Action Movies Don't Have to Suck

A lament for lost carnage—and coherence

I never thought it would come to this, but clear action has been left to arthouse directors. Steven Soderbergh's Haywire showcases some of the most exhilarating fights of recent years by combining the "realistic" MMA-inspired fighting preferred by Post-Action directors with the long takes and unobstructed shots they fear. (I think he used a new technology called "tripods.") Joe Wright's Hanna has an Eric-Bana-vs.-four-guys fight scene that's done in one uninterrupted steadicam shot, showing the whole fight instead of implying it through editing. Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, despite being sued by that lady for not being enough like Fast Five, punctuates its slow burn story with superb car chases. (Fast Five, come to think of it, also has great action and stunts, but good ol' R-rated blood would've really helped its Diesel-vs.-Rock fistfight.)

But most of the good stuff these days is hidden outside of the mainstream in direct-to-video movies. It's a refuge not just for aging icons such as Seagal, Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme, but for a talented new wave that includes Austin (Damage), Scott Adkins (Undisputed II-III), Michael Jai White (Blood and Bone), and how-the-hell-hasn't-a-studio-thrown-money-at-this-guy-yet directors Isaac Florentine and John Hyams. I maintain that Hyams' 2009 Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a more thrilling action experience than 95 percent of what studios have released in theaters in several years. The opening hurls us into an intense abduction-car-chase-shootout-helicopter-escape while always keeping the vehicles and victims clearly in the center of the frame, making it a DTV classic before we've even seen Van Damme or any super-powered fighting.

As with Seagal in Hard to Kill, old-school action has emerged from its coma and is retraining itself. Soon it will sit on top of a small hill, it will hear the call of an eagle, and it will be ready for its revenge. But we might have to convince the dads who used to take their kids to Marked for Death that now the thing to do is buy them the fifth Universal Soldier.

A scene from 'The Expendables 2'
A scene from 'The Expendables 2'

Vern is the author of Seagology: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee-Ki-Yay, Moviegoer: Writings on Bruce Willis, Bad-Ass Cinema, and Other Important Topics. His reviews can be found at

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