I truly love action movies. There’s nothing that I like more than watching big, macho, muscular, sweaty men kicking each other’s ass, shooting guns and making stuff blow up, while the whole thing is shot like a pumped up MTV video edited to a faux-Wagnerian score. I am, of course, being a tad sarcastic, and that’s a must for an action fan. You gotta love thrills, but you also need a good sense of humor, an ability to swallow the dumbest twists and attitudes with a smile. You gotta believe that one guy can defeat an army, that a bad guy would rather fight his nemesis honorably in hand-to-hand combat than shoot his brains out and that motorized vehicles can defy any law of physics when used properly. You can’t go, “Hey! No way that can happen!” You gotta be, like, “Fuck it, that’s fun to watch!” The next few pages will try to cover most of the various forms of action movies that spun from Hollywood in the last 15 years or so.
First of all, we have to settle on a definition of an action movie. To me, it’s a film that relies on violent confrontations and death-defying ventures more than anything. This essay won’t consider early movies that kinda were action films, but not really. Think of westerns, blaxploitation, cop/gangster movies and war films. In these kinds of films, fights might break out, bullets might be shot, but that wasn’t what these types of movies were really about.
I won’t either extend to some of the brilliant action work that was done outside of Tinseltown, notably Asia’s long tradition in martial arts movies. Other genres, like science-fiction, that sometimes share elements with action will also be pushed aside, even though movies like “Star Wars” or “The Terminator” were action-packed. What I’m trying to do is to get down to the classic definition of a Hollywood action film: the opposition between Good and Evil, violence and fast-paced, flashy filmmaking. Next are what may be the 5 most influential action flicks ever made in Hollywood.
FIRST BLOOD : Political Action (1982)
“After Vietnam there was a need for escapism. Rambo led to the birth of the real uber action film. I was part of that group with Arnold (Schwarzenegger] and Bruce (Willis] and there was a definite theme. It was about one-man armies.” – Sylvester Stallone
The first real action film was definitively “First Blood”. Somehow like “Taxi Driver”, the film follows a Vietnam veteran as he returns to America and realizes that home ain’t all that sweet after all. But while Travis Bickle did take out a few guys, it’s nothing compared to John Rambo’s elaborate decimation of a whole town. The film takes itself seriously, but even its creators must have known that the overwhelming violence was the film’s driving force much more than the political message. What we want is to see Sylvester Stallone beating people every which way but loose, right? A one-man army, more pyrotechnics than dialogue… The modern action movie is born all right. Other movies of this kind of serious “political” action films are the two Rambo sequels and the Chuck Norris vehicles “Missing in Action” and “Delta Force”.
COMMANDO : Action Takes It Easy (1985)
If Stallone was the figure that started the genre, it’s Schwarzenegger who made it so popular. Instead of being frustrated and stiff like Rambo, Ah-nuld seemed to be having fun while he was killing people. More often than not, plots were just excuses for a series of exciting fights and stunts. No message here! Instead, you get one-liners and over-the-top action sequences. The first film to tap into that is also my favorite movie: Mark L. Lester‘s brilliant “Commando”. Arnie made countless other movies with almost as much humor as violence : “Predator”, “Raw Deal”, “Red Heat”, “Last Action Hero”, “True Lies”, “Eraser”… Then there’s the “Lethal Weapon” and “Beverly Hills Cop” series, which are almost comedies but still pack tons of action. Then there are those Schwarzenegger wannabes, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who can kick some ass but aren’t all that comfortable with one-liners. Still, they made some fun films.
DIE HARD : Action in a Nutshell (1988)
Whereas Rambo and Matrix wandered around vast places (whole cities, islands…) in order to kill people, John McClane is caught in a skyscraper. And so a new kind of action film is born. Instead of having your hero trying to get to the bad guys, you can now just stick all of them together in the same place and have them play cat-and-mouse. The place ain’t important: it can be an airport (“Die Hard 2”), a plane (“Passenger 57” / “Air Force One”), a ship (“Under Siege”), a train (“Under Siege 2”), a hockey arena (“Sudden Impact”)… These movies are usually about a bunch of foreign terrorists that take over a place in which, luckily, a hyper-trained hero happens to be. An interesting twist is “Road House”, where you got the thing with the hero beating up bad guys in the one location (a bar), except that they’re not terrorists, just a bunch of drunken assholes!
John McTiernan “Die Hard” remains the coolest flick of that kind that was ever made. It stars Bruce Willis, in his first action role, as John McClane, a New York cop who comes to L.A. to spend Christmas with his wife and kids. The couple meets at an office party in a huge business building, and that’s when a gang of European terrorists take over the place. McClane is the only one who can stop Hans and his boys. As you can see, that’s a simple plot, but it’s efficient. It leads to a series of outstanding fights and shoot-outs, as well as many funny scenes. Willis burns the screen with his overwhelming charisma. He’s witty, he’s macho, and he sure kicks ass! This is what I call a classic. I’ve seen this action-packed masterpiece countless times, and I never get tired of it. It’s filled with inventively violent set-ups, and the action never stops. Definitely a must-see. The sequels are also pretty good, especially the third film, an inventive cat-and-mouse game across New York.
SPEED : Action Without Balls (1994)
This is the action film at its weakest, at its most mainstream. In Jan De Bont‘s film, there are almost no fights or violence. He just kept the MTV-style direction, the stunts and the explosions. Yes, there’s still a bad guy, but Dennis Hopper isn’t even face-to-face with the hero more than 10 minutes, and there aren’t even other bad guys. There might be 2 or three deaths in the whole flick! All you get is some dude and a chick on a bus that crashes through stuff. I admit that the film is enjoyable in parts, but I’m still happy that the genre survived this “roller-coaster” phase, which didn’t last all that long. We still had to suffer through Stallone’s “Daylight” and some other wussy action flicks where heroes face natural disasters instead of bloodthirsty terrorists (Sly vs a tunnel!?!).
FACE / OFF : Action As Opera (1997)
If it hadn’t been for this movie, I would probably have decided not to stop myself at Hollywood movies for this retrospective, because I couldn’t have mentioned the absolute best action director in the whole world, Hong Kong’s John Woo. His films reach new levels in action, with shoot-outs orchestrated like apocalyptic ballets and violence poetically used to portray the most passionate feelings of one. Honor becomes the driving force of combat, as charitable gangsters face dirty cops. It’s the fight between good and evil, but the distinction ain’t all that evident. In movies like “The Killer”, even love and true friendship are present. Woo started out in Hollywood with “Hard Target”, which is cool, but his style is overwhelmed by Van Damme’s usual tricks. The director went on to make “Broken Arrow”, another explosive yet impersonal outing. It’s with “Face/Off” that Woo finally shows mainstream America what he is all about. This amazing picture presents the opposition between a determined FBI agent, Sean Archer, and a funky terrorist, Castor Troy, who get their faces switched, forcing them to use the other guy’s allies to fight each other. Besides featuring brilliant direction, spellbinding action scenes and a clever script, the film gets great performances from Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. For all these reasons, “Face/Off” was actually the 6th best reviewed movie of ’97 (after “The Sweet Hereafter”, “Titanic”, “Boogie Nights”, “L.A. Confidential” and “In the Company of Men”). Action never felt so good!
So that’s about it as far as action movies go. Of course, I only went to the essentials, and as I said at the beginning, many other types of action films could have been explored, but I think I went to the heart of it when it comes to action in Hollywood from 1982 to 1997. Would I dare make predictions for the future? As far as I’m concerned, I think that Hong Kong holds the fate of the action film. Action directors like Ringo Lam (“Maximum Risk”), Kirk Wong (“The Big Hit”) and Tsui Hark (“Double Team”) have all joined John Woo in America, as did action stars like Jackie Chan (“Rush Hour”), Jet Li (“Lethal Weapon 4”) and, most of all, Chow Yun-Fat (“The Replacement Killers”). Because, admit it, soon-to-be sixty Schwarzenegger and Stallone and forty-something Bruce Willis might not be on top for long, and Seagal and Van Damme never stood a chance to be more than second bit players. As for Nic Cage, he might be too busy playing beautiful freaks to rule the action world as he did last year with “Con Air” and, of course, “Face/Off”. Is Hollywood getting the message? Very likely, since “Mission: Impossible” star and producer Tom Cruise apparently wants John Woo to direct the next instalment! Whatever happens, I’m sure that we will still be able to see heroes who can shoot whole armies dead for a long, long time.
A recent thread at the (sadly defunct) Cinemarati Roundtable about whether “First Blood” created the modern action movie reminded me of this article, which I wrote in 1998. Reading it again for the first time in years was a gas. I still think I hit most of the bases, and I’m pretty proud of how accurate my prediction turned out to be.
John Woo did direct “M:I-2” and the Hong Kong invasion has yet to stop, with Asian-influenced flicks like “The Matrix” and “Kill Bill” reinventing the way we think of action movies. One thing I didn’t see coming was the return of super-heroes, which seemed over and done with after 1997’s “Batman and Robin”. Yet some of the best action scenes of this decade involved the X-Men and Spider-Man. Also worth mentioning is the wave of epics (“Gladiator”, “The Lord of the Rings”, etc.), Michael Bay’s misunderstood oeuvre (culminating in the ridiculously frenetic “Bad Boys II”) and the most action-packed TV series ever, “24”.
As for who replaced Schwarzenegger (who’s now Governor of California!), it’s still not clear, as the Hong Kong stars have made almost nothing but crap in Hollywood. Vin Diesel hasn’t fulfilled the promise he showed in his first few flicks, so I’ll push my chips toward The Rock, who can whoop butt like the best of them and has revealed unexpected comic timing. He’s made his “Conan”-style heroic fantasy (“The Scorpion King”), his “Raw Deal”-style revenge yarn (“Walking Tall”), his “Red Heat”-style buddy comedy (“The Rundown”)… He’s due for a “Terminator” or a (gulp) “Commando”, don’t you think?
I’M THE NEXT SCHWARZENEGGER!
Okay, you know why I’m doing an update now, right? The best old school action flick since the golden age of the 1980s has been released this weekend. I’m talking of course of “Rambo”, which brings us back to the movie that started it all, “First Blood”. We also got another “Die Hard” sequel recently, but “Live Free or Die Hard” wasn’t so hot. Alas, the third figure of action cinema, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is still busy being Governor so we didn’t get a sequel to the other key Hollywood action movie, “Commando”. But while not technically related to it, the John Cena vehicle “The Marine” was certainly influenced by it and satisfyingly filled the void left in its place.
In other news, since the last update 3 years ago, there were some brilliant action sequences in unexpected places, namely pictures which had other things on their minds, like David Cronenberg‘s “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”, but which packed riveting bursts of violence and mayhem nonetheless. “Pathfinder” and “Beowulf” owe more to heroic fantasy à la “Conan the Barbarian” than to straight action as defined above (way back in the intro), but they kick too much ass for me not to mention them. Likewise with “Sin City” and “Apocalypto”, respectively film noir and historical/adventure influenced, but action-packed nonetheless. And “Hot Fuzz” might be a comedy first, but damn it if it doesn’t get your blood pumping!
And then there was Bourne. Over the course of three movies, this franchise single-handedly changed the rules of the game, as decisively as “First Blood”, “Commando” and “Die Hard” did back in the day. Telling proof: the James Bond series totally went Bourne in “Casino Royale”, making things less over the top and having the hero be more tortured and vulnerable. I’m not sure Matt Damon wants to be typecast as an action star, but right now, he’s king of the hill.
LIVE FREE AND UPDATE
Another two years or so have passed since I last took the pulse of the Modern Hollywood Action Film. Again, comic book adaptations have given us some of the most kick-ass movie scenes to enjoy: I’m thinking of “The Dark Knight”, “Watchmen”, “Hellboy 2”, “The Incredible Hulk”, “Iron Man” and most of all, Timur Bekmambetov’s utterly badass “Wanted”.
There were also some thrilling action sequences in various war films (“The Hurt Locker”, “Che”, “Defiance”, “Inglourious Basterds”), David Mamet offered an intriguing twist on the genre in “Redbelt” and Liam Neeson, of all people, rocked hard in “Taken”. But I think that as with “Hot Fuzz” a few years back, it’s often the comedies that were the most explosive! Take “Tropic Thunder” for instance, or “JCVD” (that opening showcases Jean-Claude Van Damme at his best!), or especially “Pineapple Express”, which intentionally riffs on 1980s action flicks.
Ultimately, though, nothing offered more excitement than a pair of recent sci-fi epics, Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” and of course, James Cameron’s “Avatar”. Now, we’re far from the archetypical greatness of the classic Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis vehicles… But hopefully, next year’s “The Expendables” will scratch that itch!