Straight-to-Streaming Stars

Naturalism is overrated.

That’s true for almost every type and component of art, but it’s especially so in regards to acting.

Yes, chameleonic performers who can create, and then emotionally and psychologically excavate, characters should of course be celebrated. At the same time, some actors are just enjoyable to watch even if they’re clearly always acting. In fact, this style of performance harkens back to the golden age of Hollywood, when audiences bought tickets to see stars be radiant stars on the silver screen, enhanced by filmmakers who understood how to make their recognizable personas perpetually-compelling.

Some of the biggest stars in the history of the form are undoubtedly Al Pacino and Bruce Willis, both of whom spent their careers oscillating between ardent realism and performative familiarity. Sometimes, they’d become lost in their roles; other times, it was clearly Pacino and Willis. Both men have also seen their careers devolve into forgettable performances whose quality would be better forgotten. Yet the differences in their most recent outings — Pacino in Hangman, Willis in Acts of Violence (not to be confused with Antonio Banderas’ similarly-trashy Acts of Vengeance, also from this year; what’re the odds?! Also, both titles could describe basically any action movie, and fittingly, both feel like every generic action movie you’ve ever seen) — stand as a testament to how only one of them is still worth watching.

Both flicks are 2018 versions of what were once called straight-to-video or, later, direct-to-DVD affairs. Today, I like to call them direct-to-VOD (video-on-demand, for those not in the know) or, perhaps, straight-to-streaming. Let me try to describe, in one paragraph, some of the signature traits of this critically-derided, justly-lampooned, personally-beloved genre offerings:

They’re the 21st century incarnations of the old-school, low-budget, B-movie, borderline grind house action romps about cops fucking up bad guys, incompetently made with derivative stylistic flourishes, usually of the visual variety to transparently-fabricate an expensive sheen. Their budgets are never big enough for crazy set pieces; instead, they merely revel in thrills derived from suspenseful sequences leading to nothing, aided by overbearing scores that leave no doubt how the audience is supposed to feel every second, particularly those — and there are many of them — involving thumping, pulsating action, matching the aggressively in-your-face sound design to superficially ramp up even the mildest of moments. Let’s not forget the uninspired, gratuitous violence; the unfunny one-liners (the sort Hot Fuzz brilliantly satirized); the stilted, stiff, wooden, and/or canned acting, with broad characterizations from supporting, caricatured characters; and plot holes the size of the paychecks required to attract such big names to such unremarkable material.

Though the names Al Pacino and Bruce Willis might be similarly-scaled, their talents aren’t created equal nowadays. Even in terrible turns, Pacino is usually at the very least interesting to watch, while Willis is dull. Pacino actually makes choices, albeit often bafflingly hilarious ones. The main difference between them boils down to this: there’s a difference between line readings and reading lines. Pacino’s epic line deliveries are profoundly and astoundingly comical; Willis is just reading the script in his fallback, monotonously sotto voice.

Willis is clearly not even trying, instead just cashing paychecks. There’s nothing even to laugh at with him. I’m not sure if Pacino is aware of how he looks and sounds (which makes it all the more amusing), but Willis seems to want to come off cooler than cool. Except, there’s yet another difference between being effortlessly cool and showing no effort at all. No energy is different than no life, no passion, no commitment. And their absence makes it too hard to care enough to watch any of his “work,” a word that suggests greater strain than he ever exhibits. Only Willis could singlehandedly ruin Wes Anderson’s flawless record!

Pacino has become somewhat of a joke lately, but this comedy has obscured his rare instances of legitimate acting. I’m the first to admit that many of his latter-career  performances have been the weakest parts of weaker-than-weak movies, often coming across like his Scent of a Woman Academy Award locked him into that style of overly-performative shtick. But his reputation as nothing more than a critical punching bag may have caused some people to overlook, or even miss, his finer outings of late.

His arbitrary handling of scripts, indiscriminately elevating dialogue with no regard to textual justification, can make his characters seem a bit senile. But in Danny Collins, Manglehorn, and The Humbling (in ascending order of personal preference), the filmmakers cast him in roles that call for such a confused reality. If audiences could ignore the reality of his recent work, they would’ve been more prone to accept these surprisingly-deft roles as equally expert to his onscreen claims-to-fame.

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