David Sims, film critic over at The Atlantic, just posted a scathing review of Netflix’s new Red Notice (Rawson Thurber, 2021). The title of his review, “Hollywood Has Forgotten What a Good Action Movie Looks Like,” makes you ask, what is a good action movie? And it may be because Red Notice stars Dwayne formerly-The-Rock Johnson, that I thought of one of my favorite 90s action movies, The Rock (likely Michael Bay’s second-to-last good film, 1996).
Sims’ primary qualm with the movie seems to be its unwillingness to actually beat up its stars, each of whom he describes as “hyper-professional masterminds” (a condition of some flicks that John Rogers calls “competence porn”).
Here’s Sims, from the very end of his review:
The story lacks tension, because while its premise depends on conflict among the three stars, all of them are hyper-professional masterminds who can extricate themselves out of any situation smoothly. They’re never in any true danger, and they don’t seem likely to undergo a permanent change or arrive at a major self-realization. When punches land in this film, they leave no bruise; when bullets hit, no blood gets spilled. I don’t necessarily expect realism from my action movies, but if everyone’s walking out of a scene unscathed, it’s hard to know why I should pay attention to the next one.
So let’s look at The Rock, from that booming period of classic 1990s action, and see what it does differently. How much does it really imperil its protags?
A quick rundown if it’s been awhile: The Rock is a two-hander with an FBI counter-terrorism chemist (Nicolas Cage) and a former British spy (Sean Connery, get it?), “the only man to ever break out of Alcatraz.” When a rogue Marine (Ed Harris) and his mercenary crew steal a bundle of nerve gas that they threaten to blanket San Francisco with, and take over Alcatraz from which to do it, these two blokes are teamed up to stop them.
Writing it out, it’s a bit of a ridiculous premise, so why does it work so well?
Likely because it does the things that Sims accuses Red Notice of not doing: both of the leads are seriously endangered and get beat the hell up through the course of the movie. (Also, the movie carefully ramps up the stakes whenever it can: Nicolas Cage’s girlfriend (Vanessa Marcil) is in San Francisco, and yup, she’s pregnant. Sean Connery’s estranged daughter (Claire Forlani) also, surprise surprise, lives in San Francisco.)
The team of (I think it’s?) Navy SEALS sent to escort Cage and Connery into “The Rock” get killed off faster’n you can say BANG, leaving them to navigate the prison full of bloodthirsty, U.S.-trained killers on their own.
And, by the end, Cage gets exposed to the nerve gas and his only hope of survival is to drive what looks like a six-inch needle full of antidote juice into his heart. (And then the jet fighters (almost) carpet bomb the island.)
The Rock is from a certain era of Michael Bay flicks, when he had some cash but not too much cash. It’s full of Bay spectacle and whirly camera shots, but he’s still placing more attention on the characters than the VFX of later movies.
So this rather long meditation comes to just this: don’t forget to beat up your characters. And when the worst has happened… has it really?