How the American Action Movie Went Kablooey

The action film — like automobiles, televisions and team-oriented basketball — is an American invention that is now produced much better elsewhere in the world. The latest example of this (and there are many examples from points all over the globe) is “The Raid: Redemption,” a modest but irresistible action film from Indonesia that recently high-kicked (and punched and stomped and shot and throttled) its way into American theaters. The film has been rapturously celebrated; at last glance, its positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes hovered around 90 percent. In a rare dissenting opinion, Roger Ebert wrote: “This film is about violence. All violence. Wall-to-wall violence,” which is true but also a bit like complaining that a comedy is too full of jokes.

“The Raid: Redemption” also inadvertently serves as a reminder of just how bad American action films have become. Which is a shame, because as they say in the world of business, we used to own this market. For roughly a decade, from the early ’80s to the early ’90s — marked by high-water films all weirdly clustered together, like “Commando” (1985), “Aliens” (1986), “RoboCop” (1987) and “Die Hard” (1988) — the great American action film was a robust genre, as complex and thematically rich and aesthetically unified as the musical or the western.

You may laugh — in fact, one sign of the genre’s decay is how completely it has devolved into a universal joke. (It’s now just as easy, and twice as pleasurable, to quote McBain from “The Simpsons” mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger as it is to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger.) But as a genre, the American action film featured hallmark stars (Schwarzenegger! Stallone! Willis!) and identifiable tropes (kill villain; make pun about method in which you killed villain), and it produced at least one bona fide masterpiece, “Die Hard.” (If you can’t get behind “Die Hard” as a great American movie, then I’d argue that you hate greatness, movies and America.) And the action movie carried, briefly, as all good genre movies do, the cultural weight of metaphorical significance. Action films meant something. As surely as the film noir communicated anxiety over postwar urban upheaval or as alien-invasion films helped us work out our cold-war agita, the action films of the golden age were a post-’70s, poststagflation collective national fantasy: one in which America was strong, independent, unstoppable and perpetually kicking much butt. Moreover, the best of these films (think “RoboCop”) managed the nifty artistic trick of both embodying and critiquing this quintessentially adolescent dream of dominance — providing us with fantasias of cartoon violence that also served as canny dissections of our lust for cartoon violence.

Then all of a sudden, America forgot how to make action movies. Our great national product is now in laughable decline. As with many such problems, we, as a culture, throw money at it, and it eats that money, then spits back garbage. Or more specifically, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”

This seems like a good point to address the question: What exactly is an action movie? The answer seems kind of obvious. It’s a movie with action in it. Except that’s every movie, except maybe Andy Warhol’s “Sleep.” So how about this: It’s a movie with guns in it. And killing. And carnage. That’s closer. But not quite specific enough.

If you Google a list of “best action films” you’ll get a hodgepodge of genres, including buddy-cop movies (“Lethal Weapon”), dystopian sci-fi (“The Matrix”), martial-arts flicks (“Enter the Dragon”), matinee thrillers (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and movies like “The Bourne Identity,” which belong to a subgenre I like to call American Tourist Anxiety. (In these movies, a confused American runs around the great cities of Europe yelling at befuddled foreigners to tell him who he is, where he can find his loved ones and just what the hell is going on. See also: Liam Neeson in both “Taken” and “Unknown.”)

To my eye, the purebred American action film can be identified by three elements:

1. A loner hero who excels at combat — this is not the provenance of miscast heroes or industrious everymen. (John McClane in “Die Hard” is the arguable exception, though as a workaday cop, he proves to have a disbelief-suspending amount of lethal expertise.)

2. A perverse fetishization of firearms. No dainty Walther-concealing James Bond here. The M60 machine gun was a popular sidearm, and that’s a weapon you would typically see mounted on a helicopter.

3. Explosions. Big, blossoming, ecstatic, pointless explosions. This is what separates action films from, say, “Dirty Harry.” These cathartic money shots serve no purpose plotwise, which is precisely what marks them as the philosophical earmark of the action film. It’s a genre dedicated unreservedly to carnage as a source of aesthetic delight.
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It’s tricky to pinpoint the movie that kicked off the golden age, but it’s not hard to finger the one that ended it — the film conveniently has the words “last” and “action” right in its title. “Last Action Hero,” released in 1993, was a bloated example of late-empire decadence, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater, the biggest action hero in the world. Then a little kid, by means of a magic ticket, gets sucked bodily into a Slater action film — in any case, it’s intended both as an action film and as a spoof of action films and, perhaps inevitably, fails as both.

As to the movie that started it all, I’d argue for “First Blood,” released in 1982. Not because it introduced John Rambo, but because the film — with its themes of generational tension, anti-establishment distrust and post-Vietnam alienation — feels more akin to the 1970s than to the 1980s, making it an ideal bridge from one era to the next.

In “First Blood,” Rambo is a shaggy-haired Vietnam vet who drifts into the wrong small Pacific Northwest town and is harassed by an imperious local sheriff. Rambo, plagued by P.O.W. flashbacks, ends up dug in to the nearby deep woods, where he systematically incapacitates one hapless sheriff’s deputy after another. (In a strange parallel, the plot of “First Blood” is basically the same as the later action film “Predator,” with Rambo as the Predator.) The whole thing reads less as an action romp than as an earnest cautionary tale about America’s barely suppressed Vietnam trauma. And Rambo isn’t the hero. He’s the trauma.

In fact, an alternate ending was shot for the film, in which Rambo first begs his former Army colonel to kill him, then does the deed himself. That’s right, Rambo — that eventual avatar of Reagan’s gung-ho America — was, in one universe, meant to off himself. While crying. He cries at the end of the official version of the movie as well.

If history plays out twice, first as tragedy, then as farce, the same can be said of action films: “First Blood” was followed, three years later, by “Commando,” which starred Schwarzenegger as John Matrix, an entirely unconflicted ex-Special Forces killing machine. And that’s what he does: kill, mechanistically. Plus make wisecracks. It’s hard to recall now, but this convention seemed fresh, and refreshingly self-conscious, at the time. Having Schwarzenegger snap someone’s neck on a plane, cover his face with a hat and tell the stewardess, “He’s dead tired,” was, in a weird way, a precursor to the culture of knowing irony that became so pervasive 10 years later — and which (ironically) helped kill off this very brand of action film.

Then again, the films themselves did plenty to hasten their own irrelevance, as their winks turned into ridiculous tics. Just one turbocharged decade later, we had Schwarzenegger in “Eraser,” saying, “You’re luggage,” to an alligator he just shot in the mouth, and the genre’s journey to cultural jokedom was complete.

Of course, other things happened. The ’80s ended. Reagan ended. The prosperous, largely peaceful yet nonetheless anxious ’90s began, and steroidal Stallone got bumped aside by Harrison Ford in “Regarding Henry,” fretting over whether he’s a nice-enough lawyer. The unexpected global superstardom of Schwarzenegger convinced Hollywood that his successor should be Teutonic, or at least exotic, which forced us to suffer through Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. There was the brief and erroneous coronation of Vin Diesel. More recently, “Live Free or Die Hard” paired the aged Bruce Willis with the fresh-faced slacker-dude Justin Long, in what seemed like an unfortunate “before and after” comparison of American cinematic masculinity.

Eventually the shirtless commandos gave way to men in tights. Superheroes flew in and colonized the Cineplex, draped not in a myth of lethal exceptionalism but one of nonlethal nonexceptionalism — the regular kid who flowers into a hero through a spider bite or a cosmic ring.
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And from the technical end, computer animation gobbled up everything, chewing it all into weightless pixels. American action films now are merciless spectacles splashed on a green-screen canvas — Shia LaBeouf flying around on wires like Peter Pan in front of spasmodic robots who aren’t really there, while entire cities, also not really there, collapse in on themselves. Ultimately, the American action film, like a fish that can’t stop eating, wound up choking on its one reliable virtue: excess.

Onto this bleak landscape wanders “The Raid: Redemption,” offering a different virtue: simplicity. It’s as elegant in conception as a windup toy. A group of elite police officers enter a tenement to arrest a crime lord. The tenement turns out to be a death trap. They have to fight their way out. So they fight. And fight. And fight. The movie, once wound up, never winds down.

Is it possible that an American director could ape this model? Of course — in fact, there’s an American remake already in the works. (I fully expect Channing Tatum.) Perhaps it’s a good sign that American movie producers are now looking to foreign competitors, much in the way American car companies started copying the business practices of their more nimble counterparts overseas. Hong Kong action films have long been better than ours, even after we stole John Woo and brought him to Hollywood and forced him to work with John Travolta. Korean action films are better than ours, too. So are lots of French action films. And we can now add Indonesian action films to that list. We invented this form, we got great at it, but then we stuck fins on it, filled it with cup-holders, started making it on a robot-assembly line and lost all sense of quality control.

Or perhaps it would be better, as with Rambo in that alternate ending, to just put the genre out of its weepy misery. The American action film: once invulnerable, long wounded, now certifiably dead. It certainly racked up an impressive body count. So maybe we should afford it the one fate no action hero ever afforded his enemies: to let it, in its failing dotage, slip away peacefully.