Action Cinema: Keepin’ it Real

      1. Old Friends - Ric Size

Old Friends         RS: gtr, vocals, TomP: percussion & production, Craig Roy: bass, Jessica Lynn Martens: violin


Action movies, like sports, have propaganda value.

The image of the alpha-male conquering evil through strength & cunning is a powerful one, and a basic instinct.
This instinct is tied into winning the female prize, and thus sexual ecstasy.
The Hollywood action genre traditionally lacked athleticism in it’s tough-guy stars, including James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, etc.
That’s because they were actors, not athletes.

The original action film star (and director) was Buster Keaton in films like: Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Battling Butler (1926), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928); all from the silent era.
Keaton choreographed and performed all his own stunts in these films.
His movies aren’t usually labelled “action,” even though there is plenty– by any standard.

Early Hollywood action often meant westerns, which quickly became a uniquely American film genre.

Westerns began as racist cowboys vs. Indians pictures, often featuring it’s biggest star–John Wayne.
The Duke’s career was carefully built by major studio executives, and Wayne was catapulted to the top, as the star of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).
John Wayne starred in 142 pictures– most of them westerns & war movies; among his most celebrated are The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Wayne was a top box-office draw for three decades.
Notably, he was a conservative Republican, supporting any anti-socialist sentiment.

The Duke said, "Pick it up."

The Duke said, “Pick it up.”

The reduction of characters to good guy/bad guy caricatures, simply as a vehicle to motivate fighting, is a dangerous tendency.
As action films turned into blockbusters, the quality of popular cinema degraded.
Today, the near-universal promotion of the police/military/special forces/secret service/etc…in action movies/television as the “good guys”; along with the de-humanization of “bad guys,” dovetails with existing ruling-class values.
Now, unbelievable action sequences enhanced with CGI, further distort the action; leading to unreal plot lines and gaps in continuity.

The long-running success of the James Bond series in the 1960s, with the suave & resourceful Sean Connery always ready with a quip, whetted audience demand for vicarious heroes.
Bond films combined elaborate chase/fight scenes, gadget weaponry, glamourous locations, and of course–beautiful women; to create an amazingly pleasurable viewing experience, where actual story content no longer mattered.
Bond films dominated the action genre at the box office for a decade, as Connery starred in six of the early films: Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), and Diamonds Are Forever (1971); most of which remain among the most watchable of the twenty-five (and counting) productions.
Today the biggest spy-thriller series also include: Matt Damon in the Bourne Identity (2002-07); and Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible (1996-2011).

As over-the-top Bond and John Wayne pictures began to run thin, urban crime action began to move the cinema turnstiles.
Clint Eastwood had become America’s biggest western action star, for his cold-blooded & minimalist performances in: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and For a Few Dollars More (1967)–  all ‘spaghetti westerns’, brilliantly directed by Sergio Leone.
In Dirty Harry (1971), Eastwood traded in his Colt 45 & horse, for a .44 Magnum & a gas-guzzler; as “Dirty” Harry Callahan, the San Francisco tough-guy cop.
Hollywood had its urban, steel-jawed action star of the 1970’s.

Restrictions on language, adult content, and violence had been lifted; and the rise of cable television now provided an untapped home-viewing market for R-rated films.
HBO launched on November 8, 1972, and its programming was filled with violent action, comedy & horror fare.

Aside: For some unexplained reason, Akira Kurosawa film’s including the Seven Samurai (1954), Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), etc… are usually not considered action films.
The best explanation for this reasoning is that Akira Kurosawa’s films (like Buster Keaton’s) are too artistic to be labelled “action.”

True action cinema begins with Chinese kung fu movies in the early 1970’s.
If this genre is to be discussed seriously, then its obvious limitations must be acknowledged, including; bad acting & poorly choreographed (and filmed) fight scenes, which limit much of these films’ value.
Also, clumsy editing and the insistence on the use of dubbing instead of subtitles, often kills any artistic intent.
Plot lines tend to be repetitive; or they suffer from being overly complex, silly, and/or vague.

Bruce Lee was the talent that rose to the top, and exploded kung fu onto western cinema screens & popular consciousness.
His unparalleled & inimitable fighting style, forever changed action film; by setting a higher standard with his martial arts skills & expert choreography.
Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist), was a revolutionary new martial arts style; a formless form, a style with no style that befuddled & astounded.
He rocketed to stardom in China with The Big Boss (1971), and Fist of Fury (1972), AKA The Chinese Connection.
Both films feature Bruce Lee’s jaw-dropping speed, power and control; as he dispatched attackers with ease and surety.

Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

Return of the Dragon (1972) was also a Hong Kong production, written, starring & directed by Bruce Lee.
Made for HK$130,000, it grossed US$85 million at the box office.
It’s final fight scene of Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris, spring-boarded a 1970’s US martial-arts craze.

Enter the Dragon (1973) was the first Hollywood production of a Chinese martial arts film.
It starred Bruce Lee, who also choreographed the fight sequences.
His “co-star” at MGM’s insistence is John Saxon, whose hairpiece flips up every time he front kicks– requiring jump-cut editing.
Here is Bruce Lee’s disgust on film, in not being allowed a free-sparring sequence with Bolo Yeung (credited as Yang Tse), which surely would have improved the quality of the movie.

John Saxon: "I can take Bolo Yeung." Bruce Lee:  "Only in Hollywood."

John Saxon: “I can take Bolo Yeung.”
Bruce Lee: “Only in Hollywood.”

Bruce Lee died on July 20, 1973– at age 32.
A coroner’s examination revealed the cause of his death to be a cerebral edema, caused by an allergic reaction to Equagesic.
Bruce Lee had complained of a headache earlier in the day, and a colleague actress gave him the analgesic.
Lee then took a nap from which he never awoke.
Equagesic contains meprobamate; a powerful tranquilizer which has since been removed from the market, due to its toxic side-effects.

Bruce Lee & Jackie Chan: Enter the Dragon (1972)

Bruce Lee kills Jackie Chan: Enter the Dragon (1973)

Jackie Chan is an uncredited stunt man in Enter the Dragon [pictured above].
Chan was always a better candidate to be the breakthrough US action star, as his affable and good-humored nature make him endearing to audiences; Bruce Lee was perceived as more serious & stand-offish.
Drunken Master (1978) was Chan’s initial Hong Kong breakout, featuring fast-action fighting & a quick sense-of-humor.

By 1994’s Legend of Drunken Master (a Golden Harvest/Miramax collaboration), Jackie Chan was a US movie star.
He later teamed up with Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 1-3 (1998, 2001, 2007), and Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon (2000), to cement his status as possibly the greatest global action film star; having conquered both Hong Kong & Hollywood.
Only Arnold Schwarzenegger can dispute his title as the King of Action Film.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), is a Shaw Brothers kung fu film directed by Liu Chia-liang and starring Gordon Liu as San Te, a legendary Shaolin martial arts disciple.
This film is always listed among kung fu favorites, for its realistic depiction of traditional martial arts training and breathtaking fighting sequences.

In the 1980’s, John Woo led Hong Kong action filmmakers, with his stylized photography and gangsta themes.
A Better Tomorrow (1986), Hard Boiled (1988), and The Killer (1989) topped Hong Kong box offices.
Woo then moved to American action films; making six Hollywood movies starting with Hard Target (1993) and finishing with Paycheck (2003), before returning to Asian cinema.

Dolemite is my name, and...

Dolemite is my name, and…

African Americans had traditionally been under-represented in Hollywood films.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) written, directed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles is often credited as being the first ‘blaxploitation’ film.
Shot in less than 3 weeks, this low-budget action flick features a black man (Peebles) “sticking it to the white man’s system”; to the funk of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is near-pornographic at certain points, and Van Peebles reportedly contracted gonorrhea while filming it.
After filing a workers’ compensation claim for a venereal disease, Peebles notoriously used the insurance money to further fund the film.

Melvin’s son Mario, (who would later direct & star in New Jack City [1991]) has a bit part in the opening flashback as the young orphan who is taken into a LA brothel.
As a towel boy, he loses his virginity to one of the prostitutes; earning him the nickname “Sweetback.”

Shaft (1971) directed by Gordon Parks and released by MGM, is the story of a private detective, John Shaft (Richard Roundtree); who travels through Harlem and mob neighborhoods in order to find the missing daughter of a mobster.
Isaac Hayes’ iconic soundtrack gave the story the groove it needed, and helped put blaxploitation on the map.

SuperFly (1972) directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. came a year later.
It is infamous for being one of the few films to ever be out-grossed by its soundtrack, written and produced by Curtis Mayfield.

Dolemite (1975) is a blaxploitation film written by & starring, comedian Rudy Ray Moore.
Dolemite is a pimp who was set up by the cops & rival Willie Greene (D’Urville Martin, who also directs); sentencing him to 20 years in prison.
Dolemite takes a deal with the FBI to get out, and his army of female prostitutes/karate-warriors help our hero kill Greene & bust the dirty cops.
Moore is endlessly rhyming, toasting & boasting his bad-ass self– to hilarious effect.
Dolemite is easily one of the best films of this limited genre.

Director Quentin Tarantino has paid endless homage to the blaxploitation genre in Pulp Fiction (1994) & Jackie Brown (1997).
In Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004), Tarantino edits & directs waif model/actress Uma Thurman using CGI/kung fu; as Hollywood began digitally transforming anorexic women into action heroes.

By the 1980’s, the major studios finally cashed in on black action, with 48 Hrs (1982) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984); both starring SNL comedian/actor Eddie Murphy.
By the early 1990’s, Denzel Washington: For Queen and Country (1988), The Mighty Quinn (1989); and Wesley Snipes: Major League (1989), King of New York (1990) New Jack City (1991), were also box-office action heroes.

I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, spoofed 1970’s blaxploitation.
Keenan Ivory & younger brother Damon Wayans launched In Living Color (1990-94), a half-hour television comedy sketch show; featuring previously unknown actors/comedians Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, and many others.

Damon Wayans soon became a box-office action star when he teamed with Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout (1991).
Blankman (1994) & Major Payne (1995) are action-comedy parodies of superheroes & the military.
More adult-themed, are the black-comedy messages in The Great White Hype (1996) [on boxing], and the vicarious nature of sports fans in Celtic Pride (1996).
Each of these films is an interesting look at American popular culture, as Damon Wayans presents himself as a rarity: a thoughtful actor, who can do action.

Today’s top black action hero is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who played college football; winning a NCAA championship as part of the 1991 Miami Hurricanes.
After football, Johnson turned to wrestling and became one of the top WWF box-office draws of all time.
“The Rock” parlayed that success into his first leading film role in The Scorpion King (2002), for which he was paid $5.5 million– an unprecedented sum for a debut actor.
Since then, the “Rock” has become a blockbuster action star; in one unmemorable movie after another.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars (1977)

Harrison Ford as Han Solo: Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars (1977), written & directed by George Lucas, instantly became the biggest pop-culture phenomenon since the Beatles.
Much of the success of this film was due to its revolutionary visual & audio special-effects.
John Williams’ score was also a major component in the film’s success.
Williams is widely considered the greatest film-score composer ever, as his big-movie themes go all the way back to the first blockbuster film: Jaws (1975).

The original Star Wars trilogy has the distinction of overcoming one of the weakest lead’s in film history; as Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) simply can’t act.
The real star was Harrison Ford as Han Solo.
Ford followed The Empire Strikes Back (1980) by starring in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)– a Steven Spielberg/Lucasfilm collaboration which set all kinds of box-office records at the time, and launched the Indiana Jones series.
Harrison Ford later starred in Blade Runner (1982), directed by sci-fi specialist Ridley Scott; and later as CIA-analyst Jack Ryan in Patriot Games (1992) & Clear and Present Danger (1994), both based on best-selling Tom Clancy spy novels.

The blockbuster nature of Jaws & Star Wars‘, forever changed Hollywood film-making.
From that point on, big-budget action films became the priority, as they consistently ranked among the top money grossers.

Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was one of the first Hollywood films to make extensive use of computer graphic interface (CGI) special-effects.
The second Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005) upped the CGI ante to the point of no return; in which virtually an entire film series was shot into a chroma key bluescreen.

Burton’s Batman was a revival for the comic-book action film.
Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeve was the original superhero blockbuster, and it was followed up by several sequels that earned well enough.
However, Superman IV (1987), produced by Golan-Globus’s Cannon Films, was a complete bomb.
Christopher Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down in 1995, as the result of a fall while horse riding; thus ending the original Superman film series.
The tragedies of Bruce Lee & Christopher Reeve is a healthy reminder, that none of us are invincible.

With the modern saturation of CGI in film, comic-book heroes are now thrust into multiplex theaters across the country every summer; each in search of greater profits.

Smokey & the Bandit (1977)

Smokey & the Bandit (1977)

Smokey & the Bandit (1977) starring Sally Field & Burt Reynolds was the Good-ol’-Boy answer for action fun.
Reynolds, a halfback at FSU, starred in a series of box-office redneck action successes such as: Deliverance (1972), The Longest Yard (1974) and Hooper (1978).
Their success along with other cult films including White Lightning (1973), spawned a string of country-TV series including: BJ & the Bear (1979-81), The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (sit-com 1979-81), and ratings-winner The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85).

In 1979, Cannon Films was acquired by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus, for $500,000.
These Yiddish business masterminds would carve out their niche, by producing low-budget action movies in the 1980’s.
Known for their chauvinist exploitation films including the Delta Force  (1986-91) & Missing in Action  (1984-88) series, each featuring Chuck Norris; along with Cobra (1986) & Over the Top (1987) starring Sly Stallone—even their attempts at art failed; due to the fact there wasn’t a shred of artistic integrity in either Menahem Golan or Yoram Globus.
Their films would often go directly to video and/or international markets which were starving for US “action culture.”

A regular on the Golan-Globus roster was Chuck Norris; possibly the most expressionless “actor” to ever star in multiple features.
Norris shows very little acting ability or style– in any sense, in any of his movies.
In sum, these pictures have more unintended comic value and insight into reactionary ‘thought,’ than any serious action or drama.

By the mid-1980’s, there were whispers of Cannon Films becoming the ‘7th major‘ film studio; threatening to join Fox, Columbia (Sony), Paramount/Viacom, Time-Warner, Universal (Comcast) & Disney.
Fortunately, a studio needs to make good films to become a major; and this never occurred with any Golan-Globus production, as their business model was predicated on buying bottom-barrel scripts and strictly maintaining low budgets.
Cannon Films went bankrupt in 1993.
Hollywood music supervisor Richard Kraft likened the Cannon product pipeline to bowel movements dumped onto the international market with scant concern for quality or plot coherence: You flush it; you make another one.

Bawhoosh!!   Chuck Norris MIA bigtime

Bawhoosh!! Chuck Norris MIA, big-time

Action cinema is synonymous with televised sports.
The evolution of both is determined by economic & ideological forces [Marx].
The rise of the NFL as America’s game, coincided with action film becoming a dominant genre.
Former NFL running back Jim Brown became the first black action star, appearing in The Dirty Dozen (1967), the blaxploitation Three the Hard Way (1974), and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988); just to name just a few.

The relationship between weightlifting, bodybuilding, and professional football is an open one; and since the 1960’s many of its steroid secrets have been passed between camps.
In Pumping Iron (1977), its results finally make it to the silver screen.
Pumping Iron is an important film for all cinema-goers to see & understand, because out of this documentary came the biggest action star of them all– Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The film centers around the 1975 Mr. Olympia bodybuilding event, held in South Africa [during the Apartheid regime– conveniently not discussed].
Also not discussed in the film are performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), although today’s audience would have to be blind to not see the steroids drenched into the film’s celluloid.
Every competitive lifter must be willing to take the pain [and presumptively use PEDs], otherwise he is “not serious,” says Arnold on becoming a champion.

Schwarzenegger didn’t have trouble convincing his audience he was serious, as a cyborg sent from the future in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984).
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s title role, remains one of the most terrifying movie-villain performances ever; and it shot him to stardom.
What followed were good-guy roles that consistently earned money for the studios; Commando (1985), Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987), Red Heat (1988), Twins (1988), Total Recall (1990), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and The Last Action Hero (1993).

In the wake of Arnold’s biceps in the 1980’s, every action-hero contender was now required to have a buffed bod.

Sylvester Stallone from Rocky (1976), miraculously morphed into Rambo: First Blood II (1985).
Stallone reprised his role as Vietnam veteran John Rambo, in this racist & homicidal death trip.
It grossed over $300 million, and Sly briefly challenged his buddy Arnold, for the King of Action Film crown.
It wasn’t to be for Stallone, as he would unwisely partner with Golan-Globus for some of the most wretched action bombs of the decade [mentioned above].

Other action stars created in the the 1980’s include:

Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979), and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981); both Australian post-apocalyptic action films directed by George Miller.
Lethal Weapon 1-4 (1987-98), in which Gibson teamed with Danny Glover, solidified him as an action icon.

Bruce Willis, who first became a television star as private investigator David Addison on Moonlighting opposite Cybil Sheppard (1985–89).
Willis became a global action star in Die Hard (1988), as John McClane, an off-duty cop attempting to free hostages held in a skyscraper.
McClane kills the terrorists, coolly delivers the one-liners to the bad guys, handles the bureaucracy, and simultaneously saves Christmas for the rest of the cast.

Steven Seagal became an instant action star, with his smooth Aikido style in Above the Law (1988).
Under Siege (1992), is Die Hard on a battleship.

Jean-Claude Van Damme (the “Muscles from Brussels”) struck action gold with Bloodsport (1988), a Cannon Films production of the ‘true story‘ of Frank Dux.

Woody Harrelson starred on the successful sit-com Cheers, as junior bartender Woody Boyd, from 1985–1993.
He became an action film star when he teamed with Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump (1992).
Like Damon Wayans, Harrelson is an serious actor, with athleticism.
Natural Born Killers (1994) and Thin Red Line (1999) are a few of his searing action performances.
Zombieland (2009), directed by Ruben Fleischer, is one of the best zombie/horror-genre films ever.

To their credit, Woody Harrelson & Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me [2004-11] , 9/11: Loose Change [2009]) both support the 9/11 Truth movement, and a reopening of the investigation into the September 11 attacks.

In a 1993 Nike commercial, Charles Barkley proclaimed: “I am not a role model… Parents are role models… Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
People didn’t want to believe Charles Barkley, and most of them pretended to be like Mike [Jordan].

It’s the same with action movies; people pretend their favorite action heroes are real, and their own lives are insignificant by comparison.
In reality, the opposite is true– because movies (like sports) are entertainment, not real life.