In the closing moments of 1994’s Speed, Sandra Bullock’s Annie tells Keanu Reeves’s smitten Jack that “...relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.” Clearly she’s right, because by the time Speed 2: Cruise Control rolls around three years later she’s gotten tired of his constant life-in-peril routine and has moved on to Jason Patric—who, however, ends up being even more disaster-prone (in more ways than one). But despite the evident wisdom of this oddly self-aware heroine’s words some twenty—can you believe it? – years ago, filmmakers persist in giving us whirlwind romances shoehorned into even the most aggressively boisterous of explosion-filled blockbusters, because they think that’s what it takes to make us womenfolk happy.
And guess what? It makes me happy.
Oh, it’s not like I need the romance to enjoy an action movie, a disaster movie or thriller—hell, even a bona fide war movie can hold my interest without the slightest dewy-eyed mention of a childhood sweetheart back home or a sparky interaction between fellow officers, rescuer and rescuee, or the company maverick and the General’s daughter. But even when it is at its most gratuitous and unnecessary—and let’s face it, movies of all stripes have flung many a pointless romantic subplot in our faces, if for no other reason than to get in a fanboy-pleasing shower scene—any attempt at developing a romance in a film of this nature will always, always add to my enjoyment, because even the most ridiculous of pairings can go a long way towards making a bad movie better and a good movie awesome. Only very rarely is an otherwise decent action adventure made unwatchable by adding a romance; to wit, and most especially, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. (Anakin and Padme = Worst Movie Couple of All Time.)
That said, the romance in the Star Wars prequels, while (very, very) badly handled, was necessary, as it led to the birth of Luke and Leia, and we knew that had to happen. There have likewise been many other such movies in which the romance is simply vital: Avatar makes no sense without Jake Sully and Neytiri; without the fast-blooming love between The Fifth Element’s Corbin Dallas and Leeloo the universe would end, so lucky she fell into his cab that one time; and there can be no doubt that The Matrix needs Neo and Trinity at least as much as it needed to have way better sequels.
So what I’m really talking about here is the incidental all-of-a-sudden romance that is not at all integral to the plot. You know, the kind offered up in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. In Steven Seagal movies. In Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies (although those last four have exceptions: the romances in Blade, Men in Black, True Lies and Demolition Man are all ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL). I’m talking about the likes of Universal Soldier, in which Van Damme’s cyborg-ified dead soldier romances Ally Walker’s intrepid journalist while they are on the run from the military. Or what about Under Seige, where Seagal is able to woo Erica Eleniak’s Playboy Playmate (what a triumph of type-casting) while simultaneously thwarting a warship hijacking. Snipes and Yancy Butler in Drop Zone, Smith and Téa Leoni in Bad Boys, Schwarzenegger and Rae Dawn Chong in Commando, Stallone and Amy Brenneman in Daylight (one of my guiltiest of pleasures), all of them feature potential relationships, either consummated or not, which begin as a result of proximity and frequent high-octane explosions—and which doubtless end not long after the credits roll.
If we need more evidence of this than Annie and Jack’s fate in the Speed movies (plus the fact that Bad Boys II replaces Leoni with Gabrielle Union), let us look to that most serial of all adrenaline-fuelled romancers: James Bond.
Bond has a habit of ending many of his outings in bed with some buxom beauty or other for whom he has been lusting all movie long, but by the time of his next escapade she is nothing but a faded memory in even the audience’s minds. His life a series of one night stands (often featuring attempted pre-, post- or during-coital assassination) and quip-driven seduction of assorted spies, society damsels, potential targets and nuclear physicists. Okay, sure, occasionally the loves of his Right Now die and he is left to fill the void—if you’ll pardon the Bond film-worthy pun—in whatever tawdry manner he can (and he can), as Jamie Brenner pointed out in her post James Bond: Romantic, Tragic Hero, back in pre-Skyfall 2012. Discussing 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, she says of his Roger Moore incarnation putting flowers on his second wife’s grave: “So right away you know this is a guy who has loved and lost, big time. No matter how much bed-hopping this guy does, who could blame him? His wife died. He’s too heart-broken for any real intimacy. It’s not his fault.” Casino Royale, in its Daniel Craig-ified version, also merits a mention for yet more love lost—indeed, Jamie calls it her “all-time most romantic Bond movie.” But it is the light-hearted, never-to-be-mentioned-again dalliances with Bond Girls as diverse (and divertingly-named) as Pussy Galore, Domino, Solitaire, Holly Goodhead, Xenia Onatopp, Kissy Suzuki and Dr. Christmas Jones that put the many faces of Bond in company with the abovementioned action stars. They are all his lovers of circumstance, often interchangeable and apparently entirely forgettable. Whether Bond ends up bedding these women or not makes little difference to the plot entire—indeed, half the time the only sex that really does matter to the story is the kind that ends with the hapless girl dead, often at Bond’s hand.
Bruce Willis is another whose movies will give him romances that are very much secondary to the action: from 1993’s Striking Distance with Sarah Jessica Parker to 2010’s RED with Mary-Louise Parker to the previously noted, and utterly tremendous, The Fifth Element (with Milla Jovovich
Parker), the man has made a career out of charming the pants off a newly-met women while also saving said woman, or the world, or the universe. One of my favorite of his movies is Bandits, in which both Willis and Billy Bob Thornton fall for the winsome allure of Cate Blanchett’s bored housewife—whom the two bank robbers have previously kidnapped. And I don’t think I am giving too much away when I tell you that she eventually returns both of their affections.
Oh, yes, Stockholm Syndrome is alive and well in action adventure, crime caper, sci-fi, martial arts and many another nominally “guy” subgenre. Kidnapped women to have fallen for their abductors include, but are certainly not limited to: Maria Conchita Alonso in The Running Man (kidnapper: Arnold Schwarzenegger); Victoria Abril in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down (kidnapper: Antonio Banderas); Kristy Swanson in The Chase (kidnapper: Charlie Sheen); Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (kidnapper: George Clooney); Alicia Silverstone in Excess Baggage (kidnapper: Benicio del Toro); Cameron Diaz in A Life Less Ordinary (kidnapper: Ewan McGregor); Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (kidnapper: Chang Chen); and Amanda Seyfried in In Time (kidnapper: Justin Timberlake). Not to mention Mary-Louise Parker in RED, kidnapped by Bruce Willis—in that case, for her own protection. For the most part, however, these kidnappings begin as hostage scenarios, in which a beleaguered but likeable ne’er do well fends off the encroaching hordes of law enforcement by threatening our fair one’s life. Other times, there is ransom involved—like in this year’s Highway, a Hindi epic romance by turns disturbing and delightful—or even revenge (A Life Less Ordinary is joined here by the historical Flesh+Blood, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rutger Hauer—see it, if you can), and only rarely is the motive what you’d think it might be when a man makes off with a woman against her will. (cf. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Watching that once-enchanting musical as an adult really gives one a whole new perspective, doesn’t it?) Of course, one has to wonder how much of the falling-in-love-with-the-kidnapper stuff we see stems from the sheer pretty offered up by the offenders—Banderas, Clooney, McGregor, Timberlake; come on!—but a whole lot of it must surely come down to heat-of-the-moment, er, heat—and never mind what happens next. Right? Because even when the romance is peripheral, formulaic and not terribly electric, it simply makes things better, doesn’t it? And if the HEA is unconvincing, well... it’s better than nothing, don’t you think?
An example. The recently released Transformers: Age of Extinction is a benighted piece of visual assault, close to three hours of unrestrained urban destruction and unwontedly dull Dinobot backstory. It is made somewhat less horrible by the inclusion of a forbidden love for teen Tessa (Nicola Peltz), but her Secret Boyfriend subplot is not a patch on the redemption that the original, almost equally incoherent, film in the franchise received from the inclusion of a calamity-driven Hot Girl and the Nerd Hookup, via Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf. Where a good movie can benefit from an on-the-run romance—The Bourne Identity, say, or (oh, yes!) Terminator—a bad movie benefits so much more, and this holds true even knowing that Michaela and Sam eventually break up.
Speaking of huge franchises, let’s talk about The Hobbit. In The Desolation of Smaug, the second instalment of this perplexingly trilogized adaptation, writer/director Peter Jackson famously included a Mary Sue for female Tolkienites everywhere, a kickass elf captain named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) designed to add some much needed girl parts to a very boy’s own adventure. And with her came a love triangle, pitting her beauteous prince and comrade Legolas (Orlando Bloom) against a “tall” and handsome dwarf named Kili (Aidan Turner)... and you know what? I loved it! I, as staunch a Tolkien purist as ever there was, was simply delighted by this turn of events, much to my own surprise—though, I am not sure why that was, given how much I value a shoehorned-in romance. To make it clear, though, I am firmly Team Legolas here, if only because I believe that relationship to have more longevity. True, they are the same species, and surely that will help, but it’s mainly because theirs is a love forged over decades and centuries and not over the course of a few pitched battles, a prison chat and a last-minute life-saving spell. If romance in action-packed movies has taught us anything it is that when life returns to normal and the hearts stop racing then those hearts also can, and will, turn cold. It may be exhilarating to begin a relationship with a bang—in many senses of the word—but in the end, when the bad guy has been defeated, the has dust settled and you discover whether your newly beloved leaves the cap off the toothpaste or nail clippings on the floor, it is long-term compatibility that matters, not expertise in krav maga or a clever way with a one-liner. When feats of derring do are no longer required and it turns out he wants to raise the kids Samurai, can things end in anything but disaster?
And so will come explosions of a different kind. But happily for us, that all happens afterwards, off-screen, and in the meantime you and I have been able to appreciate Hard Target or Hard to Kill, Passenger 57 or XxX (how have you gone ignored in here until now, Vin Diesel?) on a whole other level than might have been expected from those flame-filled movie posters and stuntman-laden trailers. Let’s just hope that, going against convention, Emmett and Wyldstyle/Lucy of The Lego Movie won’t have broken up by the time their sequel hits theatres in 2017—despite the fact that they, too, were brought together by the seemingly irresistible forces of propinquity and perpetual danger. Such angst just doesn’t bear thinking on.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.