by Matt Burden
I’ve had my fair share of movie based conversations over the years and one thing is constant: it always comes back to 80’s/early 90’s action movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love foreign film, slice of life movies, any and all kinds of movies from the 70’s. I love film, but there seems to be this magnet that always pulls me back to a time when you would rush to school to talk about the most bizarre kill from Commando or the toxic waste guy getting hit by the car in Robocop.
Now why is this? Does this make me stupid? Do I have bad taste in film? And why am I shunned in the streets by snooty film critics?
I think it comes down to a childhood fascination with “man against the world”. Most of these films are about one man fighting against the odds and coming out on top. The way he gets there is usually through a hail of bullets and grenades, doing rolls over car bonnets, sneaking around shopping malls with concealed weaponry and always ready with a witty one liner or a put down for a bad guy.
I think the formula changed over time but reached an extreme yet appealing climax in the 80’s when cinema combined two money making genres: the Slasher movie (that skyrocketed with the release of Halloween, Friday the 13th and Prom Night) and the movies featuring the rise of the anti-hero becoming the action hero.
Each generation has its own fascinations and fads for both children and young adults which usually hold fast into later life. I once heard someone say that a black hole opens in your brain when you are eight years old and then again when you are sixteen. On both of these occasions, whatever the craze or interest is at the time, it will inspire and cascade throughout your future interests and exploits. I know for me this is true. Star Wars, Jaws, Goonies, The Bond films, Labyrinth and Back To The Future were huge movies for me when I was eight years old, and the fascination is there to this day. Once again at sixteen the black hole opened up and it was all about DeNiro movies, 70’s crime movies and Tarantino.
Somewhere in the middle though, right around the age of twelve, there is the so called “cheesy action film” stage. These are different beasts. They’re not quite gung ho, swashbuckling, innocent adventures, but at the same time they’re not quite straight up serious crime films either. And therein lies the appeal. They’re a guilty pleasure. In my mind, they had the spirit of the first set of films but amped up to so called “adult extreme”. I think as a teenager I would always look back fondly on the films of my youth but also look for the next step in excitement. Now, in my thirties, I can see that what 80’s action did was take simple and un-complex heroes with clear motivations, give them an “adult problem” like the love of Vodka and send them on the same clearly defined journey. This time around though, the story arc would be peppered with grenades, meat cleavers and every now and then a glimpse of boobies. Watching these films from the age of twelve quenched my thirst for action/adventure, but little did my young mind know that the ideas were old and the sprinkles of borderline horror just filled in the lack of plot. The result was, of course, addiction.
The one cop against the world killing machine was done to death. Steven Segal, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Charles Bronson, Mel Gibson and of course Bruce Willis have all essentially played the same roll time and time again. The hero is always flawed with divorce, alcoholism or both. A family member is killed as a result of his job. They will of course have different sets of survival expertise hinted at in the first half of the film and then brought to a head by the end (see any Steven Segal movie). Martial arts became a huge part of these films in differing degrees. It was the kung-fu craze of the 70’s that spilled over into the 80’s American film with sometimes diluted results. The big bad always seemed to employ kung-fu experts or have an unhealthily close relationship with his right hand man who was always secretly a ninja. The final showdown would normally be on the villain’s home turf and, after a battle with the second in command, the object of the heroes rage would be taken out with some signature blow, accident or shot to the face. Being pushed into a car crusher at a junk yard works too.
That being said, in amongst these films you will find exceptions. Not necessarily exceptions to the rules but cases where within the formula there are to be found great performances and, dare I say it, new ideas and good stories. These films are of course then mimicked and diluted until the originals are lumped in with a big load of crap.
If you have ever listened to our show then you have heard me mention Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. These were the movies that had me commando rolling over my parents’ bed and landing in perfect form ready to shoot a lackey or Nazi henchman in the face. These were the film s that showed how to do it right. These movies had divorce, alcoholism, depression, the start of the buddy cop relationship movie, fear of flying, colourful characters, henchmen out for revenge, survival skills and awesome final fights. Yes, these were the movies that fuelled my simmering testosterone filled imagination and these were the heroes I was invested in.
Lethal Weapon came first for me. I saw footage of it on a documentary about the stunt coordinator for the film. Dar Robinson was a legend in the industry and died in a motor cycle accident shortly after principle photography finished on the film. Richard Donner dedicates the movie to him in the credits. The roof jump and the bus crash were highlighted in the documentary, and I knew I had to seek out the film. Low and behold a few weeks later it was shown on ITV in the UK. I taped it and re-watched it till the video cassette broke. Little did I know it was the ITV edited version where Riggs would say “this is a real firing gun”. The swearing was toned down and the fights were shorter. However, it was enough for me to fall in love with the world of Riggs and Murtaugh (this peaked around the age of fourteen when I had a rough outline for a movie I had entitled “Lethal Weapon Junior: A Tale of Dead Parents and Revenge”. Riggs, now over the pain of losing his wife and Patsy Kensit, takes in a fourteen year old boy with a natural knack for marksmanship and his skateboard for transportation. This young lad would of course be reeked with despair over the death of his parents at the hands of mercenaries and the film would see him and Riggs take on the toughs together with a combination of kung-fu, automatic weapons and skateboarding skills. I was of course heartbroken when in 1997 Joel Schumacher stole most of my ideas and released Batman and Robin.)
I think you can safely say that I was quite impressionable at that age. Actually, nothing has really changed, but the fact remains: Lethal Weapon kicked ass, and I lapped it up.
The following year I taped Die Hard from ITV and was quickly caught up in the heavily edited version of the film. Imagine my surprise when years later, watching the proper cut, I saw glass plunging through bad guys knees and found out that Bruce Willis didn’t really say “yippee-ki-yay kimosabe”. It was Lethal Weapon in a huge building but with an irresistible villain. I was in foul mouthed, quip making, bad guy blasting heaven. The idea that the hero was trapped behind enemy lines and had this huge building at his disposal and no-one knew he was there was just the icing on the cake. Sneaking around, sabotaging the terrorist plans, unknown to anyone in Nakatomi Plaza added the stealth aspect that I always loved in the James Bond films. Many times my friends and I would play what we called “Spy-tag” in the playground at school. It was tag, but it featured just running off and then hiding round corners and behind trees before either avoiding or pouncing on the competition. And this is where I come to my point about the man love for action movies. They are kids films dressed with “adult” action and content. The films and stories of our youth (and by youth I mean eight years old) always had clearly defined characters doing extraordinary things to achieve their goals. Whether rescuing a princess, trying to get home or searching for gold the path was always clear. The action was thick and fast but in a kid friendly way that still wowed you as a child. Now, in early teens, you are on the lookout for heroes, but heroes with problems that affect the sometimes questionable choices they make along the way. You want action but amped up to what you think means more “grown-up”. This means that at points in the film you get glimpses of horror or gory kills that set it apart from the movies with a child-like tone.
The fact that they were rated R or 18 in the UK meant that they were usually viewed at friends’ houses (who had cool or irresponsible parents), or they were borrowed from older brothers or sisters. In my case I did see a lot of stuff on TV in its censored form but most would have been at friends’ houses. There is nothing better (well maybe sex, but we didn’t know that then) than being a twevle year old kid feeling honored to be watching Commando round your mates house while his non-English speaking grandmother, who should have been looking after us, slept in a chair in another room. I watched most of the movies I still re-visit now at other peoples’ houses. Blood Sport, Kick Boxer,AWOL, Robocop, Predator 2, Hard to Kill and Enter the Dragon were all viewed in this way and that made it all the more exciting. I sat there watching this blood thirsty action in a place where my parents couldn’t turn off the TV or ground me for watching this “evil” stuff.
What is the result of seeing all these films ? It means the need for more. It means more extreme. Like the horror films of the 80’s, action movies would also suffer from the money hungry studio sequel overload. I guess enough was enough. It was time for a break. But with all things, they swing back around again. And so you now have a section of your movie watching life right in-between the ages of eight and sixteen that is full of a set of films that you may or may not look back on affectionately.
Can nostalgia blur the truth of bad many of these films were? In most cases, no, but as I’ve said, there are some standout exceptions and these are the films that we re-visit time and time again, usually with the same friends you watched them with the first time around.
Looking back at the films my parents and grandparents were into in their youth or young adulthood, I think the same formula can be applied. Whether it was The Searchers turning into The Wild Bunch or The Dam Bustersonto Where Eagles Dare, their movie heroes changed too. It was a sign that the audience was changing. Heroes were no longer clearly defined and the audiences for these films were growing up with them
So, what does this mean for my kids growing up in a generation of Disney’s UP and, at the other end of the scale, the Saw movies. Will the action/blood lust increase to the point where Saw 9 just isn’t enough? I can only assume the answer is yes, but I can only hope that those of us in our late twenties and thirties can pass onto our kids what we love. Whether it’s Thunder Cats, Battle of the Planets, Cities of Gold, Pole Position, Under Siege or Conan the Barbarian there is something to be said for a time when the world called for fun meets kick-ass action and got it.
So where does that leave me? It leaves me watching Lethal Weapon and Die Hard every Christmas and counting the days till my son is of an age to watch Predator.