Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's action-mystery Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise as a surly ex-military detective investigating a mass shooting, was one of the better films of 2012, because it did exactly what it was supposed to do within its genre's parameters. McQuarrie's film offered one or two clever plot twists, a handful of claustrophobic combat sequences, a sweet car chase through downtown Pittsburgh, and a final standoff in a stone quarry. Although Cruise took top billing, the supporting roles were ably filled by indelible weirdos looking for a good time: Robert Duvall whooped it up as a crafty gun-shop owner, while Werner Herzog lingered in the shadows as a Russian crime lord who once chewed off his own fingers (!) as part of his time in prison.
With a little patience and some carefully calibrated expectations, you can find genre thrills like those in Jack Reacher scattered among the late winter/early spring "dead zone" movies, those disreputable orphans released into theaters under cover of darkness during the run-up to the Academy Awards and before the mad gambles of summer blockbuster season.
So far, the highlights from this year's dead zone cater to the reckless, stupid teenager inside the sensible, measured middle-aged adult inside all of us. Jee-woon Kim's The Last Stand, Taylor Hackford's Parker, and Walter Hill's Bullet to the Head are hard-ass action movies starring grizzled lone wolves and the weaponry they handle with loving care. None of these films is especially good, but they're sharp enough to hit their target audience every now and then.
As is appropriate, Kim, Hackford, and Hill all swear fealty to numerous clichéd and retrograde genre conventions in their work: Two of the three films juxtapose parades with masking sinister goings-on and introduce pretty women only to have them captured and held at gunpoint before the big gundown. And all three filmmakers glorify their rugged heroes, who all carry with them what one character calls a "perverted sense of honor and a reckless sense of confrontation."
All three movies have also embraced the new look of today's fake (or CGI-generated) blood. The blood in these movies looks lighter and less syrupy, like it came from a Hi-C juice box instead of a bottle of grenadine or a tube of melted Fla-Vor-Ice. This blood explodes in pressurized gore-gasms. Whenever they're wounded, the people in these movies remind you of a tightly coiled hose that has sprung a leak.
The Last Stand stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, back on screen as a leading man for the first time in 10 years. He's mellowed agreeably, and he has picked up one new facial expression: a look of wrinkled, staring disbelief not unlike the squint-eyed incomprehension deployed by Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino whenever he couldn't take the measure of the world's evil. As Arnold's character — a former LAPD standout turned small-town Arizona sheriff — notes, he's seen more blood and death than anyone, and he can't stop what's coming. But unlike Eastwood, it feels like Schwarzenegger can't wait to face the mayhem brought to town by the fugitive Mexican drug kingpin in the world's fastest car who's barreling toward him and his ragtag band of instant deputies.
Veering wildly in tone from grim seriousness to Jackass-style jokiness, The Last Stand is partially successful, because it evokes the multicultural ethos of 2011's highly entertaining Fast Five. It sounds ridiculous, but Peter Stormare's creative mangling of English combines with Schwarzenegger's thudding Austrian accent to imply something about an immigrant's opportunity for economic and cultural advancement in the United States. This half-formed, half-buried idea transforms a climactic fistfight on a hastily constructed bridge into a two-man slugfest about rule-following and the American dream.
The Last Stand looks like it's not going to be much of a hit, but it's funnier and more unpredictable than Parker, the latest attempt to revive author Donald E. Westlake's stoic, determined criminal, Robin Hood. And just like always, the film follows Parker (played with supreme self-involvement by Jason Statham) as he cuts a swath through the country to get what he is owed. The earliest scenes in the film are the most exciting. Parker barnstorms the South like a virus, stealing cars and changing identities as he doggedly chases after his rightful share of a robbery at the Ohio State Fair.
When Parker crosses paths with real-estate agent Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez), it's like trying to shove two magnets with like poles together: The closer they get, the farther apart they want to be. Part of this disconnection comes from the design of their characters: Parker has next to no interest in women or sexuality, while Rodgers is desperate to find a man to help her escape her middle-class hell. Statham remains as solid and implacable as a storm front, leaving poor Lopez nowhere to go with her uncharacteristically panicky energy.
Bullet to the Head is the gold-medal winner. It's got the best feel for its location, the best music, the most provocative dialogue, and the most startling and stylishly filmed violence. (This violence begins with the opening credits.) As a genre exercise, it frequently renders the other two films stupid and shallow.
The film stars Sylvester Stallone as a grumpy old hit man trying to educate a young cop (Sung Kang) on the hard truths of working outside the law. Since it's set in New Orleans — er, "Crescent City" — there's room for all-night revelry, kinky masquerades, and the second-most exciting bathhouse brawl of the last decade. The near-great Walter Hill, whose previous big-screen effort was the Don Siegel-esque prison-boxing picture Undisputed, is in fine, mischievous form here. And the fireman's ax battle between Stallone and Jason Momoa at the film's climax is the single best scene from any of the three films. Before the two beefed-up leads try to hack each other to bits, there's a thoughtful meditation on the transience and meaninglessness of heroism. At times like these, the dead zone and the movie landscape teem with wriggling, amoral life.
The Last Stand, Parker, Bullet to the Head