by Zack Smith
The bullet-ridden, blood-splattered poster outside Carolina Cinemas Asheville declares ActionFest “the film festival with a body count.” Indeed, over the next few days I’ll see about every possible way for a human being to be shot, impaled, exploded or receive a roundhouse kick to the head on camera. A few efforts might even be Oscar-worthy, head-kicks and all.
I’ve driven to inaugural edition of the festival (held April 15-18), out of a desire to see some films that have been earning buzz on the festival circuit, and for the more elusive opportunity to meet action star/unlikely ironic pop-cultural icon Chuck Norris, whose brother Aaron is the festival’s co-director.
Although his action film heyday, which included such titles as The Delta Force, Missing in Action and Invasion U.S.A., is long behind him, the mustachioed karate champion remains a potent cultural force. Aside from the myriad Internet “facts” (“Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits”), Norris remains iconic for reruns of his long-running series Walker Texas Ranger (a “complete series” DVD set was just released), Conan O’Brien’s random use of clips from said show, and his weirdly eclectic appearances in everything from the Total Gym infomercials to his commercials endorsing Mike Huckabee for president. My personal favorite is the intro to his short-lived 1980s cartoon Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos, pitting him against such foes as the “Super Ninja” and “The Deadly Dolphin.”
Adam Hicks, the news director at High County Radio in Boone, says he admires Norris. “You don’t have heroes like him any more,” Hicks tells me. “He stuck to his guns, and he’s not afraid to talk about what he believes in,” says Hicks, who’s there to get a few sound bites from Norris and catch a few flicks. Hicks admits he owns a Total Gym based on Norris’ infomercials: “When he endorses a project, I believe he uses it.”
Norris perhaps represents the ultimate cross-section of earnestness and camp. On the one hand, he represents a conservative vision of all-American values with simple, straightforward tales of justice through roundhouse kicks. For those who claim to venture a more highbrow road, he represents an iconic, ironic figure whose works can be ruthlessly parodied.
Outside of all the hoopla, though, who is the real Chuck Norris? This weekend gives me the chance to find out.
But Norris isn’t due to show up until later in the weekend, which gives me plenty of time to enjoy the festival’s films and events. The opening number is Centurion, which has its world premiere at the festival. The latest from The Descent’s Neil Marshall, it starts Michael Fassbender in a considerably more heroic role in this tale of Romans on the run than his turns in Inglourious Basterds and Fish Tank.
So macho it makes 300 look like Strawberry Shortcake (typical line: “This is the stuff of legend, brother, and being a legend will get you laid!”), Centurion lacks the mythic grandeur of 300, replacing it with lots of blue-filtered scenes and characters mostly defined by exposition. On the other hand, virtually every scene involves some form of stabbing or decapitation, which should ensure it a heady cult on DVD (it currently lacks a U.S. release date).
A film likely to come out here in the near future (it’s currently playing New York and some other markets) is The Good, The Bad, The Weird, a South Korean hit from director Kim Ji-Woon. Evoking Sergio Leone in both title and its plot about the hunt for a treasure map, it’s one of the few films to capture Leone’s painterly sense of controlled chaos.
The plot makes little sense (one of the characters repeatedly admits he can’t follow it), but the gorgeous location shooting and slam-bang action sequences more than make up for it—there’s a cowboy shooting a rifle while swinging from a cable, a spectacular train heist and a climactic desert chase scene involving horses, trucks and a motorcycle with a side car that rivals the famous number in Raiders of the Lost Ark for sheer chaos. Most of the stunts are done without wires or CGI, and the results put most Hollywood productions to shame.
On a smaller, more intimate but no less thrilling scale is The Square, a modern noir from Australian director Nash Edgerton. Currently in limited release, it echoes such films as A Simple Plan and Blood Simple in its tale of a suburban man (David Roberts), who gets in over his head when he tries to start a new life with a younger woman (the wonderfully named Clare van der Boom).
The tight script and direction ground the film in a believable reality and characterization based on actions rather than intricate back story. This isn’t exactly an action film, but it is an early candidate for one of the year’s best films. The screening I saw included Edgerton’s short Spider, which like The Square combines a realistic setting with a darkly comic shock.
The Square should be coming to local theaters in the coming months, along with several other promising films from ActionFest, including Michael Caine’s return to Get Carter territory with Harry Brown and the slasher spoof Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil.
Some of the festival’s biggest hits, though, are headed straight to DVD, such as the fighting flick Undisputed III: Redemption (having not seen the first two, I skipped it—a decision I regretted when the film got Best Director and Best Choreography at the festival’s awards ceremony). The film stars Brazilian actor Marco Zaror, who’s also at the festival with Mandrill, a fairly standard “Hitman gets a conscience” flick. Though there’s some amusing satirical moments, such as a parody of low-budget James Bond knockoffs, there’s not much in the film that’s not predictable.
A number of oddball Asian films also not likely to get a wide release are at the festival, including such strangeness as Power Kids and Robogeisha. One that might open wider is 14 Blades, a predictable but entertaining number starring Asian superstar Donnie Yen that offers an entertaining combination of CGI and old-school martial arts choreography (the film wins the festival’s “Best Fight Scene” award).
Between films, I check out some of the panels and stunt shows at the festival, which feature some of Hollywood’s all-time great stuntmen. There’s Paul Weston (www.paulwestonstunts.com), whose career dates back to the 1960s and includes work on the James Bond, Star Wars andIndiana Jones series. There’s Mark De Alessandro, Sylvester Stallone’s long-time stunt double, and the guy taking the punches in the Rocky flicks. And there’s the rocket man, Kinnie Gibson, who operates one of only three known rocket packs in existence. A camera crew is following him for a proposed reality show.
Gibson’s earsplitting rocket pack is one of a number of stunts performed (there’s also diving into an air pillow, parachuting into the parking lot and even a man briefly on fire). Even in the age of CGI, there’s still a market for basic stunts; Jeff Haberstad, a longtime 2nd unit director attending the show, says he had a budget of $4 million for his work on M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming The Last Airbender. The next film he has coming out is decidedly less action-oriented; an adaptation of the chick-lit bestseller Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts. “I did that for the trip around the world,” he admits.
On Sunday, the last day of the festival, Norris finally appears in person, attracting several of his former Walker, Texas Ranger co-stars in the process. Getting near him, though, proves impossible; he appears and disappears from rooms like a phantom, and is surrounded by almost as much security as the Secret Service.
It’s been announced on the news that Obama will be in Asheville the next weekend and staying at the Grove Park Inn, where Norris has stayed as well. I can’t help but wonder: Had their schedules lined up, could Norris have put aside his conservative politics to save Obama from a potential assassin with a roundhouse kick?
While I don’t get to talk to Norris one-on-one, I get to witness several of his interactions with his fans at the panel and stunt events (“Walker is the best TV show ever!” repeatedly screams one fan in a T-shirt featuring the wrestler Goldberg).
In person, Norris comes across as … well, normal. Despite being a remarkably well-preserved 70-year-old (he actually looks younger than in his Missing in Action days), he comes across almost as an innocent young man. He talks fondly of his friendships with Bruce Lee and the first President Bush, and his diction comes off as nearly formal in contrast to his rowdy on-screen characters. And he’s generous, whether it’s lavishing praise on the stuntmen in attendance (“If anyone thinks I do my own stunts … trust me, there’s not enough money”) or handing over his lifetime achievement award to his brother Aaron.
Perhaps the secret to the mystique of Chuck Norris is the lack of mystique; he is simply a man onto whom individuals can project whatever image they want, be it ass-kicking action hero or ironic camp icon. Or, to name one of his favorite so-called: “Contrary to popular belief, America is not a democracy, it is a Chucktatorship.”
Whatever the case, there’s already plans for another ActionFest in 2011. Who knows what bloody films it may bring, or what mysteries of the universe it might help unravel. Could someone please explain Steven Seagal to me?