Martin Riggs [Mel Gibson]: Oh, gunfight, explosions, sharks, you know, the usual.
– Lethal Weapon 4 (Richard Donner, 1998)
The action film is probably the genre most associated with Hollywood. Action, and particularly the blockbuster, has come to stand for everything that Hollywood signifies. Essentially, Hollywood is the action movie. It is surprising then, that so few academic books have dealt with the action genre. Just over a decade ago, Yvonne Tasker examined representations of gender in action films in Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (1993), investigating portrayals of masculinity and race in contemporary Hollywood. At the end of the nineties, the British Film Institute published an action cinema collection entitled Action/Spectacle Cinema: A Sight & Sound Reader (1999), consisting of numerous reviews of action films that had previously been published by the film magazine Sight & Sound. Aside from these two examples, the action genre has largely been ignored within Film Studies. To find out that not one – but two – books were published in 2004, dedicating themselves entirely to the exploration of action films, offers some hope that film academics have not completely given up on the action genre.
The blurb on the inside sleeve of Eric Lichtenfeld’s Action Speaks Louder claims that “no previous book has taken on this subject [action cinema] with such rigor”. Indeed, the premise of Lichtenfeld’s study is to give some overdue critical attention to what is frequently dismissed as brash and mindless entertainment. Action Speaks Louder is the first of its kind to dedicate itself entirely to US action movies, presenting a fantastic opportunity to completely dissect every area of American action cinema. However, Lichtenfeld points out the difficulty of providing a thorough examination of the genre due to the vast number of films which it encompasses, stating that the rationale for his case studies is achieving depth rather than breadth:
Several considerations have guided my choices: a film’s significance in the history of the genre; how well the film represents a trend or a set of conventions irrespective of its cinematic merits; and only where possible, the film’s overall quality. (xix)
In the introduction, Lichtenfeld sets out his intention to provide an interdisciplinary approach to the action genre, not only deconstructing the films themselves but also examining the films’ processes of marketing and advertising, as well as drawing on existing critical research. While Lichtenfeld acknowledges that his choice of multiple methodologies might garner criticism for being too broad, he suggests instead that this method of examination makes his study a “richer one” (xx).
Lichtenfeld proceeds to highlight the importance that “myth” will play in his study. In the foreword to Action Speaks Louder, Richard Slotkin (author of Gunfighter Nation  and Regeneration Through Violence ) introduces the subject of myth as a “symbolic and poetic way of thinking” (x) and it is this notion of myth that Lichtenfeld seeks to employ in his examination of the action film:
For more than three decades, the American action film has represented a potent myth of what America is – a myth that is founded on even more fundamental ones of what America has been. My book is an attempt to articulate these myths… (xxi).
Consisting of a prelude and eight chapters, Lichtenfeld begins his study by examining various films released in 1971 such as Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), The French Connection (William Friedkin) and Shaft (Gordon Parks). According to Lichtenfeld, such films utilised the conventions of earlier popular film genres in order to create the “modern urban action film” (1). In this prelude, Lichtenfeld introduces the important figure of “The Man Who Knows Indians” in action movies – an archetype first proposed by Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation in relation to the Western – and this figure frequently reappears throughout Action Speaks Louder:
…“the man who knows Indians”… [is] an American who “must cross the border into ‘Indian country’ and experience a ‘regression’ to a more primitive and natural condition of life, so that the false values of the ‘metropolis’ can be purged and a new, purified social contract enacted.” To kill the “savage” Indian, the hero must understand the Indian and tap into a savagery of his own. But while enabling him to dispatch his enemy, this understanding also prevents him from ever fully integrating into the society he protects. (2-3)
Chapter One is largely a case study of Dirty Harry (Don Siegel), which Lichtenfeld cites as the action genre’s originator. Also released in 1971, Lichtenfeld’s rationale for naming Dirty Harry as the first “modern urban action film” and not The French Connection or Shaft (let alone the numerous action films released in earlier decades) is the film’s success in inspiring imitation. Up until the release of Dirty Harry, according to Lichtenfeld, action failed to exist as a genre of its own and was instead an amalgamation of various other popular genres – namely the Western and film noir. Thus, Dirty Harry was successful in becoming “both prototype and archetype” (15) for the action genre. Chapter One also introduces the figure of the “vigilante” – epitomised by Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan and also applied here to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). Lichtenfeld points out the two ways in which vigilantism is employed in such action films: first, mythologically, where vigilantism is aligned with “Western heroism and individuality”; second, ideologically, with vigilantism “discussed with more than token ambivalence” (18).
Chapter Two, entitled “Automatons: Hard Bodies and World Pacification”, examines films such as Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985) First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) and the Terminator films (James Cameron, 1984 & 1991; Jonathan Mostow, 2003), which demonstrate an attempt to revitalise the notion of masculinity that was damaged as a result of Vietnam. Pointing out the recurring themes of masochism, martyrdom and myth, Lichtenfeld asserts that the male bodies in these films, “purified by ceremony and by torture”, become “emblems of warrior culture” with their bodies reinforcing the characters’ power (96). The films described in Chapter Three evolve from this by using characters that become the weapon. For Lichtenfeld, actors such as Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme and Mel Gibson move away from the masculinity performed through physique to a masculinity performed through fighting skills and embodiment of weaponry.
Chapters Four to Seven take the evolution of action films from the 1980s to the 1990s as their subject. Starting with a discussion of Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985) and the post-apocalyptic Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller & George Ogilvie, 1981), Lichtenfeld moves on to examine the “atypical” contemporary action film series Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988 & 1995; Renny Harlin, 1990) and Lethal Weapon (Donner, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1998), as well as Passenger 57 (Kevin Hooks, 1992), Con Air (Simon West, 1997) and Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994) which he groups under the title “Terror and the Confined Arena” (163). In Chapter Six, Lichtenfeld suggests that the numerous action films released between 1996 and 1998 – Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998), Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998), Titanic (Cameron, 1997) The Siege (Edward Zwick, 1998) – substantially “borrow” from earlier disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972), The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin & Irwin Allen, 1974) and Earthquake (Mark Robson, 1974). Rather than being purely modern-day remakes, however, this new breed of disaster film “draws from breakthroughs in CGI technology” (199) and it is this ever-increasing emphasis on technology which characterises the group of films introduced in the following chapter as “Action Meets the Fantastic”. In this brief chapter, Lichtenfeld argues that films such as The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999), RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), Face/Off (John Woo, 1997) and Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996) “interrogate the natures of identity, of reality, and, on a subtler level, our troubled relationship with environments that are increasingly saturated by the media” (229). This emphasis on the fantastic is further taken up in many of the action films released in the new millennium – Lichtenfeld specifically references Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998), X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) and Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002) – as well as being evident in earlier superhero films such as the Superman (Donner, 1978; Richard Lester, 1980) and Batman (Tim Burton, 1989 & 1992; Joel Schumacher, 1995 & 1997) series.
Examining films which were released only in the last few years presents the opportunity to provide innovative and original analysis. Unfortunately, Lichtenfeld chooses to keep these chapters brief and spends more time providing synopses for films such as Die Hard and Dirty Harry which have, since their release, received plenty of critical attention. As a result, Lichtenfeld does not seem to be saying anything that has not already been said elsewhere. In what seems to be an attempt to flesh out these final chapters, Lichtenfeld resorts to weak textual analysis, such as the following paragraph discussing Spider-Man:
…[Spider-Man] ends with Spider-Man swinging from web to web, building to building, in a succession of iconic poses taken from the comic book. In one pose, he swings with his arms behind him and torso thrust forward; in another, he swings with his body curled and legs extended, one arm forward, one arm back. In yet another, his legs are spread and both arms thrust forward. In the next, he crouches, attached to a pole; and in the last, he swings with his legs spread, his head jutting forward, and his body curling back. (264)
As a writer who has, according to his biography, “worked in many areas of the film industry, including pre-production and marketing”, it is no surprise that the more interesting insights in this text concern the production rather than deconstruction of the films. Indeed, on numerous occasions Lichtenfeld provides fascinating information regarding the choice of weaponry, fighting style, and he even analyses certain protagonists’ eating habits – intermittently offering an almost encyclopaedic approach to American action movies. Lichtenfeld’s many attempts at textual analysis, however, such as his analysis of the use of colour in Chapter Eight, appear lost.
Richard Slotkin states in his foreword that Lichtenfeld’s study is “a valuable contribution not only to the study of film and culture but to our self-knowledge as Americans” (xi). The publication of Action Speaks Louder at a time when very little academic literature exists on the action film does indeed warrant recognition and this title is certainly informed and informative. To what extent Action Speaks Louder stands as a worthy academic study of the action film is, however, debateable. Lichtenfeld is undoubtedly passionate about his subject, but this often presents his study as more like the musings of a fan than critical investigation. Still, for fans of the action movies and film students embarking on the action genre, Action Speaks Louder provides an accessible and, at times, illuminating read.
* * *
Author of Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema and Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema (1998), Yvonne Tasker’s edited collection Action and Adventure Cinema examines action films from early cinema through to 21st century blockbusters, such as Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) and The Matrix, addressing issues such as genre, gender, ethnicity, stars, industry and aesthetics. According to Tasker, the aim of this anthology is to bring critical attention to a genre that has so often been dismissed as unworthy of study:
Deemed noisy and brash, judged empty at best and politically reactionary at worst, action films have consistently failed to meet the markers of aesthetic and cultural value typically applied within contemporary film culture. (2)
In her introduction, Tasker stresses that the intention is not to argue for the complexity or ambiguity of action-adventure cinema, but instead to highlight “a thematic significance that is too often overlooked” (3). With inclusions from prominent film studies academics, such as Christine Holmlund (Impossible Bodies, 2002), Peter Krämer (The Big Picture, 2001), Stephen Prince (Classical Film Violence, 2003), and Susan Jeffords (Hard Bodies, 1994; The Remasculinization of America, 1989), this action cinema reader promises to grant overdue attention to this “compelling cinematic phenomenon with a long and diverse history” (12).
Action and Adventure Cinema is divided into five parts: “History and Style”, “Theorising Action Aesthetics”, “Gender, Stars, Bodies”, “Nation, Ethnicity and Stardom”, and “Action, Authorship and Industry”. Part One maps out the history of action-adventure cinema, analysing films from the early 1900s and explaining how the genre was established. The section starts with Jennifer M. Bean’s essay, “Trauma thrills: Notes on early action cinema”, which looks at The Hazards of Helen, a railway film series released between 1914 and 1917. Bean introduces two assumptions concerning action cinema that are frequently engaged with throughout Action and Adventure Cinema: the importance of the body over the voice and the precedence that visual spectacle takes over narrative meaning (18). Bean suggests that it is precisely this emphasis on “trauma thrills” that makes action cinema so intriguing rather than worthless, and she proposes that such films “offer us something different” by providing “a plot designed to flaunt difference, to defamiliarize the familiar, to unsettle the viewer’s equilibrium” (28).
Richard Abel and Ben Singer also examine examples of early action cinema in their essays, and discuss how action has evolved since its labelling as “thriller melodramas or sensational melodramas” in the early 1910s. Originally published in his Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (2001), Singer’s article explores numerous early serial melodramas, their popular and critical reception, and concludes that such films were “commercially and culturally important” (67). Expanding on Singer’s work, Abel examines censorship and control during this period and highlights the problems such pictures faced due to their sensationalism and melodrama. In “Action-Adventure as Hollywood genre”, an essay previously published in his Genre and Hollywood (2000), Steve Neale addresses the problematic nature of definition and genre. Mapping out the genre’s evolution, Neale draws on the works of Brian Taves to demonstrate “four major cycles” in the history of the action film which are evident since the early 1900s and he concludes that the action-adventure film is “no different from most other Hollywood genres” (78). Following on from Neale, the last essay in this section takes the historical epic into consideration, using Dwight MacDonald (“one of the key critics of the middlebrow” ) as a case study. In this essay, Mark Jancovich highlights the contradiction between narrative and spectacle which is such a hot topic in critiques of the action genre, extending the argument to include issues of taste, cultural status and the conflict between the popular and the middlebrow.
In Part Two the focus moves towards the aesthetic sensibilities of action cinema. The section starts with Martin Flanagan’s dissection of the workings of action films in which he provides a “chronotope” of the genre. Utilising Bakhtin’s work on dialogism and his chronotope for the novel, Flanagan investigates the importance of time and space in the action genre in an attempt to understand the popular and commercial success of action movies. Chapters Seven and Nine take two films as case studies to examine action aesthetics: Aylish Wood takes up the notion of myth in her essay on the “collapse of reality” in The Matrix (119), while Michael Hammond examines the concepts of affect and nostalgia in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). In his essay on 1970s car chase films, Tico Romao examines the importance of realism, technology and youth culture in films such as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) and The French Connection, concluding provocatively that “unremitting spectacle…is not an inherent feature of the car chase but a symptom of a lack of narrative imagination” (148).
Part Three provides perhaps the most interesting collection of essays, looking at gender, stars and bodies. The essays move between an examination of the figure of the male in action films and representations of masculinity (Susan Jeffords on Breakdown [Mostow, 1997] white masculinity and class; Martin Fradley on Gladiator and masochism) to the significance of women in the action film (Linda Ruth Williams on G.I. Jane [Scott, 1997] and Demi Moore; Mary Beltrán on “The New Latina Heroine”; Marc O’Day on “Action Babe Cinema”) to Tasker’s examination of representations of the family in the action film. The essays in this section take on the problematic nature of gender in action cinema that was highlighted in Tasker’s Spectacular Bodies and extend this to cover issues of race and ethnicity – an element that Lichtenfeld chooses to sidestep in Action Speaks Louder. The majority of this section is, nevertheless, dedicated to discussions of the white American action hero(ine) as this is the character most typically associated with the genre. While Part Three mainly examines the white American action hero(ine), Part Four is an attempt to remedy this stereotype by examining more “marginalised” examples of action cinema, looking at the influence of Hong Kong action cinema and an examination of the Greek war film. The theme of stardom is carried over from Part Three with Christine Holmlund’s study of European action stars such as Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van Damme, while Dimitris Eleftheriotis offers a re-reading of the spaghetti western as national cinema.
The final section takes authorship and the film industry as its theme. Stephen Prince provides an interesting case study of the work of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai , Yojimbo ) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch , Straw Dogs ), arguing that both directors have managed the almost impossible task of making a “good” action film due to their ability to “inflect the action so that it can point beyond itself, becoming a form that incarnates essential qualities of the world outside the cinema” (332). Tony Williams continues this theme of violence in his study of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), reinforcing the tendency of action to cross over into other genres. Both Peter Krämer and Rachel Williams focus on the marketing aspects of action cinema and the part that “high concept” movie-making plays in the creation and advertising processes. Barry Keith Grant’s examination of the films of Kathryn Bigelow combines issues of authorship and industry as well as gender, which at the same time provides an overview of the various themes discussed in this anthology.
Whereas Lichtenfeld stresses his aim in Action Speaks Louder is for depth over breadth, the emphasis in Action and Adventure Cinema is primarily on the latter, with the intention of also achieving the former. Initially, the numerous sections in Action and Adventure Cinema appear to cordon off the various areas of action cinema. However, many of the essays included in this collection cross-over into other categories, which reinforces the multi-generic and hybrid properties of the genre that Tasker highlights in her introduction (3). This reader includes important essays previously published elsewhere (Neale’s “Action-Adventure as Hollywood Genre”; Krämer’s “’It’s aimed at kids – the kid in everybody’: George Lucas, Star Wars and children’s entertainment”), as well as essays expanding on existing discussions of action cinema (Abel’s “The ‘Culture War’ of Sensational Melodrama, 1910-1914”; Eleftheriotis’ examination of the spaghetti western). Through the inclusion of new and original work, this collection not only reinforces the importance of the action genre as a worthy area of investigation but also signals the evolution and future of a genre so often dismissed as cheap entertainment. Stand-out essays – including O’Day’s chapter on “Action Babe Cinema”, Wood’s discussion of The Matrix and Beltrán’s “Más macha: The New Latina Action Hero” – address recent cinematic releases but with the same passion and agency as more historical examples; at the same time, they present the genre’s progression with the increasing significance of previously marginalised figures, such as women and ethnic minorities. While this collection would have benefited from more analyses of non-Hollywood action films, the 24 essays included here certainly offer an extensive examination of the genre, achieving the aim that Tasker sets out in her introduction: to present action-adventure cinema as a “legitimate, if not perhaps reputable, field of study” (12).
Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie, by Eric Lichtenfeld, Praeger, Conneticut and London, 2004.
Action and Adventure Cinema, edited by Yvonne Tasker, Routledge, London and New York, 2004.
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