Not long ago, I was browsing for DVD's at my local megamarket, when I happened to see two young boys, about 10-year-olds looking at Die Hard blu-rays. They were totally awe-struck by the plot synopsis at the back of the disc, which promised "one man against a whole skyscraper full of terrorists". The best action films of the 80's will endure for many generations to come, it seems. And for us older fans, the nostalgia trip back to the Golden Age of muscle-films is also upon us. The Expendables are back with a new film, so what better time to look at some of the best work the film's ensemble cast did back in the day? Arnold Schwarzenegger is out of this post because I have a whole series devoted to his films, which I really should continue one of these days.
I seriously think this should be the official theme song of the movie.
First Blood (1982)
Director: Ted Kotcheff
The Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Stallone) arrives to a small American town of Hope, Washington to say hi to an old war buddy. He hears his friend is dead due to cancer caused by inhaling Agent Orange back in the day. The saddened Rambo goes to get a bite to eat, but is stopped by the local sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy). The sheriff doesn't like shaggy, long-haired veterans with five 'o clock shadows in his town. So Rambo is arrested for no reson and tried to shave. But seeing a razor blade gives Rambo a fit and he quickly attacks the entire police precinct and escapes into the woods. A battle of wills and wits begins, as the police start a campaign to catch him.
|Would you allow this man to walk around freely at your peaceful town?|
Stallone became a major star with Rocky films, and subsequently his adaptation of David Morell's novel was modified a bit to fit his star status. So in the movie, Rambo really doesn't kill anyone, just wounds. The two deaths of the film are more or less accidents, caused by the police's obsession to get Rambo (three deaths, if the officer Rambo throws out of a window didn't make it). Most notably, Rambo doesn't kill himself in the end, which undermines the tragic story of how Vietnam ruined a man's life. Indeed, Rambo's sequels also lessen the impact of the story of a man trying to struggle with his violent past. Since Rambo finds his will to live, he also finds his will to kill. And while the USA hasn't much use for the perfect killing machine home, they can always ship him abroad. All in all, First Blood's either too serious or not serious enough. If the lead role had been given to a real actor, or the director had a better vision, First Blood would be a classic. Now, it's more or less just the prequel, a curiosity piece to the much more Reaganist, in-your-face, violent, Rambo: First Blood Part II.
Crank: High Voltage (2009)
Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Jason Statham is kind of an interesting case in The Expendables' casting, in that he still has an action career that doesn't just rely on repeating his past glories. He's sort of the last real action hero still standing (since John Cena has made far too few movies these past years). Given that, his most popular films, The Transporters and especially the Cranks, kind of rely on the action movie tradition to make even the slightest bit of sense. Like the name implies, Cranks parody action movie tropes by cranking everything up to 11; the speed, the violence, the boyish humor, the sexist view about women, the racism, and the ridiculousness. But even though the first one did this pretty perfectly, the problem and the foil of the sequel is that it has to be bigger and even more ridiculous. It becomes painfully obvious that even the makers don't take any of this seriously. While this sense was very thin in the first one, it was still there.
|Crank 2 has a massage to the audiences.|
So director-writers Neveldine and Taylor indulge in every dumb idea they ever had. So the film features, for example, a 16-bit video game segment, a fight where Chelios and his opponent grow into giant Kaiju monsters (as blokes in suits, of course), and a cheesy talk show segment that deepens Chelios' character a bit. Such an attempt on a character that's essentially a cartoon is a bit pointless, but at least he isn't too thoroughly explained. We already know what makes him tick; shocks, murders, strippers, running around, fucking around (figuratively), and fucking around (literally). The sheer outrageousness of it all does cause a good laugh or two on the first viewing, but there's little reason to watch this again, since the shock value disappears so quickly. But it is an admirably crazy movie, and Statham is an admirably crazy movie star.
The Legend (Fong Sai-Yuk, Hong Kong 1993)
Director: Corey Yuen
Jet Li should probably be on this list for his American action films, but I thought c'mon, I just reviewed Kiss of the Dragon, I'm not watching Romeo Must Die or anything for this post. For me, Li is the perennial wuxia character due to numerous 90's roles in Chinese martial arts movies, whether from Hong Kong or mainland China. Fong Sai-Yuk is a poster child for such films, as it is about an ancient Chinese legend, and it features romance, comedy, and epic fighting. Not always evenly mixed, mind you.
Fong Sai-Yuk (Li) is a martial arts master in a small Chinese village, yet chooses to keep his talents hidden from the rest. He falls in love with Ting-ting (Michelle Reis), the daughter of the gangster Tiger Lui (Sung Young Chen), who's looking to gain influence across the region. Thus, Lui arranges a contest to give his daughter's hand to the most skilled fighter, who can defeat his wife Miu Chui-Fa (Joephine Sia). But there's foul play afoot, and Fong Sai-Yuk forfeits, and gives his mother Siu-Fa (Sibelle Hu) a chance to compete disguised as a man. This makes Miu fall in love with her. But while all this farce of mistaken identities goes on, there is a secret society plotting to overrule the Emperor. The government's agents are hot on pursuit to find the list of names in the socety. As Fong Sai-Yuk's father is a member, it is up to him to keep the list safe.
So, the plot is quite complex as they tend to be in wuxia epics. If the Chinese legends are not familiar, one must keep on one's toes to keep up. But the action scenes are beautifully realized and the coreography is a marvel. The rural setting while fighting over national issues, also works quite well. The whole cast is good, and Li actually is a bit sidelined since his character has little personality, besides nobility, ambitiousness and love for Ting-ting. But the plot does need an anchor to revolve, and Li does that role in similar movies very well. That's why he's also a good choice in ensemble action films in America, rather than a movie star that drives his own stories as well.
Showdown In Little Tokyo (1991)
Director: Mark L. Lester
Lundgren's films are often panned, since they are usually cheap straight-to-video stuff. The huge Swedish bodybuilder worked great as a villain in Rocky IV and Universal Soldier, but less so as a hero in his own films. But it's not really Lundgren's fault, for he has the necessary physique and the same twinkle in his eye as Arnold in his best roles. Dolph just chose his roles poorly, and made some flops that ruined his career, such as Masters of the Universe. But for a view of the Lundgren that could have been comes this classic action spectacle from the director of Commando that's just as hilariously awesome and good.
|For instance, it has Lundgren dressed like this. But shirtless most of the time.|
|A buddy movie, or something more?|
Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)
Director: Steve Carver
I might get a roundhouse kick in the face for this (I'd deserve it), but Chuck Norris is probably the worst action star on this list. The dude has no acting talents, no charisma, and what karate skills he may have had when he was young are rarely, if ever, presented in his later works. But he does have two settings, walk and kill. Also, Norris does love the Texas Rangers. This film features the first time he's played one, and his character here was later toned down for the TV series Walker, Texas Ranger. This is also one of the very few Chuck Norris films I've seen that's also kind of enjoyable to watch.
|The opening also really tries to sell this as a modern western.|
So "Lone Wolf" McQuade is the sort of Ranger that keeps peace with the use of his extended weaponry. The Mexican border doesn't leak any dirty Mexican drugs whenever McQuade is on the case. But his Lone Wolf abilities have estranged him from his ex-wife and daughter, even though he still loves both of them. At a carnival, McQuade sets his eyes on a new woman, Lola Richardson (Barbara Carrera). But she is also the object of affection to the rich plantation-owner Rawley Wilkes (David Carradine). And Wilkes also has some businesses that don't stand the light of day, so he orders a hit on McQuade. When the Ranger survives, he wages a war against the ruthless kingpin, and attempts to take him out before his loved one's lives are in jeopardy.
It's hard to think of Chuck Norris as an everyman, but that's the image the movie attempts to sell us. He lives in a dirty shack, where he practices his skills with a sawed-off shotgun in the background shooting gallery. In his refridgerator there's nothing but beer cans. Beer is actually a recurring motif in the movie. Richardson attempts to set McQuade straight by replacing his beers with vegetables, which drives him into anger. They have filthy, filthy make-up sex on the yard in a mud pit (seriously). Beer also saves McQuade's life later on, when he's buried alive. He regains consciousness and strength by pouring beer over his head (notice this, all you party people).
Chuck does get a chance to show his karate skills this time around, because he's battling David Carradine of all people. But the real beef of the movie is in the massive explosions, shootings and all-around weaponized carnage. Those scenes depicting it are so good, they make even the more boring scenes such as Chuck pining for his old family, somewhat tolerable.
Directors: Mark DiSalle, David Worth
Talking of karate masters that DO know their shit around. Van Damme is an actual martial artist and he will show off his remarkable skills (and splits) in any given movie. I actually didn't see too many Van Damme movies growing up (unlike most of these other guy's movies), so I've only discovered his body of work in my adulthood. But I've got to say, many of his movies hold up good even today.
|And he also knows how to PARTY!|
One of his best works, this early effort shows Van Damme in his element; fighting in an underground fight tournament. In the beginning his character Alex Sloane is more or less just an observer, trying to talk his brother Eric (Dennis Alexio) from taking part in this tournament. Of course, Eric refuses since he clearly has a death wish. Then he gets killed in the ring by the tough and ruthless Tong Po (Michel Qissi) with his brutal Muay Thai moves. To avenge his brother, Alex travels the world to meet a martial arts master Xian Chow (Dennis Chan) in a Thai jungle and to learn the secrets of Muay Thai. But the bad guys also take notice in his development and decide to stop him from ever completing his training.
This movie is almost like the archetypal martial arts movie. A personal tragedy to fuel the want of vengeance as a motivation, lots of training scenes and faux eastern wisdom, and of course a spectacular final fight with some of the sickest moves you've seen. But being stripped to it's bear essentials really works for this movie. Given his star-making turn in Bloodsport, the aw-shicks, naive character of Van Damme is surprisingly believable and without a hint of pretentiousness. He does gain confidence and cockiness during the course of this movie, but since his expressions more or less vanish due to his training kicking in, it's hard to tell. There's a lot of similar films to this one, but there's some sort of a soul or heart in this that's hard to replicate. Or maybe it is just the violent, brutal fights, I don't know.
Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan
We end this article as a full circle, coming back to the ultimate action film. There's no denying that Die Hard changed the face of action cinema altogether. It began the crumbling of unstopplable muscle-men and began the era of the everyman hero. It's beutifully executed plot, that runs exact like clockwork, was also so effective that about every action movie before the Matrix imitated it in some effect. But what most other action movies didn't succeed in doing, was have a script as razor-sharp, a cast as perfect, and social critique of 80's yuppie-and-other-suitmen-owned LA as bitter.
|"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs."|
I'm sure most of humankind knows the story of Die Hard. Well, actually no, because the younger generation may be interested in the film without having an older brother/cousin/friend's older brother show the film on VHS/DVD/Blu-ray, so I might as well recap. The blue-collar working Joe, and down-to-earth kind of guy John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives to Los Angeles for Christmas. He's meeting his estranged wife Holly and kids after a long while and is hoping to patch things up with them. But his Holiday plans change as he's visiting the Yukatani corporation's Christmas party, and the whole skyscraper is raided by European terrorists. McClane tries to alert the police, but soon finds out he's the only one he can trust in such a tricky situation. But luckily he's a real cowboy and ready for straightforward action. Without outside help, McClane must face off against a super-group of fiendishly clever, cruel mercenaries led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).
|AKA The Greatest villain of all Time|
So like I've mentioned, McClane's enemy isn't really only the terrorists, but secondarily almost all of LA itself. From the media, to would-be yuppie negotiators, to the stiff police force authority figures, to dumb Vietnam-vet FBI agents, every one just makes the situation worse before it gets any better. The swarmy Euro-trash are ready for anything just to gain a few bucks, which might be a bitter parallel to the financial world of the time. They don't have any principles, but are willing to cheat they have some by ripping off articles from Time magazine. The by-the-numbers American authorities can't deal with that. The only kin McClane finds is another low-level police officer, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), who he contacts via a walkie talkie. But his most important ally is his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who somewhat drives the plot. Holly in particular is an interesting character since she is torn between the surface-level LA go-getting career missile life, and the role of a supportive and appreciated wife of a hotheaded, but loving husband. In the end, the final victory only comes when she lets go of an empty status symbol and give herself entirely into the other role.
|Who wouldn't want to kiss this man?|
But even though the film is open for such class-ponderings, at it's heart Die Hard is still a kickass action film with superb setpieces, on-the-edge-of-your-seat excitement, and endlessly quotable oneliners. Welcome to the party, pal!