Good trailer, right? And there’s a good movie buried in here. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor. His whole performance is perfect. It just feels like Mads is in a different movie than everybody else.
POLAR is best described like this: picture a bunch of screenwriters or studio execs watching JOHN WICK and saying, “What if we did that, but had Quentin Tarantino direct the thing, like KILL BILL?”
Except they couldn’t book Tarantino and decided to turn up the cray-cray up to 11.
I’m a huge fan of action movies, so sure, it was fun. There was just a disconnect between the gritty performance of Mads and the villains chewing up the scenery.
Since this silly blog is all about taking things apart and seeing how they work, or could be fixed, here’s what went wrong and how to fix it.
Three easy fixes, one small and early, one middling and the final fix big and late:
1) Lose the dog
Early on, Mads retires and buys a puppy, which was way too on-the-nose for me with the movie already super close to the plot of JOHN WICK.
Soon after, Mads has a nightmare and accidentally shoots the puppy. No. Don’t even go there.
In fact, action movies need to spike any scene where the bad guys kill the retired killer’s dog, cat or favorite horse, because JOHN WICK slayed that forever.
2) Keep the same tone
Scenes with Mads and the girl he later protects feel like part of the same gritty movie.
All the scenes with the villain and his minions feel like they were written, shot and directed by somebody else–a younger director who spent every night binge-watching Miami Vice and hanging out in strip clubs as he wrote these scenes.
Pick a style and stick with it. As in, pick the style that fits your lead actor, not your side characters.
3) Give us a villain as strong as Mads
Mads is a great character and we get to see him in action multiple times. A fast, powerful killer. The main villain, the boss of a pack of bad guys, is far less scary. In fact, his minions are stronger and better than he is.
This turns the villain into a joke, and he really only shows up for comic relief.
In the climax, when Mads enters the villain’s lair for the final confrontation, it’s a boring mismatch the director chooses to not even show. We just see the villain’s head fly through a window after Mads chops it off.
That’s a huge disappointment. An action movie’s climax needs to be, I don’t know, climactic. There were tons of other set pieces earlier in the film that were far more interesting and exciting, so it left a bad taste at the end.
There are good ingredients here, especially the performance of Mads.
It’s just overcooked and feels like two different movies.
I’m no fan of Tom Cruise, so it takes a lot to (a) part with hard currency to to watch a Cruise film and (b) publicly admit how much that film rocks.
He did it with EDGE OF TOMORROW, one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. I could watch that thing every day, and the more you dislike Cruise, the better the movie actually works.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Cruise did the impossible again with MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT.
Why is this movie so good when the last Bond movie bored me to bits, despite my utter fandom for Daniel the Craig?
(1) Practical stunts beat the snot out of CGI nonsense
Yes, CGI is expensive, and it can create amazing spectacles.
Yet we’re used to it. The wow factor is gone.
When I see a hero take on a CGI monster, it doesn’t scare me at all.
Practical stunts, where real people do really dangerous things, still impress people. And this movie is packed with them.
(2) Surprises on top of surprises
Thrillers are about betrayals, secrets, revelations and surprises.
Action scenes are only a bonus, dessert after the starters and main.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT gives the audience action scenes where the action is simply a setup for a betrayal, revelation or surprise. It’s a great way to move the story forward.
(3) Ruthless editing
This movie clocks in at two hours and 28 minutes. It doesn’t feel half that long.
How did the director and editor pull that off?
They ruthlessly cut the boring parts. Putting together a list of Scenes that Are Always Boring would require an entire post, though it would include Two Characters Talking as One Character Drives and my favorite, the Hero Types on a Computer.
The shorter, easier list is Scenes that Are Always Exciting, and that world champions on that list are (a) chases and (b) fights.
So if you make a movie that’s 90 percent chases and fights, with betrayals and surprises after every chase or fight, yeah, it’s going to be fast and fun. The trick is to avoid repetition. As a big fan of cheesy ’80s action movies, including everything Jackie Chan, Arnold and Jean Claude Van Damme ever made, I testify to the fact that most action movies believe, deep in their explosive souls, that the only way to mix things up for your audience is to multiply the number of bad guys facing our hero until the climax, when the producer has to bus in hundreds of extras and run the costume shop 24/7 to stitch up enough Expendable Bad Guy coveralls so they hero can wade through them all on his way to the Big Bad Guy.
That’s not to say there aren’t cliches and silly tropes in this movie. I pray to whichever gods that are listening, please, please stop Hollywood writers and directors from ever using stolen nuclear warheads as a plot device. I beg you. And the revelation that Clark Kent with a Beard is actually a bad guy came way too early for me.
But the nuclear MacGuffin in this movie doesn’t really matter. What puts us in those theater seats are the chases, fights and stunts, which are all spectacular. Well done, Tom the Cruise–now give us a sequel to EDGE OF TOMORROW.
While I was healing up from a thing, I watched every possible free movie on Netflix.
The happiest surprise, out of nowhere? South Korean action movies.
I grew up on cheesy ’80s action heroes: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren and the other current stars of THE EXPENDABLES who aren’t (a) former WWE wrestlers or (b) former MMA stars.
But here’s the thing: Korean action movies are different from whatever Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong are putting out.
In a traditional Hollywood explosion-fest, there’s a too-cool hero, a nerdy sidekick, an ancient mentor who the villain kills in Act 2 and a love interest who gets kissed after the villain goes down. It’s a formula, and while there are twists, most movies only try to surprise you with the fine details.
Maybe it’s just the mix of movies on Netflix, or maybe I got lucky. Doesn’t matter. Everything I watched was very, very different than the last. They were all well-shot and well-acted.
Yet it’s the stories that stand out, the bold twists. I watched seven or eight of these, and they all had their own specific plot lines and interesting endings.
Here are the trailers for one of the best, THE MAN FROM NOWHERE.
Now, fire up Netflix and watch it. DO IT NOW.
What do you want to know about the deepest recesses of Netflix? Pick your favorite and I’ll write the review.
As a huge fan of action movies, hear me now and believe me later in the week: the Era of Epic Explosions is over.
Stick a fork it in.
It’s kaput. Done. Dead and buried.
X-MEN: OSCAR ISAAC WEARING 30 POUNDS OF MAKEUP is only the latest nail in the cinematic coffin, though it’s a nail that cost more than the domestic product of Paraguay.
Now, I liked the movie more than I expected after all those bad reviews. HOWEVER: the big action set pieces where the villain started destroying the world?
Big shrug. Didn’t care.
Here’s why explosions were once movie magic and now make people sneakily check Twitter on their magical phones.
1) In the old days, big explosions meant big budgets and big stars
Way back, only the biggest productions could afford to blow things up.
Those same movies also had the best directors, best actors and biggest budgets.
Meanwhile, B movies had incredibly cheesy explosions and effects that looked like Ed, president of the AV club, cooked them up on his Macintosh during a long weekend fueled by two-liter bottles of Orange Crush and two over-sized bags of Cheeto’s, which should be spelled Cheetoh’s but isn’t. Not sure why.
This is why the following compilation of great movie explosions skews toward old action movies. Because they actually blew things up, using real explosives, instead of spending millions of dollars on fake pixels.
2) Explosions were rare and therefore precious
In the Golden Age of Things Going Boom in the Movies, directors and producers had much smaller budgets, which meant you couldn’t have things explode on screen every two minutes.
You had to (a) find an abandoned building that fit your script, (b) file permits with the city for permission to blow it up and (c) hire professional people to blow them up on time and on schedule, while cameras rolled.
If the things went wrong, you were out millions of dollars and needed to find a new abandoned building.
Therefore, action movies of yore couldn’t go overboard with fire, smoke and debris. They had to use explosions when it mattered most.
This was a good thing, for movie budgets and for people sitting in dark rooms while they munched on overpriced kernels of exploded corn.
3) Today, everybody can afford special effects and explosions
It was epic when Bruce Willis sent the office chair down the elevator shaft in DIE HARD.
And I be you can remember the first time you saw the Death Star explode in STAR WARS. (The second and third times, not so much.)
Directors making movies today grew up watching those cool, big-budget movies with amazing explosions. Even if they’re working on a cheesy TV show, now they can afford to blow up anything they want, as big as they want.
So yeah, they do it.
All. The. Time.
It goes deeper: people making fan movies or YouTube parodies have the technology to blow up New York City, the West Coast or the entire solar system, if they’re truly ambitious. Check out the insanely detailed fan-made movies about Star Wars with excellent lightsaber effects. Amazing.
With giant budgets and armies of CGI people, it’s insanely easy these days to spice up a bad scene with explosions. Except it’s used so often, it’s a cliché.
Michael Bay has created an entire career out of blowing things up in slow motion. Here’s a montage:
4) Easy CGI means explosions aren’t believable
Audiences today grew up watching real explosions in action movies. We know what they look like.
Even big movies with big budgets struggle to get CGI right.
When you know it’s fake, you don’t care.
5) We’re numb to ka-booms by now, and we know the villain will lose
It’s a staple of every action movie, comic-book movie or thriller that (a) the Bad Guy Wants to Destroy the World and (b) the Bad Guy Gets to Start Blowing Up the World because (c) it wouldn’t be any fun if the audience didn’t get to see six blocks of Manhattan get demolished for the 2,874th time.
The old rule of storytelling was to always, always raise the stakes. If saving your wife and daughter from terrorists was good, then saving an entire city from a stolen nuclear warhead was better and stopping a villain from destroying Earth had to be the ultimate.
Except we expect this now. We’re numb to it.
And audiences know how it ends. The villain never, ever gets to truly destroy Gotham, New York City or the Earth.
The dice are loaded. The villain is going to lose.
Which means there’s zero suspense.
Oh, we’ll get a little look at the Big Bad Guy stomping on a few blocks, or a glimpse of how his doomsday device will flatten New Zealand, but no, the villain never gets to actually win.
So as I sat there watching the X-Men head off to stop Apocalypse from destroying civilization, what should have been the most exciting part of the movie had zero thrills whatsoever.
Because you knew the villain would lose. No question.
This is part of the reason why CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR worked so well. The story is smaller and the stakes are lower. The villain isn’t trying to destroy the third rock from the sun. He’s simply trying to get revenge by turning the Avengers against each other. Yet you care far more about CIVIL WAR than BATMAN VS SUPES or X-MEN: COME SEE WOLVERINE FOR TWO MINUTES. And the reason why is simple: audience will always, always care more about living, breathing characters than bits of concrete and rebar.
TL;DR: Blowing up things isn’t shocking or thrilling anymore, not when it’s CGI pixel nonsense. Also: Villains with evil plans to destroy Gotham, D.C. or Earth never get to actually do it, so stop making that the plot of every action thriller and comic book movie.
Bonus video: Expectation vs reality – action movies
Let’s talk about why this works, as a story, and how it could be even better. Because I’m not adding value by simply sticking funny or heartwarming videos in your feed. We have to dissect them and learn a little. SCHOOL IS IN SESSION.
Why this works and how to make it better:
1) The mangled start doesn’t matter–yet fixing it would’ve made it even more viral
This video works even if you read the story on Huffingtonpost or wherever, and know all the story beats, before you watch the thing. That’s how good the story is.
HOWEVER: Starting out a video with text screens like this is almost always a mistake. Cramming all the text in the beginning slows it down and I bet a good percentage of people bail in those first few seconds instead of sticking with it, which is a mistake.
How to fix it: Start with video of the dog chained up. We don’t need any text to understand the problem, to get that setup. Then if you really have to, add a little voice narration. I’d kill the text screen entirely.
2) Our narrator takes risks and is a hero
The narrator keeps the focus entirely on Rusty the Dog, but he shows real heroism, taking time–and risks.
He spends time to get to know this dog, repeatedly risks getting bit and confronts the owner, saying he’s not leaving without the dog. That took guts.
And all the while, he knows his family can’t adopt the dog, that he’d have to find another home for it.
Everything the narrator does is unselfish, and while he doesn’t focus on it, or take credit, this makes the story better.
3) The biggest possible gaps
Conflict and surprise comes from the biggest possible gaps between expectation and result.
You expect the chained up, aggressive dog to bite his hand.
You expect the owner to laugh at him when he says he’s not leaving without the dog.
You expect the narrator to adopt the dog himself, not search for a home.
And you expect the dog to be timid and afraid when finally free, not friendly and joyous.
This is a little story, a tiny snippet of life. But it made me feel more than most of the action movies that I’d happily paid money to watch and wouldn’t see again.
I’d see this again. I’d smile to see a follow-up, to find out how Rusty is doing.
And I’d want to shake the narrator’s hand for taking some risks, and doing the right thing, for an old dog most people would avoid and forget.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a classic coming-of-age movie, which involves a jock, a prom princess, a geek, a stoner and a freak. THE AVENGERS is the same, except the kids are all grown up, have fancier toys and bigger issues, as this beautiful mashup makes clear.
BREAKING BAD is the best thing on the Glowing Tube, by far — that’s the consensus of all kinds of critics and smart peoples on this rock circling the sun. The thing has its own subreddit, just like Batman and catsstandingup — that’s how big it is.
Who could’ve predicted the actor who played Hal on Malcolm in the Middle would transform into this amazing character, Walter White?
And this mashup here, of Walter White singing the old Sinatra — well, it doesn’t get any better than this.
I tip my hat to actor Bryan Cranston and the whole BREAKING BAD team. Amazing work on an amazing series.
Wussy little bad guys are thrown through the air by explosions.
Explosions only make macho action heroes slow down and stroll.
5) Romantic comedies where the man is a bumbling, lovable loser while the woman is a hot neurotic mess
The man is a 40-year-old virgin (Steve Carrell), a chauvinist pig (Russell Crowe) or a nerdy writer type (Woody Allen).
The woman is a beautiful mess (Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson or, God help us, Sarah Jessica Parker) who is far more educated, cultured and successful than the man.
So, she naturally hates this loser at first, then she slowly molds this wreck of a man into a real human being worthy of dating and / or marrying.
4) False alarms in Every Horror Movie Known to Man
Enough with the cat / boyfriend / little brother nonsense, and the scary music is just cheating.
3) Romantic comedies starring Kate Hudson
Though I have to say this: it’s better than Sarah Jessica Parker.
2) Movie villains who carefully explain their plot instead of KILLING THE HERO ALREADY
Why does every movie villain feel the need to talk to the hero?
Look, the villain always has hordes of minions who are completely motivated to listen to his stupid monologues. He can give speeches that make Fidel Castro look like the king of brevity.
A villain’s minions are the best listeners ever. They must not only nod and smile, but be entranced by his every syllable. The villain is their employer and visionary leader, and there’s a good chance that not listening with your entire body and soul will get you thrown into the tank full of sharks with lasers.
Chatting with the hero makes no sense.
Here’s one villain who gets it right.
1) Romantic comedies starring Matthew McConaughey AND Kate Hudson