Friday, August 2, 2013

'80s Action Week: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Okay, it’s hard to do five posts on the best action films of the 1980s and try and sneak in anything remotely surprising in there. (I guess the closest I got to was yesterday’s post on RoboCop, if only because most folks who know me know I’m fairly cool on Verhoeven.) And this, of course, is another no-brainer. It’s certainly the best of the Star Wars films (though a couple of the prequels are better than people like to give them credit for being). But it bears looking into, still: Why does The Empire Strikes Back continue to work so well?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

'80s Action Week: Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Paul Verhoeven, I still don’t entirely know what to do with you. Yes, you were one of the signature action auteurs of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with films like Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers to your name, and that reputation is still solid, even though individual films may wax and wane in influence and estimation over the years. Total Recall at the time was thought of as the kind of soulless action flick Hollywood churned out on a regular basis; it’s aged now into a weirdly personal and very, very surreal fantasy, a consciously outsize macho wish fulfillment dream for the Age of Schwarzenegger. Basic Instinct was a bit better liked, mainly for its sleaze; I still like it, mainly for its sleaze. Starship Troopers wasn’t a huge popular hit but a certain subset of critics loved it because of its constantly self-aware, bright neon meta-meta-ness; I never really got it. Along the way there was Showgirls, which I haven’t been able to like even ironically, and Hollow Man, which is exciting and insane in equal measure. And then there were the Dutch films, made before he came to the U.S., many of which are excellent and all of which are idiosyncratic in their own little ways. Anyway, I find him fascinating, but Paul Verhoeven, it goes without saying, is far from my favorite director.

But he did have one absolutely perfect movie.  One film where his signature fascination with gore and gratuitous violence really paid off thematically, while his natural perversity made for an ideal match with the story. Certainly among Verhoeven’s American genre films, RoboCop is his masterpiece. Who else but this director would take what could have been a fairly standard tale of a cop who is turned into an indestructible, crime-fighting cyborg, and then underlined its utter strangeness in such a way that still did justice to its narrative? With overtones of both Brazil and The TerminatorRoboCop is equal parts satire, tragedy, grand guignol gorefest, and sensitive human drama, and it manages to be a parody of itself even as it delivers the goods. (Put another way: It’s the movie everyone seems to think Starship Troopers is.)