The american action movie recently received two requiems, with Adam Sternbergh’s “How the American Action Movie Went Kablooey” and Richard Brody’s “Action and Reaction”, an epitaph as well as a response to Sternbergh’s piece. I am unfamiliar with Sternbergh’s other work, though I always enjoy Brody’s; both analyses are solid, but both also lack, I think, key, obvious details.
Each writer analyzes the movie genre as its own numerical series, a pattern to be discerned in the list alone. The american action movie, according to Sternbergh, containing the defining elements of a fetishization of guns, large explosions, and a warrior of specialized and brilliant mortal skills, begins with First Blood, reaches its peak in Rambo, Die Hard, and Robocop, and declines in Last Action Hero and Eraser. Brody looks at the genre as a reaction to the nebbish heroes of the seventies, the divorced father of Dustin Hoffman, the neurotic lovers of Woody Allen.
I would argue instead that any analysis of why a certain type of movie is made and why it stops being made has to do with its constituent elements being responsible for a great deal of money being made, and those elements then ceasing to be financially successful. The financial success can be divided between that of the domestic U.S. market and its international market, with the heyday of the success of the genre, according to Mr. Sternbergh’s analysis, can be taken to be a decade long from the early eighties to the early nineties.
The issue of the international market is perhaps easier and less subtle than that of the domestic. A genre with a focus that lies entirely with action, no emphasis on dialogue had obvious appeal for the ballooning international film market of the 1980s, with a product that could easily exported everywhere, with little issues over nuances of what is the proper word and proper tradition of each place. The genesis of these american action movies may have been non-american, the films of Bruce Lee, phenomenally successful throughout the world, all with the focus on action over all other elements. What others would later do with nitro and a MAC-10, Bruce Lee did with his bare hands.
Mr. Sternbergh’s positions the quietus of these films in the early nineties, which would overlap neatly with the end of the Soviet Union and the cold war. Before the heroes of these films could be looked on as unhappy reluctant recruits in wars they were forced into. Significantly, the archetypal characters of the field, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special forces leader in Predator, Officer Alex Murphy of Robocop are all betrayed by their own leaders and governments, ultimately fighting solely for themselves. Any man anywhere could project themselves onto these characters, and frequently did. Brian Keenan in his excellent memoir of his time as a hostage in Lebanon during the eighties, An Evil Cradling, describes vividly the enthusiasm of his hostage takers for the Rambo movies, whatever their own anti-American views. I think the end of the cold war ended these possibilities, with afterwards these characters being first and foremost americans. What these international markets now wanted were heroes that they could imagine as their own, either those from their own nation, or figures fantastic and non-national enough that might be anyone’s proxy.
What is significant for the domestic market is a time period when memories of an actual war among the coveted demographic of young people would be entirely absent or known only at a distance. A vicarious imagining would be possible without any rude counter-image among one’s own memories or that of friends. In 1991, there was the first Gulf War, followed by limited action in Haiti, Somalia, and a larger one in Yugoslavia. After all these small hot wars were the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which may finally have entirely destroyed the domestic audience for this kind of movie. That Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson never ascended to their rightful laurels, is not due to a lack of charisma of either, but the disappearance of the inherited kingdom. A war creates clear and indelible images of what violence is and what it is not. Any manufactured images that attempt to approximate this violence, and attempt to pass for something real, look entirely ridiculous. A war also involves a warrior class, whose boundaries are solid and uncrossable. You either have been part of that world or you have not. There is no possibility of the fantasy of “I might or could do that given certain circumstances”; there are those in your city and town who have done those things and you have not. This is one part of an explanation for the movement of the action to something entirely fantastic. The heroes of the action movies of the action genre renaissance are different from us only in degree, human but much faster or stronger. The characters of comic books are different from us in kind, genetically endowed with powers that are not our own. Those in the audience for these fantastic movies, veterans and non-veterans alike, are equally distant from these figures, the actions of the figures not that in the realm of the heroic possible, but the superheroic impossible.
A second part of the explanation deals with the violence of these bygone action films, which is not celebration of violence in the service of a good deed, but violence in and of itself. It is not violence of the act of the hero of tales of romance and legend. It is the skill and sadism of the violence which is to be applauded and cheered, distant from any moral framework, christian, religious, or humanistic. This, I think, is made clear in many of the genre’s archetypal films. Schwarzenegger’s Conan takes place in a pre-christian, pagan era, with the film’s code solely that of the warrior’s code. Total Recall follows a hero who discovers, first, that he is a lethally efficient killer, and, second, that he is an evil government agent, his own good acts part of his own ruse to infiltrate a revolutionary group. In The Terminator, the title character is a near unstoppable assassin, with his utter lack of compassion or mercy in the midst of his deadly killing spree only making his character more archetypal. The re-creation of this same role in later movies as a figure of good is ultimately a stepdown and a dilution of what made the character so popular.
This nihilistic celebration of the violent act is one that all can participate in during a time of peace, all vicariously imagining themselves as the assassin. In a time of war, however, there is a divide in the audience, those who have come close to killing and death firsthand, and those who have not. For those outside of the martial experience, they may see these warriors on-screen no longer as possible selves, but variations of others among them, people very skilled in killing, entirely unmoored from any moral framework, as deeply frightening, no longer themselves a degree removed, but members of a closed social group to which they do not belong. As well, if society were to follow the ordering of an eighties action movie, with the sole determinant of status being one’s lethal skills, then these ex-soldiers, many of whom have lives that are impoverished and socially marginal, would be at the top of the social hierarchy. It should be obvious why, in a country at war, an audience of non-soldiers would be deeply uncomfortable with such films. There may also be seen the obvious need by the audience at such a time for its heroes to always belong to a strict, and restrictive moral code that follows humanist lines, of honor, virtue, and mercy. The consequence is the prevalence of Spiderman, Batman, Captain America, and the absence of nihilist mercenaries.
I end with this note: Mr. Brody points to Haywire as a possible part of the tradition of action movies. I will make the mistake of making a possible observation about a movie I have not seen. I have occasionally enjoyed Steven Soderbergh’s work, but his movies always, it seems to me, lack an inclination to madness, and, more importantly here, nihilism. It is not just that the structure in these action movies be of secondary importance or an afterthought for all this violence, but for it to be entirely inessential. The movie requires the nihilistic acknowledgement that violence is alluring in and of itself, for the pleasure of inflicting pain, of humiliation, of dominance, and there are rightful moral qualms to all of this, but some never seem to hear them, and all of us, at some point, can imagine being deaf to them. In this respect, the action movie genre at its apotheosis was a more honest, unclouded view of the violent id than many more thoughtful films.
(This post has been edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and style since its initial posting. The essential Bruce Lee was also somehow left out.)