of wry humor and mortality. Something that went away with the Schwarzenegger and Stallone action heroes, who never show pain and never run out of ammo. Jones was an ordinary Joe in extraordinary situations and he never missed an opportunity to make light of his human faults. He could bleed and be hurt and took note of how much he was at times, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”

If Indiana Jones was the hero of childhood, then the high school and college crowd could identify with characters like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon and John McClane in Die Hard. They were still ordinary people in ordinary professions, namely police officers who became embroiled in extraordinary scenarios that tested their mettle. They were also flawed. Riggs was semi suicidal over the death of his wife and somewhat crazy. McClane had a problem with authority and had bad habits like smoking and drinking, which Riggs also did. Riggs and McClane represented a more noir style of hero, a sort of detective with vices that doesn’t always get to be the hero and doesn’t always save people. Still, what made them similar to Indiana Jones was their ability to make light of their shortcomings and take a punch. They also talked and said things during a fight that was more realistic than just getting hit and hitting back. McClane taunted his gargantuan opponent in Die Hard, “You should have heard your brother squeal when I broke his f**king neck.”

But multiple sequels diluted the brand and extensive copycats killed the genre of the thinking man’s action hero. The 21st century ushered in a new crop of action heroes with Rick O’Connell from The Mummy franchise and Ben Gates from National Treasure's. While O’Connell was more for blowing away his opponents, Ben Gates rarely, if ever uses a weapon to settle differences. Still, the idea that a quirky action hero with faults and idiosyncrasies helped humanize the character and made him more relatable to audiences of Americans who watch while gulping down buttered popcorn, sugary soda, and milk duds. Soon, however, the history was neglected and the same old problems caused the franchises to sink into the abyss of repetition, over exposure, and disbelief of premise, even if the premise was supernatural in nature. Speaking of O’Connell, another action star was born out of the sequel. Dwayne Johnson was poised to take the baton of blockbuster action hero and the passing was sort of even acknowledged in The Rundown in which Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a cameo. “Have fun” was his only line and was said in passing of Johnson.

Yet, after three action films, Johnson didn’t quite capture the same amount of street cred as an action hero like Stallone and Schwarzenegger. He was very well spoken and articulate and had the opportunity to make the landscape of Hollywood his playground. Instead he chose to be more conscious of “the brand” and took to more kiddie and family fair with films like The Game Plan, Race To Witch Mountain, and The Tooth Fairy. It certainly has been more profitable for him. If you compare his family films which show a gross revenue of more than $661 million vs. his action films which show only a bit more than $287 million in gross revenue sales. If you like, you can add the $443 or so million from The Mummy Returns despite him only being on screen for a few minutes. The end was more CGI then actual acting and that is why I removed it. I will not discount that his presence helped attract more viewers but he certainly was not top billed.

With the role of the action hero being more about personality over physicality, the chance for stars like Christian Bale, Matt Damon and Daniel Craig came about and in 2008 the hopes that a familiar man with the not so white hat would save the landscape of action adventure films without the need for pirates or mutant powers, or a batmobile. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull promised to return the fanman back to the fanboy status he so nostalgically waxed on message boards and blogs. However, the film was a shame. While it’s kind of neat to see a hero or protagonist find himself in over his head physically, the action side of Indiana Jones seemed more akin to braving the crowds at a Bob Evans on a Sunday after church. Hey, it’s hard for the young folk, too. Still, we were promised a return to the golden age of 80’s geekfare. CGI was supposed to be reserved for some background images and other things but it was clear that old school SFX trickery was not in use. Although, the aliens looked rather cheesy like their 1950s counterparts but I can’t decide if that was intentional or just a bad batch of interns at Lucasfilm.

But what should have been realized by Hollywood was that a new brand of action hero was being reborn… er respawned into existence. This one was shorter than the rest and even wasn’t even all that real, but he managed to make huge waves, in my opinion, among the troubled waters of the Hollywood Action Hero. That hero is Nathan Drake and the film isn't a film.  It's a video game series for the Playstation 3 called Uncharted.

Until 2007, the Playstation mascot was pretty much whoever was the leading protagonist of the currently released Grand Theft Auto title. However, a full year before Indiana Jones dusted off the fedora, Nathan Drake hit the shelves in Uncharted: Drakes Fortune. Sadly, I did not pick up the game and resisted it from the outset. I downloaded the demo and found the controls harder than normal, especially using grenades. The demo contained one of the most frustrating levels which involved being pinned down in a jungle setting among what looked to be like a courtyard ruins. It is nearly impossible, for me anyway, to complete that section without running out of ammo, which leads me to run headlong into the fray to duke it out with a baddie to get his gun. Because of that demo, I pretty much stayed away from the game for nearly three years. Boy, was I missing out.

It’s kind of fitting though, because had I actually played the whole game before seeing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I would have probably imploded. Taking a few years to shrug off the damage to my childhood perpetrated by Spielberg and Lucas I was able to come back around and get into Uncharted. If you haven’t played it or the sequel you are missing out on what are probably the greatest action movies not on film or television.

The hero, a supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake has all the faults and quirks that had embodied Indiana Jones, John McClane, and Martin Riggs. He’s a lovable jerk who can run and gun and still be a dick to people with a smile. Game play notwithstanding, the true treasure of this series is the script and cut scenes. The acting and motion capture of the characters is a near perfect facsimile of real life. Nolan North, whose name sounds almost like an action hero, gives Drake a sense of humor and humility. The guy goes throw so much crap and gets hurt, a lot, but still has the balls to call someone an asshole. The catchphrases are not catchphrases here. There’s no, “Hasta La Vista” or “Yippie Kay Yay” to cling to, just, “Keep smiling asshole” and “ Oh, crap.” And it’s not like he’s some piece of beefcake to entice girl gamers like Lara Croft was to guys. He has not extraordinary features and has a typical look but it’s the personality that makes him so likeable.

I spent a week on Uncharted and a week on Uncharted 2, all of which will be drooled over by me in an upcoming post. I While I made it a point to try and collect ever single bauble on screen in part one, I’ve completely forgotten about picking up treasures because I’m so engaged by the action. Now, I’m not just talking about the actual game play. I’m speaking about the integration of cinematics and cut scenes into the story. It all flows seamlessly. To use an example, in games like Grand Theft Auto, which I also love, you have an open world. You travel from place to place and do missions. Each mission starts with a cut scene or setup and then it switches back to actual game play. In Uncharted, you could be walking along and then a tank just bursts through a wall at you or a bridge gives way and you suddenly surrender control of the game to this second or two of action and then you are back to running and it all happens without loading or cutting away of the action. Naughty Dog found a way to tie actual game play to storyline without sacrificing atmosphere and commitment from the player. The timing does not skip a beat. You feel like you are playing a movie more than a game because of the constant interplay of movies and NPC action that pushes the character along. Not to mention, the storyline is compelling and the acting is top notch.

Take note Hollywood, Naughty Dog has succeeded where you have severely failed in bringing back the action hero. Unfortunately, there is talks for a movie in the works which can only mean epic fail is on the horizon for the newly crowned king of the action hero genre. Talks are still early and hopefully Uwe Boll will be nowhere near this project lest it suck more than it probably will. Looking at what happened to the reigning queen of action video games, Lara Croft, when she was put into two lackluster films, I’d hate to see how bad Hollywood could screw this up.

Of course, you’ll have to get someone into the role of Nathan Drake and I fear the usual Hollywood machine will try to turn this film out with Bradley Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Gerard Butler, or Ryan Reynolds taking the lead role. Might I make a suggestion? If you’re going to do it, why not use the guy who created the character, Nolan North. He kind of has the look of Drake in the game and after all, it was his physical form that was used to model the character using motion capture suits. He definitely has the acting chops for the dialogue and given the proper weight and free climbing training he could totally pull it off.

Sadly, I know this will not be the case. The only other acceptable substitution could be that of Nathan Fillion. He actually happens to be a year younger than North. Eddie Cibrian has the facial look, Josh Duhamel has the physique but truthfully, I think Nolan North should be the only real choice for the film. I think from a game fan standpoint you appease a huge concern over a movie being made not to mention those unfamiliar with the film will be drawn in by the everyman appeal of a virtually unknown actor except those trained to pick up his voice from other video games. I also feel the inclusion of a bunch of lesser known actors would do wonders for its credibility among the other game to film projects. Once again, can we say Tomb Raider and Doom?

Then again, to pull this off would be nothing short of an action hero’s regular day. The odds of success are against you. The amount of bad guys in Hollywood coming at you with all kinds of unlimited crap. Slim chances of survival at the box office. Sounds like the perfect scenario for Nathan Drake. Hail to the new king of Action Heroes. Have fun, but don’t get comfortable.

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