We love action movies, the tropes, the cliches, all of it and roll with it well. But in some cases, we get to see films or the occasional TV show that wonderfully deconstructs the action movie. They’re not straight-out parodies like Naked Gun — but here are eight comedies that play with the motifs in a way that illuminates them.
1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Shane Black practically invented the modern Hollywood action flick with his script for Lethal Weapon. So it’s only fitting he can wonderfully skewer that in this 2005 comedy with Robert Downey Jr as a small-time crook who’s pulled into acting and Val Kilmer as the cop who yanks him into a murder case. It’s obvious how Black is wonderfully sending up the very tropes he helped create from the rapid-fire dialogue to how guns really work and Downey Jr. helps with the narration noting everything from a shot of a minor character who will become important to how it all drags (“I saw Lord of the Rings, I’m not going to end this 17 times.”). A delicious package that showcases how nuts the genre really is.
2. Big Trouble in Little China
On the audio commentary for this film, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell share how first-time viewers don’t get what they thought was obvious: Russell’s Jack Burton is not supposed to be the hero of the story, he’s the sidekick who thinks he’s the hero. It’s his buddy Wang who’s truly the hero, leading the quest to rescue his love, Jack’s along for the ride. It’s Wang who’s the kung fu master and swordsman while Jack bungles along. Sure, he kills the bad guy in the end but clearly just a fluke, he’s the side player in all this. But it works as you get the feeling Jack’s been in lots of scrapes before and thus when this wild thing unfolds, he naturally assumes he’s the star again.
3. The Man Who Knew Too Little
Seriously underrated, this 1997 comedy has Bill Murray as an American in London whose brother gets him into a role-playing game where he acts out a spy adventure. But thanks to a telephone mix-up, he ends up being mistaken for a real hit man, and gets involved in a grand scheme by former KGB agents to blow up a big meeting and restart the Cold War — while he continues to think it’s all a game. It’s a one-joke premise, but it works thanks to Murray’s fun performance, going along with the wild stuff and to its credit, the film avoids the cliche of having him find out the truth. Instead, it pokes fun at the “super-spy” idea by showing how Murray goes into all these situations, from torture to beating on cops, cracking jokes easily because he believes he’s in no danger whatsoever. Meanwhile, those around him mistake his bumbling for the actions of an unbeatable super-spy, because of that attitude. It works well to show how so much of an action hero’s supposed standing lies a lot in perception.
4. Hot Fuzz
The best movie of the Cornetto Trilogy, this comedy classic beautifully sends up action movie tropes even as it celebrates them. Simon Pegg is a super-cop so great at his job that his superiors are sick and tired of him stealing all the glory — so they transfer him to a small quiet village. Pegg is brilliant in the role, going all intense and looking for conspiracies everywhere as we get stuff like a building that’s seeming ready to explode... then doesn’t. The rest of the cast is fun as hell and the story is terrific in how it looks like they’re going for a logical explanation of the “accidents” around...then go totally over the top for an insane revelation that sets up a blistering hysterical shootout. Wonderful on every level to show the genius of Pegg and Nick Frost at their best.
5. The Good Guys
Yet another entry in the endless list of “great shows Fox axed too early,” this 2010 series starred Colin Hanks as a cop so by-the-book no one can stand him, who’s forced to work minor crimes with Bradley Whitford, a super-cop who still acts like it’s the 1980’s. The two are great together as Whitford’s Dan Stark is a genius creation: He thinks CSI stuff is “black magic,” infects everyone with a cold because he doesn’t “believe” in flu shots, sees nothing wrong with shooting a suspect or sleeping with a witness, and is 100 percent intense on every case. The joke is that these two do end up coming across major crimes and ending them — but never get the respect for it. From the dialogue to the situations, the show wonderfully plays with cop and action movie conventions, the best being when Hanks bursts into a room, firing two pistols off at once... and not a single bullet so much as grazes his target (“Really? Not one?”). I’ve been waiting years for that. Well worth tracking down, for a hell of a good laugh at the genre.
6. Shoot ‘Em Up
This is that rare beast: A satire so utterly pitch-perfect that it’s almost indistinguishable from the very thing it’s parodying. Clive Owen is the near-silent man who somehow gets involved in an adventure of a crazy hitman (Paul Giamatti) who’s out to abduct a newborn baby. What follows is pure insane action, from a merry-go-round shoot-out, to Owen blowing guys away while having sex with Monica Bellucci, to a skydiving gunfight. It’s utterly insane in every way, complete with fantastic one-liners that Owen sells with dead seriousness and a ridiculously tragic origin for his character. But it all comes together to a fun time that points out how damn ludicrous these movies are.
7. Last Action Hero
Yes, this 1993 movie is a notorious bomb — but it does have its strengths and that includes how well it works as an action parody. It helps that it stars the man who helped push the entire genre, Arnold Schwarzengger who plays both himself and Jack Slater, super-cop star of the movies of a young boy (Austin O’Brien) idolizes. A magic ticket sends the kid into the movie world and there’s great fun to be had: cops deliberately partnered up as total opposites, everyone being way too attractive for real life jobs, guns never running out of bullets, and more. It hurts a bit as the kid tries too hard to convince Slater he’s in a movie rather than having fun with things. But it takes a turn when the movie’s bad guy (Charles Dance) enters our world where “the bad guys can win.” So now Slater misses his target, feels pain from punches and more as he hunts the guy down. Arnie does seem to be having a good time and shows that he’s in on the joke, making the movie work better than its reputation suggests.
8. The Other Guys
This 2010 comedy works thanks to its great cast. We open with Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson as your typical movie super-cops who don’t really care they caused millions of dollars of damage chasing crooks for stealing a few thousand dollars. Their ending is hysterical, as they just leap off a twenty-story building right onto pavement as if they honestly thought they would survive. We then move to Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as the pencil pushers who take their place as the top cops. Wahlberg is funny as hell as his character wants to be that type of super-cop but is terrible at it. Ferrell is of course hilarious as his partner with the genius touch of how he’s the one person who doesn’t understand how insanely lucky he is to have Eva Mendes for a wife. It nicely jokes about the cliches of action movies (the two guys rolling in pain from an explosion nearby. “Hollywood lies!”) and the ending brings it all together for a fun conclusion.
Thanks to Charlie Jane Anders and Cheryl Eddy for editing.