In Action

In Action (2020)

In Action opens in medias res with Sean and Eric waking up, semi-naked and tied to chairs in a dark basement hellhole, and unsure where exactly they are, how they got there or why it smells like ‘poop’. 

“It’s like an interrogation room,” observes Eric, “something you see out of a movie” – to which Sean replies, “What are we, the stars of Hostel 3?”, leading to a long to and fro between them about the torture-porn franchise. Several things are quickly established here. First, these captives are closely anchored to the reality of their namesakes Sean Kenealy and Eric Silvera, the writer/directors of In Action who also play the two leads, and voice all the film’s other characters. Second, the predicament in which these two middle-aged family men have become entrapped is overtly and self-consciously related to the stock scenarios of cinema – and cinema at the more generic end of the art’s spectrum. Sean and Eric are schlubby, horny men of inaction who are about to find themselves caught up in, well, action, and the film’s subtitle – A Gimmick to Film a Movie Over Some Weekends With No Money – is an accurate description more of In Action‘s production than of its content. These boys are imprisoned in the heady world of metacinema, where the boundaries between filmmaking and reality are destabilised – and once there, escape is difficult, perhaps even impossible.

A ‘how did it happen?’ flashback will reveal Sean and Eric to be former film students whose dreams of writing scripts together never came to fruition, and who have since drifted on to married life away from the industry. Eric now works in advertising, Sean is a stay-at-home dad, and both are frustrated and unfulfulfilled – and deep down they still live and breathe the idioms of cinema (especially Reagan-era action flicks like Mark L. Lester’s Commando, Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon and John McTiernan’s Die Hard). A chance meeting at the wedding of a screenwriting nemesis will lead these two disaffected kidults to start collaborating once more. Like the script for In Action itself, their screenplay (entitled Arctic War) starts from the middle and works outwards. They have a firm grip on the central premise – the wedding of the President’s daughter is raided by terrorists – but a far sketchier idea of the resolution. And while their scenario is built from a series of absurd movie clichés, they are also drawing from the real world: their setting is inspired by a real Presidential wedding, scheduled to take place in four months, which they are hoping to exploit for the promotion of their film; and in trying to concoct for their film a plot that will be, beyond all the daft sub-Schwarzeneggerian one-liners and explosive heroics, at least semi-plausible, they have been meticulous in researching the security measures for the real wedding, and the proper methods used for making an effective chemical bomb. “Bring it closer to home,” as Eric puts it. “If you can’t make it up, use what’s real.” Unfortunately, all this attention to real-world detail raises some flags, and so Sean and Eric find themselves under interrogation, and having to come up fast with the ending to their screenplay, even as they are living out the kind of developments that are normally the subject of their fiction.

In Action is a DIY microbudget buddy comedy that reflexively tracks its own making. It restricts itself to two locations which multitask as all the locations (stick around for the closing credits to see how), and to two leads who are only occasionally joined on screen by other characters, typically with their backs to camera. Big action sequences are either shot so close to the leads’ faces that the action spectacle itself is kept offscreen, or are presented in animated inserts or even with action-figure toys. Meanwhile Sean and Eric constantly talk their way through both their script and their immediate plight in such a way that the one becomes hard to distinguish from the other. Even their to-camera reminiscences about the whole affair come across as an elaborate pitch for In Action itself (while Eric comes up with the whole idea for reviving his film-writing partnership with Sean during an actual advertising pitch about diapers). Indeed, nappies, toilets and pooh receive an unusual amount of focus here, openly allying what we are watching to the shit cinema through whose tropes these hack writers keep wading for their endless inspiration. Yet the prism of satire (and self-satire) ensures that the dumber this pair’s adventures seem, the smarter the film’s ironised critique is. 

“It was just a screenplay,” protests Sean – but in this Pirandello-esque postmodern poioumenon, as these bickering, bantering buddies relate every ‘real-life’ situation they face to other movies, while themselves becoming improbable action heroes in a plot of their own invention, the script is virtually writing itself in the action. For these two characters are finishing their screenplay precisely by playing it out, even as others want to get their hands on the completed script to prevent (or indeed to enact) a true terrorist strike. So here art imitates life imitating art, in a self-replicating circle of stereotypes and silliness – and, swapping pens for swords (at least in their overactive imaginations), the gun-toting stars prove only as ludicrous as the beloved genre that all their escapist efforts affectionately lampoon, while their own creative process is writ large (albeit on a small and stylised stage).

In Action is Kenealy and Silvera’s feature debut – and while it is conventional to refer to such works, especially when they are labours of love made for little to no money, as ‘calling cards’, perhaps the more appropriate term here might be ‘spec script’. Like the lead characters with whom they share their names, they never allow any obstructions to keep their imaginative ambitions long contained – and now that they have set out their stall, it will be interesting to see what these clever, funny filmmakers can do with a bigger budget to realise their ideas.

strap: In Sean Kenealy and Eric Silvera’s nano-budget metacinematic buddy comedy, two bumbling screenwriters become caught in their own action scenario.

© Anton Bitel