“[Action filmmakers] are the most cinematic directors. They’re taking cinema and making you hard – and making you come, actually!” – Quentin Tarantino
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.