Good actors are the ones you keep watching.
There’s an actor, who from the beginning of his career, has had hit after hit. For decades, he delivers his lines perfectly, always puts a smile on your face. Great comedic timing, and is one of the most quotable actors in film history. Despite the fact that he appears multiple times in many best films list, people will find a dozen ways to deny that this person is one of the great actors. That actor is Arnold Schwarzenegger. For some reason, we’ve decided that “good” acting, only means good dramatic acting. Ethan Hawke, speaking about Nicholas Cage, said “(Nicholas Cage has)..Successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours.” We watch movies for entertainment, first and foremost, and any other explanation is pretentious posturing. When it comes to acting we only consider dramatic naturalistic actors to be ‘good’ actors. Comedy actors, physical performers, motion capture entertainers, they might as well not exist in the spectrum of good acting. To put it simply, acting is professional pretend-time, and an actor’s only job is to make me want to see them again and again. Their entire career depends on them convincing people to keep watching them, above all else. If they’ve accomplished that, then that’s good acting.
Who was the highest grossing actor in 2013? Who did we keep watching? Who’s got the best charisma, the best delivery of punchy lines? Who is the best action superstar since Arnold?
Thats easy, its Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
This isn’t to knock those who we generally accept as good actors. Conventional dramatic acting, being able to move a person emotionally, deserves praise, but believing that one form of film is inherently more valuable than another is ignorant and judgmental. Some people watch a movie to laugh, some people like to cry, some people like to think, some people like to go for a ride. You don’t go to the water park and sneer at the kids on the water-slide from your lazy river. You don’t tell The Rock and Arnold that what they are doing isn’t good acting. These men aren’t actual supermen, they are acting like supermen, they are hired because we love to believe they are supermen. They are professional actors, that is the only thing they do for a living, and though they’ve proven you keep coming back to see them do it, critics love to say that they are bad actors. Somehow, critics would have you believe that they’ve had wildly successful incompetent careers. These aren’t stunt men, they aren’t martial arts masters, they are actors. Damn Fine Actors.
Gravity was my favorite movie of 2013, but it’s a fundamentally different movie from Fast & Furious 6 (my 2nd favorite movie) because of what it expects from the audience. Despite that it’s superficially an action flick, the arc of the film relies not on a major action set piece, but on a small internal character evolution. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character is haunted by the death of her daughter, and she is unable to even take care of herself. When the shit hits the fan, she can barely save her own life. The turning point in the film is when she finally decides that she’s gotta live her own life, value her own life, and that’s how she’d truly honor her daughter and dead George Clooney buddy astronaut. In Fast & Furious 6, the central climax is, “How do we pull a jumbo jet out of the sky with just 4 cars, a grappling hook, and two muscle-bound dudes?” I know Gravity is a better film, but I don’t want to eat some fine salmon filet with capers and steak frites every day for lunch. I want a god damn double bacon cheez burger.
Understanding this distinction is necessary when discussing action films. Blockbusters revolve around ACTION. We don’t want to see what happens within characters or between characters, but between characters and their environment. With any great piece of art, less is often more. A beautiful drawing has the fewest amount of lines possible, a fine essay has the fewest amount of words (I don’t write fine essays obviously, or draw fine drawings. I know I talk too much and draw too many damn lines) and a good action movie doesn’t mean overly long action sequences. It doesn’t mean constant quips from the Good Guy. A fine action movie knows when to punch, and when to dodge. Asking for naturalistic dramatic acting in every action movie would be as silly as asking why there isn’t Pauly Shore in every oscar nomination. Some action films are very successful with a more focused dramatic telling (The Dark Knight, Heat, Saving Private Ryan) while others are successful because of their exciting visual spectacle (Speed Racer, Star Wars, the Matrix) and still others are successful because of a charismatic lead (Die Hard, Terminator 2, Rocky). “Every action movie would be better with better acting”, is only true if you mean dramatic acting. Then what you really mean is, “Every action movie would be better if it was a different movie.” That way of thinking results in believing that the only legitimate movie, are the ones you watch, which I call “Hate Ignorance”.
The scourge of modern action movies, continued in part 3.
Read Part 1 here