Summer’s actioners perfect art of overkill

HOW MANY ENDINGS DO YOU NEED? The same complaints have been made about nearly all of the mega-budgeted summer action films: They’re big, noisy, far-fetched, loaded with recycled ideas, and deficient in story, believable characters and anything other than technical expertise. Certainly the grosses for “Batman & Robin,” “Con Air” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control” reflect a certain audience disappointment with the goods, and even the sure-fire box-office behemoth “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” experienced steeper than expected weekly declines in business.

But beyond their ragged storytelling skills and lack of genuine imagination, what these and the two superior action pictures of the season, “Air Force One” and “Face/Off,” have in common is a ridiculous excess of endings, or climax uninterruptus. Long after every one of these films should have wrapped things up, they are still going on, and on, and on, trying to top what came before with ever-more preposterous set-pieces that simply make the action less and less credible.

It’s the macho impulse behind the modern generation of action films made metaphorically explicit, as if the filmmakers were saying, “I can get you off three times, four times, five times, when you’ve actually had enough already.”

THE MOST EGREGIOUS OFFENDER remains the summer’s first action special, “Con Air,” from none other than Jerry Bruckheimer who, with his late partner Don Simpson, made testosterone a film genre in addition to a hormone. After the big battle in the desert, the picture should have been brought to a quick close with a personal confrontation between Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich. Instead, their own fight is virtually lost in the shuffle when the damn plane lands in Vegas and crashes into the Hard Rock Cafe, followed by a lame-brained chase on a hook-and-ladder, none of which is convincingly staged anyway. The picture needed none of this, and think of how much money would have been saved had someone seen fit to just tear those final pages out of the script prior to production.

By contrast, the most expendable sequence in “Batman & Robin” was Alicia Silverstone’s silly nocturnal motorcycle excursion. For its part, the finale, involving the efforts of the caped trio to stop Mr. Freeze from paralyzing all of Gotham City with a giant ice gun, is so gargantuan and generalized as to be simply numbing after all the over-produced set-pieces that have come before.

As for “The Lost World,” it might have seemed that something bigger was needed after the filmmakers got tired of being confined to the island. But the climactic excursion to San Diego adds very little as presented; a great many dinosaurs on the loose might have resulted in some truly delectable, diabolical fun, but the sequence as it stands feels like a pale echo of “King Kong” or even old Japanese monster mashes such as “Godzilla,” many of which were set in urban areas.

“Speed 2,” the least successful of the costly summer actioners by far, at least follows a halfway plausible trajectory. But there was far too much of it, with incident piled upon incident, and protracted beyond a point where anyone would care. Both in the budget and narrative sense, this film exemplifies the fact that no one at the studios currently seems to know the meaning of the axiom “less is more.”

PROBABLY NO SUMMER FILM contains more potential endings than “Face/Off,” in which Nick Cage and John Travolta square off innumerable times before good finally prevails. The individual sequences, even the most gratuitous and excessive of them, the final speedboat chase, are exciting and well-crafted. But there are just too many of them, and there is no reason a film like this has to run 138 minutes.

With “Air Force One,” there were clearly many challenges posed by how to work out the plot and convincingly conclude a story featuring the U.S. president as an action hero. But, once again, the filmmakers push things too far; once Gary Oldman floats out to his well-deserved fate, the threat is gone and the story should be over. Unfortunately, the film creates unneeded and unconvincing further jeopardy by shoving to the forefront the renegade Secret Service agent (whose motivations are never properly explained) when one would imagine that even he would see that enough’s enough.

Perhaps one day someone might want to edit together all the climactic sequences from this summer’s films as a definitive illustration of the principle of overkill; it’s hard to imagine a more mind-deadening experience than watching all these climaxes strung together. Great action and suspense stories should build to a plausible and gripping climax, which can profitably be topped by an ironic or surprising twist. The problem today most likely lies in the fact that most of these modern actioners don’t have genuinely good and involving stories to begin with, so forever bigger chases and explosions and crashes and battles have to be devised to compensate.

Leave ’em wanting more is one of the oldest rules of showbiz, and the only big film of the summer to observe this truism, “Men in Black,” will, perhaps not coincidentally, ultimately emerge as the most successful. It’s very doubtful that anyone leaving any of the summer’s other action adventures would have wanted to sit for even another minute.

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