Call us old-fashioned, but we never really thought a film festival could be enhanced by a man strapped to a jet pack. It's not that we have anything against jet packs -- oh, quite the contrary -- it's just that flying around with a tank of rocket fuel on your back doesn't seem to mesh with, you know, director Q&As.But jet packs, as we say, are a good thing, and films are a good thing too, even films that have names like "Robo-geisha." And so as the crafty manufacturers of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups realized long ago, why not take two good things and make them better by putting them together?
So it goes at the inaugural ActionFest, a film festival devoted exclusively to action flicks. It's probably the first cinema event to tout itself as a "film festival with a body count," and probably also the first film festival where a Chilean action star is surrounded by adoring crowds after his just-screened performance in "Undisputed III: Redemption." Or, for that matter, where all screenings are preceded by a compendium of Chuck Norris trailers. The Toronto Film Festival intro has its ode to Canada; Cannes pays homage to six decades of global cinema. Action Fest has the runway scene from "Delta Force."
Programmed by executives at the Mark Cuban- and Todd Wagner-owned Magnolia Entertainment, co-founded by Norris' brother/partner Aaron with the blessing and imprimatur of Chuck, and held this weekend at the sleek but warm confines of Carolina Cinemas in Asheville, N.C. (which the other fest co-founder, Bill Banowsky, a former CEO of Landmark Theatres, owns), ActionFest is a gathering of large and entertaining contradictions. It's a place where screenings are interrupted for a stunt show, the kind of event that showcases full burns and aerial rams while drawing an improbable mix of Harley riders and movie nerds, many swigging $1 PBRs and snacking on foods such as the Full Metal Burger and Texas Ranger Dog.It's a place where one can spend 20 minutes talking to Sly Stallone's longtime stunt double and think, "Is it me, or does that guy make a lot of sense?"
And it's a place where veteran stuntman and jet-pack-savant Kinnie Gibson, who dropped out of the sky into the movie-theater parking lot to the delight of 700 people brandishing cellphone cameras (that's him in the photo above, before being greeted on the ground with the enthusiasm reserved for an astronaut returning from a distant moon, as pictured below). Apparently, Gibson is only one of three people in the world who can operate a jet pack (come on, whoever you other two are, step up your game).
We've had the surreal experience of attending the festival this weekend, and we'll have more to come from the goings-on here, which we will relate presuming we survive those goings-on, hardly a certainty given that we've taken rides several times in a van driven by the aforesaid Chilean action star, Marko Zaror, a man who seems distinctly unworried about keeping his eye on the road or the car in its lane, as though any head-on collision would be just one more stunt for a director to play with in post. We suppose someone could have gently reminded Zaror this was real. But given his apparent proficiency at the roundhouse kick, that someone was not going to be us.
There's much to chew on from the events here, like the reaction one might have upon hearing the stuntmen behind cultural monuments such "Predator 2" talk about themselves as artists and about modern-day CG engineers as philistines. (Actually, hearing them discuss their craft in detail, and seeing them practice it up close, you realize just how much skill and science are involved, not to mention how much improvisation and danger. "There isn't a man on this panel who hasn't lost a good friend on a stunt," Aaron Norris said at a roundtable featuring stunt coordinators, second-unit directors and other action-film types.That panel saw the group trade war stories about their most grisly injuries and daredevil tricks, lie down on the couch to confess the moments of their greatest fear and proclaim, to the righteous applause of the audience, that there should be an Oscar category for stuntmen before announcing they'd created their own awards and would hand them out Sunday night.
And then there are the films -- for instance, the rarely screened cuts of "Code of Silence" or "Braddock: Missing in Action III." Or the the premiere of the Avi Lerner concoction "Undisputed III: Redemption", which -- and maybe this is the mountain air getting to us -- is actually pretty good, a Russian-inflected prison martial-arts movie, as though "Death Race," "Rocky IV" and "Karate Kid" get together and bear a love child (one who can pull off a convincing head stomp).
But more on all that later. For now, there's a Chuck Norris lifetime achievement tribute to focus on. And the first-ever action Oscars. And more jet packs. Cannes, the gauntlet has been thrown.
Photos: Kinnie Gibson and his jet pack. Credit: Steve Zeitchik (by BlackBerry camera). Delta Force. Credit: Canon Films