The best action flicks don’t dabble in social commentary
The recently released trailer for The Expendables 2 is undeniably simple.
It contains one-liners such as “I now pronounce you man and knife”, close to 10,000 individual explosions, gunfire, montages of people loading weapons, people back-flipping, unnecessary martial arts and motorbikes smashing into helicopters. Its principle stars are men who spent most of their careers hurling stuntmen off jet skis and other, fast-moving objects, and screaming profanities at underpaid extras.
Yes, there’s every chance this fiery, tumbling mass of adrenalin syringes will disappoint those seeking a multi-layered exploration of violence’s role in shaping the human condition. But its ageing heroes were arguably much more focused on the noble pursuit of crafting a multi-explosioned exploration of punching dudes in the face with comically-oversized fists.
Their interest lies in paying homage to the genre they helped forge in the fires that regularly engulfed Hollywood sets as a result of horrific negligence during the 80s and 90s - the Big Dumb Awesome Action Movie.
Growing up (a process yet to be completed), these were some of my favourite movies. Men like Arnold, Willis and Sly were titans - jaw-crushing gods made from monster truck tires and replica firearms. But they were also educators, as much as they were looming walls of muscular destruction.
From them, I learnt how to launch petty and offensive puns at guys stuck to walls with steam pipes, assault Bill Paxton and properly greet a Carl Weathers who has obviously spent far too long “pushing too many pencils” at the behest of the CIA.
I love my Black Swans and Adaptations and delightful Wes Anderson films as much as the next faux-adult. But action movies - particularly the kind where dramatic tension is defined as “the time between when a grenade is thrown and when it explodes” - are a true guilty pleasure. They’re like pancakes for the eyeballs - thick, unnecessary, and completely satisfying. Movies like Commando, Predator, True Lies, Die Hard and the Rambo series knew exactly what their audiences wanted and made no apologies.
It was a time when “actors” weren’t selected on the basis of their “acting skills”, but on their ability to lift progressively heavier objects, comp cigars, throw people from jeeps and cause bizarre on-set injuries to fellow cast members.
Driving them were scripts written on the bones of ancient warriors using quills made from eagle feathers dipped in pure, liquefied testosterone.
Often, plot holes would arise. But those holes lacking in plot would always be filled by something much better: the red-hot shell casings of an M60.
Bad guys, too, were simple. They were, quite literally, guys who were bad.
Hans Gruber wasn’t a complicated commentary on the fragile state of eastern European politics and the way in which a modern culture of greed triggered by favourable economic conditions can push men to extremes.
He was just some evil German dude who needed to be thrown off the Nakatomi Plaza building in slow motion.
These classics succeeded where most modern big dumb action movies, such as Transformers, fail - they didn’t pretend to have something to say about stuff. They knew we were there to spend 88 minutes watching things burst into flame for no apparent reason other than: “Arnold will hit me if I don’t”.
But those mindless days of glorified, nonsensical carnage, giant forearms and lousy puns are mostly behind us. Stallone and Schwarzenegger can try all they want to revive it, but the golden age of the action hero is over. Too many of us seem to have forgotten that you’re never too smart to enjoy a Big Dumb Awesome Action Movie.
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