Recently 1980′s icon and sometime action hero Patrick Swayze succumbed to cancer and his death was widely covered by the media. Most people remember the films Ghost and Dirty Dancing fondly but I found myself thinking more of Red Dawn, Roadhouse and Point Break.
That night I watched Point Break for the first time in years and I found myself thinking ‘What happened to the modern action movie’?
Point Break is the tale of undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) who works in bank robbery, he infiltrates the Los Angeles surfing community to track down the ex-presidents, a gang of bank robbers who each wear the mask of a former president of the USA. Utah meets Bodhi (Swayze) a surfing guru with a bunch of adrenaline junkie followers.
After Bodhi saves Utah from a savage beating,the two of them form a bond and its not long before Utah discovers the truth and has to pursue Bodhi right to the edge in a game of ever escalating risks. Like all late 80′s early 90′s action movies Point Break is a little bit homo erotic, but its not the greased up muscular torso’s I miss from this period. The film is violent, exciting, has nudity and has almost non stop bad language. People get shot in the head, one character has his foot blown apart and Tom Sizemore gets to say ‘motherfucker’ in only the way he can.
Do you remember when action films used to be like this? What do we have now? Bloodless Die Hard sequels with no F-words and most of the action stars of yesteryear have their work go straight to channel 5. Where did it all go wrong?
Before the 1980′s the action film was mostly westerns and John Wayne films but then in the 1970′s things started to change and we had the likes of Dirty Harry,The French Connection and the first Mad Max. We had stars like Roy Scheider,Gene Hackman and of course Clint Eastwood. Often unassuming physical presences who could play tough and gritty with the best of them. The action film was one filled with grit and brutality and the occasional cool car chase.
Then Sylvester Stallone had a hit with Rocky and this was the beginning of a change. The 1980′s were all about excess and people no longer wanted small character driven thrillers, they wanted more and they wanted it BIG. Truth be told when First Blood rolled around Stallone wasn’t actually a steroid pumped action man and the film still retains some of the grit seen in the 70′s action flicks. First Blood is a lean mean thrill machine which still stands up very well today. Its a very tense and entertaining 80 odd minutes with something to say about the treatment of Vietnam vets and it gave birth to a franchise which is best described as ‘uneven’.
Around the same time an Austrian bodybuilder who came to America seeking his fortune, had a hit with John Milius’s adaptation of Robert E.Howard’s Conan the barbarian stories. The first Conan film is very cool. wisely Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dialogue is kept to a minimum so that Milius can concentrate on the bloodletting and the weird reptile people. Again its entertaining, epic and still has a rawness to it that the similar Scorpion King starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson can only dream of.
So Stallone and Schwarzenegger set the scene for the muscle bound mumbling action hero and following their initial hits we had The Terminator and Rambo – First Blood part two. These two propelled their heroes into the stratosphere. Rambo 2 in particular gave birth to a whole subculture of half naked muscular men in sweatbands packing heavy weaponry.
Check out the cover art for any computer game during the mid 80′s and you will see what I mean. Its influence was so widely felt that even kids toys weren’t safe and eventually a cartoon series was made. All this despite Rambo being a brutal, violent piece of work where many communists were killed in the most savage manner possible all in the name of freedom.
Not to be undone, Schwarzenegger made Commando, his own one man army movie where John Matrix, an ex-something or other has his daughter kidnapped and must kill hundreds of bad guys to get her back. Commando in particular is something of an object of ridicule in online forums now but at one point kids were flocking to this stuff for the violence as much as people now flock to the Friday the 13th and Saw movies every Halloween.
The success of these movies lead to lesser budgeted movies with the likes of Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van Damme being greenlit. Stallone and Schwarzenegger went on to do movies like Predator, Tango and Cash, Total Recall and Over the Top whilst in your local video shop there were an infinite number of scowling foreign accented beefcake’s begging you to rent their latest Cannon group financed turkey. Van Damme, Seagal and to a lesser extent Lundgren enjoyed huge success in the VHS rental market with the likes of Bloodsport, Hard to Kill and Red Scorpion which meant that we then had to put up with the dregs which meant Billy Blanks, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, Olivier Gruner and Matthias Hues all suddenly appeared in Roger Corman pieces of claptrap mostly about Cyborgs.
Yep if you were Dutch had a black belt and could mumble a sentence in something approaching English then you too could star in ‘American Cyborg Ninja-Steel Warrior’, it was a golden age. So huge was the market for this that eventually Van Damme and Seagal had breakout hits with Timecop and Under Siege which were big movies actually released in cinemas in the early nineties. I remember very clearly being really excited at fourteen years old going to see Under Siege, a film that I was not old enough to see but had Seagal killing scumbags and Erika Eleniak’s bare breasts, Best…Movie…Ever….
In 1988 with the release of Die Hard a change was already in the air. Here was a film with a large budget starring Bruce Willis, then most famous for Moonlighting and a top ten single cover of Under The Boardwalk, but not exactly action hero material. Adding to this was the fact that Die Hard is basically Homer Simpson fighting off German terrorists in a large skyscraper.
Despite all of this seeming like a recipe for disaster, Die Hard was a huge hit in the summer of 88. It made Bruce Willis a bona fide star and remains one of the best action movies ever made. Die Hard was imitated ad nauseam for the next ten years. We had Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege), plane (passenger 57), mountain (Cliffhanger) and erm LA (The Taking of Beverly Hills). The Die Hard effect was not really felt in its full capacity until 1994 however when martial arts classes were still full of Van Damme wannabe’s for a glorious six years until Speed was released.
Speed starred teen idol and professional airhead Keanu Reeves who up to that point was most famous as lovable Ted in the Bill and Ted movies but now there was something different about him. Reeves had shaved his shaggy locks, spent a lot of time in the gym and perfected his action hero scowl. We saw a hint of it in Point Break but the full transformation was startling. Speed was massive in the summer of 1994. Teens the world over went for a buzz cut either imitating Keanu or Forrest Gump depending on who you ask. Impact magazine, a magazine basically devoted to the action movie and martial arts genres, christened Keanu Reeves ‘Action Hero of the Year 1994′ beating off the likes of Arnie, Van Damme and Seagal.
Things had changed, here was an actor (its Keanu but hey he has his moments) who could actually act and done a better job than any number of Belgian kick-monkeys could ever dream of doing. Suddenly it seemed silly to pay Van Damme and Seagal a stupid amount of cash to mumble and do the splits when you could get a bona fide Hollywood heartthrob to buff up and scowl. So the floodgates were opened and everyone had a go.
Christian Slater starred in Broken Arrow and Hard Rain, Denzel Washington was in Crimson Tide and Virtuosity, Johnny Depp was in Nick of Time and even Nicolas Cage starred in The Rock and Con Air. Hollywood churned them out as fast as they could get a new MTV friendly face into the gym with a personal trainer. Van Damme, Seagal, Arnie, Stallone and Lundgren all started to gradually fade with the likes of Street Fighter, The Glimmer Man, Daylight, Eraser and The Shooter being average suckfests. The ones even below these guys disappeared into TV series and choreography work.
As always happens though the fad was starting to come to an end and by the end of the 90′s writers were running out of Die Hard on a—- formulas and people were looking to the east for inspiration due to the success of Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan. This lead to The Matrix which changed the playing field again and was also something of a comeback for Keanu who after Speed got fat and went on tour with an average grunge band. The Matrix also inspired many to go back to the kung fu classes which had been vacated in the wake of Van Damme’s career nosedive.
So here we are and its 2009 and the action hero has no balls. The Bourne trilogy takes a proper actor in Matt Damon and turns him into a badass but in a very bad language and blood free way. Jason Bourne actually apologizes to the daughter of one of his victims in the second movie! XXX the franchise which Vin Diesel started and will shortly return to, had a potential bad ass in its lead character extreme sports outlaw Xander Cage but as studios favor the PG13/12A rating Cage never gives a ‘Fuck You’ to a superior or a villain as he plants a bullet in their forehead.
It’s no wonder Diesel and Dwayne Johnson now make family friendly movies. Even the fourth Die Hard movie, in a series once renowned for violence and swearing has very little of either. John McClane not cursing was like a CGI yoda, just plain wrong! Van Damme, Seagal, Lundgren and even Wesley Snipes are now stuck making straight to blockbuster video movies which although there is the occasional gem, tend to be pretty one note and badly written pieces of crap. Cinematic action movies today go one of two ways, they tend to be neutered PG-13 films with pumping soundtracks and bloodless martial arts like the Fast and Furious movies or Bourne films or they go the other route and are completely over the top like the Crank movies or Stallone’s last Rambo movie.
Thank god then for Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow and new talent on the block Neil Blomkamp. These two have given the action movie back to the mature adult film fan with The Hurt Locker and District 9. Both of these films are realistic in their depiction of violence and are both thrilling and intense pieces of entertainment. Luc Besson also continues to fly the flag with the Transporter movies, which are cheese to be sure but the kind of cheese I once adored on a Saturday night in. The film Taken was especially an old school badass piece of entertainment, reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s Commando but with Liam Neeson as slightly older,wiser former something or other. The film was released as an 18 certificate film in the UK and was quite harsh in its depiction of how many foreigners must die to save an American girl.
In January 2009 four months later, the film was released in a heavily cut PG-13 version in the US and made some serious greenbacks. So what does that tell you? I don’t know shit about economics and the PG-13 rating is king most likely. Hopefully the success of that film and the harsher cut on DVD, will make studios take notice that the film fan still enjoys a bit of violence and language in their action thriller and a film does not have to be extreme’ to be mature. If you feel as I do, that we need some fire back in the modern action movie then please go see Ninja Assassin, its apparently drenched in blood and if we all make it a big hit this Autumn just maybe we will get our adult action film back. I apologize in advance if it sucks.
So you could say that Speed was the death of the modern action hero/movie. You could also say that it was simply a a matter of lack of genuine acting talent and good writing that lead to the fall of the action hero. It was an enjoyable era to be sure and there are some diamonds amongst the coal. Until such time though that someone gives Jason Statham or The Rock a Speed or a Die Hard of their own, The Fast and the Furious will be but a pimple of Point Breaks ass.
Action Stars of the Past and Present:
Arnold Schwarzenegger: More than any other, Arnie defined the modern action hero. After his last film with James Cameron True Lies, Arnie made a few bad decisions and we got the likes of Eraser, End of Days and Batman and Robin. After a semi-comeback with Terminator 3, Arnold went into politics and is now governor of California. So far there have been no hints at him making a comeback any time soon but there are always whispers of a King Conan from John Milius or a cameo in Predator 3. The less said about his CGI appearance in Terminator: Salvation the better. Best Film: Terminator 2 – Judgement Day.
Sylvester Stallone: Stallone is a far better actor than most give him credit for. During the late 80′s he went through a phase of wanting to make comedies which didn’t really work for him or anyone else. Made a comeback in 1993 with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man which were both solid pieces of entertainment. After that however and his entry into the 20 million a film club, the quality disappeared. The Specialist, Assassins and Daylight were all disappointments. In 1997 he made a comeback with a hotly tipped performance in James Mangold’s Copland. That should have been a renaissance for Stallone but he followed it up with D-Tox and a Get Carter remake. Since then he went on to star in a few straight to DVD titles and presented the TV show The Contender. Then he made another comeback by directing sequels to the Rocky and Rambo franchises. Currently finishing off The Expendables, a men on a mission movie who’s cast reads like an action fans wet dream but will likely appear as a PG-13. Stallone, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke star in the movie which will be released in late summer 2010. Best Film: Rocky or First Blood.
Jean Claude Van Damme: a graduate of the straight to VHS school of kick assery, we loved to watch Jean Claude do the splits whilst nude in the likes of Bloodsport, Kick Boxer and Cyborg. Started to get major cinema releases with films like Double Impact and Universal Soldier and then Timecop was massive despite being pretty bad. Followed this up with the goddawful Street Fighter movie, the okay Sudden Death and then it got worse, he teamed up with Dennis Rodman for Double Team. Gradually went back to straight to DVD with his films now appearing on channel 5 on a weekly basis. Have you seen Legionnaire, Desert Heat or In Hell? thought not. JCVD changed everyone’s perception of him somewhat, as he gives one of the best performances I have seen this year (seriously) playing himself. Best Film: Without a doubt John Woo’s Hard Target.
Steven Seagal: in the UK at least Steven Seagal’s first few movies went straight to VHS. I’ll never forget in 1991 the shock I felt when Seagal blew some goons leg off in Out For Justice, that just does not happen nowadays. Anyway his films always did better on video here that at the cinema. Hard To Kill and Marked for Death were pretty big Saturday night sleep over titles and then Under Siege became a bona fide cinematic blockbuster with its Die Hard on an aircraft carrier scenario. Like Van Damme however Seagal did not pick his follow ups wisely and we got On Deadly Ground and The Glimmer Man. Exit Wounds did okay though in 2001. Now in straight to blockbuster purgatory with Kill Switch, Belly of the Beast and Against The Dark. Seen em? no me neither. Best Film: Under Siege 1 and 2.
Dolph Lundgren: After playing the bad guy in Rocky 4, Dolph Lundgren got himself a piece of the straight to VHS pie and made films like Cover Up and Red Scorpion. Then got cinemmatical on our asses with The Punisher and Dark Angel (aka I come in peace). Universal Soldier was a pretty big deal for Lundgren and Van Damme and got a lot of press for their fake-as-wrestling fight at the Cannes film festival. Lundgren didn’t really capitalize on this however and made pretty much straight to video efforts like Joshua Tree and Pentathlon. Struggled after this with straight to DVD titles and the occasional failed TV series directed by John Woo. Unlike some though is capable of a good performance and is one of the best things about Johnny Mnemonic. Will come back next year in Stallone’s The Expendables. Best Film: Universal Soldier.
Bruce Willis: Not really a huge muscular presence but looks good in a vest, Bruce Willis has had the kind of career the above lot can only dream of. Brilliant in the Die Hard movies as an action star but stellar as an actor in Pulp Fiction and Twelve Monkeys, Willis continues to be popular to this day. Surrogates has turned out to be something of a disappointment though but is also in Stallone’s Expendables. Best Film: Die Hard.
Wesley Snipes: Snipes started strongly in the entertaining but slight Passenger 57. He went on to the likes of Drop Zone, Murder at 1600 and the Blade franchise. Currently occupying straight to DVD hell with the likes of 7 Seconds and The Detonator and dealing with being a former jailbird . Hard to believe that this guy was once a solid dependable actor who was in some acclaimed movies.A career almost like the reverse of Bruce Willis. Best Film: Blade 2.
Keanu Reeves: is Keanu an action hero or just an average actor with a good scowl? The films Speed, Point Break and The Matrix show he is completely comfortable with the action hero label but he continues to try his hand at serious independent drama’s like The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Thumbsucker. Last seen in the tedious Street Kings as an alcoholic cop and the even worse Day the Earth Stood Still redux. Currently prepping a live action version of anime Cowboy Bebop which should be a triumphant return to action hero status. Best Film: The original Matrix remains a classic film.
Jason Statham:The Stath is an anomaly, Basically a British action star who is unbelievably popular in the US and yet cannot do an American accent for toffee. A formal model, discovered by Guy Ritchie and placed in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. After this he was a solid supporting presence in John Carpenters Ghosts of Mars and The One. He then got his own franchise with The Transporter movies, the second of which was a huge hit stateside despite being laughable. Now occupies the batshit insane Crank franchise and stars in the entertaining likes of Death Race and The Bank Job. Will next be seen in Stallone’s epic The Expendables. So far so good for Statham, apart from the occasional dud he is building a solid career. Still needs to have a Die Hard or Speed of his own which makes 200 million or so to really launch himself into the stratosphere. Best Film: Crank or The Transporter.
Vin Diesel: Remember when we were all excited about Vin Diesel after Pitch Black? How badass was he in that film? He followed up with The Fast and The Furious and XXX which were both solid and Diesel was hyped as the next Arnie. Around the time of A Man Apart it all went south, The Riddick sequel was an overblown mess and the less said about Babylon AD and The Pacifier the better. Made something of a comeback this year with the pretty decent Fast and Furious and will follow with XXX3 shortly, although that film may well be past its era of extreme sports and nu-metal. In interviews he constantly threatens another Riddick movie, you have been warned. Best Film: Pitch Black.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson: The Rock needs to fire his agent and fast. In WWE The Rock was entertaining as hell with charisma and presence to burn. He made the leap to movies with The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King and was touted like Vin Diesel as the natural successor to Arnie. The Rundown (a.k.a Welcome to the Jungle) solidified his rep but didn’t make much money. Walking Tall was straight to DVD standard rubbish and so was Doom. Around this point Mr Johnson decided he either wanted to be a serious actor or a children’s clown so we got the likes of Be Cool, Southland Tales, Gridiron Gang and The Game Plan all of which sucked a big one. After the Witch Mountain revamp earlier this year, will next be seen in The Tooth Fairy. We are not smelling your cooking anymore Dwayne, you need to grab a gun, call John Mctiernan or John Woo and unleash some woopass fast. Best Film: The Rundown.
Gerard Butler: After 300 it would seem that Gerard Butler was the newest Action Hero on the block after being a supporting presence in things like Dracula 2000 and Reign of Fire for so long. He was briefly talked up as the new Snake Plissken in Len Wiseman’s big budget Escape from New York remake but that all collapsed when the budget became too high. Since then he has made a series of mawkish rom-com’s and recently made a comeback in Crank ‘auteurs’ Neveldine/Tyler’s Gamer. Will be seen in vengeance mode later this year in Law Abiding Citizen with Jamie Foxx which should be good for a laugh. Hopefully Butler will get another role as good as King Leonidas soon and become a megastar. Best Film: 300.
Jet Li: Jet Li it must be said is probably the most successful Asian action hero to make the crossover to Hollywood so far in terms of the actual quality of the movies he is doing. In Hong Kong he was a phenomenon in the likes of Once Upon a Time in China and Black Mask. Made the transition with the otherwise poor Lethal Weapon 4 and followed up with Romeo Must Die, The One and Kiss of the Dragon. Occasional blips like Cradle 2 the Grave and War can be forgiven though because of Unleashed and Hero. Should have been Kato in Michel Gondry’s Green Hornet movie but is perhaps now getting on a bit. Will instead be in Stallone’s The Expendables. Best Film: Unleashed