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From the Wire: On the Pleasures of Direct-to-Video

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by Matt Singer
May 1, 2012 2:09 PM
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"Universal Soldier: Regeneration."

My good friend R. Emmet Sweeney has a great interview at Movie Morlocks today with Outlaw Vern, one of the leading proponents of that most disreputable of mediums: the direct-to-video movie. Sweeney proposes that with summer movie season nearly upon us -- where a ticket to a "long-form toy commercial" about "a gang of men (and a token woman) who wear molded plastic underwear" will set you back almost twenty dollars -- you'll find better bang for your buck in the world of DTV, the "cheap-o brawlers [that] resort to showing actual humans moving in real spaces, often with jaw-dropping athleticism." In conversation with Sweeney, Vern lays out the case for these neglected gems:

"There’s no one way to do an action scene but I’m very big on them having a clear sense of where the characters are standing and what they’re doing. That used to be a minimum standard of competence but now it’s kind of rare. A decade ago I was really bothered by fast edits starting with 'Armageddon,' and then started worrying about bad framing after 'Gladiator,' and of course since then you can usually assume that a theatrically released action movie is gonna have most of the scenes shot very close up with a handheld camera so you get confused and aren’t sure if anything cool happened or not. When the director actually makes an attempt to plan out the shots and clearly show people fighting it becomes a major promotional point, like in 'Hanna' and 'Haywire.'

"For a long time actually the action was usually crappy in DTV movies. For example Seagal’s action scenes showed way less effort and craftsmanship than his earlier movies. 'Belly of the Beast' and 'Urban Justice' are two exceptions. But in recent years as most of the studio action movies have turned into shakycam bullshit with actors pretending to be fighters instead of the other way around, DTV became sort of the last refuge for American fight movies with the spirit of what we used to love in the ’80s."

Here here. I haven't seen "Avengers" yet (though it is the one toy commercial starring dudes in molded plastic underwear I'm really looking forward this year) but I watch enough big-budget action movies to know most of them are terrible, at least from an action standpoint. Even an entertaining film like "Lockout," a no-frills B-movie from uber-producer Luc Besson's pop trash factory, was far more satisfying as an exercise in style and attitude than as an action film. Hacked to pieces to secure a PG-13 rating, the fights and chases were borderline incoherent. The same could be said of most summer blockbusters in a post-Michael Bay world. 

For those who read the recent wave of articles about The Death of the American Action Film and despaired, there is hope in the world of DTV (and VOD, too -- where great foreign thrillers like "Sleepless Night" often premiere before or even in lieu of theatrical releases). Sweeney's interview also includes Vern's list of the five best recent DTV titles. All the ones I haven't seen are going in my Netflix queue right now.

Read more of R. Emmet Sweeney's "DTV Action Items (Part 1): An Interview With Outlaw Vern."

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