In recent days, I've grown close to a much-maligned genre of filmmaking: action flicks. They're more specifically classified as thrillers, and evoke a sense of universal dread, anxiety and adrenaline, which permeates through our usual loyalties.
We see American spies dismantling Russian plots of world domination, and Indian 'Tigers' taking down terrorists from the other side of the border, with equal amounts of excitement. We also prefer seeing a certain kind of 'everyday man' who wants to do the right thing in the role of the protagonist, and we detach ourselves from the villains of these films beyond the task of despising them.
Thriller movies end up with much higher numbers on their Broken Nose counters than rom-coms, but fundamentally, they perform the same task. These movies provide us with a sense of comfort blended in with the uncertainty of its plot. Is the hero going to get out of this tangle alive? Is he going to get his dream girl along the way? And is he going to come out of this narrative conflict with his pretty face intact?
There are variations seen in this kind of story, of course. Some films are more nuanced with their subject matter, presenting both sides of the geopolitical narratives that are at odds with each other. Others like to go off-beat with their character development: heroes are intentionally portrayed as unlikeable people to add a novel twist to the emotion of the story. And an increasing number of production houses are realising the need to give their female characters more agency, rather than reducing them to damsels in distress during the final act. (Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow executes both these novel twists with expertise.)
While we've become conditioned to seeing certain countries being on the 'right' side of the fight in these movies, it only speaks of our own subconscious biases. Other than that, a generic thriller movie does not have much to say about the nuances of nationality, morality and the consequences of violence. Instead, they're replaced by a certain evocation of joy, which we feel when the antagonist, who wants to nuke the world, gets punched in the face (or when the leads of a rom-com get together in the end).
I've always had a keen interest in books that dabble in espionage and well-written action set-pieces, but on-screen violence has never been my cup of tea. The circumstances I found myself in a few months ago, however, meant that I had to get my wisdom teeth removed over a lengthy period of four weeks. During my time of recovery from these hectic surgeries, I realised that thrillers would serve me best on my quest for adrenaline. They certainly helped me cope with the pain of the meds on the nights I could not fall asleep.
And thus, Tom Cruise swooped onto my cinematic palette with as much finesse as he drops from skies and lands on top of buildings in almost every Mission: Impossible movie. I started with the sixth and latest instalment of the franchise, titled Fallout. It was intense, it was funny and, as all Tom Cruise movies are, it was real. It was my first (consensual) exposure to his movies, which I previously only remembered bits and parts of from back when my father swooned over him during my younger days.
Since then, I've finished watching both sets of trilogies in the franchise. This is hailed by many as the best action movie franchise in history and it's hard to disagree with that assessment. Experts are better suited to tackle the genius of Cruise's realism and stunt scenes. But the thriller genre's main accomplishment is that it remains accessible as a work of art to anyone willing to suspend their disbelief going into the movie. And this certainly works in its favour.
The plot twists and tropes of any genre become more predictable when you're continually exposed to it, and my awe has certainly reduced at any time I realise someone is double-crossing/triple-crossing/quadruple-crossing their loyal allies close to the climax of a film. But this is where the great movies separate themselves from the merely good ones. Plots can only take you so far when they are designed to lead you into improbable gunfights. It's the finesse with which you execute the suspense on-screen that determines the worth of your movie.
I recently watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as well. The reviews of the film indicate a mixed reception, but it's a humorous, stylish treat nonetheless. "The plot is generic," most complained – isn't it meant to be? The elitism most movie critics show when it comes to reviewing mainstream movies has influenced my biases for the longest time as well. It took voluntarily losing four of my teeth to get me out of my rigidity when it came to appreciating thriller movies for the sensory spectacles they are.
These films do many things right, but beyond conquering the challenge of painting believable caricatures of people in these films, there's another component that determines the success of thrillers. Direction is perhaps the most important part of a film across genres, but the way set-pieces are conducted here can often determine one's affinity for a movie, or the lack thereof.
I'm forgiving of all treatments of what is essentially the same story, where the hero must save the day and, more often than not, the world too. There's nothing new under the sun – but doesn't that just incentivise the appreciation of everything we already have? Of course, some movies are too sexist, too violent and too silly for my taste. But there are things to be learnt from every film, especially the mediocre ones, because they get things right and things wrong – both of which we can learn from.
It is no coincidence, though, that this revelation has made its way into my life during the middle of a pandemic. The COVID-19 virus is an invincible antagonist to our artificially constructed societies, and it has brought us to a standstill more effectively than many natural disasters and wars of the past. However, during times like this, when it becomes too problematic or impractical to direct our anger towards things that will have no productive outcomes, we could all seek some comfort in seeing Tom Cruise precariously suspend himself from a rope and pull off impossible heists as he ages across different decades.
There may or may not be light at the end of this tunnel for everyone, but we can all take comfort in the fact that the hero always wins in these stories we see. The thrill of the ride, you'll notice, is no less engaging even though we know how these things always turn out. Maybe, the sorrow we feel now – for those we love and those we care for – shall pass too. And when we emerge from this era of loss, we'll have our own stories to tell, which will require a suspension of disbelief every step of the way too.