There’s more to raw spectacle than meets the eye. The action film is nearly as old as cinema itself but while the genre has always been about providing people with vicarious excitement and raw spectacle, the nature of the spectacle on offer has changed in accordance with the technologies that go into its creation. For example, watching Jackie Chan throw himself off some scaffolding or through a plate-glass window is exciting precisely because you know that the stunts required him to put himself in danger and to rely on pure skill to keep himself alive. Similarly, when you watch John Carpenter’s The Thing, you marvel at the effects because you know that someone went out and built something that looked a lot like a shape-shifting alien.
Hollywood’s growing reliance upon computer-generated imagery assumes that the only thing that matters when it comes to creating spectacle is the image on the screen. Thus, filmmakers assume that because CGI allows them to put bigger monsters, bigger battles and bigger explosions on the screen CGI must be allowing them to create more spectacular images. However, anyone who has sat through Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films will know this to be a complete lie: The shift from mechanical and athletic spectacle to digital spectacle has made the experience of watching an action film indistinguishable from that of sitting in the dark watching a friend play rubbish videogames. Yes… it’s all very pretty and it all manifestly cost a lot of money to produce but watching a CGI elf bounce around the screen lopping off heads is nowhere near as exciting as watching a real-life human trade punches and put themselves in real danger.
Mercifully, some smaller films do still rely upon traditional stunts, practical effects and actors who can actually perform a proper fight scene. John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and Julian Gilbey’s A Lonely Place to Die both showcase how much fun can be had with less money, more patience and a different technical skillset but the bar for this kind of mid-budget action film was resolutely raised by Stephen Soderbergh’s Haywire, an amazingly kinetic spy thriller starring the female mixed martial artist Gina Carano. Carano’s latest film In The Blood has an even smaller budget than Haywire but while the film ultimately fails to make the most of Carano’s skillset, it does demonstrate what can happen when you put your faith in flesh and bone.
The film’s plot revolves around a married couple that met in rehab: Derek (Cam Gigandet) is wealthy and well connected while Ava (Gina Carano) is poor and virtually friendless. When asked by his father what he sees in a penniless wretch like Ava, Derek’s response is unguardedly honest: Ava was the person who kept him in rehab and helped him to get off drugs, without her he would be incapable of living let alone functioning in polite society. As movingly honest as this sentiment may be, it really only contains about half the truth.
Happily married, the pair head off to a remote island for their honeymoon where they enjoy the sun, the sea and each other before hooking up with a local who claims to know all the really fun places to go. Dragged to a nightclub, the couple dance and have fun until a local crimelord (Danny Trejo) takes an interest in Ava, prompting her to beat the stuffing out of him as well as his entourage of bodyguards. Ava’s murderous skills are explained through a series of flashbacks to a troubled childhood where violence and rape were so common that Ava had to learn to fight and kill merely to stay alive. We never learn what landed Ava in rehab but the suggestion is that while Ava may be the only thing keeping Derek off the drugs, Derek is the only thing keeping Ava from a life filled with death and violence.
Ava’s true nature is revealed when Derek is kidnapped. Frustrated by the incompetence and evident corruption of the local chief of police (Luis Guzman), Ava takes it upon herself to torture people in an effort to get the investigation moving. When the police (quite rightly) decide to kick her off the island, Ava abandons all restraint and begins to cut a broad swathe through the island’s underworld in search of her husband. The more violent Ava becomes, the more people turn against her and the more isolated Ava becomes, the more convinced she is that only violence will re-unite her with her husband.
The plot of In the Blood bears a striking resemblance to that of AJ Quinnell’s novel Man On Fire, which Tony Scott adapted for the screen in 2004 starring Denzel Washington as the recovering killer and Dakota Fanning as the little girl who reminded him that he could be more than a weapon. The problem is that while Man on Fire went out of its way to show how a killer might be redeemed by the love of an innocent, In the Blood fails to show us what Derek might have done to deserve such terrifying loyalty. The result is less a tale of damaged redemption than a story about an American tourist who, drunk on her own privilege, decides to re-enact US foreign policy by beating and torturing any brown person who happens to look at her sideways. The decision to do away with Man on Fire’s downbeat ending in favour of a happy ending in which both husband and wife escape the island consequence free only adds to the film’s already unpleasant racial undertones.
Equally disappointing is director John Stockwell’s failure to make the most of Gina Carano: The reason Haywire worked is that Soderbergh was wise enough to let Carano’s grace and athleticism speak for themselves. Unlike Stockwell who cuts from shot to shot in an effort to create a sense of speed, Soderbergh simply let his cameras roll and so captured the amazing spectacle of a trained martial artist doing what she does best. Stockwell’s lack of appreciation for Carano’s talents is also obvious from the fact that she spends most of the film pointing guns at people. Why cast a mixed martial artist in a film made up of nothing but gun-based action sequences? Why go to the trouble of shooting training montages and creating a backstory in which Ava is trained to fight by her father only to then limit hand-to-hand fighting to a single short scene? It is one thing to produce a weak film with limited resources, it is quite another to produce a weak film because you failed to make good use of the resources you had.
Despite the wonky plot and lack of hand-to-hand fighting, In the Blood is well shot, briskly paced and when the action sequences do turn up they are invariably entertaining. Even when not punching people, Carano has great screen presence and enough charisma to ensure that she carries the film without the support of either a decent script or engaged supporting actors. Though nowhere near as entertaining as Haywire, In The Blood remains a fun and likeable action movie.