- Author Alex Ingram
- Published August 11, 2014
Why we love… repulsive violence
Where have all the heroes gone? The Hollywood machine is churning out repetitive, family-pleasing action fare these days, and that could mean the death of the beloved action movie. Alex Ingram investigates.
Cornered in Itchy and Scratchy Land by a mob of robotic cats and mice on a murderous rampage, the Simpsons discover camera flashes defeat the malfunctioning machines. “Hey mousey, say cheese,” says Bart, casually snapping his camera. Immobilised, the metal Itchy crashes to the ground. “With a dry cool wit like that, I could be an action hero!”
These days, it’s rare to find sharp one-liners like the one Bart smoothly delivers spoken by the gung-ho characters he was mimicking. Indeed, there seems to be a distinct lack of effort by Hollywood to add to a genre that was so popular in the ’80s and ’90s, and this bothers us.
Twenty years ago, action hero films were at their peak. Stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped out examples on a regular basis. He appeared in what is possibly the most typical example of the breed, the classic one-man army revenge story, Commando. It has it all: cheesy wisecracks, huge explosions, and an opening montage so corny you could mix it into a tuna salad. He also starred in Predator, arguably his greatest role to date.
It wasn’t just Arnie delivering the goods. Stallone in Rambo. Gibson in Payback. Seagal in Under Siege. Van Damme/Lundgren in Universal Soldier. This was a time when even Nicholas Cage made madly brilliant movies; Con Air, The Rock and Face/Off are all action classics.
Perhaps the best of its kind is Die Hard. The plot is simple: East German terrorists take over the Nakatomi Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, and only Lieutenant John McClane – a man in the wrong place at the wrong time – can stop them. It’s thrilling, high-paced action from start to finish, and it’s an absolute classic.
The most recent of these flicks, Payback, had its UK release fifteen years ago. Commando was released in 1985. So what’s happened? Have movie-goers’ tastes changed, or is there another reason for the demise of the genre?
It isn’t like there’s no action to be found. The recent DC/Marvel films are undoubtedly brilliant, but they’re a little too fantastical to provide the simple-minded, blowy-uppy enjoyment we crave. With one or two rare exceptions (Watchmen springs to mind), there are always three insidious characters that alarm. No, not Wolverine, Xavier and Magneto, but “12A”, the age rating applied to these movies.
First introduced in cinemas with The Bourne Identity in 2002, the 12A rating allows under-twelves to watch as long as a guardian is present. The thinking makes sense: kids can watch racier films, and mum or dad can be on hand to cover their wee one’s eyes at the sight of something they disapprove of. However, like an action hero spotting a stranded heroine in a collapsing building, the big studios spied a pile of commercial potential.
Making a film accessible to children vastly increases the number of punters that can get through the doors, and has the added bonus of enabling a vast range of merchandise to be sold to kids. Kids who want a tempting piece of movie merch are like the Terminator: they won’t relent until their objective is complete. Fortunately, their mission is to get an Iron Man action figure, instead of murdering a teenager and changing the course of human history.
This commercialisation cop-out theory is reinforced by the recent release of Expendables 3, which was awarded a 12A certificate. If you try really hard to switch your brain off, the Expendables franchise is pretty enjoyable, and one of the few current films to fall into the “proper” action category. Sadly, over the top violence and unnecessary profanity have been shunned in exchange for a few more bums on seats at the cinemas, and, for childish grown-ups like us, that’s a pity.
Make my day
So does that signal the action movie is dead? Not quite: there are a few bombastic recent efforts that come close – two that spring to mind are Man on Fire and Taken. But while the first scores brownie points for some truly brutal violence, and the second for that speech of Liam Neeson’s, bringing the glory days of the mid-90s calls for something far more over the top.
A proper action film appeals to the less evolved part of the brain. It’s the part that produces an involuntary chuckle at the sight of a man being clubbed over the head with his own leg, or appreciates the sight of a police cruiser blowing up a helicopter. It’s the same bit that thrills at watching the hero take out seven bad guys with a single throwing knife against the backdrop of an unexplained fireball.
Surely it isn’t too much to ask. Please, please can someone produce a big budget, over the top action movie, for adults? It absolutely must embrace gratuitous violence and foul language, and it doesn’t matter if kids can’t watch it without being turned into desensitised automatons. In fact, that’s a lie. An action film that kids aren’t allowed to watch would be perfect, because it would be a film produced for our enjoyment, rather than to maximise profit and sell on-brand lunchboxes.
One of How To Live It’s Rising Stars, Alex Ingram still drinks his morning coffee from a Jurassic Park thermos, but don’t judge him. See more of his writing here.
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