Thursday, August 27, 2009

Going Commando: Action films of the 1980's

All of this nostalgia recently for a certain decade has made me look back, too...I had my formative years in the 1980's as a teen. Without going into detail, they were the best and worst of times for me...the worst took the gain over the best, unfortunately, for a myriad of reasons. Anyway, at times watching movies could be a truly welcome respite. In fact, it was because of my love for movies as much as my love for truly good books like Stephen King's that made me want to be a writer, too.

Without a doubt, like the 1930's, the 1980's were a major decade for movies. Take the formation of teen comedies like "Sixteen Candles" that I described before, thanks to John Hughes...the crystallization of the 'bigger and better blockbuster' usually tailor-made for the summer months, thanks mainly to Steven Spielberg ("Raiders of the Lost Ark", made ironically on a relatively low budget) and Geoge Lucas (the "Star Wars" sequels)...and the popularity of horror films, especially slasher flicks like "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" that pulled viewers in to see one creative screen death after the other. The profit motive, which I won't condemn in regards to the film industry -- but I will condemn the nearly mercenary drive for profit in certain other arenas, mainly health care -- took a naked, unbridled prominence over creative expression. But then, it would only take someone really dumb to honestly think that those in Hollywood don't care about making money.

But there was a uniqueness to the 80's for another that decade, there was nothing bigger or better than the action movie.

The decade and its films can be better described, and with more wit, at this little site I know called Ruthless Reviews. (I have no problem plugging them here, even though their political rhetoric can get exhaustingly dumb, just like CNN and Rush Limbaugh. I hate politics, as I've said before, and I refuse to make them core to my existence and worldview.) Team Ruthless has even devoted an entire section to action films from the 1980's, and homosexual undercurrents aside, their reviews are spot-on as hell. Check out their Guide here...

Around the middle of the decade, almost in parallel to the formation of the Girls With Guns sub-genre of Hong Kong action films, something funny happened and I was lucky to be there. A certain breed of films started to explode across the screen, and they could be traced back to three sources. The first was the 1974 cult classic "Death Wish", the seminal revenge film in which Charles Bronson goes hunting -- literally -- for the scum of society. The second source was "Conan the Barbarian" from 1981, which catapulted Arnold Schwarzenegger to fame.

The third source was John Rambo.

1982's "First Blood" established the blueprint for the action films of the decade that followed thanks to Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote the film), director Ted Kotcheff, and its source material, a novel written by David Morrell. In a nugget, Stallone starred as John Rambo, a troubled, world-weary Vietnam Vet who drifts across the American countryside without direction until he's confronted by a small-town sheriff (Brian Dennehy) who gives Rambo problems just because he's an outsider...ultimately, Rambo is arrested for nothing, and after mistreatment from one of the sheriff's deputies, Rambo suffers a flashback and loses it. Rambo escapes, thinking the 'enemy' law enforcement officers no different from the Vietnamese he fought years before, and war is declared. You'd think that even a small-town sheriff would know better than to fuck with someone trained to kill people for his country, especially someone trained to kill with psychological problems...but that's life.

"First Blood" became very popular, and set the stage for action films to follow not long afterward. It's telling that Sylvester Stallone said that his greatest influence was the legendary John Wayne, who now and forever is the symbol of the Western genre of films. The Duke also influenced Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the current Governor of California and Stallone became the undeniable standard-bearers of the action films of the 1980's. 1984 was when the ball really started rolling, with "The Terminator" and "Missing in Action", and that ball turned into a politically incorrect train rolling full steam ahead one year later.

"The Terminator" aside, action films of the 80's could be boiled down to one thing that drove their action: revenge. Revenge was core to the three sources of 80's action, as well...Bronson's Paul Kersey wanted revenge for his family; so did Conan; and Rambo wanted revenge on the entire damn TOWN he saw as enemy territory. Sometimes the concept of unfinished business rivaled revenge, like the real issue of whether or not there were still American prisoners of war in Vietnam at the time. More often, though, real rising crime rates and the frustration that law-abiding citizens felt became fuel to such movies.

These films were essentially moving comic books, pure visceral entertainment that sometimes had substance, but any substance was there alongside revenge to drive the action. The basic blueprint was that the hero would be wronged in some elemental way, and then he'd spend the rest of the film killing his often numerically-superior enemies...the one-against-many scenario. Knowledge of heavy-caliber weapons were a must for the hero, naturally, along with a love for the good old U.S.A. (Guns were to the 80's action hero what superpowers were to comic book heroes...a lot could be written about that.) An exception to the gun rule was Jean-Claude Van Damme, who let his feet do the talking in martial arts films like "Bloodsport"...he became the 80's equivalent to Bruce Lee. The inherent patriotism in most of these movies sometimes lapsed into jingoism, though, as in "America is better than ANYBODY!" I love my country, but I dislike arrogance as much as I do politics. At their best, these films were celluloid crack for those looking for entertainment, big and loud their worst, they had the capability to kill a viewer's brain cells from dumbness. The worst were often from Cannon Films, which gave us flicks from the aforementioned "Missing in Action" to "Invasion USA" to a lousy David Carradine effort (R.I.P., seriously), "P.O.W.: The Escape". Yes, I saw that one, unfortunately. Cannon ceased to be in the early 1990's, most likely because they spent too much money on "American Ninja" sequels. By the way, what started that trend in Ninja movies?

The 80's action film blueprint still rears its head in Hollywood, but not as often as it used to in that decade. The most notable recent example came from Sylvester Stallone and his triumphant comeback in "Rambo" in 2008, where he basically decimates a damn army to rescue some Christian missionaries. Yes, you read that right. John Rambo killed people for MISSIONARIES! Thankfully, it's better than it may be one of the bloodiest films ever, but go see it anyway!

Want to shut off your brain and just have a good, exciting time? Even enjoy some 'rah-rah!' patriotism, which you don't even have to be American to get infected by? I recommend three movies I know and love from the 80's action heyday for anyone to see, all of which also score high with Ruthless Reviews. All three of these films coincidentally come from the year 1985. And if you're politically correct, you'll hate 'em.

First is "Bloodsport", wherein Jean-Claude Van Damme might just have the true grit to be the first Westerner (meaning American) to win a secretive annual martial arts competition in Hong Kong. Then there is the Arnold Schwarzenegger epic "Commando", where he must go to war with an island full of mercenaries to save his daughter (Alyssa Milano, who I've had a crush on since she grew up) from a would-be South American despot played by Dan Hedaya. But as exciting as Jean-Claude was, as high as Arnold's bodycount was, the guiltiest pleasure you'll have of this decade and maybe any other is from "Death Wish 3".

Forget "The Magnificent Seven" and even the original "Death Wish"..."Death Wish 3" unofficially sealed Charles Bronson's immortality as an American icon in films. The only reason it's unofficial is because it's obvious not enough people have seen this film. Paul Kersey's war against crime is turned literal here, as he and the film earn a death per minute rating -- yes, PER MINUTE! -- that is only rivaled by "Commando". There's barely a hint of a story and revenge is the only thing that matters as Bronson's conflict with a street gang big enough to start their own country escalates until there's chaos in the New York City streets unlike anything ever seen in cinema. And Charles Bronson is there marching through those streets with a big-bore handgun built for shooting big game (I shit you not) with Ed Lauter as a disgruntled cop by his side. Dumb? Of course! Shallow? Yep! Violent? Duh. But this movie is still undeniable fun, and impossible to take seriously even for a second, just like most action films from the 80's.

Besides, the only thing we should take seriously is life outside of movies, right? I'd have to honestly work at crafting a story as low in intelligence as many of the films I just talked about. These movies are as far away, in substance, from a John Wayne Western as you can possibly imagine...yes, The Duke gave us great times, and great stories to go along with them. That's beyond dispute. Strange again he inspired the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, whose best-known and loved films emphasized visceral thrill over substance. Yet for sheer fun designed to take us from any real problems at least for a short time, like Hong Kong Girls With Guns films from that same decade, American action films fit that bill just fine...logic is not necessarily included, but that's okay. Just watch "Commando" at least, and you'll see what I mean!

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