Written By: Daniel Kinsley
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was initially deemed too large by management, and thus will be broken up into several installments so that for all three of our readers, the size will be more manageable! PART THREE will cover (the final) CHAPTER IV.
IV. STATE OF THE UNION
Throughout its history, Hollywood has always been quick to take a successful idea and run with it, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. The buddy actioner is no exception to this, but what is perhaps most surprising is how elastic the concept has proven.
Following the success of the early pioneers, buddy action films blossomed into an often reliable sub-genre. While the 80s were nearly over, Die Hard (1988) [the other action film that Hollywood would chase for 20+ years) made room for Reginald VelJohnson as Bruce Willis’ eyes and ears on the ground, and went full on buddy formula in the third entry Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995) which teamed its titular hero with Samuel L. Jackson as a reluctant partner dragged into a particularly nasty game of “Simon Says”.
Midnight Run (1988) is perhaps one of the more unsung classics in the genre, pairing Robert De Niro as the straight man to Charles Grodin’s whiny accountant on the run from the mob. It’s certainly a more comedic take, but no less well-executed by Martin Brest (who, these days, sadly remains in Director’s Jail). In a case of noteworthy polarity, the decade closed out with the machismo-fueled Tango & Cash (1989) starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell as two rival narcotics police who must team up after being framed for murder.
The 1990s saw the genre quickly bloom into something that would provide varied quality over time with classics like Point Break (1991) and The Rock (1995) as well as infamous clunkers like Wild Wild West (1999). Generally, as the decade went on, the emphasis seemed to shift more toward comedy, with the arrival of films like Bad Boys (1995), Rush Hour (1998) and Blue Streak (1999) which focused more on the chemistry between its leads than reinventing the genre. The Lethal Weapon franchise leaned into its comedic elements more with each sequel, so by the fourth entry in 1998, the film looked a lot more like its contemporaries rather than the trailblazer it once was.
In the last decade or so, the most successful films have leaned primarily on the history of the genre, either by relying on a satirical tone or taking the action part of the formula back to basics.
Despite the fact that he has gone on to be one of the world’s biggest stars, Dwayne Johnson’s early-career gem The Rundown (2003) is still wildly under seen and pretty close to action perfection. Co-starring Sean William Scott, the film is pretty much a perfect use of The Rock’s talents; utilizing his charm, comic timing, and considerable talents for kicking ass. Johnson plays a bounty hunter named Beck sent to the Amazon to retrieve his gangster boss’s black sheep son (Seann William Scott) where the search for an archaeological artifact leads them to run afoul of a local big bad (Christopher Walken). It’s Midnight Run by way of Indiana Jones, and arguably remains one of the most fun movies Johnson has made yet.
Films like Hot Fuzz (2007), Pineapple Express (2008), and The Other Guys (2010) make for a pretty clear trajectory to the place where the genre feels most comfortable these days. While all three films undoubtedly fall under a similar umbrella, it is a credit to each filmmaker that they all feel so unique to one another. In Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright does for action what he was able to do for the horror genre; create a new genre classic that feels new and true to its own razor sharp identity, all while ably sending up the classics and building a more than competent plot around it all. Pineapple is the loosest of the three films, feeling the least reliant on the usual genre trappings in a traditional sense. It is the most overtly comedic as a result, and while it is a fun time, for this writer it does not have quite the same staying power. The Other Guys is a tighter film, as it spends a good bit of its time riffing on things that are tangential (although hilarious) before deftly revealing itself to be a very clever take on the buddy formula. It is difficult not to think of the groundwork laid by these films watching the Jump Street franchise. 21 Jump Street (2012) is a buddy-action masterpiece, self-aware and absurd, uniquely its own, yet totally true to the spirit of the buddy film. While 22 Jump Street (2014) does not pack the same element of surprise, it is an escalation in every imaginable manner. In many ways, it feels like the logical extreme to the post-modern approach.
Perhaps that is why the most recent forays into buddy territory have hearkened back to less ambitious roots. Though neither film made much of a splash at the box office, 2 Guns (2013) and the aforementioned The Nice Guys (2016) feel like films from another era. While the latter was far more of a critical success, both films succeed in meeting the basic requirements of a buddy film and then making them feel grounded in a way many modern action films do not. In both cases, the films feel character driven first, while the humor is more often situational rather than the whole point. Part of their success is their R-rated focus, allowing them to be movies made for solely for adults, and indulging in a tone that feels true to the best of what the genre brought to life before. Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg make for a terrific comedic pair (nearly as good as Gosling and Crowe) and anyone who has seen either man before knows they can carry an action film.
Most importantly though, is the scope of these films. In an increasingly big-budgeted, CGI-driven marketplace, these films feel successful most of all because they are fun, smart, and best of all, simple. If the bad guys win in either film, the world will not end, and for the most part, only a handful of people will be affected in any lasting way. It’s refreshing in a sense that the fate of the world’s existence is not at risk, and the stakes still matter. The lack of financial success perhaps signals a changing of the guard; the way films are made has changed considerably over the last several decades, and will continue to do so. It is this writer’s sincere hope that there is an audience who will reward these kinds of stories for more years to come. In the age of the casual apocalypse, it is a comfort to know that the buddy action film can still be counted on to bring the genre back to basics.