Only God Forgives is not an action movie, but you'd be forgiven for thinking differently as you step into the theater or prepare to watch it on VOD. After all, it's a crime movie from the director of Drive. It stars Ryan Gosling as another strong, silent type. The trailers showcase gunplay, foot chases and characters swearing vengeance. In other words, it looks like something you've seen before.
But, oh boy. It is not. At all. Only God Forgives is not only not an action movie, it's a nonaction movie that gleefully takes your expectations of an action movie and eviscerates them. It takes the modern image of the cinematic action hero and leaves it bruised, battered, terrifying and worn down by its overbearing and creepy mother. It's a deconstruction (or rather, a demolition) of what Hollywood heroic leads are circa 2013.
Right now, the world of cinematic action heroes seems to be split into two distinct categories: the reluctant hero and the superhero. Some characters have traits of both, but the two of them ultimately seem to sum up the vast majority of our blockbuster and action leads these days. This isn't science, but these kind of things do tend to operate in phases.
The reluctant hero emerged in the years after September 11, 2001. Gone were the perfect men of action who got the job done with a wink and smirk and in were the troubled, often emotionally devastated heroes who were forced into action, often against their will. This trend was so powerful that it not only created a new blockbuster franchise in the Jason Bourne series, it radically transformed James Bond, making Britain's unstoppable superspy into a tortured wreck. The reluctant hero lives on to this summer, with characters like the new Captain James T. Kirk and Armie Hammer's the Lone Ranger initially refusing the call of heroism, only taking control and saving the day when they have no other choice. The reluctant hero is an acknowledgment that people aren't perfect and that the people we look up to aren't perfect. It's a character trope that has defined the past decade for many moviegoers. After all, through Christopher Nolan's cynical lense, not even the great Batman can save everyone.
The superhero is a little more obvious and significantly more old-fashioned. In many cases, the "superhero" title is literal. After all, everyone and their mother saw The Avengers seven times. In other cases, the title is a more figurative. Just look at the reemergence of '80s action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who have attempted (with mixed success) to revive the unstoppable and simplistic badasses of the Reagan years. This type of character isn't just limited to musclebound old men. With Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise creates a steely badass who walks into trouble because he's very good at walking out of trouble. With Drive, Ryan Gosling coats the macho action hero with a coat of Tumblr-powered sensitivity -- he's an unstoppable killing machine, but you also want to cuddle with him in front of a fireplace and tell him that everything is going to be okay.
Occasionally, these two groups crossover. Clark Kent in Man of Steel feels like he has a foot in both worlds and Tony Stark in the Iron Man series is actually a reluctant hero who finds himself transforming into a superhero. In fact, the continued rise of the superhero movie and seemingly slow and steady decline of the reluctant hero seem to represent audiences (and Hollywood) escaping the morally compromised funk that 9/11 threw us all into. Yeah, the world still sucks, but when it comes to movies, we're starting to again appreciate the guys who can save the day without breaking a sweat... well, we like to see them break a little bit of a sweat. The most popular superheroes are the ones who suffer, barely prevail and keep on going.
And this brings us back to Only God Forgives, which takes these two types of heroes and puts them through the wringer. Take a look at Ryan Gosling's Julian. At first glance, he's like his character in Drive, a strong man of few words with a strong moral code who takes care of business. He doesn't want to get violent, but you get the impression that he will if provoked. We understand this because Refn shoots him like he should be a badass who knows all about kicking ass and taking names. But we soon learn the truth. Not since Hamlet has there been a less decisive lead character. Julian literally has no idea what he's doing and whatever code he lives by is instantly demolished by the murder of his brother in the film's first act and the arrival of his domineering mother. Julian simply cannot get anything done -- he's only capable of absorbing abuse, lashing out at people who don't deserve it and getting utterly destroyed by the people he's been asked to deal with. It's like Refn is punking everyone who watched and loved Gosling's performance in Drive. The strong silent type is just a mask for an incompetent, unhinged and emotionally bankrupt sociopath. His very few lines of dialogue don't represent him quietly observing... they represent him having nothing to say.
If Julian is the reluctant hero pushed to the nth degree, the character of Chang is the superhero transformed into something truly monstrous. Played by Vithaya Pansringarm, Chang is a police officer who is frequently called into action by his fellow cops to help dispense justice on the streets of Bangkok. Like a character straight out an '80s action movie, he's unflappable, unstoppable and lives by a code of justice that would make Stallone's Cobra applaud. So why is he so terrifying instead of cool?
Whereas most superheroes derive their strength from force of will (and occasionally a radioactive spider), Chang seems to be powered by something supernatural. Like any action hero, he's always in the right place at the right time. Bullets never seem to hit him. He can outmaneuver any thug in a footchase. But he does so without humanity or humor. He's an angel of death, a superhero stripped of everything that could possibly tie him to the human race. The other cops don't look on him admiringly -- they look on him like they're in the presence of something (not someone) of profound spiritual significance. What if Superman didn't care about people at all? He'd probably act like Chang.
Now that a film has so radically deconstructed the typical Hollywood action hero templates, we're probably due for another change in the landscape. Superheroes don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, but the reluctant hero is most certainly on the way out. The superhero as we know it will probably also evolve in the coming years. After all, Man of Steel presents a hero so powerful that audiences were a little shaken by how much collateral damage he caused in the climax. This may be the current state of the cinematic action hero, but as Only God Forgives so clearly shows us, the air has been taken out of them. Something new is on the horizon.