Michael Bay may be getting most of the attention this summer, but there are three other directors, and perhaps now even four, who I admire, and whose specialty is action with a certain higher level of craft, intelligence and cinematic virtuosity than the average 900-pound gorilla. When I see their names in the credits, it’s really all I need to know.
The directorial work of ex-special effects craftsman Joe Johnston (Star Wars is chief among his many credits) has been consistently satisfying and shot through with far more wit and elegance than one might have guessed could come from one so technically oriented. His films are wizardly and cheerfully grotesque (Jumanji), rousing and elegantly detailed (The Rocketeer), brisk, lean, and heartstopping (Jurassic Park III), humane and filled with the poetry of the everyday (October Sky), epic, affectionate and engaged with American mythology (Hidalgo). One of the reasons I worry about Michael Bay and his ilk becoming the standard for action filmmakers, and filmmakers in general, is the inevitable devaluation of genuine talents like Johnston, whose gifts are square within the scope of traditional cinematic storytelling. I continue to hope that his facility with the narrative of big-scale filmmaking will continue to keep him in the hearts and minds and BlackBerries of the Hollywood hotshots.
Another action director worth keeping an eye on is David R.Ellis, a former ace stunt coordinator who has only two films to his credit as director, but they are doozies. If you decried in the last few years the toothlessness of the mainstream horror thriller, get thee to a DVD player and rent Final Destination 2, the nearly universally trodden-upon sequel to the modest hit Final Destination, in which a group of kids deplane from a doomed flight and inadvertently save themselves from Death, who comes stalking them in ever more gruesome, jerry-rigged ways. Ellis’ sequel continues the same basic concept, and it’s a bit dicey in the logic department at times, but as a showcase for Ellis’ ability to stage awe-inspiring road destruction, even Bay must have bowed down after seeing the opening 10 minutes of this movie. And the movie gleefully restores the bad-ass bloodletting of disreputable ‘80s horror films and ups the ante considerably, thanks to some of the most clever CGI-enhanced gore yet seen. Ellis also headed up last year’s exceedingly clever car-chase thriller Cellular, which should have garnered some mention in our big Los Angeles movie debate of a couple of months ago. It’s a terrific travelogue of L.A. and a snappy critique of the cellular phone culture, courtesy of a devilishly sharp concept by screenwriter/director Larry Cohen in which a kidnapped woman contacts an average kid on a cell phone, convinces him her life and her family’s life is in danger and to try to help her, all without losing the tenuous cell phone signal that has become her lifeline. Ellis’ facility with action is put to marvelous, agile use here—he juggles some pretty fragile balls intelling this story and manages to keep them all in the air with a casually sadistic grin on his face, which will be matched by the one on yours when you see Cellular.
I would include two others on my list of interesting new action directors based only having seen one film from either of them: John Moore, who directed the intense remake of The Flight of the Phoenix, and Louis Leterrier, director of Unleashed. (Leterrier is also co-director, with stunt coordinator Cory Yuen, of the Luc Besson-scripted The Transformer, and well as sole credited director of the upcoming Transformer 2.)
These are the guys that give me hope for the American action cinema.