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No more action movies

A movie genre the 80s did right

Published: April 4, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.


So I watched Predator last night. You know – the movie where an invisible alien hunter stalks and kills Arnold Schwarzenegger and some slightly less muscular guys in the jungle? I must say, I rarely enjoy a movie as much as I enjoy Predator. Don’t get me wrong in calling it a great movie or anything. It’s not. I would never call it high art either. But it’s certainly entertaining, and very good at what it is: a badass action movie.

From the first few moments of the film where the “Governator” and Carl Weathers arm wrestle, to the unveiling of “ole’ painless,” a mini-gun hulked around by Jesse “the governing body” Ventura, to Arnie’s epic showdown with the Predator, the movie flat-out kicks butt at a mile a minute. Character development be damned – sometimes a movie like this can still manage to be tense, funny, and exciting.

But where have action movies like this gone? Where are our generation’s Schwarzeneggers or Stallones or Kurt Russells? We don’t have any. Nobody comes close. So, why have the 80s action movies died? Certainly there were some terrible, nearly unwatchable films in that genre, and some terrible, excruciatingly bad action leads. But for all of that, there were the classics like Predator, Aliens, Total Recall, The Thing, First Blood, and more. Why don’t we get those today?

The answer is that the original wave of 80s action movies managed to remain relatively smart (considering the genre here – none of these movies should be compared to the Graduate or anything). Unfortunately, the early 90s happened, and all the action movies lost all sense of any wit, intelligence, or tact. What you get today is a series of explosions, one after the other, without any sort of tension or interest. Let’s compare two big budget action epics from back then and now. From back then we’ll take Escape from New York. From a few years ago we’ll take Armageddon.

Escape from New York has Kurt Russell and a lively cast of character actors. Armageddon has Bruce Willis and some lively character actors. Escape involves New York City becoming a penal colony. Armageddon involves nuking asteroids. Here’s the problem. From the first moments of Armageddon, director Michael Bay lays on the epic shot, followed by one explosion and asteroid impact after another. There’s no let up. Things are blowing up left and right. In Escape, the audience cares more, because despite its ridiculous plot and the dated nature of the film, director John Carpenter takes the time to delve into the underbelly of New York, as well as the intricacies of the mission. Both movies are cheesy and unrealistic, but Escape trumps Armageddon any day.

Or let’s take Die Hard and compare it to Live Free or Die Hard. The plots in both are fairly simple: Bruce Willis has to stop a terrorist and various members of his family. The original takes place in a skyscraper, meaning Bruce is cut off from the outside world. He is alone, crawling through elevator shafts to fight the terrorists. In the newest one, Bruce is out in the city, with a cadre of helpers, including the dude from the Apple commercials. So while the stakes in Live Free or Die Hard are technically higher (aka someone is trying to steal all of the money in the U.S.), in reality, the claustrophobic nature of the original film makes it a far more intense and exciting movie. You care more about Bruce Willis’ character because there is more time spent developing it, whereas that time in Live Free or Die Hard is spent blowing up Harrier Jump Jets with an 18-wheeler.

So all-in-all, before terrible actors like Vandamme and Seagal and The Rock and Chuck Norris made the action film a pathetic joke, the older strain of these movies were legitimately entertaining, and while rather ridiculous, were well put together (people forget that guys like John Carpenter and John McTiernan were talented directors). We miss heroes like Schwarzenegger’s or Willis’ characters, and I wonder when someone will try to attempt an all-out action film that doesn’t need stunt overload and can again begin to focus on atmosphere and tension.