Tom Jolliffe pays homage to films that are utterly ludicrous, but are enjoyable because of it…
If you can enjoy one thing about cinema, then it’s probably the wealth of variety at our disposal. We can watch the sublime, the dramatic, powerful, hilarious, thrilling, or we can also watch something that compounds (and beats the shit out of) logic. Some films feel gripping, nerve-shredding, because they feel chillingly authentic. Think the tension in films based on real life events such as Argo, Captain Phillips or United 93. We also have the option to watch something stupendously ridiculous.
Ridiculous films can range. The concept might be inherently ludicrous, or it may end that way because of the film’s delivery. The genre (comedy) might dictate ludicrous ideas become one extra joke among a script full of gags. You might look at the delightful silliness of The Naked Gun, or Beverly Hills Ninja. For me though, when you’re in on the joke fully, and ridiculousness is 100% intended, it’s not quite so pleasing as something which aims for sincerity. There are countless films (which can often be high-concept and/or action films as an example) which don’t perhaps set out to be bonkers, but through convoluted ideas and gaping lapses in logic they just become so.
This isn’t to say every preposterous film (that isn’t setting out to be so) is enjoyable. Some might crumble under the weight of the ideas, and lack the other elements (like engaging characters/performances etc) to elevate the material. Jupiter Ascending as an example, even by its genre standards, was ludicrous, but dour to boot. Additionally the whole world building exercise in money wasting that was The Chronicles of Riddick, was also numbing for a litany of reasons (stemming from an unnecessarily complicated expansion of a mildly popular anti-hero). Like anything, we can give ourselves over to ridiculousness in the right spirit and delivery.
As a fan of 80’s and 90’s action as an example, films were often absolutely ludicrous. They revelled in machismo heroism, to the point realism was exploded before the opening credits. Take almost anything by Chuck Norris, or run and gun highlights from Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even Jean-Claude Van Damme’s star making role was a nonsense portrayal of an underground fighting tournament, which aside from being thoroughly enjoyable, was made more so by the fact it was based on a true story (of renowned ‘storyteller’, Frank Dux). The Van Damme 360 bicycle kick, which became one of his trademarks, in itself was ridiculous. An unnecessary, tactically risky technique in the real world of brawling, that in cinema required the victim to stand still on the spot whilst he wound it up (prior to delivering it, often in slow motion).
In 1991, even by standards set prior in his 1985 classic, Commando, director Mark L. Lester outdid himself with Showdown in Little Tokyo. You had an excessive and outlandish buddy cup film full of preposterous lines and action scenes. If Brandon Lee was sort of grounded in a kind of reality, then Dolph Lundgren was apparently superman. Lifting cars in the middle of gun battles to use as cover (before then blowing them up), or punching through a door and pulling a bad guy through that he knows is waiting on the other side. The final dispatch of uber villain specialist Cary Tagawa at the end is suitably comical too. Okay, the film half knows what it’s doing, but still doesn’t quite get that it borders on spoof, part of why it has grown into a cult action favourite.
The Fast franchise began as an okay re-tread of Point Break. It slowly evolved, taking on Dwayne Johnson and thus becoming just that bit more preposterous (Johnson is almost ludicrously outsized from real humans, making him an often enjoyable protagonist in ludicrous cinema). Somewhere after the seventh, through to the most recent addition though, there was another transition. The films went from enjoyably ludicrous to becoming pretty exhaustingly nonsensical. The problem? They were winking too much at their own ridiculousness. It became too much of a skit, drawn out in favour of decent characterisations, additionally lacking the added charisma of Dwayne Johnson too. They’re now tiresomely dumb because the gag can wear thin when you’ve done it through 9 films, most of which exceed two hours. Interestingly, the late Paul Walker had a genuine sincerity that anchored many of the prior films. He was almost as etched out and ‘human’ a character as the franchise had. Everyone else is caricature. Losing him, meant losing the heart and soul of it. We care less, and subsequently cars flying hundreds of feet in the air, building to building is less enjoyable and more groan worthy.
Some films perhaps shouldn’t work, but somehow do. The Liam Neeson/Jaume Collet-Serra high-concept trilogy, Unknown, Non-Stop and The Commuter are taken seriously. The plots weave and thread to the point of tangling, whilst the basis in reality is questionable. They are all pretty preposterous but somehow, through efficient delivery and Neeson’s gravitas, all hold interest. Unknown sort of came as a kick off point in post-Taken Neeson fascination. One of the first steps in turning him into a consistent action hero. To the surprise of many it arced away from the simplicity of Taken (which isn’t without its preposterous side) and was bafflingly complex. Somehow though, it worked, proving popular enough to kind of repeat the formula twice more with the confined setting thrills of Non-Stop and The Commuter. To be honest the films are almost interchangeable in many respects (the latter two particularly) but were also a lot of fun. In no small part the enjoyment came from how silly the films progressively became. Non-Stop, as Neeson searches for his foe on a plane that’s in flight, ends with him doing a gun firing dive at zero G’s as the plane falls. You might call it a trailer shot, I call it liquid gold.
Even some of the great directors have stretched the boundaries of logic and delved into the ridiculous. Some may even become specialists in it (Sion Sono) but by it becoming a calling card, there’s an expectation going in. There’s also a distinction between preposterous within a grounded setting, and just outright crazy (Sono). David Fincher’s The Game was another fine example. One of his more cult films, occasionally forgotten when stacked up against the more iconic works like Fight Club (that one given its insular and psychological elements becomes thus less preposterous). One particularly effective tactic Fincher uses in The Game is enigma. There’s a very atmospheric build up to the ‘game’ itself, which sees a middle aged and uptight executive given a vague interactive role playing game as a birthday present. As the film progresses, things get increasingly more elaborate and dangerous. The third act reveal is bizarre, as the true nature of the game is revealed, culminating in Nick Van Orton (Douglas) plunging off a tall building (through his own choice) only to find out he’s been progressively driven to this point (landing in an unexpected crash mat to rapturous applause). It’s about as ridiculous as it gets, and the mind might ache in computing the logic of dozens of individual stages and encounters in the game itself, but Fincher of course is a master manipulator. Once he grabs you, you tend to be in. (Gone Girl was also pretty shlocky, a little ludicrous, but enjoyably so).
I also must admit to a soft spot for preposterously titled creature or disaster films. They tend to be uber low budget and occasionally star the likes of Casper Van Dien, Dean Cain, Eric Roberts and Lorenzo Lamas. It might be Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus or similar. There’s a film I keep passing in my local supermarket on the DVD shelf called Aquariam of The Dead that intrigues my enjoyably bad movie spider senses. Now of course many of these know the score. What is interesting though, where most differ from say, Sharknado, is that they don’t always make a gag out of it. For me, when they’re taken with a bit more of a straight face, they almost become inherently more goofy, and a bit more enjoyable. Some of course (like Sharknado) will hit you over the head with the main gag, and get progressively more silly. I enjoy both approaches but do prefer sincerity. So much so I’ve found myself diving into the sub-genres as a writer. ‘Do you want to write a film called Sky Kraken? …A film called Firenado?’ Yes…oh good Lord yes.
What are some enjoyably preposterous films you’ve seen? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.