National Treasure, another Nic Cage-starring movie from blow-'em-up producer Jerry Bruckheimer, nosed out SpongeBob SquarePants and The Incredibles for the top spot at the box office last weekend. On the one hand, this is a little surprising, in that digitally animated features aimed at both grade-schoolers and their parents have lately been trouncing more conventional Hollywood blockbusters. On the other hand, it isn't all that surprising, because National Treasure—especially when viewed against the bloodthirsty, paranoid, disaster-mongering movies that Bruckheimer produced in the mid-to-late 1990s—feels like a children's movie. Its mostly bloodless action and its civics-class drama—it revolves around a threat not to a person but to the original copy of the Declaration of Independence—won it a mild PG rating from the MPAA. Critics have been hard on National Treasure, with some justification. Its plot turns are often opaque to the point of incoherence, but there's something winning about its enthralled historical sense, its innocent embrace of history as an adventure you can lose yourself in. Several times during National Treasure I found myself thinking, if I were a fifth-grade teacher, I might take my students to see this movie.
This may sound like good news for fifth-grade teachers, but it's bad news for fans of a certain kind of movie. Along with Bruckheimer's Pirates of the Caribbean (2002), National Treasure signals a trend that few people have noted and fewer will admit to lamenting—the decline, and Bruckheimer's virtual abandonment, of the macho-action movie. Bruckheimer and his co-producer Don Simpson (who died in 1996) redefined this genre with movies like Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder (1990), but it really flourished in the second half of the 1990s. When I say flourished, I don't just mean that Bruckheimer and a handful of kindred moviemakers raked in scads of money on violent spectacle movies. I mean that a surprising number of these movies feel—especially now, in contrast to the Bruckheimer movies that have followed—strangely accomplished, even if many are also openly cynical in their manipulation of a small number of movie formulas. But the success of these movies depended on a peculiar kind of genre deconstruction that was also, ultimately, self-defeating.
Between 1996 and 1998, Bruckheimer produced The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), Armageddon (1998), and Enemy of the State (1998). Add to these Bruckheimer concoctions Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996), Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible (1996), John Woo's Face/Off (1997) and Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), and John Frankenheimer's Ronin (1998)—and of course, from 1999, The Matrix—and you have something like an action-movie renaissance (or, forgive me, an explosion). What the vaunted '70s are for the American cinephile, the second half the '90s are, or should be, for the thrill jockey. These action movies are typically too eager to rush out their big-budget effects, and so they undercut the anticipation that marks the smartest thrillers, but they compensate with adroit pacing, an impressive grasp of the demands of filming action, and, especially in Bruckheimer's loudest movies, a generous helping of humor and irony. (One exception here is Enemy of the State, in which a cool idea and decent script are more or less ruined by gadget-happy hack Tony Scott, about whom more below.)
Con Air, for example, features a goofball performance by Cage as Elvis Pres—er, I mean Cameron Poe, an unjustly imprisoned special forces dude who in one of the movie's several climaxes says, "I'm gonna save the fuckin' day." He then dashes out of a building in slow-motion as a Bruckheimeresque wall of fire rises behind him, consuming the entire frame. And Cage is the straight man. On the evil side is John Malkovich, whose many respectable acting jobs were mere prelude to his turn as supercriminal Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom. Snarling, close-shot Malkovich literally chews scenery; rarely has an actor's own dental work been used for greater effect. Con Air's cast also includes Steve Buscemi deadpanning as a cannibalistic serial killer who performs a surreal rendition of "He's Got the Whole World" with a little girl he meets on a deserted playground, whom he then—in an apparent nod to the power of prayer, or song, or something—refrains from eating.
Armageddon, the asteroids-are-coming megahit from the summer of 1998 starring Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton, plays the same game as Con Air. It doesn't just leaven its absurd sentimentality with humor, it uses the humor as license to heap on more sentimentality, which just heightens the humor. At least it did for me. When Billy Bob Thornton describes Bruce Willis as "the world's best deep-core driller"; when Willis talks through those sucked-in macho lips of his, every time, whatever he says; and when Willis' heroic team of driller-astronauts bound shoulder-to-shoulder toward the launch pad, in their orange spacesuits, in slow-motion, accompanied by the score's pummeling schmaltz … I might be wrong, but I think you're supposed to laugh.
When you mock the generic conventions of your movies to exploit those conventions even further, you create a certain problem for your future adventures in generic movie-making. You can say for only so long: "In our last movie, we rollicked in how idiotic the action movie really is. Come see our next action movie!" It's tempting to view Bruckheimer's turn toward family-friendly movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure as a mere concession to the new kid-centric demographics of Hollywood. But before Bruckheimer went PG, he produced a couple of movies that look like failed responses to the bind he had created for himself. Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) represents one solution: ditch meaning altogether and create a frenzy of movement and "style." It's an abysmal movie, weightless and boring. Pearl Harbor(2001) represents the opposite solution: latch onto a real historical event preloaded with meaning and sentimentality, and play with a factitious but sycophantic reverence to that sentimentality. Pearl Harbor is even worse than Gone in 60 Seconds.
With the notable exception of films taken from older source material, such as the Spider-man movies and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, action movies today tend to adopt one of these two very unsatisfying strategies. There are the pieces of blatant, weightless nonsense, often starring ex-wrestler The Rock or ex-bouncer Vin Diesel. Or there are lugubrious plodders, trudging futilely, boringly after deeper meaning, movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich's $125 million after-school specialon climate change, and Man on Fire Tony Scott's ponderous, brutally manipulative revenge fantasy.
Maybe this reflects an ingenious strategy of box office domination that Bruckheimer has been working all along: Make movies that giddily advertise their genre's defining cynicism, which poisons the genre for everyone else and makes it impossible for any real successors to emerge. And then, when your postmodern trap starts to close in on you, start making toothless PG fare like National Treasure, as if it had really been about the kids all along.