The new film Immortals, reviewed HERE, makes a bold stab at using the framework of a standard action movie as a vehicle for bold visual experimentation that would normally look more at home in the so-called "arthouse" cinema.
For whatever reason, you don't see this very often - too many action films are content to recycle the same motifs (scruffy guys shooting guns and driving fast for the present, grimy landscapes and rusty swords for "the past") everybody always expects. But once in awhile, an action film breaks away from the pack to do something wholly different.
Here are five of them:
The film world gave a collective "Huh?" when celebrated Chinese auteur Zhang Yhimou transitioned from traditional dramas like Raise The Red Lantern to wuxia martial arts epics with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but he proved that his better-known sensibilities and his newfound affection for two-fisted action could coexist swimmingly with this classy high-end melodrama about a decadent, scheming royal family whose backstabbing emotional combat frequently breaks out into superhuman kung fu battles.
Chow Yun-Fat is a deliciously evil emperor whose day-to-day routine includes covertly driving his treacherous wife into madness over a period of years, plotting against his underlings and trying to manipulate his favored son into a position of power. Said son may or may not also be in league with a coup plotted by dear old mum, who's also involved in a semi-incestuous affair with the other son from a previous marriage. Meanwhile, armies mass outside the walls, comely servant girls run fiendish errands and ninja-like assassins swoop through the shadows.
Almost the entire film is set in and around the palace during rehearsals for an intricately-arranged flower festival; with the enforced ritualism of royal life - every minute of each day arranged to specific steps and beats - forms a devilishly-ironic counterpoint to the sleaze and scandal occurring just outside the frame.
Once upon a time this was considered one of Tim Burton's misfires - a self-indulgent, mostly meaningless hodgepodge of skits and scenes without any real grounding. Today, in the wake of duds like Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, it somehow seems like an overlooked high water mark. Yeah, it's just a playground for Burton's pop art visual fixations, but at least he still had some level of engagement and discipline.
Based on a series of trading cards, the film is a barrage of intersecting stories framed around a parody of 1950s alien invasion movies; the running joke being that the assortment of human caricatures presented (Vegas hucksters, sleazy politicians, iron-jawed military men, slovenly rednecks, new-age ditzes and others) are so wretched you can't help but foot for the genocidal Martians.
In a way, it's the most honest disaster movie ever: You're watching Burton fantasize about the total annihilation of every strata of humanity he just can't stand. It's silly, one-note and more than a little mean-spirited, but it's visionary in a way most movies that big never get to be.