A summer action movie (and a superhero saga at that) can be fun too — well, who knew!
The bread and butter of Hollywood in summer is the Action Movie, which could have been termed so not just because it contains high-adrenalin action sequences (the fistfight, the chase, the slow-motion bullet dodge…), but also because whether you speak English or German or only in guttural clicks, you can follow the film by just following the actions. Someone scowls in a close-up, and he's angry. Someone walks away with a hangdog face, and he's sad. It's characterisation by semaphore; dialogue is redundant.
It's no surprise, therefore, that after a somewhat dull first quarter, the box-office has shifted into overdrive with “Fast Five”. This is the very definition of characterisation by semaphore — mildly entertaining, certainly — and yet, it's hard not to think back to other, better action movies that radiated heat and energy, but weren't just about BTU (of course, Blowing Things Up). In the great action movies, there's always something at stake, the action is always for something. In “Die Hard”, a man fights to rescue his wife. In the “Bourne” movies, a man fights for his sanity. In “The Guns of Navarone”, men fight to save allied soldiers and, by extension, the world.
Even in the best heist movies, the plotters fight to pull off their plans, and what's at stake is their lives, their futures, their faith in each other. In “Fast Five”, there isn't a minute you worry about bad things happening to these people because you're never really involved with what's happening. You know they'll escape with their smirks intact, and they do, so the only thing for us to do is sit back and wait for things to stop blowing up, which is when we know it's time to head home.
“Fast Five” is the kind of action movie without consequence — and that's pretty much what I expected from “Thor”, the first instance this summer of the superhero saga, that other flavour of the Hollywood action movie. The hero, at one point, is accused of being a mercenary, and that's what I thought the movie would be — a story about the god of Thursday calculated to bring in maximum bucks Friday to Sunday. The only entertainment, I figured, would come from snickering at the names — a hammer named Mjolnir (try pronouncing that), or a kingdom named Asgard (sounds like something a ballplayer would pick up at a sporting goods store to protect his behind). Imagine my astonishment, then, when I actually began to cheer for this banished superhero to regain his lost powers and his rightful place in the pantheon.
“Thor” is the kind of action movie Hollywood has forgotten how to make — light enough to be classified as popcorn entertainment and yet just heavy enough to be of consequence, to make you care about the fates of the people on screen. I don't want to oversell a film about a blond man with a big hammer, but if you're tired of grim, brooding superheroes who aspire to be film noir protagonists rather than strangely empowered men who can fly and become invisible and save puppies and children from burning buildings, then “Thor” is the summer blockbuster for you.
I'm fairly certain that Christopher Nolan will weigh in with his next “Batman” instalment where the screen sags with the worries of the world, but until then, here's an action movie that isn't devoid of consequence, a superhero saga that says it's okay to crack a goofy grin, an instance of semaphoric filmmaking that's also substantial. That can be a real refresher in a long hot summer.