The 1980s are roundly acknowledged as the golden era of action films. While the ‘90s have plenty of admirable entries from the usual stalwarts (Sylvester Stallone’s Demolition Man and Cliffhanger; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, True Lies, and Last Action Hero; and Bruce Willis’ Die Hard sequels) it was the ‘80s that solidified the genre as a Hollywood mainstay, while simultaneously solidifying the abovementioned actors as major movie stars.
Presently, actions films have been relegated to the rungs beneath other subgenres. The superhero film has subsumed action under its spandex umbrella, so much so that a standalone action film with no affiliation to an already-established universe is all but guaranteed to do poorly at the box office. Stallone’s Bullet to the Head (2013) vanished without a trace despite being a solid film. Incidentally, the movie also marked Christian Slater’s return to Hollywood after an eight year absence from studio films due to substance abuse issues. I mention Slater here because he too enjoyed a brief reign as an action hero in the late ‘90s in films like Broken Arrow (1995) and Hard Rain (1998).
Action films nowadays are either resurrections of established franchises such as Rocky, Rambo, or Terminator, or they have some kind of metatextual wink going on. The Expendables franchise, taken on its own, isn’t particularly notable, and its films are interesting only because they are a deliberate throwback to the high-flying 80s. The much-hyped scene in the first Expendables film featuring Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis was special only because the audience knew these action genre juggernauts had never shared a scene before…not because the scene itself was good.
There are more examples of this either/or dynamic. Willis brought back Die Hard for two increasingly banal sequels (even the great John McClane is not immune to the law of diminishing returns), Schwarzenegger starred in last year’s Terminator: Genisys, while John Claude Van Damme took the meta route, delivering his finest acting performance to date in 2009’s JCVD, in which he played himself as a has-been action hero. Even last year’s best action film by far, Mad Max: Fury Road, traded on its reputation as a serviceable franchise, and although nobody expected the movie to be as jaw-droppingly excellent as it is, not just the best action film of the year but the best film of the year period, it still had a pre-existing audience. Kingsman is a goddamn great action film yet it still couldn’t resist the meta wink, frequently drawing attention to its satirical homage to spy films as if it didn’t trust its audience to get the joke.
Maybe the public no longer wants straight-up action films. Escape Plan was Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s first time sharing top billing, but the movie itself was unexceptional and yielded disappointing sales. The Last Stand, the Governator’s first film back after leaving office, didn’t do well either and it’s unlikely that the movie will be remembered in five years, let alone twenty-five.
The current climate can only support action films that either wink at the audience or ride on the back of either an already-successful action franchise or some cloaked superhero. And the nostalgia peddling of the Expendables may have actually worked against it. I can’t be the only person who decided that, if the Expendables films are little more than extended homages to ‘80s action films, why not just watch an ‘80s action film instead?
Why not indeed. Many of that decade’s hit movies hold up today – hell, they demand repeated viewings, and the various tropes and plot points typical of ‘80s action films still have echoes today.
So what climate produced such masterpieces as Predator, Terminator, Commando, Die Hard, and RoboCop? Movies often featuring lone gunmen trying to right some wrong, loners with big muscles and even bigger egos against bleak urban backdrops? A contradictory climate. America in the 1980s, to be precise. Reagan’s 1980s were a conscious throwback to the America of the 1950s, emphasizing the nuclear family and its attendant values, conspicuous consumption among the upper-middle class, and a censorious stance toward individuality.
Lead characters in action films sought this particular version of the American dream, despite the fact that the idyllic image of the white picket fence was decidedly at odds with the realities of American life in the 1980s as the war on drugs, urban decay, and a vanishing manufacturing base chipped away at the middle class. And though the genre is frequently chided for its unrealistic and outlandish storylines, the yawning canyon between the reality of America and its promise is strongly emphasized in many of that decade’s action films. (Escape From New York?)The hypocrisy of the Reagan years manifested itself in ways both blatant and subtle, but it was usually the former, since action is not a subtle genre.
Examples of this contradiction aren’t difficult to find. The protagonist of They Live! is a homeless construction worker desperately trying to eke out a living. The only reason he stumbles across the film’s central conspiracy is because he’s squatting in a commune with other disenfranchised Americans.
First Blood features Stallone as a bitter and disenfranchised John Rambo, a man who once fought for his country in the jungles of Vietnam and returned to a changed America, one that no longer had room for him. Rambo’s anger is political, not personal, and springs from his feelings of betrayal, that America broke its own promise.
The brand new semi-truck Lincoln Hawk competes for in Over the Top (1987) isn’t a metaphor for upward economic mobility, it is upward mobility itself. Upon winning the truck, he starts a new company (Hawk & Son), and drives off into the sunset of his own American dream, having collected a $100 000 reward. Crucially, Hawk declines five times that amount earlier in the film when the requirement is that he never speaks to his son again. Stallone’s bulging biceps aren’t the only thing that wins the day, family values also emerge triumphant. There are no terrorists bent on destroying America in Over the Top. What’s at stake is familial survival.
Similarly, the most poignant scene in RoboCop is when Murphy experiences a series of domestic flashbacks. The jarring emotional shock of realizing he was once human becomes his driving motivation for his actions throughout the rest of the film as he hunts down the gang that murdered him and took him away from his family.
Platoon, technically a war film, though it could still be accurately described as action, brilliantly dismantles the typical stance of American war movies in which the Yankees are always the good guys. “We fought ourselves…” concludes narrator Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) as the movie draws to its somber finish, “…and the enemy was in us.” The film is an examination of American hypocrisy, and though it takes place in the 1960s, its vision is decidedly borne of Reagan’s America.
But maybe I’m getting too highfalutin about action movies. I guess I feel I have to mention these subtexts to confer legitimacy to what is still a maligned genre, known for wooden dialogue and dry acting performances…but by doing this, maybe I risk missing the point. The action genre exists first and foremost as entertainment, and while I admire the manner in which so many of that decade’s directors lent their film’s an extra-dimension without resorting to sledgehammer morality (sledgehammers typically/hopefully being employed to dismember evil doers), it should be clear that action films are about escapism and enjoyment. The distressed and decaying Detroit of RoboCop is certainly a condemnation of a then-extant urban policy, but it also looks really badass and cool. John Rambo’s bitterness may have been an important utterance of post-Vietnam disillusionment, but it’s also really fun to watch him kill people in increasingly innovative ways. Terminator might warn of technology run amok – another topic which began to accrue special resonance in the ‘80s with the advent of the personal computer – but it’s still fucking awesome to watch Arnie fly backward through a plate glass window after absorbing umpteen shotgun shells and then stand back up.
So yeah, action films are undoubtedly fun, and many/most of the defining characteristics of the genre were cemented in the 1980s: Glib one-liners, high body counts, big breasts, fast cars, and a helicopter or twenty in the last act. Action films are profoundly immersive: it’s easy to forget yourself once you’ve been swept up by the narrative momentum. Action films are rites of passage: most people remember how old they were when they saw a given film in the genre. Action movies easily rival drama films in their ability to generate memorable quotes (insert favourite ‘80s one-liner here). Action films breed a fierce loyalty: a surefire way to start an argument is to claim allegiance to a certain ‘80s action film while making damning statements about another ‘80s film you ostensibly like. Don’t believe me? Listen to our podcast.
Earlier in this article I lamented the fact that contemporary action films don’t seem to have the grand cinematic sweep of those made in the 1980s. I mentioned a few disturbing trends and a few box office bombs. But I forgot something crucial: The reason that ‘80s action films are so widely remembered, so widely watched even today, is because they set the bar almost impossibly high. It’s little wonder today’s action movies seem trite or dull or rushed. Google “’80s action films” and you’ll see a murderer’s row of classic films. RoboCop, Terminator, Predator, Die Hard, and Commando are all unimpeachable. And there are many others just as good. So let’s forget about what ails the contemporary action movie and indulge in nostalgia for a while. Come back and remember greatness with us. This Week is ‘80s Action Week at Movies Ruined My Life.