Contemporary films defy traditional molds

After all the awards season hoopla becomes a distant memory, 2000 may be remembered as the year two of the most startling commerical surprises represent the reinvention of previously well-defined action genres, the gladiator epic and the kung-fu film.

Both screenplays brought a storytelling depth and a sense of the romantic to usually less glamorous fare, and both have shocked Hollywood with their broad audience appeal.

Sometimes, the most important way to reinvent a genre is to forget what’s come before.

“I was never really an admirer of the old gladiator movies,” says David Franzoni, who created the story for “Gladiator,” and co-wrote the screenplay with John Logan and William Nicholson. “The only one I found inspiring was Fellini’s ‘Satyricon,’ and that’s because he did something so different with it. I wasn’t so much interested in the genre as in using it to hold a mirror up to contemporary society.”

Writing a new formula

Franzoni, in other words, wasn’t trying to break a mold; he was trying to work without one. The screenplay draws clear parallels between the world of the gladiators and today’s world of athletics, politics and mass entertainment. It also has a spiritual element that was important to the scribe.

“One thing I always insisted on was that the hero be a pagan instead of a Christian or a Jew,” Franzoni comments. “The hero is a good man, and at the end he goes off to a pagan afterlife, to the Elysian Fields. I don’t think a film could have done that in the ’50s.”

In addition, instead of being all about the gore and grunts of combat, the film has a romantic sensibility that has drawn female fans despite Russell Crowe not having a steamy love scene.

“This came up a lot in studio meetings. I believe the film is deeply romantic, even though it doesn’t have a traditional love interest,” says Franzoni. “The hero is a man fighting the entire world to avenge his wife and (son). What could be more romantic than that?”

It’s not new for action films to have an injection of romance, but usually it’s no more than skin-deep, a touch of titillation. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a martial arts feature, but at its core are two tragic love stories that reflect on each other. It really is a dual-genre work, with the romance and action elements inextricably intertwined.

“Crouching Tiger,” like “Gladiator,” has a layered density and an even more explicit spiritual component, with an evocative ending that leaves audiences puzzled but still satiated.

“It’s an incredibly rich film,” says Franzoni, an admirer of the screenplay by Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus and Tsai Kuo-Jung, based on a novel by Wang Du Lu.

“And don’t forget,” Franzoni adds, with an excitement that accompanies a pleasant surprise, “people are reading subtitles. My 9-year-old went to see it, and he wanted to leave when he realized it was in Chinese. But then he got hooked, and he hasn’t stopped talking about it.”

Is there a willingness on the part of audiences to accept the more demanding experience in the movie theater that these genre-splicing pics represent?

“It’s not new, of course,” says Franzoni, “we’ve always underestimated audiences. It’s just that right now everything is wide open. There’s a real opportunity out there.”

Stephen Gaghan, screenwriter for “Traffic,” another complex, challenging and commercially successful entry, agrees. “It’s definitely an exciting time. This year did re-define what can be a commercial film, particularly Stephen Soderbergh’s two films.”

The director’s “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” were two more unlikely hits, with topical, even politically sensitive, storylines about the U.S.’ war on drugs and industrial pollution, respectively.

Weaving a complex web

Gaghan’s screenplay, adapted in part from a British TV series, interweaves four stories, giving the audience a panoramic view of the fight against drugs. It’s also ambitiously character-driven, with individual thriller plotlines leading up to essential, moral decisions on behalf of the drug czar candidate portrayed by Michael Douglas and the good cop Benicio Del Toro. While it’s a much smaller film than the others under discussion, Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me,” which Gaghan and Franzoni mention as a favorite work of the year, is also remarkable for the depth of its characters, giving an aching profundity to a simple story of a brother and sister who have grown up parentless.

Of course, identifying trends in Hollywood can be a dangerous business. If one were to follow the trend from last year, Gaghan admits, “Traffic” may never have been made, since many people compared it to last year’s “The Insider,” a topical film he thought was excellent but one that never broke out.

Trends, like records, are made to be broken. But for now, be on the lookout for the next genre-bending, challenging period piece at your local cineplex. It might even come from one of these writers.

Franzoni is at work on a draft of a King Arthur project, which he describes as “King Arthur meets ‘The Wild Bunch.’ ” Gaghan is about to make his directorial debut with a psychological thriller, “Abandon,” which he insists defies easy description — a strong selling point these days.

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