A Treasure Map to Understanding the Action Film

An archeologist treasure hunter, a vacationing cop, and the son of a powerful intergalactic war-lord–what do they have in common? Well as Indiana Jones, John McClane and Luke Skywalker very little, but as action heroes nearly everything. The action film is one of the most modern and important genres in both contemporary Hollywood and world cinema. The origin of the action blockbuster is difficult to pin down, since as Langford writes: “In one sense, of course, every motion picture is an ‘action’ film.” (Langford 2005 pg.237) Meaning simply that scenes of action are used in every genre and in every decade of filmmaking, but I quickly want to cover this point and move away from it. The action genre is big, really big, and it is “ruthlessly colonizing” every other genre. Now that I’ve said that let’s leave it. Because, more importantly I think it also unwittingly has spoken volumes for all of movie-dom, identifying the most central and profound desires of both movie goers and movie makers.

For my action exposure I watched (in order of release): The Great Train Robbery (1903), The General (1927), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Seven Samurai (1954), all four Indiana Jones films (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008), Die Hard (1988), Eraser (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), The Good the Bad and The Weird (2008) and Gamer (2009). I’m glad for an opportunity to cover action films; it’s probably my number two genre (unless you can count Penelope Cruz movies as a genre?). But I would like to clarify ahead of time, (I understand this is assumed and redundant) that this was my watch-list not my exposure, and I will be referring to more films than this.

The most important aspect of action films, over character development, storyline, location, and often times even above overall quality is the action sequences. Buildings, cars, bridges, people, anything really, being blown up, lit on fire, demolished, squished, shot, stabbed, or otherwise destroyed in some spectacular way; shootouts, chases, falling, jumping, climbing, swimming (drowning) and of course hand to hand combat are all mandates of action films and they are often shown to us with slow motion, fast motion, animatronics [Jaws (1975)] and CGI [from Star Wars (1977) to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), which even used reverse slow-motion for many effects].

I am a strong advocate for the non-realistic action films. I go into them already knowing that they are impossible and silly. So I enjoy the humor of the action more than the believability of a well scripted fight scene, like being shot once and being down for the count. An action scene like the last battle in Seven Samurai is entertaining to me, and I’m very involved in the outcome yet, more for the characters and the livelihood of the village than for the actual fighting. Whereas take a movie like The Punisher (2004), where the premise, revenge for the death of a man’s wife and child, I couldn’t care less about (And why not? The writers didn’t.), but I find the action sequences equally inducing of a stare-lock on the screen. There is a scene in The Punisher where Frank Castle (lead character) is fighting this enormous assassin, I mean this guy is big, in a tiny-little apartment. He stabs the guy, but the knife doesn’t go deep enough through the body-builders muscles to do any major damage. They have a slapping contest, and shortly afterward they play catch with a live grenade before Castle hides in a bathtub from the explosion. It’s wonderful. It’s silly, and impossible and wonderful.

Just four years after The Punisher, action sequences have been taken to such impossible extremes that the audiences’ believability of a scene isn’t even considered. Take the fourth Indiana Jones film for example. Indiana survives a nuclear bomb while hiding in a refrigerator. The fridge is hurled miles away from the blast; and if that isn’t preposterous enough, Indy is also involved in a point-blank shoot-out using machine guns mounted to the top of SUV’s that are driving along a cliff in the middle of the jungle while having a sword vs. whip duel with a Nazi on the hood of the vehicles moving 60 MPH. . .and monkeys are driving one of the cars! Monkeys! AND NO ONE IS INJURED!

I like this (with Indiana Jones, I expect it). I am riveted by the implausibility and absurdity of these images I’m seeing. So the fact that the narrative is not advanced or a point is not made is excusable. Fortunately  there is another side to action films. Underneath the kung-fu and rooftop leaping there are still stories. And the very best action films have them.

Langford writes that we should call action “action melodrama” (Langford 2005 pg.236) because of the often simple and familial, domesticated plots. With the motivation for many heroes being revenge for or protection of a family member or love interest, I would agree with him that this may be a “profitable” way to view the genre.

As action films have changed (their evolution very similar to the real world’s progression of weaponry) their budgets have become larger and larger. Often the summer action blockbuster is the studio’s biggest payout and these “silly vehicles” have become the winning rides for big money. The term blockbuster referring to the amount of cash a film generates.

Yet, on a deeper level of change, action films have learned something. The “hard action” films of the 70’s and 80’s with stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Shwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jean Claude Van Damme, even (some) Bruce Willis, have been substituted for an action film that holds a message. Sure we still have Jason Statham and Gerard Butler making excessive (both excessively violent and moronic) movies like the Crank series or 300, Gamer (which I shouldn’t have wasted time on) and (action/thriller) Law Abiding Citizen (2009). But we also have another set of movies emerging, a set of more purposeful action films.

Where the melodrama is more subtle, albeit the same stereotypes and techniques (slow-motion and CGI) are being used, there is an allegorical tone. Films like Avatar or District 9 (both 2009) or Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) are great examples of exceptional action-like tropes and profound philosophical and allegorical stories. The shoot ‘em up film is still out there (Literally, Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) with Clive Owen, don’t bother!). But Hollywood is also producing action films that have something deeper to them. Even exploitative films like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series proves, upon further inspection, a constant homage to historical action films.

This, I think, is the key to watching action in our current time. Look deeper. Look past the stereotype characters and see if there is a meaning. See if there is a moral to the story. Is it just action for the sake of action? Or is there something to it? Avatar’s eco-friendly message of equality and respect helped carry it to its current position as the highest grossing film of all time ($1.95 billion). The Lord of the Rings didn’t stack audiences and fans into theaters based solely on action either. Although there are superb combat sequences and ground-breaking CGI in every one of the films, the sacrificial and redemptive story of Frodo Baggins is what makes the movies worth spending 9 hours on.

I love the way that Langford ends his chapter. In his case study of Armageddon and Deep Impact, he beautifully words his point: “Thus the ostensibly super-social—the sacrifice of the one for the many—is reoriented to the supremely personal: it is as if Armageddon, having thrown every effect bar the kitchen sink at the audience over the course of its 2 hr. 24 min. running time, can conceive of no more spectacular effect—no phenomenon of more global or even cosmic significance—than the death of its own star.” Wow.

What a point, huh? If given an unlimited budget, talent and spectacle, it ultimately will be worth less than one man sacrificing for many. As a Christian, I find this moving and very gratifying. That you can show all the fighting and struggle and chases and impacts and explosions you want, but in the end there must be something worth fighting for. And the reason goes beyond the macho “hard action” films, it goes beyond disaster epics, it goes beyond the swashbuckling romances and the jungle adventures to finally remind us that all the people we passed along the way are people. And that they matter.

I don’t intend to diminish the genre. I find the ridiculous action sequences very enjoyable and I will watch a film just for them. After-all I own the Hellboy and Brendan Frasier’s Mummy movies. But the action blockbuster, if it’s going to mean anything, it is meant to show us the diamond in the rough, to show us heroes who we can be and who we can’t be and to entertain at all costs. And this is what we most deeply desire in films: to engage in the spectacular. To see what we might be. Not simply to be in location and on-scene but to feel spectacular for having actually done it and sometimes just for having been a witness.

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    • Anonymous 342
    • December 8th, 2010

    Great article. I have only one complaint. While the costumes may have been near identicle, all the baddies in Indiana Jones 4 were, in fact, Commies. Not Nazies. However, I like to imagine that they’re Nazies. Commies have a certain pathetic delision to them which allows me to feel some pity for them. With Nazies, I have to dig really deep, Inglorious Bastards deep, to find any shred of pity for their humanity.
    Thanks Hitler. You gave us the villians we sought in aliens, but could only truely find in our own race.
    I think another article could be written about the perfect action villian. Hint hint…

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