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The new film Immortals, reviewed HERE, makes a bold stab at using the framework of a standard action movie as a vehicle for bold visual experimentation that would normally look more at home in the so-called “arthouse” cinema.

For whatever reason, you don’t see this very often – too many action films are content to recycle the same motifs (scruffy guys shooting guns and driving fast for the present, grimy landscapes and rusty swords for “the past”) everybody always expects. But once in awhile, an action film breaks away from the pack to do something wholly different.

Here are five of them:

Curse Of The Golden Flower

The film world gave a collective “Huh?” when celebrated Chinese auteur Zhang Yhimou transitioned from traditional dramas like Raise The Red Lantern to wuxia martial arts epics with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but he proved that his better-known sensibilities and his newfound affection for two-fisted action could coexist swimmingly with this classy high-end melodrama about a decadent, scheming royal family whose backstabbing emotional combat frequently breaks out into superhuman kung fu battles.

Chow Yun-Fat is a deliciously evil emperor whose day-to-day routine includes covertly driving his treacherous wife into madness over a period of years, plotting against his underlings and trying to manipulate his favored son into a position of power. Said son may or may not also be in league with a coup plotted by dear old mum, who’s also involved in a semi-incestuous affair with the other son from a previous marriage. Meanwhile, armies mass outside the walls, comely servant girls run fiendish errands and ninja-like assassins swoop through the shadows.

Almost the entire film is set in and around the palace during rehearsals for an intricately-arranged flower festival; with the enforced ritualism of royal life – every minute of each day arranged to specific steps and beats – forms a devilishly-ironic counterpoint to the sleaze and scandal occurring just outside the frame.

Mars Attacks

Once upon a time this was considered one of Tim Burton’s misfires – a self-indulgent, mostly meaningless hodgepodge of skits and scenes without any real grounding. Today, in the wake of duds like Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, it somehow seems like an overlooked high water mark. Yeah, it’s just a playground for Burton’s pop art visual fixations, but at least he still had some level of engagement and discipline.

Based on a series of trading cards, the film is a barrage of intersecting stories framed around a parody of 1950s alien invasion movies; the running joke being that the assortment of human caricatures presented (Vegas hucksters, sleazy politicians, iron-jawed military men, slovenly rednecks, new-age ditzes and others) are so wretched you can’t help but foot for the genocidal Martians.

In a way, it’s the most honest disaster movie ever: You’re watching Burton fantasize about the total annihilation of every strata of humanity he just can’t stand. It’s silly, one-note and more than a little mean-spirited, but it’s visionary in a way most movies that big never get to be.

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Izo

Takeshi Miike – the ultra-prolific Japanese genius who recently put out the live action Yatterman and the awesome looking Phoenix Wright movie – could fill this whole list on his own. No modern filmmaker in any nation has poured more genuine creativity and artistic worth into the action, crime and horror genres, or done so much of it.

Izo is best described as a kind of existential gorefest, the stream-of-consciousness story of a feudal samurai whose execution sends his consciousness (soul?) hurtling through time and space, depositing him in a host of settings, time periods and scenarios seemingly at random. He seeks a reason – the answer to the meaning of his brutal existence – the only way he knows how: violently hacking and slashing his way through everyone and everything he comes into contact with a like human chainsaw.

As you may infer from the description, after a while it starts to play out like the film is attempting to stave off the label of “pretentious” by spilling ever greater qualities of blood, daring the arthouse audience that would otherwise appreciate its navel-gazing thematic arc to endure ever more punishing murders.

Strings

Here’s a puppet movie like no other: an epic swords-and-sorcery fantasy told through the medium of traditional wood-and-strings marionettes. Really.

Set in a word inhabited by sentient marionette puppets – their strings reach all the way up into the clouds, as though puppeteered by an unseen deity – it’s a medieval-political fantasy in the vein of Game of Thrones about a prince who uncovers the dark truth of his kingdom and tries to set things right following the suicide of his father, impeded by an evil uncle who wishes to wrest power for himself.

The story is surprisingly engaging, given that the film is mostly looking to push the puppet planet motif for all it’s worth. When the characters have sword fights, they aren’t trying to stab eachother – they try to sever their opponents’ strings. Wealthy villains wrench fresh (wooden) limbs from poor slaves to replenish their own, and at least one major enemy schemes to build himself a Frankenstinian ultra-body.

Excalibur

John Boorman basically makes two kinds of films: dark, serious dramas like Deliverance, The General and Beyond Rangoon or laughably miscalculated genre offerings like the legendarily awful Zardoz or Exorcist II: The Heretic. Excalibur is where those two sides meet in the middle, and the result is still a sight to behold today.

A pitch-dark retelling of the familiar Arthurian legend from the rise and fall of Uther Pengdragon through the reign and passing of his son King Arthur, largely seen through the eyes of Niccol Williamson as a half-mad Merlin, Excalibur leans heavy on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth version of the legend with a healthy dose of hallucinogenic imagery representing both mysticism and religious ecstasy. Boorman also interestingly eschews the increasingly popular optical and animated effects of the era in favor of oldschool practical techniques. The knights’ armor changes from realistically dull iron to shimmering mirrored steel to indicate the life of the kingdom, and Merlin’s magic takes the form of flash powder and loud sound effects more often than not.

Despite not being a major success in its day, it’s become an incredibly influential film otherwise – the ahead-of-their-time action scenes, complete with unironically utilized classical music blaring over otherwise grimy, gritty depictions of medieval England became the template from which all dark period-actioners would later spring.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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