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The Cult of Action: The Sad, Strange Fate of Bringing Movies Here
Hollywood studios, knowing what Americans like better than Americans do... since forever.
Published on March 2, 2014 | Filed under The Cult of Action
Snowpiercer

After much back and forth, we have finally learned that Snowpiercer will be released in the US in its full, uncut glory. For those unawares, the film is South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s first English language film. It stars Captain America himself, Chris Evans, and it’s already got a ton of excellent buzz, shattered Korean box office records, and sounds like a pretty kickass time all around. This is exciting to me, especially since the last Korean director to have his first US release that I’m aware of was Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was unexpectedly awesome.

At any rate, despite the star power of Lucas Lee himself, Chris Evans, and tremendous pre-release buzz, the word was that the Weinsteins were going to cut roughly 20 minutes from the film and add what I can only imagine is the most ill-advised voiceover since Blade Runner. Fortunately, we can rejoice, as this is not actually happening. Unfortunately, the trade-off is that the film will see only a limited release. Being in DC, one of America’s most movie-going cities, this won’t be a problem for me. My friends back in my hometown of Milwaukee, and certainly anyone outside of a metropolis, will not be so lucky. Still, a hard-to-see film that’s intact beats an easy-to-see bowdlerized film, if you ask me.

The threat of said bowdlerization brought to mind the myriad odd ways foreign movies and filmmakers make their way into the US. This runs the gamut from unnecessary title changes, to the removal of footage, to the totally bizarre addition of entire subplots. In the case of filmmakers, it sometimes leads to broad changes in style. This is mostly the product of studios and distributors (often one and the same), because they know better than we what we want. They are also the ones who greenlight shit like the Super Mario Bros. movie.

Starting on the less offensive, but still strange, end of the scale are title changes. This is actually pretty common any time a movie goes from one country to another, but I don’t have enough space to get into what happens to Italian horror movie titles when they go to England. At any rate, Bruce Lee struggled as an actor in the US for some time. He appeared as Kato on the 1960s Green Hornet show, and even guested on a couple episodes of Batman as the same. Still, try as he might, he couldn’t find a niche until he went to Hong Kong. His first Hong Kong effort was called The Big Boss. For reasons beyond my comprehension, when it came to the country of its star’s birth, it was retitled Fist of Fury. This complicated things significantly when his second movie was titled Fists of Fury. The film was subsequently retitled The Chinese Connection for its US release.

A ton of films have seen footage removed to meet US ratings criteria, though for thematic reasons films sometimes just don’t come out here at all. I was genuinely surprised to find out that Battle Royale did not get a proper US release until 2011. Everyone I know saw it shortly after its Japanese release. In fact, I’ve had a bootleg DVD for over a decade. Most films, even controversial ones, manage to get a US release, but often with cuts made to satisfy either ratings or squeamish studios. Some of the better-known instances include Luc Besson’s masterpiece, Leon, which also had an unnecessary name change and arrived in the US as The Professional, light over 20 minutes of footage.

Leon

But you know what’s even weirder? Films that have seen footage added for the US release. The two most infamous examples of this are Godzilla and Godzilla 1985. Yes, one of the most legendary monster movies of all time actually added footage for the US release! I guess they felt like they really needed Perry Mason on the case, because Raymond fucking Burr shot special scenes to be added to the film before its American premiere. And what’s odder than that? When Toho rebooted Godzilla with Godzilla 1985 (known in Japan simply as Godzilla), it was brought to the US and New World Pictures, the American studio, got Raymond Burr to reprise his role from the first movie! All done in the spirit of making it more “American.” Or something.

The final insult brought to us by “Americanization” is when studios force a sea-change in a director’s style. It’s been done a lot, and there are numerous directors who come to the US and, having previously made great films, make unwatchable pap. But the worst offender is none other than action movie master John Woo. There aren’t enough words in the English language for me to fully impart to you how difficult it is for me to reconcile the same man made both Hard Boiled and Paycheck. I mean, what the fuck happened? John Woo’s Hong Kong films are a master class in action filmmaking. Even though Escape From L.A. sucks, John Woo and Chow Yun Fat give Carpenter and Russell a run for the title of Best Director/Actor Combo.

Hard Boiled was the last film Woo made before coming stateside (he’s since returned to Hong Kong with Red Cliff, a film (or two films?) I have not yet seen). The first film he made in the US was Hard Target. Below par for Woo, but competent and it has JCVD with an amazingly greasy mullet. So, points for that. After that, nothing Woo made during the dark US years was worth a squirt of piss. Look at this list of train wrecks: Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Mission Impossible II, Windtalkers and Paycheck. That’s an output so bad even Uwe Boll turns up his nose at it. I mean, no joke, those are some excruciatingly shitty movies. Philip K. Dick’s work has had some pretty rough adaptations, and though Next is really, really bad, Paycheck might be the worst of them.

Paycheck

How did all of this happen? Despite the fact that American audiences were getting into Woo’s work from across the Pacific, American studios thought they knew what Americans liked and fed him scripts that simply did not gel with his style of filmmaking. There’s this amazingly flawed theory that seems to make its way around Hollywood that Americans don’t like movies unless there’s a substantial story. I mean, just look at what’s being said about the Akira live action movie. Clearly, the common wisdom in Hollywood is that we can’t appreciate films that are long on action and short on story. So much so that movies like Face/Off get made. Face/Off was a film that had a chance. Travolta and Cage are big and goofy and fun enough that it could have been a campy, action-packed delight. But instead, the script is weighed down with an absurd amount of padding and drama. A film that Woo could have knocked out of the park at a 90 minute runtime somehow goes for a positively torturous two hours and eighteen minutes. Granted, Hard Boiled clocks in at over two hours, but it is also a film that is so briskly paced and so full of action sequences that it couldn’t possibly drag. Face/Off has enough action and enough un-needed baggage, that it could be re-edited into a watchable hour and a half, but as it stands, there’s too much drama, too much about Travolta’s family, too much dwelling on things that aren’t shooting. Hard Boiled never does that.

Ultimately, I’m glad Snowpiercer will get to us untainted. It has a silly title, but I’m glad it’s keeping it. It’s a little long, but I’m told it’s action packed. It doesn’t have narration to clarify the plot points for us stupid Americans, but I don’t like to be insulted. In short, I think movies should stand on their own, particularly genre films. Hey, it worked for The Raid. And I think it will work for Snowpiercer. The rumblings so far are that it’s good, but even if it isn’t, it’s better to be bad on its own merits than bad because it was fucked with.

Author:

Joe is the co-creator of the Action Cast!, a biweekly podcast about action movies hosted at OnTheStick.com, along with his other podcasts. He’s also a film school dropout, a former pro wrestler and a struggling actor. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 2013, and so far has spent more money in D.C. on revival screenings than first run films.

Joe Drilling

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  • Matthew Monagle

    If you don’t like BROKEN ARROW then we can’t be friends.

  • Yeah, I like Broken Arrow too!