Commando. Over the Top. Die Hard. What do these iconic pieces of badass ‘80s action cinema have in common?
They’re about family men, who kill, break bones, and put themselves through hell to protect their kin.
In some ways, through all the carnage and one-liners left in their wake, the fictional heroes of ‘80s action cinema were the pure id version of role models. While Reagan attended to international unrest, corporatization bled down into the suburbs, and cocaine fueled every nightclub in sight, the characters of John Matrix, Lincoln Hawk, and John McClane represented the kind of person that citizens wanted to be: self-reliant, moral, patriotic, proud, desirable, and right. These were not men measured by their worth; after all, these characters were written as either blue collar workers or men of the land, each breaking their back to provide for their family and country. And when the values they held dear are threatened, they took action, even if it means killing the equivalent of a small army singlehandedly.
Looking back, it’s not hard to figure out why there was such an admiration for this particular brand of action hero. For the millions of adults who grew up under the nuclear family dynamic of the ‘50s and witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War on the nightly news, if not firsthand, the line between right and wrong was far more important than the line between good and evil. The American Dream was coming back to life again, and hard-working individuals valued personal pride over all. So in showing hard-bodied, gun-toting heroes defending their family, country, and way of life, theaters became subtle purveyors of motivational iconography.
Yet these trends took a hard turn following September 11th, 2001, when a real life tragedy would rock the United States to its core and change the national mindset overnight. With war on the horizon and unfiltered emotion pooling into a desperate need for catharsis, pop culture responded by pushed the ideology of “the greater good.” The rest of the decade would see the unprecedented rise of the superhero film, while action cinema such as The Bourne Identity, Man on Fire, V for Vendetta, 300, Shooter, and Rambo reminded audiences of the difference the few can make in the interest of the many, even if those accomplishments are fictional. Furthermore, they reinstated the concept of foreign villains once more, with foreign terrorists and vast international conspiracies nearly completely eclipsing the domestic baddies of the previous decade.
Now, following Obama’s de-escalation of the Iraq War, the action cinema of the 2010s has once again put an emphasis on the traditional values of yesteryear, yet not entirely as they used to be: these values have been warped to spell out a very specific message. Family is no longer just about those who share your blood; it’s about community, loyalty, and experience, which create bonds that are feasibly stronger than actual familial relationships. Patriotism is no longer about defending your fellow countryman and taking pride in your nation; it’s about standing up and speaking up for your national identity, even if it means adopting ugly, hostile behavior. Personal pride is no longer about your personal health or your endurance; it’s about your contribution to the world, and treating your output as an extension of yourself.
For the transformation of traditional moral values, one doesn’t need to look any further than the Fast & Furious franchise, one of the rare action properties that appeals as much to the heartland of America as it does to diverse urban audiences. Although the action in the films have gone completely insane at times, the film dwells less on the concept of justice and service in favor of the importance of family. Whether you’re Caucasian, African-American, Latino, Asian, or Polynesian, Fast & Furious promotes love, sacrifice, and friendship as what makes “family,” and if you’re willing to drive your car out of a cargo plane in order to avenge your loved one, that bond is stronger than of just friendship. Unsurprisingly, this mentality has been slowly but surely cementing itself in modern action cinema, with films like Guardians of the Galaxy, The Expendables, and even Vin Diesel’s other action franchise, XXX: The Return of Xander Cage all adopting the “misfit family” archetype.
Yet while the moral fabric of traditional values has become askew in modern action cinema, nationalism and patriotism has absolutely been heightened the most in the genre, almost perversely so. This is not to say that nationalism and patriotism are bad things; in fact, traveling around the country as a journalist has bolstered my national pride tenfold, even if many of my fellow Americans are overdue for a good soul-searching. But certainly the idea of seeing an American overcoming insurmountable obstacles out of the love for his or her country has served as the seed for many action films as of late, falling in line with post-9/11 patriotic sentiment.
In terms of that factor, few films offer up unbridled patriotism quite like Olympus Has Fallen and, more specifically, its sequel, London Has Fallen. Both films follow Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent who goes beyond the call of duty for the frequently targeted President Asher, with the latter placing the pair in the heart of London during a widespread terrorist attack. With xenophobic one-liners, sadistic kill scenes, and monologues about the greatness of America, one might label London Has Fallen as extremely jingoistic, even by action movie standards. However, with Iranian filmmaker Babak Najafi behind the camera and Scottish heartthrob Gerard Butler in the role of Banning, there’s a perpetually winking eye behind London Has Fallen that not only understands exactly what kind of action film that it is, but exploits the film’s more controversial elements as further testament to the escapist fantasy of the genre.
But the greatest contributors to the resurgence of nationalism in action cinema have been the “true story” soldier stories, sharing tales of real-life heroism on the largest platform possible. Often times, these are movies that once again glorify the working class blue-collar man who risks everything for country, family, and faith, except instead of fictional, wise-cracking constructs, we’re given actual historical figures, such as Desmond Doss, Chris Kyle, and Marcus Luttrell, adding extra emotional weight to the proceedings. Furthermore, these tales also seem to be rating and controversy proof: Hacksaw Ridge resurrected the directorial career of Mel Gibson, American Sniper overcame accusations of Islamophobia to earn over $500 million worldwide, and Lone Survivor rescued Peter Berg’s career following the public failure of Battleship; all of which carried hard-R ratings and realistic depictions of wartime viscera.
However, the most apparent and visible transformation of traditional values in modern action cinema would be the importance of personal pride. In the ‘80s, action heroes were symbols of extreme physical fitness, sex appeal, and superhuman endurance, taking pride in being the exact opposite of their drug-peddling, sadistic, and cowardly villains. Thirty years later, modern action heroes are those who- for lack of a better term- are defined by a single quality: their resourcefulness.
Movies like John Wick, Lucy, Drive, The Martian, The Accountant, The Equalizer, and Jack Reacher all feature semi-ordinary protagonists blessed with extraordinary skills. By positing each character’s identity in their wit and spontaneity, rescuing, protecting, and avenging loved ones is no longer as easy as firing randomly at seemingly random henchmen, but rather a display of skills that- given the proper training or circumstances- the common man could envision themselves acquiring. And at the end of the day, these are heroes whose journeys are defined by action, not defiance or character, meaning that their chance of being politicized is slim to none.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying action cinema, regardless of political and moral affiliation; sometimes, it’s simply cathartic to watch shit blow up in a dark room full of strangers. But if you find it difficult to separate the entertainment from its message, the askew moral standards of today’s action fare are not permanent, although one could potentially see them becoming even more radical as “right” and “wrong” have become subjective terms in the divisive age of the Trump presidency. Hell, one can’t even necessarily fault this era of filmmaking, as representation of gender and race in the action genre has certainly taken strides in the past few years; biracial buddy cop films have been effectively replaced with diverse, surprisingly progressive ensemble films. Yet with the next decade potentially kicking off with a new president and an altogether different national identity, predicting the direction of action cinema’s moral compass is nearly impossible, though we can only hope that when these values once again rear their head in pop culture, it won’t escalate into uglier, more reactionary territory. After all, it would be a damn shame to look at tomorrow’s cinematic heroes only to see yesterday’s cinematic villains.