This year has been a big year in a growing trend in movies – the resurgence of the Angry Homicidal Loner Hero. Throughout the Clinton and Bush 2.0 years it seemed action movies became more about collaboration and wits and mismatched pairs. And the individual action hero began to die a slow death. Gone were the days of Reagan when action heroes could show that one American could destroy all the forces of evil in the world, even if that solitary American action hero sounded a lot like an Austrian. But with the election of Barack Obama there was a rise in two types of films – scared white people being hunted/murdered/threatened in their homes and having to fight back or die and the Angry Homicidal Loner Hero. Just as the War on Drugs and the Cold War gave America two reasons to crave heroic, angry white dudes in the 1980s, so too did the election of Barack Obama give rise to the need for new heroes to battle frightening scenarios (yes this is all anecdotal evidence). If a black man is in the White House, just imagine who could be invading YOUR house?!
The undisputed godfather of this new movement is Liam Neeson. In real life his wife died months before Taken arrived in theaters and with life imitating art he attacked his career with a vengeance after the loss of his wife. Taken set the new standard for action movies. As I have said recently, not every movie has to be great, but it should try to be great at what it is trying to do. Taken was a very linear action movie – daughter is kidnapped. Former CIA-type goes on rampage to get daughter back. The End. It had great action and never tried to be better than it was. It just tried to be great at what it was doing. From there Neeson has made this his new brand. Gone are the days of rescuing Jews or fencing with Tim Roth. He is now an action star. None have reached as high as Taken, though I actually enjoyed The Grey a lot as it was a little higher degree of difficulty than Taken and still delivered a solid film. But with Taken 3 coming out in 2015, 7 years after Liam Neeson took over has his time as the King of the AHLHs already passed? In a word… yes.
That is because other movie stars have taken notice and are simply doing it better – like Samsung ripping off Apple and making bigger and better phones. Now perhaps Liam has an Apple 6 movie equivalent in the works, but without it he is already being left behind. First person to pass him? Denzel Washington.
The Equalizer was a tremendous AHLH movie. First off Denzel broke the mold by being black. In an age of Obama you would expect all the loners fighting for our happiness and way of life to be white, but with a black, female republican in Utah being elected to the House, anything is possible (the role was originally considered for Russel Crowe though so I am still sort of right)! What Denzel does in The Equalizer is just show that he is better than Liam Neeson. No knock on Neeson, but Denzel conveys a lot more with a dead-eyed stare than almost any actor. And for an AHLH silence is key and what you convey with a look is huge. Plus, The Equalizer was directed by Antoine Fuqua who did a killer job stylizing the action scenes (that last scene in the hardware store is a visual treat). And they made Denzel’s character more deadly and efficient than Liam Neeson’s. Lastly, they opened up The Equalizer to more sensible sequels. A friend of mine once said to me, upon seeing Taken 2 arrive (paraphrasing) “That’s dumb – they shouldn’t have his family being kidnapped again (which is happening in 3 as well). Instead his reputation should get him other jobs around the world helping people.” And that is precisely what The Equalizer set up with its ending. New plots with new character give you new chances for new stars or big stars to join the franchise. When Denzel said he should be the new Bond I chuckled. Then I saw The Equalizer and stopped chuckling.
But alas, like George Lazenby’s reign as Bond, it appears Denzel’s reign as King of the AHLHs is short lived because Keanu Reeves just one-upped him in John Wick. First off it needs to be said that the phrase “Black Don’t Crack” needs to be amended to “Black and Keanu Don’t Crack.” Dude is 50 and along with Tom Cruise clearly has found the way to appear as a 35 year old white man for life (though Keanu has Asian blood, which helps explain his tremendous black hair). But like Cruise, Keanu has the ability to do physical action still and that sets him apart from Denzel and Liam. And John Wick is the most straight forward, simple and excellent of the new batch of AHLHs. The hand to hand combat/MMA style fighting from Keanu is stuff that the other two are incapable of. I found myself very impressed with it on its own merits. Also, Wick is the most brutally efficient killer of them all. Everything is finished with a headshot. Keanu was also born to play these roles. Liam and Denzel have chops and range, but Keanu appears perfectly suited for a guy whose single minded purpose lurks just beneath the surface of a relatively pleasant, ordinary guy. He goes into cyborg mode with just a few angry lines and it is perfect. He wears a suit well and shoots a gun better – why mess with a whole lot else? To prove the point, Wick is hell bent on revenge because of the death of his beagle puppy. To give him a greater purpose would render him complicated. Instead he is willing to execute dozens of people to avenge his puppy (to some of you that makes perfect sense and you are scary). Lastly, the movie is basically filmed like a montage of violence and cool stories about John Wick. When Wick is digging up his old reserves of weapons spliced with his old Russian mob boss explaining why Wick is so dangerous I was getting goosebumps. If Rocky IV is the greatest sports montage music video then John Wick is maybe the greatest action montage posing as a movie.
So who knows what 2016 will bring? Perhaps a Chris Christie presidency will lead to a spate of fat heroes or villains (Jonah Hill’s agent will be busy either way) or a Hillary Clinton presidency could lead to horror movies about menstrual blood causing a pandemic across America. But whatever the future holds for action and horror cinema let’s enjoy the AHLHs and see if Keanu can retain the title for the rest of Obama’s presidency.