On the episode we focused the conversation on four films; BMX Bandits, Point Break, Cliffhanger and Drop Zone. Listen to the episode here.
BMX Bandits seemed like an appropriate place to start with the genre, though examples go back earlier, because the 80s are synonymous in my mind (and probably in the minds of many others around my age) with the hot rolling-action of BMX (Rad) and skateboards (Gleaming the Cube) which were featured in endless, feverishly re-wound and re-cued loops on Saturday afternoons in certain households I know of. An appropriate starting place too because director Brian Trenchard-Smith had been working in and refining the genre for a decade by the time BMX Bandits became a breakthrough hit that might have saved his career (after the critical and financial failure of his gloriously gory and marvelously messy totalitarian people hunt movie Turkey Shoot).
BMX Bandits also benefits from the undeniable screen appeal of its 15 year old star, Nicole Kidman whose big red mane cannot be contained by any bike helmet nor outshone by any of the brightly lit and colored costumes, bikes and backgrounds. She stands tall over her teenage costars and holds her own against the cold-blooded, but pitifully inept, gang of thieves she and her biking buddies run afoul of while up to some spirited hi-jinx on their titular two-tired machines.
Eight years later the genre hit would its high-water mark with Kathryn Bigelow's mucho-macho-masterpiece, Point Break whose mix of kinetic action and modern savage ethos took Keanu Reeves' first year feeb Johnny Utah over many an edge on a spiritual inward spiral fraught with moral and masculine panic following twin father figures with obvious-ass names like Bodhi and Pappas (Angelo, no less). This shit is so on the nose you have to cross your eyes to see it, but maybe it really does take a woman to go so boldly where all men have gone before and make it seem fresh and vital and invigorating.
On the episode we talk some about Bigelow's fascination and skill working with classically masculine tropes as well as Gary Busey's extreme sports trilogy (Big Wednesday, Point Break, Drop Zone) and Lori Petty's place in the world of big-wave riders (macho assholes with a death wish).
Next up we wonder if all the cool kids jumped off a cliff; would you? as we examine why calling Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2: Die Harder follow up Cliffhanger, Die Hard on a mountain is both fair and not a drawback. In the wake of John McTiernan's seminal action trend-setter as the "Die-Hard-on-a/in-a_____" subgenre was starting to really peak (Passenger 57, Under Siege, Toy Soldiers - soon to be followed by Speed, Sudden Death, Executive Decision, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Air Force One, Con Air and Paul Blart: Mall Cop to name a few) Cliffhanger took the isolated hero against a bevvy of baddies formula and substituted the Rocky Mountains for Nakatomi Plaza and then pit rescue rangers Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rooker and Janine Turner against a murderous gang of thieves who crash land on their beat after pulling off a spectacular mid-air heist of millions flown out of the Denver Mint.
The sinister six, led by the psychotic Qualen (John Lithgow delivering a performance worthy to accompany his turns in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Blowout and Raising Cain atop a Mt. Rushmore of Lithgow villain roles) force the the rangers to be their guides through the treacherous terrain on a quest to recover three suitcases full of cash and when Sly gets separated from the group he puts his climbing skills to use to thwart the thieves and scuttle their stratagem.
Hold on to your honey and cling to your kindred Cliffhanger is gripping grandiose entertainment full of fantastic footage of mountain top action and terrifying tumbles into the void as well as explosions aplenty and knasty knife fights that apparently had to be trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating (news to me). It sits atop the pile of many popular at the time genres (aside from extreme-sports crime thrillers, and Die Hard on a/in a____, Cliffhanger and Alive coming out the same year and on the heels of K2 made mountain survival movies a popular genre for a few years there followed by Vertical Limit, Seven Years in Tibet and two Die Hard in a Ski Lodge offerings, Crackerjack and Icebreaker, as well as another extreme sports crime thriller Extreme Ops!).
From the aerial photography and location shooting to the stunt work and soaring Trevor Jones score recalling his one year earlier efforts with Last of the Mohicans, the budget shows in all the right ways on this one.
Drop Zone finds U.S. Marshal Wesley Snipes on a personal mission to recover Michael Jeter, a fugitive who escaped on his watch, and avenge his fallen partner (and brother) played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner. He's got to do it on his own time thought because everybody else believes his fugitive died along with his partner and several passengers when the flight they were on experienced a hull breech and sudden loss of pressure. But Wes suspects his prisoner was sprung by a group of daredevils posing as passengers who blew a hole in the aircraft, strapped his prisoner to them and jumped.
But Snipes gets in with a ragtag crew led by Yancy Butler's firebrand bad girl and including Grace Zabriskie mama bear, Kyle Secor's wild card, Corin Nemec's newbie and Rex Linn (making a second essential crew appearance in the episode after his turncoat Treasury agent in Cliffhanger) and gets close to his quarry pretty quick.
I saw Drop Zone at least four times during its theatrical run and am ever-fond of its goofy enthusiasm to entertain, but I'll be the first to admit that it pales considerably when viewed in quick succession with Point Break and Cliffhanger (The Godfather and French Connection of extreme-sports-crime-thrillers).
It's directed by John Badham who's an underrated figure in event movie entertainment (Summer season's leadoff hitter to Spielberg's cleanup spot). He's probably best known for Saturday Night Fever which is inaccurately thought of as the disco movie (rather than the fairly bleak Bay Ridge Brooklyn coming of age saga) and he contributed some personal favorites to the golden age of crime comedies in the 80s and 90s (Stakeout, The Hard Way, Bird on a Wire) and sold a lot of popcorn balls with nuggets of social issues to chew on (the surveillance state in Blue Thunder, racism and anti-worker capitalism in The Bingo Long Travelling All Stars & Motor Kings [produced by fellow future extreme sports actioneer Rob Cohen], and for kids; the nuclear age in War Games as well as Short Circuit - kinda Blade Runner for tots).
Many more films and sub-sub-genres I'd like to have had the opportunity to go on about in the episode, but Jen's saint enough to indulge me as long as she did. So this is the place, I guess, for the rest.
Before Point Break became the gold-standard for big ideas and expert execution Clint Eastwood adapted Trevanian's novel The Eiger Sanction about an assassin who must infiltrate an international team of mountaineers on an expedition to climb the peak because all he knows about the identity of his target is that they're on the team. This one seems like an attempt to get Clint his own 007-esque franchise and has action skipping around the globe, a mysterious/nefarious albino spymaster who runs operations from inside a dimly red-lightbulb-lit command center and Clint getting propositioned by exotic women (and men) everywhere he goes. It's amusing to me that 50 years ago Clint started doing movies where everybody tells him he's too old for this shit and he just never stopped. It takes a long time to get to the climactic climb and the footage ain't quite Cliffhanger, but there's some good shit on that mountain and I kinda wish we'd got a couple sequels.
There was an extreme-sports direct Bond-challenger attempting to give the stuffy international espionage genre a new millennium/nü-metal makeover that did get a couple of sequels though. The rad Rob Cohen/Vin Diesel engine xXx opens with a suave, tuexedoed 007 stand-in finding himself decidedly out of his element and in over his head among the new-capitalist punk underlords of Eastern Europe and gets hisself dispatched with extreme prejudice quick-like at a Rammstein concert. Enter Samuel L. Jackson's auspiciously monikered agent Augustus Eugene Gibbons who can tell right away that Western super powers have got to get with the times or get down with the sickness and let the bodies hit the floor because they're old and out of touch with how these new baddies think.
His unlikely brilliant idea is to extraordinarily render America's own anarchist underground to a top-secret locale and hold extreme tryouts for the new Avengers and it's Diesel's Xander Cage who floats to the top coated in non-stick spray-on cool and who can barely be bothered to save the old world order, but does enjoy the perks; especially the opportunity to rub smooth hairless parts with Asia Argento. Along the way Vin does it for the nookie and gets to play James Bond, Tony Hawk, Jeff Spicoli and even Steve McQueen as he recreates the motorcycle sequence from The Great Escape. You can see the "what if my character never loses a contest or gets his balls busted and always has the last word" ideal that will drive the foreseeable rest of his career already drying in the mold throughout this one, but it was the last time Cohen and his muse worked together.
The fledgling franchise didn't die tho. Non-slouch Lee Tamahori and nothing to prove Ice Cube gave us xXx: State of the Union three years later, but steered away from extreme sports and payed the price. There would not be another xXx film for twelve years. Cube returned for a cameo in the xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, but it's the bald behemoth strapping on rocket skates and leaping off tall buildings that brought the audience back enough that director D.J. Caruso looks to have been invited back for xXx 4 (please, please, please, can we call it xXxX?) The Return of Xander Cage is my favorite of the series thus far - it's got lots of big dumb action, big dumb wardrobe and big dumb dialogue with Diesel turning in perhaps his most bizarre and fascinating impression of an over the top ultra-hetero alpha male yet. How does Xander differ from (The Fast & the Furious') Dom? Mainly, he tells jokes and they are terrible.
Also, he's horny. There's that.
The James Bond franchise has long history of incorporating sports sequences into the action. Speedboats, fast cars, parachutes and skiing have been mainstays from the beginning. Long haul series producers have been notoriously slow to alter the formula, but the latest run with Daniel Craig in her majesty's secret service was widely perceived as a reset option for the character and the series' feel with Bond growing into the affects and attitudes the on-screen character always had over the course of six films. Casino Royale arrived with a makeover most (probably accurately) attributed to the success of the Matt Damon led Bourne films, but I think Rob, Vin and Xander Cage applied some of the critical pressure behind the grudging changes made. My evidence for this? I dunno, probably just the opening parkour sequence. That scene though... really set the tone for the whole movie and remains one of my favorite examples of establishing character through action.
Not a lot of parkour in the xXx franchise, but if that's your thing, French one-man action movie industry Luc Besson has got what you need with not just one, but two parkour franchises. He wrote District B13 and its sequel District 13: Ultimatum which serve up the cop'n'crim odd-couple Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle as Tarzans of the concrete jungle (Belle also made the um jump to a Hollywood remake - Brick Mansions starring Paul Walker as the copper in his first posthumously released film) fighting crime and nuclear terrorism in a slightly sci-fi futuristic Paris. Besson is also behind the parkour street gang film Yamakasi, though not Yamakasi 2, and I'd recommend them to anybody who thinks that pure athleticism needs a dumb story and jokes and some violence to really make it worthwhile. Worthwhile enough that I'll even give Taylor Lautner credit for some serious stunt work in Tracers and recommend seeing it. Dude can run and jump.
Not sure what to do with crime movies that just have athletes in the cast and don't incorporate that into the plot. Looking at you Racer & the Jailbird and The Killers. But they're not the only crime movies set in the world of sport, that never really blend the elements (The Fan, Escape to Victory, I, Tonya, Sudden Death, Black Sunday). A lot of those films are on this list.wrote about it here). (Howie Long made 4 movies).
There's a reason that tournament movies are popular with filmmakers and audiences alike; the superstructure is an ideal way to move a story along, upping the stakes into a natural climax. Add murder, intrigue, espionage, prison, racketeering, escape or terrorism and I think you've got a no-brainer sure-fire extreme sports crime thriller subgenre (Enter the Dragon, Bloodsport, Firecracker, Angel Fist, Bloodfist 2050, the sequels to Best of the Best... Balls of Fury among others).
Meryl Streep and David Strathairn are a couple out for some family time (with their annoying little kid) when their white water rafting trip is hijacked by Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly's bank robbers making a daring and kinda genius escape in Curtis Hanson's The River Wild (a picture I'd recommend much more highly if there weren't so weight resting on the aforementioned child performer - can't blame an actor that young for the performance, but it is fingernails on chalkboards and teeth on newspaper every time he speaks).
Also if you want to apply my Point Break as a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair approach to Gérard Pirès' 2002 rollerblading bank robbers chase movie Riders (aka Steal), then Natasha Henstridge and Stephen Dorff are probably Renee Russo and Pierce Brosnan in the remake to Faye Dunaway/Steve McQueen // Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze in the superior originals, but I think it's a lot of fun.
I was charmed from the moment Henderson leaves a drag racing pair of cars in his dust, traveling so fast he causes the street signs to spin making the intersection of sCARSdale Rd. and (I dunno) xxSUCKxx St. read "cars suck" just before the title sequence. It's dummmmmmmb and knows it - it's got Adam Scott as a brash bad boy federal cop ferfucksache - and characters squaring off motorcycle jousting beneath Pepsico brands
Check out this letterboxd list for more extreme sports crime thrillers and adjacent titles.