This year, the best Christmas gift I received was watching Armageddon on Encore Action!.
It's a movie that takes a lot of flack. The Comcast cable TV listings give it only 1.5 stars; IMDB gives it a 6.0 out of 10. It's directed by the universally mocked Michael Bay, strongly features the universally mocked Ben Affleck and offers up an admittedly hackneyed save-the-world plot.
It's also one of the best movies I've ever seen.
It's right up there with The Godfather I and II, L.A. Confidential, Raging Bull, The Royal Tenenbaums and any other movie that I'd consider a modern masterpiece. It may not be about an important social dilemma, a tumultuous time in history or a cultural icon who defied the odds to represent his generation, but it's my opinion that, not only is it as entertaining as any of these films, it's equally as well-made.
I am a firm believer that strong dramas, especially independent films, get far too much acclaim from both critics and award giver-outers. Heart-wrenching, "important" films about female serial killers, a pair of gay cowboys, social upheaval in suburbia - for better or worse, these are the movies that get Academy Awards, five stars in the paper and industry cred for the standout performance. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, or an all-together incorrect thing - Sean Penn in Milk delivers a better performance than Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, despite the fact that both 100% nail their respective roles.
But it's not always accurate. You can't lump all comedies, action films and thrillers into an "Other" category when describing a well-made movie. Armageddon came out in 1998 and was not nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but you will never convince me that Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth and Life is Beautiful were better movies (Saving Private Ryan was, but that's not my point).
At the very least, Armageddon is just about the best disaster movie ever made. Not only are the special effects on and involving the asteroid terrific, but the casting could not be more top-notch. Wonderful character actors like Michael Clarke Duncan, William Fichtner, Peter Stormare, Keith David and Steve Buscemi give every scene the appropriate level of either humor, intensity and/or plausibility. Bruce Willis dominates yet another action film as the steely eyed hero, and Ben Affleck turns in probably the best performance of his career as the ne'er-do-well who desires the love of both Willis and his daughter.
It's a two hour and 30 minute popcorn movie, and it rarely gets tiresome (assuming you go to the bathroom every time a Liv Tyler/Affleck love scene starts). The first half sets up the characters perfectly while never going over the top with the fish-out-of-water, drillers-as-astronauts scenario, and the second half throws you right into the action while convincing the viewer that every character in the movie could die before it's over. As a veteran of these types of films, you take for granted that the big names will make it back. Willis' sacrifice at the end is a pretty big curveball for a make-everyone-happy studio film, and it only adds to the sense of courage and conviction the characters come to stand for.
And it makes me cry. There is no movie on Earth that can make me cry as easily as Armageddon. Willis courageously taking on Affleck's responsibility to save the day, Bruce's speech to his daughter, William Fichtner's request to "shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I've ever met" - tears stream down my face every time. I've seen my fair share of romances, love stories, and tearjerkers in my 12 or so years as a serious fan of film, and I can say that no movie does it as well as Armageddon. You cry because you wish you had the understated bravery of Bruce Willis; you cry because you know it kills him to break such a promise to his daughter; you cry because he backs up his words and proves his mettle, and his valor, to every other character on that ship.
So much of Armageddon's strength stems from Bruce Willis and what he brings to the table. He plays the movie straight as an arrow; he's just there to do his job, no matter what the cost. He's playing Bruce Willis, and this gives him a credibility with the audience that few other actors have. We have no doubt that he's going to save the day, but the matter in which he does us gives us another reason to affirm his status as a true hero.
Everyone plays off him; Affleck doesn't have to do much besides look doe-eyed and try to impress Bruce; this is something he's adept at. The one-liners fired off by the comic relief every time Willis takes a stand or says something serious only add to the beacon of stability he represents. Plus, appearances by a young, post-Anaconda Owen Wilson, the guy who played Vegetable Lasagna on an episode of "Seinfeld," the pool hustler Joe Pesci outsmarts in My Cousin Vinny and Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter make great trivia to impress your friends with.
There's a right way to make movies and a wrong way. Some people like to elevate the medium to an untouchable art form and hiss upon anything that diminishes what they consider to be its elite status, but there's nothing wrong with being entertained in the proper way. With that in mind, Armageddon has everything you could ever want in a movie. There is action, there is comedy, there is good acting, there are special effects, and there is emotion.
If you aren't seeing it, if you think it's fun and clever to point out the foibles in a thoroughly enjoyable film, perhaps the problem lies with you, and not Bruce Willis, Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the rest of the fine cast and crew who made this underrated, overwhelming story of human struggle, sacrifice and perseverance.