I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference between eighties action movies ("classic action") and nineties action movies ("neu-action"). I mean, there are obvious stylistic differences in cinematography, scoring, and squib-squishiness, but I'm talking about the heart of the matter here. Deep in their souls, what sets Commando apart from The Rock? It's a question that has haunted men since the dawn of time (the dawn of time being roughly 1995 or so).
Well, I'll tell you. It all comes down to what people who make documentaries about Kurt Cobain call "the cult of personality." See, classic action is structured around the persona of the central badass. The plot is only significant in that it allows the main ass-kicker to kick ass in his own way. The best classic action heroes stuck to plots that let them do what they did best with a minimum of fuss. You'd never see Seagal making Bloodsport, even though he was much more of a legitimate martial artist than Van Damme. It just wasn't his style. And that's the appeal of classic action. If you plugged a different badass into the movie but kept the exact same plot, you would get a completely different movie. Stallone could have easily played Arnold's role in Commando, but if he had, it wouldn't have been as goofy and over-the-top. Sly was taking himself pretty seriously back then, and his movies reflected that. On that same note, imagine Arnold in Cobra. He would have noticed what a ridiculous movie he was making, and he would have let us laugh with him. Sly forces us to laugh at him by buying into his own bullshit. Even though Cobra and Commando are both firmly in the "unstoppable muscleman mowing down hundreds of stuntmen" genre, the differing badass je ne sais quoi of their respective stars is what gives them their own unique personalities.
Neu-action, however, is centered not around the hero, but around the central concept. What if somebody put a bomb on a bus? What if there was a bank heist during a flood? What if a bunch of convicts took over a plane? It's this kind of wrongheaded thinking that made Nic Cage a de facto action star. The central badass in these films is secondary, which is why legitimate badassery all but disappeared in the nineties. You didn't need a believable badass to carry your movie for you, because that's what all those newfangled CGI effects were supposed to do. All you needed was a big-name actor. Any big-name actor. For example, if you substituted Christian Slater for Keanu Reeves in Speed, the movie would not change significantly. I like Speed, and I like Keanu, but I never really buy him as a world-class ass-kicker; he's just the guy that the plot happens to. It could have happened to anybody, but it just happened to happen to him. Yyou couldn't substitute anyone else for Arnold, though, or it wouldn't be an Arnold movie anymore. He is the movie.
That's why, as much as I love Die Hard, I have to say that it's the granddaddy of neu-action. Bruce Willis more than proved his badass credentials in that film, and over the course of the series, he made the character of John McClane more important than any particular plot element. The movies would not be the same if anyone else were in them, but they didn't know that before they made them. They were just looking for a familiar face to plug into this awesome idea they had about terrorists in a skyscraper. That's what makes it proto-neu-action: the concept was more important than the star. From that point on, "Die Hard on a ____" became a genre unto itself, and you could insert anyone into the same basic plot and they all felt pretty much the same. Both Van Damme and Seagal made Die Hard ripoffs, and they're among the most generic and interchangeable entries in their respective oeuvres. Under Siege is a good movie, but it wouldn't really have mattered if somebody besides Seagal played Casey Reibeck, because the ship was the star, not him. You can't say that for Out For Justice (mostly because there's no ship).
Believe it or not, this brings us to The Marine, which is an attempt to return to the tenets of classic action. The only reason for this utterly generic movie to exist is to give overmuscled WWE wrestler John Cena (who looks like Matt Damon if he got juiced with the radioactive ooze from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2) a chance to carry an action movie. There is no central concept other than that. The movie was built around him, not the other way around.
This has been tried plenty of times before. The Marine falls into the category of "novelty action," where the selling point is the chance to see some weird non-actor in a cookie-cutter action flick. Usually, these things are geek shows, like when they tried to make an Olympic gymnast into an action star in Gymkata. Sometimes it works, though. The best example is Stone Cold, which uses the flamboyant persona of Brian Bosworth as a blueprint for the tone of the movie. Compare that to One Man's Justice, where the movie expected us to take the Bos seriously and ended up being far less entertaining as a result.
The Marine is more One Man's Justice than Stone Cold, in that it doesn't really do anything unique with John Cena. He's just a big, dumb roid monkey who hits people. I hear that in the ring, he's a preposterous wigger cliché who made his championship belt spin like some gangster rapper's 22-inch rims. If they'd have built a movie around that ridiculousness and managed to keep a completely straight face, we might have had a camp classic of Road House proportions on our hands.
That said, I enjoyed the hell out of The Marine, and it has nothing to do with John Cena. It's just a completely retarded movie that seems to be utterly impressed with its own awesomeness. There are all kinds of moments where they awesome up parts that don't need awesoming up, like showing slo-mo CGI shell casings or putting whooshy sound effects on camera moves. Things like this reek of desperation. You can practically smell the flop sweat as the movie gives itself a hernia trying to impress you. It's like when you see Jim Carrey on Letterman and it looks like he's gonna fucking shoot himself if he doesn't get a laugh.
The best part is that Robert Patrick is the main villain. He sort of Kurt Loders his way through the performance, saying his lines more or less straight, but by the bemused look in his eyes, you know what he really thinks of this nonsense. He knows exactly what movie he's in, and it's hilarious to watch him ham it up shamelessly. He effortlessly steals every last second of screentime from his underqualified co-stars. From the second he shows up onscreen, the movie is his for the taking, so he puts it in his pocket and walks off with it. Hope you weren't using this movie, guys. It's mine now.
The most hilarious thing about The Marine is how hilarious it isn't. There are all these goofy Michael Bay-style scenes with the villains where there's "funny" music playing to let you know that you're supposed to laugh, because you sure as hell wouldn't have figured that out on your own. Seriously, this is probably the worst score I've ever heard. There's this running gag about how the black henchman (who apparently just converted to blackness last week or something, because being black is all he can talk about) is afraid of rock candy because he got ass-raped at summer camp as a kid. And the whole time he's confessing this, the Deliverance banjos weave in and out of the score, and Robert Patrick is sitting there chuckling. Ah, child molestation. Always a surefire laff riot.
But even though the filmmakers felt the need to bring back this rock candy bit two or three times, they don't feel the same responsibility to the themes or characters they introduced at the beginning of the movie. See, the movie starts out with this dude John Triton getting kicked out of the marines for being too badass. Then he gets home and hangs out in the kitchen in his underwear with his orange-skinned, yellow-haired wife, complaining about how marining is all he knows how to do so he doesn't have a purpose anymore. He gets a job as a security guard, but he can't keep his ass-kicking instincts in check, so he throws some grotesque yuppie stereotype through a plate glass window and gets fired. Then he has a heart-to-heart with his fat co-worker who tells him that he needs to learn how to adapt to his new life and find a new use for his ass-kicking skills. Then this loveable character disappears from the movie forever, because none of these themes have anything to do with the actual plot.
See, Robert Patrick and his crew of idiotic goons kidnap his wife for no good reason, so he spends the rest of the movie tracking her down. That makes it seem like her getting kidnapped was a good thing because it gives him an outlet for his skills. Dude, get a hobby. Your wife can't get kidnapped every day just to give you something to do.
If the filmmakers had stopped and thought for a second before they started filming, they would have realized that having his wife get kidnapped negates the entire beginning of the movie. He's not rescuing her because being a marine is in his blood, he's rescuing her because she's his fucking wife. That's the kind of plot you use when you want to show how the badass wants to retire from ass-kicking, but then the bad guys push him too far. It's a clear case of "You fuck with mine, I fuck with yours." If they wanted to show how much of a gung-ho hero-type he is, they should have had some random woman get kidnapped so he could go rescue her simply because it's the right thing to do. Everyone would ask him why he insists on involving himself in shit that has nothing to do with him, and he'd say, "It's what I do. I'm The Definite Article Marine." Then he would find his purpose: helping the helpless. Shit, now you've got a franchise on your hands. But what, is his wife gonna get kidnapped again in part two? It doesn't make any sense.
But fuck the plot. How's the action? Totally absurd but bloodless, even in the unrated version. It's mostly explosion-related, even though fire never kills anybody in this whole movie. Cena himself is completely fireproof. Incredibly massive fireballs go off right in his face and nothing happens to him, yet the villains insist on trying to blow him up anyway. Robert Patrick is also slightly flame-retardant. Even though he does get Freddy Kruegered up lovely in a blaze, he still comes back for one more fight.
The best scene is the car chase where Cena drives a Camaro cop car that gets whittled down by gunfire until it's just a chassis on wheels. Then he drives it off a cliff and the bad guys keep shooting it as it spirals through the air, and as it explodes, Cena jumps to safety. But you probably saw that in the trailer, along with the slo-mo shot where Robert Patrick walks by the biggest car explosion of all time and pretends that he doesn't notice it. Bear in mind that this scene uses Filter's "Hey Man Nice Shot" for roughly the millionth time. Can we call a moratorium on that song, as well as "More Human Than Human?" Even for ironic purposes, since that was already done in The Cable Guy over a fucking decade ago?
Anyway, if you like your action movies big, dumb, and sweaty, The Marine is very eager to meet you. It might get a little overexcited and start humping your leg, but that's part of its charm.