Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Colombiana (Megaton, 2011)

Colombiana is a good action movie, but, looking over some of the reviews for it, I think David Edelstein - who doesn't like the movie - does a better job of describing it than most of the critics who did like it. For instance, Christy Lemire gave it a positive review and called it "sexy and silly": Zoe Saldana is sexy in the movie, but I don't think anything about the movie is silly (which is not to say that everything is presented with a completely straight face). This seems to me to be a distancing move of some sort on Lemire's part: a way to praise something while at the same time signalling she knows it's beneath her. Edelstein, on the other hand, called the movie "abstract and passionless" and wrote about Zoe Saldana's character being "too listless and strung-out and weirdly disembodied to make you feel much empathy" for her. I think Edelstein is mostly right - although I'd say "distanced" instead of "passionless" - but, for me, those are features, not bugs. By preventing the movie from working as simple escapism, they make the movie much more enjoyable: they make the movie something to engage with and not merely something to consume. It's a much more interesting experience than watching a straightforward action movie like Salt. (Edelstein is, at least, consistent in his preference for the conventional: he gave Salt a positive review.)

However, though I like Colombiana and think it's not really (or merely) a "fun", "simple" movie, I wouldn't call it "complex", either. The movie's structure, situation, and character are all fairly stock: what makes the movie distinctive is its texture - transitions where it zigs instead of zags or moments where an unexpected tone keeps me off balance. Two examples that stick out: the start of the first action sequence, when we realize that this little girl isn't going to be a victim (zigging instead of zagging) and a shot during the penultimate fight where Saldana, wielding dual submachine guns, wears a blank, hollow look (unexpected tone). There are similar moments in Besson and Kamen's Taken: the shock of Liam Neeson shooting his friend's wife and the narrowness of moral vision shown by his lack of concern for any of the other girls who have been kidnapped.

So, if complicated is the wrong word, what is the right one? "Textured" sounds too academic. "Rough" - as in, these are movies don't work smoothly, like "good" product should - is more descriptive, but might also imply that the technique of these movies is less than professional, which isn't the case. I'm open to suggestions. Other movies that are more "textured"/"rough" than they are complex: Larry Cohen's, Stallone's Rambo, Mario Bava's, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and - raised to the level of world historical art - Sam Fuller's.

I think that's its worthwhile trying to theorize out this concept, if only because the language critics have to talk about these movies seems to hem them in. If I like movies like Colombiana or Taken, I might want to argue that they aren't just dumb, simple movies (as their critics might), so I reach for the opposite concept: for example, I might praise their complexity for the way they critique standard action movie tropes. But really, that's a bit of an overreach, as these movies don't so much offer a complicated critique those conventions as they put a spin on them that forces me to stay on my toes while I'm watching.

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