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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Paul Blart Deserves Your Respect

The action movie is something if a dying art these days. The golden era of one man in the wrong place at the wrong time taking out an army of terrorists using only his wits and the environment is largely a relic of the 1980s. Today’s action movies tend to fall into two categories: Espionage thriller and superhero movie.

The espionage thriller has your Jason Bournes, your James Bonds, and your Vantage Points. Typically the hero is someone who spends the first part of the story thinking he’s working for the good guys, then changing his mind and dealing with the repercussions.

The superhero movies are self explanatory, but this is a blog and I’ve got to fill pixels dadgummit! Your typical superhero movie is an origin retelling, a reboot, or a thoroughly disappointing conclusion to a trilogy. (If Disney buying Marvel means they could go back and make Spiderman 3 not suck, I’d be all for it.) These can be good movies, but they are not pure action movies in the Chuck Norris/Arnold Schwarzenegger/Bruce Willis mold.

Oh, sure, we occasionally get a video game movie which comes close to being a real action movie; Max Payne springs to mind; but frankly I find it hard to take anything seriously if it contains Marky Mark AND Mila Kunis above the title on the marquis. Ms. Kunis has her charms, but whoever made the decision to cast her as Mona Sax when Andrea Parker is out stalking the wild needs to have his head examined by a proctologist. He can go right after whatever nitwit decided to make such a gritty, noir inspired game into a movie rated PG.

But for the most part, the action movie is gone. There is hope, however, and it came from an unexpected place: Great Britain. The wheels for this started turning back in the wee years of the 21st century, when Simon Pegg got together with some friends and produced Shawn of the Dead. Speaking as someone who doesn’t even like zombie movies, I have to say I enjoyed the heck out of that one. But that’s not an action movie, so why bring it up? Well, because a few years after Shawn killed zombies by throwing LP record albums at them, Simon Pegg returned with the same team to do for action movies what Shawn of the Dead did for zombie movies: Hot Fuzz.

Hot Fuzz was not as well received as Shawn of the Dead. The most frequent complaint was that it wasn’t spoof-y enough, and that by the end it turned into your typical action movie shootout. I was puzzled by this response. After all, Shawn of the Dead eventually devolved into your standard Zombie movie just in time for the climactic battle. But then I realized that the critics don’t actually like action movies, and the underlying fault they found with Hot Fuzz was that it wasn’t mean enough in poking fun at the genre. The problem was, at the end of the day, that the movie was a loving spoof. Just like Shawn of the Dead was a loving spoof. Action movies deserve scorn, and Hot Fuzz didn’t scorn them. For those of us who love the action movie, though, Hot Fuzz was a breath of fresh air.

And now we end the history lesson five hundred and sixty four words in. But as a dear friend of my father once said, it’s important you should know these things. And yes, I did actually count the words.

Kevin James has carried on the torch lit by Simon Pegg with Hot Fuzz. He co-wrote and starred in an underappreciated gem of a movie called Paul Blart: Mall Cop. The story is pure 1980’s action movie: Dedicated mall security guard (excuse me, security officer) winds up the only free denizen of a mall taken hostage by a well armed and well prepared band of thugs on Black Friday. He has only his wits, his knowledge of the mall, and his Segway to fight back with. The odds are stacked against him, and he very nearly skips the scene undetected, except that the woman he’s harboring a major crush on is among the hostages.

Now, every great action hero must have a liability that will nearly cost him victory and must be overcome. McClane was barefoot in a glass tower. Dalton had a checkered past that would come back to haunt him. Riggs was suicidal and unstable.

Blart is hypoglycemic, which means he has to keep his blood sugar up or he passes out.

This is where the comedy comes in, and some of it doesn’t work so well. The most notable example is an embarrassing scene in which Paul Blart gets his clock cleaned by a gargantuan woman in a Victoria’s Secret store. But such painful moments are few, which is a blessing given the recent trend in “sucks to be you” comedy wherein an otherwise likable character is humiliated repeatedly to the amusement of mean people in the audience.

For the most part, however, the comedy fires on all cylinders. Physical comedy is hard to do well, and Kevin James is very good at it. Much sport is made of his stature, but like another brilliant, heavyset film comedian, he is surprisingly agile and light on his feet. I don’t, however, envy him the bruises he must have gone home with every day, as he clearly did a number of his own stunts.

The setting also provides much of the humor. While malls are no stranger to action movies (let’s not forget that nearly every movie Arnold Schwarzenegger ever made has at least one scene where a mall gets trashed) Kevin James was able to wring a lot of comedy out of setting an action movie in one. The scene where Paul Blart emerges from a ball pit like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now alone is worth the price of admission.

As I mentioned, the story is pure action hero fare. One man against an army who’s better equipped, better prepared, and quite frankly in better shape than he is. But in the end, a cool head and an intricate knowledge of the terrain defeat youth and skill. Once the fat jokes have all been spent, and the Segway ceases to be an object of ridicule and morphs into an implement of justice, all that remains is the action movie. Our hero crawls through ventilation ducts, uses toy robots from The Sharper Image to misdirect his foes, and eventually blows up an entire Rainforest CafĂ© (after a brilliant homage to Predator) in his efforts to take out the bad guys and rescue the woman of his dreams.

But will he succeed? Will he stop the bad guys and get the girl?

Well I’m sure as heck not going to tell you. Go watch the movie. It’s only $5 at blockbuster, and most of you have Netflix accounts already. Put it in your queue. You won’t regret it.