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Flying tanks are sinking action movies.

Flying tanks are sinking action movies. (photo)

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In his podcast review of “The A-Team,” the A.V. Club‘s Scott Tobias articulated something I’ve been trying to put my finger on recently regarding my frustration with a lot of recent action movies. Though Tobias liked “The A-Team,” he took some time to critique the film’s extravagant use of CGI, which he argued “has harmed action movies [in general]:

The you-can-do anything possibility of CGI has allowed for things to happen onscreen that maybe are not that entertaining. The original ‘A-Team’… was limited by stunts and by practical effects and what you can do with what budget you have for a TV show in the 1980s. [The film ‘A-Team’] is a splashy, nine-figure Hollywood action movie in 2010, so the various plans that come together in this film are so completely crazy that it insults the intelligence too much.

If I understand Tobias’ argument — and if I don’t, forgive me, I’m going to turn it into my own — the problem with CGI in this context is that it permits the A-Team to do things that move beyond the realm of the highly improbable into the world of the totally impossible. If the TV “A-Team”‘s action sequences were limited by what they could practically do and physically accomplish, that was a good thing because the characters themselves were limited by what they could practically do and physically accomplish.

If, as Orson Welles believed, the absence of limitations is the enemy of art, there’s a certain artfulness to the raw ingenuity of the original “A-Team” (and a certain lack of artfulness to the decadence of the new one). Hannibal might think it would be really cool to fly a tank through the air and use it to kill a plane, but if he can’t actually pull it off because it violates the laws of physics, it’s sort of a moot point.

06182010_persia1.jpgCGI has rendered moot points moot. Like Patton Oswalt’s line about reckless science, modern CGI is all about coulda, not shoulda. Instead of operating as a filmmaker’s tool, it becomes the entire machine. And while CGI can look beautiful, inspire awe, and even move us in the right context, it divorces action from the things we like about it: the element of risk, the feeling of danger, the thrill of knowing someone’s actually attempting the things we’re seeing onscreen. Watching the A-Team fly a tank is like listening to someone sing through an Auto-Tune. It might be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s not impressive.

CGI action can be entertaining, and it certainly has its place in films with more fantastical and supernatural elements, but in more grounded, real world fare, it levels the action playing field in a way I don’t like. There’s a Darwinian quality to great stuntmen and physical comedians like Chaplin, Keaton or Chan: they got to where they were because they were more gifted, more talented, and more daring than anyone else.

None of that applies to actors performing in front of a green screen with tennis balls on strings as scene partners. Anyone with a good enough computer and some decent cinematography skills could turn themselves into a stuntman these days — hell, I could be the one in that flying tank. But instead of making those stunts more appealing, it has the opposite effect. There’s no awe, just bemusement. Action shouldn’t be relatable. I’m reminded of the lesson of “The Incredibles”: when everyone’s special, no one is.

I started thinking about some of these ideas while reviewing the thoroughly pleasing “Undisputed III: Redemption” recently for my straight-to-DVD column. There you have some gifted physical artists, men like Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror, doing some really impressive stunts. But the filmmakers still felt obligated to slow down their work with needless camera tricks and slow-motion. Every one takes us further away from the actors, and gives us a reason to think something is fake or staged or aided by hidden wires.

If guys like Adkins and Zaror don’t need the help, don’t give it to them. No so-called “special” effect will ever be as special as that tingle you feel up your spine when a real person attempts something really dangerous. Does CGI ever make your palms sweat the way mine do when I watch Chaplin on his rollerskates? The closer an action film gets to a documentary, and the further it gets from quick cuts, camera tricks, and even slow-motion, the better. Call me old-fashioned if you want. In my day, tanks didn’t fly.

[Photos: “The A-Team,” 20th Century Fox, 2010; “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Disney, 2010; “Undisputed III: Redemption,” Warner Bros., 2010]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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