Monday, 11 January 2016

Action Movies: The Evolution Through My Eyes - The Glory Years

As promised, here is the second part to my first article 'Action Movies: The Evolution through my eyes'. And you know what I will be focusing on; the '80's. The freakin' glory years of action. The '80s had the best teen flicks, the best slashers and of course the best action movies. The mood is set, I have my fire up song playlist pumping, I have 'Rambo II' playing softly in the background and I am not wearing pants, so get comfy action fans, and let's explore the best decade of the action genre!

So this is the '80s huh? Flashy cars, chick's in leopard print, and a sea of men in Golds Gym singlets; what a time to be alive! So here we are, we have stepped out of the '70s and while there are some remnants of what once was, we are now riding a huge wave which is going to revolutionise the way action films are made. The '70s was an overall gritty decade for film, we saw the action genre spawn it's own sub genres in all corners of the globe, and actors like Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero, Steve Mcqueen, Gene Hackman and Charles Bronson were at the peaks of their career. But a new team of stars were going to join the ranks, and they were about to set the benchmark which has not been topped since. 

The early '80s started off with a bang with 'The Empire Strikes Back' and 'Superman II'.  I think that these two films right there symbolised that the '80s were going to be more than just 'big'. It was going to be monumental, gargantuan and monstrous. The hair, the muscles, the explosions, the soundtracks, the film budget; everything was going to be epic. Everything in the '80s seemed to be on a much grander scale, with so much excess - maybe we can blame cocaine on that one? Either way 1981 rolled on by and so did one of the most bad-ass action movies; 'Escape from New York'. It's star, Kurt Russell had quite a lengthy TV career starting as a child, but it was 'Escape from New York', which really made film executives, critics and audiences alike to take notice. And since then he has not only appeared in action films, but he has been in thrillers, kids films and drama's; I guess you could say this man is pretty well rounded. 1981 also changed the way action/adventure films would be portrayed with Steven Spielberg's classic 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. Audiences were already familiar with it's leading man, Harrison Ford; but this was his franchise alone. Spielberg's sets were so distinctive and remarkable, that it conveyed to audiences that you can make an action film anywhere, just give the audience some suspense, and make the impossible possible.

To the guys who know me, you know what is coming next. 1982 was a very eclectic year, because the remnants from the '70s were still hanging around, so if you incorporate the grittiness of the '70s with the '80s excess you get films like '1990: Bronx Warriors' and 'The New Barbarians'. While these films are entertaining and brutal in their own way, there is one film which brought real life brutality, and held up a mirror in front of society to show just how easy traumatic events are forgotten because of decadence and ignorance, and that was 'First Blood'. Sylvester Stallone was already making a huge mark in Hollywood with the 'Rocky' franchise but 'First Blood' was the real starting point on when action movies were going to change. Of course this first installment is more of a drama/thriller in comparison to it's sequels, but this is the film that started it all. In 1984 'The Terminator' was released and just like 'First Blood', it had more of a thriller vibe to it than the streamlined action film that we know today. It's the sequels to these two films which are non-stop action with muscles, and explosions and bullets firing off everywhere. 'First Blood' and 'The Terminator' are the cores of each of the franchises, these are the origin stories, this is where a lot of the character development is done. The sequels are just as great as the originals, but it's the sequels which scream out "Who the fuck we gotta kill to save the world"; it's really that simple. 'First Blood' was critically acclaimed, but it's sequels is where people have 'issues' believing that what he does is possible, so here's my argument to that. It's a freakin' movie! Oh and before I forget, these are also fictional films,  like James Bond, but I don't see the 'Bond' franchise get as much grief. 'Saving Private Ryan', an amazing film, but very violent, but why doesn't anyone chastise this film? Oh wait because it's based on a true story, my mistake. It seems you can only have 'based on true story' epic's that are allowed to show brutal depictions of violence. 

As we moved forward through to 1984, a sub-genre of action would be defined as the 'buddy cop' movie, with 'Beverly Hills Cop'. It's star Eddie Murphy had already been steadily making a name for himself through his stand-ups, SNL sketches and of course his roles in '48 hours' and 'Trading Places'. Murphy was already a hilarious actor with a superb talent when it came to accents, impersonations of celebrities, all the while maintaining this cool-as-a-motherfucker attitude. While 'Beverly Hills Cop' possessed great humour from Axel, Rosewood and Taggart, you never forgot about the action. Was the film violent? Sure, however never to the extent of the CGI violence that action fans have come to know and love today. The success of the film not only brought critical acclaim but it also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay; and from then on two sequels were spawned. Were the sequels as good? Personally I prefer 'Beverly Hills Cop II'; what can I say I am a sucker for the soundtrack and how slick it looks. As for the third film, it was still enjoyable, but definitely a more lighter film than the previous installments. 

If you dig the '80s and all it's cheesy action glory, then 1985 was a great year for the Cannon Group. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were the guys you went to if you wanted to churn out films fast, on limited budget, with crappy Special Fx and even worse working conditions. Granted they were not the most respected, but you have to appreciate what these guys did. These guys loved movies, they were not like every movie executive who's only passion is lining their own pockets. And while they had a few successes, it was 1985 that brought some damn fine films. Let's start off with Michael Dudikoff's most memorable role, 'American Ninja'. I just know for a fact that this film was at every young boys' birthday party.  But even though ninja films suddenly seemed cool again, the  '70s were still reluctantly hanging around with 'Death Wish 3'. Okay sure it wasn't as great as the original, and it wasn't as brutal as the second, but it had some quality about it; I think you can call it trash, but good trash. I like trash, and it was just one big montage of enjoyable trash. Then we have the Cannon poster boy Chuck Norris starring in 'Missing In Action 2' and my personal favourite 'Invasion U.S.A.'. If you want explosions and cars crashing into things and everybody being trigger happy 'Invasion U.S.A.' is the film you need in your life. But the best of 1985 for Cannon had to go to 'Runaway Train' - Sure it's not a shoot-em-up kind of action film, but it's direct, dramatic, and definitely has some of the most intense action scenes set on a train I have ever witnessed. Also Jon Voight and Eric Roberts give stellar performances, and it makes me wonder why is this film along with these actors so underrated? 

In 1986 you had such eclectic releases which had so many different flavours and influences that it really was a genre for everyone. Sci-Fi was really pushing through the horror genre, but adding an action twist to it you get results like 'Aliens'; now THAT was revolutionary. I love the original 'Alien' film and I respect it for it's intensity and the way it slowly creeps under your skin until the point you cannot look away, even though you know the result may frighten you. But 'Aliens' was that cooler, slicker older brother you wish you could be; it just didn't give a fuck. It had Sci-Fi, action and horror all rolled into this great story with characters you could identify with, no matter how much they pissed you off. This was action that everyone had dreamt of, that everyone had craved, but they couldn't put the exact words down to what they wanted; but that's okay because James Cameron knew what everyone wanted. 

While films that also came out that year may not have been as popular as 'Aliens' they all made their mark, and became popular and well loved with the hardcore fans. Films like 'Cobra', 'A Better Tomorrow', 'The Golden Child', 'Big Trouble in Little China', 'Delta Force', 'Raw Deal' and 'No Retreat, No Surrender' all became great additions to the action movie cannon. They all brought something new and fresh to the table as well as keeping the core of what makes action great. 

Some may say that after 1986 the action genre just got sillier, cheesier and overall lame. And there may be some truth to that, however to hardcore action fans like myself, the genre was really starting to cook. Sequels were spawning faster than the flying piranhas from 'Piranha 2', muscles were getting bigger, and the stars from the '70s were gracefully backing away and letting actors like Stallone, Russell and Schwarzenegger take the lead. But while these guys were leading the pack you had actors and martial artists making a name for themselves and proving you don't have to be Rambo to blow shit up. Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan, Dolph Lundgren, Peter Weller, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cynthia Rothrock, Billy Blanks and Roddy Piper were among the actors and martial artists who had not only perfected their craft, but also kept pushing themselves, taking notes from the biggest stars but all the while remaining true to themselves. 

After 1985, I feel that the action genre became less streamlined and was branching out into new directions that had not been previously explored, and because it was the '80s anything seemed possible. This was a decade that was so experimental and so accepting of ideas, concepts and of course it's stars. They knew there was money to be made, and they made it, ten fold. VHS was also becoming more popular as the prices for a VCR dropped and visits to the video store became more frequent. It's the sale of VHS in the '80s that really helped the popularity of action and horror films, and it explains why so many of the die-hard fans are going to the ends of the earth to try and find those uncut editions that were only available on VHS. 

The second half of the '80s shone a light on the more unknown actors, and because VHS flood the market, more films were being able to be made, and that's where a lot of these stars shined. It didn't matter that the films were going straight to video, because no matter how B-grade some of the films were, people were willing to watch anything, and that is how you find those gems. I rummaged through a bargain bin and that's how I found 'King of the Kickboxers'; that film changed my life, no joke. There is nothing wrong with being more famous on VHS than on that huge silver screen, you know why? Hardcore fans will search high and low for an entire back catalogue on many actors no matter how crappy the film is. These action stars from the '80s obviously showed audiences they possess something unique and wonderful, they appealed to a group of people who loved to be excited whenever they sat in a movie theatre or in the comfort of their own home. True fans will always have memories of watching certain films, and they will do whatever it takes to recapture that moment they first saw their favourite action film. I hope these actors know that we appreciate them and the work they did. They may have only been in one film, or fifty films, either way they have made an impact. This action revolution on VHS is so important, because without it we wouldn't have these stars, we wouldn't have incredible martial arts to cover up a really funny storyline. And most of all we wouldn't have such kickass memories from when we were kids, or even memories that we have chosen to make with like-minded people. 

Stay tuned for Part III where I discuss the end of the '80s for the action era, and if it will ever be recaptured. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! You're right, the action revolution was very important in the 80s and early 90s.