The Dumbest Genre: Action Cinema in Retrospect
by C. Rachel Katz
As The Expendables 3 makes its North American debut, let's take a moment to reflect on how we came to this point.
Popular opinion would have us believe that action films are in a slump, or worse still, the era of the American action movie is over. People are increasingly looking to foreign imports for their action fix because Hollywood can't deliver the goods. Instead of hard-hitting action movies, studios are churning out hard-to-watch action sequences bookended by drawn-out dramatic interludes and the whole thing is shaped like one giant explosion. Yes, these films make money, but movies like Ong-bak (2003), The Raid: Redemption (2011), and District 13 (2004, remade as Brick Mansions (2014)) are catching the attention of critics and audiences alike. Indeed, it must sting to find out that other countries have appropriated what is considered to be an American filmmaking genre and are doing a better job at it.
When The Expendables was released in 2010, it was both hailed and criticized for being a nostalgia-fuelled adolescent fantasy. Some liked it, others hated, and usually for the same reasons: the writing is terrible, the characters are flat, and Stallone's ego gets in the way of what should be a dumb action movie. Or, put another way, The Expendables is a delightfully campy romp, populated by ageing though guys which proves that American action cinema can still kick ass.
“Viewed though a fog of testosterone, The Expendables is a glorious throwback to the dumb action movies of the eighties and nineties.”
Action cinema as a distinct genre only really came about in the 1980s. Prior to that, action movies were largely categorized based on their narrative or stylistic elements. Exploitation movies, fantasy-adventure films, and sci-fi from the '60s and '70s were all action-packed but they weren't unified under a single banner. Film genres generally form as the result of the repeated success of a certain type of filmmaking, and action cinema's popularity in the '80s led to the creation of the genre.
Action cinema finds its roots in the historical epics of the early 20th century. When Italy hit it big with The Fall of Troy (1910) and Quo Vadis? (1913), the fledgeling American film industry saw box office potential in releasing its own historical films. Audiences thrilled to Judith and Bethulia (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Intolerance (1916). In addition to controversy (Birth was criticized for being overtly racist, and Intolerance was director D.W. Griffith's attempt to make ammends) these films shared length, largess, and expense in common. Producing these epics was itself an epic undertaking as the need for massive sets, travel to exotic locations, and a cast of thousands stressed the budget.
The cost was worth it. The movies were a big draw throughout the early and mid-century. Cinema attendance dropped off in the 1960s, and hit an all-time low in the '70s. There are a number of reasons why. Television is one, an increase in other leisure activities another. When studios could no longer count on habitual movie-going, they looked for new ways to entice people back to the cinema. A splashy, effects-heavy event movie not unlike those made in the teens seemed liked a good idea.
Genre history is a funny thing: it's revisionist to a fault. Cinephiles like to think of the 1970s as the era of the art house picture, but that's the decade that gave us The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Jaws (1975), and Star Wars (1977). Jaws was the game-changer. Its premise is exploitation to the core, but the movie was given a big-budget treatment. The resulting film was the first summer blockbuster and its success revolutionized the way studios conceived and managed their production slate. The “tentpole movie” grew out of Jaws' success as all studios sought to create their own blockbusters, event films that would both cost and make a lot of money and, in essence, pay for the other films studios released throughout the year.
Genre movies, be they action, horror, or sci-fi are part of a larger cultural discourse and their themes often reflect the dominant ideology at the time they're made, thus Ali's comment about action movies being “dumb” can be dismissed outright. The '80s brought with it concerns about communism and the cold war, which were addressed in Red Dawn (1984); recession and unemployment were just some of social issues touched upon in RoboCop (1987); and an expensive and specialized military force was glorified in Top Gun (1986).
The 1980s also saw an increase in political discourse in the media, and the resulting political self-awareness led to an increase in explicit political content in film. Action cinema was no different, and two different kinds of political filmmaking took hold. One is built upon a patriotic faith in American might and morals, emphasizing righteous action taken by the hero to defend American values, as seen in Missing in Action
(1984) and Air Force One
(1997). The other rejects US policy and sees the hero defending the defenceless against American (or corporate) patriarchy, imperialism, and oppression, as witnessed in The Running Man
(1987) and RoboCop 3
“...Stallone loves his gore and explosions, so you get to bask in the glory of bodies blown in half, knives jabbed into faces and some enormous fireballs.”
-Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herlad
Taking its cues from the larger-than-life historical epics that propped up the film industry, action movies were built upon a strong foundation of spectacle and excess. In a sense, all film is spectacular, but action is a special kind of spectacle, one that revels in over-the-top performance and outrageous stunts. And all of it geared toward holding the audience captive in a heightened emotional state.
Within the past ten to fifteen years, action cinema has undergone a transition. Dynamic camerawork, faster editing, and intense sound design have changed the way audiences experience the movies. Debate rages around whether these changes are for the better. The old guard favour physical effects and “classical style” of filmmaking in which the camera is relatively fixed and the action scenes play out before the audience. The new guard enjoy computer enhanced or generated effects and a camera that moves with the characters, placing the audience inside the action.
Bordering on arguments of taste, the issue of old style versus new is trying to find a balance between substance and style. Aggressive camera movement, sometimes referred to as “shakeycam,” close-ups on action, and reduced shot length create an intensified version of intensified continuity, a filmmaking technique that seeks to excite the viewer. But this intensified intensified continuity, or “chaos cinema” as it's come to be known in some circles, is disorienting in the extreme and can result in a total loss of spatial reference for the viewer. And when the audience can no longer orient themselves within the film space, they check out. Michael Bay is particularly well known for employing the chaos cinema aesthetic, so much so that he's been accused of shooting coverage instead of filming scenes, and his movies are assembled post-production.
Chaos cinema is at odds with the aesthetics of kinesthesia, a technical theory that finds visual pleasure in physical and sensual action. Kinesthesia normally applies to dance, but can be used to analyze fight scenes and chase sequences. In order to best appreciate and enjoy the movement of the fight or chase, it must be clear and easy to see. The chaotic fight scenes in Elysium (2013), for example, make it difficult to follow the fight choreography or find pleasure in its execution. Instead of an emotional engagement with the fights, the audience is treated to a more visceral experience. The fights in The Matrix (1999), on the other hand, are born from an Asian filmmaking tradition (itself influenced by early theatre traditions) that values kinesthesia and clarity of movement. Here the action is slowed down or even paused to give the viewer time to see and appreciate, and be dazzled by, not only the fight choreography but the effects and camerawork as well.
“The Expendables completely fails at reconciling the over-the-top action with its aspirations of heartfelt drama.”
-Matt Goldberg, collider.com
Matt Goldberg's words echo a common complaint in action movie criticism, the inability to balance narrative and spectacle. Action movies are often judged against “classical” narrative films in which the narrative takes precedence. The widely held belief is that action films' spectacle necessarily subsumes the narrative and the action drives the characters instead of the other way around. The assumption is that spectacle is devoid of content. But simplicity of plot should never be mistaken for lack of content, and action cinema's relatively straightforward and economic approach to storytelling can allow room for greater thematic and visual complexity.
Indeed, some movies try too hard to overcome this perceived narrative shortcoming by cramming in too much story. This is as much a fault of the filmmakers as it is film critics who cannot find merit or narrative value in spectacle or who fail to appreciate the simplicity of something like Predator (1987) or Ronin (1998). The result is a bloated, convoluted affair akin to Bad Boys II (2003) or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), overwritten to the point of incomprehensibility.
The typical action narrative is derived from medieval literature: the protagonist has or develops special skills which he uses to overcome the odds. This same structure lies at the heart of the monomyth, or hero's journey, in which the hero accepts the call to adventure and attains victory over some foe. This basic narrative structure creates two variants. In one, the lone hero strives to achieve some goal, like in Taken (2008), in which Liam Neeson beats up everyone in Paris to find his daughter. In the other, the hero leads a small group to safety or freedom like Sylvester Stallone does in Daylight (1996). In some cases, such as Die Hard (1988), both versions are found in the same movie. In it, Bruce Willis works alone to stop the thieves, but he also saves their hostages from certain death.
Perhaps instead of thinking about action cinema in terms of story vs spectacle, we should view it as post-narrative, in which the spectacle is the narrative. Usually action movies are, if not criticized outright, dismissed as prolonged action sequences loosely strung together. But when approached from a post-narrative point of view, the action movie tells its story through its displays of violence and excess. Fight movies, in particular, illustrate this point. Bloodsport (1988) and Mortal Kombat (1995), for instance, are about fight tournaments, specifically about guys literally fighting their way through the movie to the championship match. The fights and the fight tournaments are the story in these films.
Many critics believe action cinema's golden age is behind us, that the heyday of the American action movie is over—has been for some time, and The Expendables is proof the sun has set on Hollywood's action empire. The truth is, film genres go through cycles of expansion and contraction which are loosely tied to the status quo and current trends in popular culture.
Action cinema exploded onto the scene in the 1980s and enjoyed a period of great expansion. It contracted some in the '90s as popular films were franchised and the genre, as a whole, found little inspiration in the Clinton administration. A resurgence in socio-political action took place after 9/11 when the face of the enemy changed and America declared its war on terror. Films like White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen (both 2013), which cast the President as a quasi-hero, are meant to reassure the audience in the strength of the presidency during these uncertain times. The current cycle of superhero movies could be read as escapist fantasy, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is partly an hommage to political conspiracy thrillers from an earlier era.
Quite apart from the sub- and intra-textual trends that exist within the action cycle, are the technological trends that characterize the films. It is possible that chaos cinema and post-converted 3D are passing fads, like the wild zooms found in a lot of 1970s exploitation movies. It's only a matter of time before a new (or old) aesthetic will take hold and mainstream action filmmaking will change again.
The Expendables, like The Winter Soldier, is a blend of old and new both in terms of substance and style. The plot is right out of the '80s—elite mercenaries overthrow a South American dictator—but the use of shakeycam is a distinctly 21st century filmmaking technique. Additionally, The Expendables employs old, new, and, in the upcoming third instalment, first-time action heroes. Hardly a passing of the torch, the casting instead commemorates the legacy of the action hero while having fun with action tropes. No one expects Jean-Claude Van Damme (The Expendables 2) or Mel Gibson (The Expendables 3) to play the bad guy.
Perhaps The Expendables sought not to just revisit the golden age of American action cinema, but to breathe new life into the ailing genre. Or maybe Stallone was riding high on a wave of renewed action stardom with the Rocky Balboa (2006) , Rambo (2008), and Bullet to the Head (2012). Either way, The Expendables and its sequels, whether you liked them or not, are a love letter to action movies. Like any good celebration, the films remind us of better times and bring us hope for more good times to come.
Rachel writes the genre movie blog Zombots! and co-hosts TheAvod, a weekly movie podcast. She recommends you watch all the films listed in above, with the exception of RoboCop 3.