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Action movies are inherently over-the-top. And they should be -- the shoot-outs and explosions are what keep audiences coming back for more. But not all action movies are ridiculous: usually a small shred of believability underpins the basics of the story, then once the action is set in motion some rules get, like a lot of bad guys, thrown out the window. But some movies want nothing to do with reality. That rarefied air is what makes a movie go from over-the-top to what I call "double over top." The margin for error is slim. A movie that is over-the-top is sensational. One that is double over top is silly. For instance, check out these three pairs of similar movies, and see how the better movie walks a fine line and the inferior flick goes way, way too far, starting with a pair movies comparatively less over-the-top and heading toward the most ridiculous.
Batman Begins vs. Batman & Robin
Christopher Nolan's gritty, franchise-saving reboot is wildly entertaining and gives depth to Bruce Wayne's origins. With that depth, the outlandish things Batman can do -- jumping from trains, surviving wild car chases -- don't seem so outlandish. Nolan's the white knight to Joel Schumacher, who nearly killed the franchise with its fourth installment -- Batman & Robin -- a film so over-the-top that George Clooney apologized for it. With ice-skating henchmen, Robin air surfing on a door, and all manner of seemingly impossible stunts and plotlines that overwhelm the low reality threshold of the average comic-book movie, Batman & Robin goes double over top and then some.
Casino Royale vs. Die Another Day
Casino Royale is essentially the Batman Begins of the Bond series, rescuing 007 from a tendency to go way beyond believability, as evidenced in Die Another Day. Casino Royale brings grit and believability back to the franchise in the form of Daniel Craig and his badass Bond, a total about-face from Die Another Day, which bears all of the hallmarks of franchise fatigue: a confusing plot, a sexy yet unnecessary sidekick (Halle Berry), and jaw-droppingly stupid action scenes. A car chase in an ice hotel? Yes. James Bond para surfing? It happens. And that's only a portion of the movie's ridiculousness.
Die Hard vs. Live Free or Die Hard
Bruce Willis's first go-round as John McClane is the grandaddy of all action movies, the perfect balance of action and drama, the realistic and the outlandish, that keeps audiences from wondering how McClane can survive fistfights, gunshots, walking over broken glass, and leaps from an exploding building. Die Hard is over-the-top moviemaking at its very best. But in the last sequel -- Live Free or Die Hard -- the stunts and leaps of logic got too big. McClane fighting off a couple dozen terrorists is sensational, but McClane leaping from an 18-wheeler onto an F-35 jet to dispose of a bad guy is action gone too far.
Nick Stevens, co-host of AMC's Action Pack (Wednesdays, at 8PM | 7C), tries to make funny about movies, pop culture, and sports as often as possible. He lists John McClane, Batman, and Tom Brady as the people with whom he'd most like to have beers. For more of his grown-up nonsense, visit his Tumblr page or follow him on Twitter.