Movies That Deserve a Second Life: Action/Adventure Edition

actionWhen referring to a movie that nabbed a second life, typically home video is the savior. There are countless movies that didn’t fare well in their original theatrical runs but have earned a so-called second life thanks to profitable video sales and rentals that make them much stronger than they ever were when they first arrived. Examples of this trend vary greatly, whether you’re referring to genre, era, proliferation (or magnitude of the “second life”) and, of course, how deserving it is. Most that get a boost long after its premiere got where it is now slowly, spread wide by word of mouth and critical re-analysis. Most of them were not well received during the initial run, and many are re-evaluated, and mistakes are mended. Among them: 2001, The Princess Bride, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, Office Space and Dazed and Confused. These are movies that weren’t initially loved  by general consensus (or for some, even liked at all) and/or failed to sell many tickets and seemed doomed to semi-obscurity. But as the years passed, each of them actually gained momentum long after magazines and newspapers stopped mentioning them. Such is the forgiving nature of a “second life.”

Of course, the two “godfathers” of this phenomenon are vastly different, but no less astonishing in their rise from the ashes. The first, It’s a Wonderful Life, was a critical and commercial flop back in the 1940s, but has since achieved the status of American classic, still broadcast yearly on television and appearing frequently on lists of the greatest American films. The second came much later but also saw a comeback of enormous proportions. Blade Runner initially performed weakly and got mixed reviews at best, but in the twenty-plus years since, has become recognized as a landmark science fiction masterpiece, inspiring devotion from millions. It’s rare to find movies achieve second lives like those two, but they are proof that such resurrections can miraculously happen.

Looking back, though, there are plenty of films deserving of such latter-day stature that never quite caught on. It’s also debatable to what degree a “second life” is worth. Cult films, in particular, would attest to having second lives despite the fact that most are still ignored and/or ridiculed by the general populace. So in the case of movies like Brazil, Heathers, the Evil Dead trilogy and pretty much anything from Monty Python, they’ve enjoyed healthy second lives while not actually being widely considered “second lifers.” Other cult-ish films, like the aforementioned Office Space and Big Lebowski, however, have (just take a look in any college dorm in the country). And two of the biggest cult films of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Night of the Living Dead, have been played so often in repeated limited runs over the years that they’ve managed to be among the most successful US films at the box office of their respective years thanks to all the reissues and midnight shows. But, again, this measure of success is still debatable—does cult status equal “second life?” Tough to say, tougher to argue firmly one way or the other.

For the purposes of this article, I’m just going to ignore anything made before 1960. At this point, almost everything fifty years or older that’s readily available on DVD is already considered at least a minor classic, unless it’s some forgotten work from a famous filmmaker/actor, in which case it’s usually shoehorned into a box set. And so far from the original release, there’s pretty much no chance for a second life anyway. Also, I’m going to forgo foreign language films since they so rarely had a first life in the States, that asking for a second is too much.

So first up is a list of action films that I feel are deserving of a second life. The trickiness of judging box office performance, general critical reaction and widespread acclaim from the masses makes some of these a bit iffy on whether or not they’ve already had a “second life” or if they did well enough the first time around to be considered moderate successes or better, but I tried my best. And since I no doubt forgot a couple along the way, make your own suggestions. Just keep in mind that the criteria isn’t just “underrated" movies, but movies that opened/tested not so well and deserve a second chance.

In the meantime, these are action movies that I feel deserve to be better appreciated following their original mediocre-at-best critical and commercial runs. They’re listed in alphabetical order. Warning: several of the featured clips contain strong violence and profanity and may spoil plot points.

• • •

bigtroublechinaBig Trouble in Little China (1986)

This one probably qualifies as a cult film, but it oughta be better loved than just that. Taken seriously, it’s a bizarre and overblown mishmash of different genres and styles that precludes satisfaction. But if taken on a similar level as other recent adventure hits of its time, like the first two Indiana Jones pics and Romancing the Stone, it’s pretty much impossible not to have a great time.

Its very silliness flies in the face of grittier conventions. Mixing and matching Chinese folklore and history, it features high-flying martial arts, black magic, freaky monsters, supernatural hokum and a villain with the power to kill himself by inflating his body like a puffer fish (or Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life) and exploding. And leading the way on this wacky adventure? Kurt Russell’s broad but smartly satirical take on blowhard action heroes, mimicking John Wayne all the way. Actually, the operable word would be “following” instead of “leading,” since pretty much the entire way through he has no idea what’s going on and fails repeatedly at doing the right thing.

bigtroubleexplodeIts reported budget of $25 million was pretty high for the time, and it didn’t even make half of that back at the box office. Director John Carpenter complained about how the movie was marketed; the whole process, in fact, caused him to vow to never make a big studio picture again—and his career never recovered. Despite a few small but uneven winners since Big Trouble (They Live, Vampires), this was his last truly worthwhile movie, and ended a strong run he’d been on for a decade that featured a few road bumps (Christine, The Fog) but also several greats (Assault on Precinct 17, Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing). Amusingly, Carpenter also complained about how shoddy some of the special effects were (and the company that produced them), but the very cheapness to a few sequences give the film even more charm. If you’re looking to have a grand, goofy time, there aren’t a lot of better options out there than this one.


driverThe Driver (1978)

Following in the footsteps of other gritty car chase movies of its era, The Driver neither becomes bloated with existentialism (Vanishing Point) nor does it bog down when rubber’s not being burnt (the original Gone in Sixty Seconds). This is a film of archetypes and attitude, minimalism and tension. The director, Walter Hill, prefers precision to point-making. And the only characters that really matter are the taciturn Driver (Ryan O’Neal) and the dogged Detective (Bruce Dern); no one gets a real name in the movie, not even the supporting players.

While it wasn’t an enormous bomb nor has it been entirely ignored by action junkies, it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the previously named car chase flics, and certainly not with better-known classics like The French Connection and Bullitt. But while the chase sequences are well-done, they’re not quite of the superlative quality that marked the more famous films. Instead, it’s the aura of desperation, the weird flourishes and the suspense that kept me riveted all the way through.

Compared to most of the cluttered junk that passes for action films today, this one’s a no-frills astonishment. Actually, the film leans closer to the sub-genre of film noir than that of a car chase movie. But the sounds of squealing tires and revving engines are as much a character in this movie than any living, breathing entity. And if you ever want to see a car being systematically destroyed, witness the breathtaking sequence where the Driver mechanically but ruthlessly tears apart a Mercedes by intentionally driving it into walls and clips parking garage columns. Don’t put it on the same list as the classics, but watch it anyway and prepare to wonder why this one isn’t much better known.


ducksuckerDuck You Sucker (1971)

The fifth and last of Sergio Leone’s westerns, it never gets the same level of acclaim as the Dollars trilogy or Once Upon a Time in the West. But Leone’s westerns became a bit more complex and operatic as they went along, and Duck You Sucker is no exception. Fair is fair: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is my all time favorite of the genre (and Once Upon a Time in the West not far back). But even though Sucker can’t compete with that one, it still deserves to be regarded with similar value as his first two Dollars efforts.

Calling it a western is almost misleading, anyway. After a terrific start (featuring one of Leone’s most visually stylish sequences ever), the movie becomes darker and more serious, exploring real themes instead of myth and bravado. The casting is curious—James Coburn as an IRA explosives expert and Rod Steiger as a Mexican bandit. The Irish brogue is a bit iffy and Steiger’s accent sounds a lot like Al Pacino would sound as Tony Montana a decade later. But as the film progresses and the characters become richer, you hardly even notice. Actually, their relationship is more than a bit similar to Blondie and Tuco’s in TGtBatU—one talks hardly at all, the other never stops.

ducksuckerduoThe movie does drag a bit during the second half upon first viewing, but once you see the larger themes and become used to Leone’s laconic and reflective manner of pacing, it can be galvanizing. If for nothing else, it can be regarded as a transition between his more popular Spaghetti Westerns and his upcoming gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America (an example of a movie that did nab a second life, thanks in no small part to extended cuts being available that vastly improved the original’s truncated confusion). While the early sequences are straight out of the Eastwood-cool playbook, later scenes (the flashbacks in particular) play out like his later work. And what helps bridge that connection? The music of Ennio Morricone, of course. And along with two big-name stars and lots of dynamite action and explosions, I can’t understand why this one never gets the same attention as his previous masterworks.


enemygatesEnemy at the Gates (2002)

This underrated war film has fun making up its own history as it goes, taking real events and people and using them as a springboard for a taut cat-and-mouse game. Most were forgiving of Gladiator, so why not this one?

The love story gets shoddy treatment (luckily, Rachel Weisz is photogenic enough to maintain interest) but when bullets are flying—including the tense scenes preceding the bangs—it's endlessly watchable. The battle that opens the film is actually based on the blur between rumor and fact and is a trenchant, terrifying showcase for hell-on-Earth warfare. Don’t tell that to the Russians, who tried to have the film banned because of gross historical inaccuracies. I’m no historian, so I just go by the visceral reaction.

But the film’s greatest accomplishment is in the sequences of the snipers hunting each other across the bombed-out city. They generate solid suspense and allow each character to be flawed but worthy of both victory and defeat. Naturally, we root for the Russian “hero,” but Ed Harris’ Konig isn’t just a face to personify Nazi evil. The filmmakers cheat with manipulation by having Konig kill a young double agent offscreen so we can convincingly root for his death, but by that time, you’re already riveted enough to ignore it.


frenchconnection2French Connection II (1975)

JPP’s own Arya Ponto will attest to this choice. And even though several reviews were mildly positive and the film did decent business at the box office, it hardly exists now under the looming shadow of the original. Truth be told, The French Connection is a gripping action masterpiece, one of the best films of what is arguably the finest decade of US cinema, and the sequel can’t match it scene for scene. And the first time I watched part two, I was a little disappointed. But the fault was my own—I expected another dynamite dogged cop movie. But French Connection II is what most sequels ought to be—very much removed from the original to create a unique filmgoing experience where you’re not constantly thinking about the original.

As coarse and gritty as the original was, it was still a tough-as-nails burst of savage entertainment that got the blood pumping. The sequel scoffs at kinetic excitement value and dives into even darker waters that can result in a punishing experience. The scenes where Doyle is fed heroin again and again by the villains are uncomfortable, and then the withdrawal sequences after that are downright painful. This section of the movie represents nearly an entire third of the movie, following the first act that set the film up as a closer cousin to the original (if different in tone and execution). By the finale, featuring Doyle enacting tough New York vengeance and gunning for the druglord Charnier, you revel in the fire and blood and want to see true “street justice.” Bleak and black-boiled, it ain’t what you’d call a great time, but it is a great movie.


hardtargetHard Target (1993)

Ah, guilty pleasure time. This one is craptacular. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s broken enunciation and bland appeal, the even blander love interest, Lance Henriksen’s laughably overcooked evil (I’m surprised he didn’t feast on a kitten in slo-mo to get more hisses), a plot taken from the great Richard Connell short story and shaven down for all-visceral-no-meaning stakes…why is this on here? Because it’s John Woo coming to the States to showcase his ballet of violence.

Many steps below Hong Kong action sensations like Hard Boiled and The Killer, Woo still gets away with whatever the hell he wants. The motorcycle scene is greeted with hoots of derision and the final warehouse shootout is so over-the-top that you can’t help but grin at it the same way you did other craptacular howlers like Road House, Commando and Tango & Cash. The difference? This one did modest business at best and was ignored by most critics and action junkies without getting truly trashed. But this is one of the epitomes of dumb action dreck—endlessly watchable and deserving of audience participation in its ludicrous stupidity. Plus, it has Wilford Brimley as a Cajun. ‘Nuff said.


lastactionheroLast Action Hero (1993)

That’s right, I said it. I liked Last Action Hero. And it’s not even a guilty pleasure. Sure, the movie has it problems; chief among them, the kid could be quite annoying. And the early scenes alternated between goofy, overlong and sometimes even unbearable (to quote Chief Wiggum, “Magic ticket, my ass, McBain!”). But once the kid (and the audience) is thrown into the Jack Slater movie, it gets good. Sometimes real good. Sue me.

The dissection of the mountain of action movie clichés ain’t exactly subtle, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t funny. I mean, come on—there’s a cartoon cat with Danny DeVito’s voice and no one besides the kid thinks there’s anything askew about it (they even made a cat toy to cash in on the film’s popularity; oops). And don’t forget the urbane villain with colorful and explosive glass eyes, Schwarzenegger-Shakespeare crossover, Sylvester Stallone as the Terminator, unexpected references to movies like Amadeus and The Seventh Seal, the always-shouting chief, and the slew of one-liners and cameos. And most of the action scenes, even if they are intentionally overblown, are well done. Is it a perfect movie? Not even close. But it doesn’t deserve the lastactionleoscorn either.

While unfair expectations certainly hurt its reputation, there’s little doubt that the film would have done better had it not opened the week after Jurassic Park premiered. But a wave of bad word-of-mouth also hamstrung its chances. Nevertheless, being different than what most expected from Schwarzenegger and having some admittedly lame moments along the way isn’t enough to write it off entirely. It’s smarter and wittier than most other Ah-nuld productions, and even though every occasion that the film asked us to care about the characters was answered with groans, I’ll always have a soft place in the heart for this one.


leonLéon (aka The Professional) (1994)

The original US release that excised about a half hour of material was called The Professional, and debuted to an unimpressive box office and mixed reviews. But it was a very good movie. The uncut version with the edited footage reinserted is known as Léon, and is a masterpiece. So what’s the difference? Cojones.

As usual, Americans had no problem with the violence. The bloodier, the better. And no one seemed to have a problem with a girl accompanying a hitman on killings. But when introducing a more complex relationship between 12-year-old Mathilda and adult Léon that shows her asking him to sleep with her, censor alarms went off. There’s no sex to speak of, but just the implication was far too much. But killing children and children killing is no problem. Ridiculous.

leonduoThe action sequences are great, but what elevates this one is the performances. Jean Reno has a great ability of moving back and forth between unflappable and quiet bewilderment. Gary Oldman’s villain is wonderfully flamboyant and truly loathsome (the key for a great villain). But Natalie Portman is the winner, giving one of the all-time great young acting performances in film history. She can play every scene with a distinctive mix of naivety and wisdom. She’s much more mature than most 12-year-olds, but we never forget that she’s still a youth in a dark and confusing world.

There may be a debate as to whether this one belongs on the list. In a way, it has enjoyed a second life. It’s highly regarded in many circles and DVD sales have been healthy. But this is a movie that belongs in the same breath as modern action favorites like Die Hard and The Terminator. And outside of its devoted fanbase, it’s still not all that well known. It deserves better.

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Matt Medlock


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