Monday, July 24, 2006

Action Movies of the Late Eighties and Early Nineties

In the very late Eigthies a new cycle of motion pictures emerged, led by the likes of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. These action movies generally featured law enforcemnt officers (police officers, FBI agents, Federal Marshals, Texas Rangers) as the protagonists or, at least, very well trained amateurs (such as Steven Seagall's cook in Under Siege) in those roles. The plots were often larger than life, featuring over the top stunts, plenty of action, and plenty of violence to boot. Although this was not always the case, in many cases they also featured some sort of gimmick (terrorists taking over a skyscraper in Die Hard is a perfect example).

To a degree these sort of movies were nothing new. The late Sixties saw the emergence of a new sort of police drama, with over the top action and a fair level of violence. Thge first of this sort of film may well have been Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen and released in 1968. The movie centred on Lt. Frank Bullitt, a no nonsense police officer who must find the man who killed a witness in his charge. Among other things, it featured what may be the greatest car chase in the history of film. Bullitt was very influential, so much so that other films of its type were soon released. The most notable of these is probably Dirty Harry, released in 1971. Dirty Harry starred Clint Eastwood as Inspector Harry Callahan, a San Francisco cop who would just as soon shoot criminals as arrest them and who almost never went by the rules. The movie went well over the top, with more violence than was even in Bullitt. In the end it would produce a number of sequels, perhaps more than any other police franchise. Between Bullitt and Dirty Harry, the Seventies saw a wave of police action movies, including such classics as The French Connection and Serpico. Eventually it seemed as if every actor in Hollywood had played a hard nosed cop. Even an aging John Wayne, well beyond the age of retirement for most police departments, played one twice!

By the early Eighties the number of these police action movies had dwindled to only a few a year. Released in 1982, 48 Hours had the unique take of teaming a police officer with a convict. The film was very successful, but did not create a rush towards similar films. Beverly Hills Cop, released in 1984, was a comedic take on police action films. It too was extremely successful, but it failed to generate a rush towards police action films as well. All of this would change in 1987 when several police action movies would come out of nowhere. One of these was Extreme Prejudice, directed by Walter Hill. The film focused on a Texas Ranger at odds with a drug lord. The film did well neither with critics nor audiences. Stakeout was a good more successful, featuring yet another pair of buddy cops on, as might be expected a stakeout. Beverly Hills Cop 2 also came out that year. It actually did as well as the original, but was nowhere near as good. Of the police action movies of 1987 it would be Lethal Weapon that would make the most noise.

In some respects Lethal Weapon was nothing new. There had been buddy cop movies done well before its release. Even its spectacular stunts were old hat to some degree. But Lethal Weapon took the unique course of teaming a reasonable, sane police officer (played by Danny Glover) with an officer who made Dirty Harry look positively sane (played by Mel Gibson, I suspect beating culprits black and blue was nothing unusual for him...). The formula worked and the movie was a resounding success. It would not only produce a number of sequels (three in all--sadly, only the first was any good), but a number of imitators as well. It was in part responsible for starting the cycle towards police action movies that lasted well into the Nineties.

The other film responsible for that cycle would be released the next year. Die Hard was something which had never been seen before on the screen. In the movie terrorists take over a brand new skyscraper. Unfortunately for them, a New York police officer (played by Bruce Willis) happened to be in the building when they siezed it. The movie then becomes a battle of wits between the heoric cop and the villains. In addition to a totally original premise, the movie featured one of the most memorable screen villains of the Eighties, Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman--now best known as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies). Die Hard proved extremely successful. Not only did it produce two sequels, but arguably it created a whole new subgenre of action films in which a lone hero must battle villains who have siezed a confined space. Under Siege, Sudden Death, Passenger 57, and several other subsequent action films owe their existence to Die Hard.

The success of both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard led to a remarkably large number of action movies which featured both officers of the law and sometimes talented amateurs fighting crime in films with spectacular stunts and a good deal of violence. Sadly, most of these films were fairly unremarkable and largely depended upon some gimmick more than realistic characters or a good plot. Next of Kin, released in 1989, featured a Chicago cop who is aided by his hillbilly brother in avenging another brother who was murdered by the mob. The concept had possiblities, but it was very poorly executed. Trespass, released in 1992, pitted two corrupt firemen, who wanted to loot an abandoned building, against the mob. The action is routine and, worse yet, there really isn't anyone to root for in the film (the firemen are about as appealing as the mobsters). Sometimes the plots of the films were just plain ludicrous. Point Break centred on a young FBI agent who goes undercover to nab a group of bank robbing surfers (perhaps I should not point out that two of the aforementioned films starred Patrick Swayze...).

This is not to say that some good films did not emerge from this cycle of police action/amatuer crimefighter films. Although many of Steven Seagal's films are virtually unwatchable in my humble opinion, I must admit that I really liked Under Siege. Okay, it is essentially Die Hard on a battleship (the U.S.S. Missouri, nonetheless). Okay, Seagal still cannot act. Okay, it is a bit predictable. But there is plenty of action and the plot features some interesting twists. What is more, it doesn't feature quite so many gaps in believability as other Die Hard imitators. I must also admit to having always liked The Last Boy Scout. For one thing, it is a buddy cop movie without the cops. Bruce Willis plays a cyical, down on his luck private eye, while Damon Wayans plays a former, faded NFL quarterback. The chemistry between the two is fairly good (and neither of them is crazy, so the film is hardly a Lethal Weapon imitation...). The film also features some of the best dialogue of any films in its genre, not to mention some spectacular action scenes.

Now I certainly would not say that either Under Siege or The Last Boy Scout are classics, but they are enjoyable popcorn movies that are better than many of the films in their genre. If a classic emerged from the late Eighties, early Nineties police action films, it was one that came about rather late in the cycle. Speed was released in 1994 and had a premise as original as that found in Die Hard. Quite simply, an archvillain (played marvelously by Dennis Hopper) has placed a bomb aboard a bus that will go off if the vehicle goes over 50 miles per hour. It is then up to a LAPD cop (played by Keanu Reeves) to save the day. The film featured some great performances from the aformentioned Dennis Hopper and, as the understandably stressed bus driver, Sandra Bullock. As to action, Speed is essentilally one long action sequence. It is rarely that something is not happening. What is more, despite its premise, the film never stretches the bounds of believability.

It is worth noting that this cycle did create its fair share of stars. Bruce Willis had seen success with cult TV series Moonlighting, but it was arguably films like Die Hard and The Last Boy Scout which turned him into a movie star. Although the Mad Max movies had made Mel Gibson a star, it was arguably Lethal Weapon that secured him film immortality. And while the cycle made many actors stars (or at least bigger stars than they had been), it was the primary means of support for some actors. Neither Steven Seagal nor Jean Claude Van Damme have really had a career since the cycle ended.

The police action/amateur crimefighter action movies of the late Eighties and early Nineties peaked in the years of 1989 and 1990, when more films of those types were released than most other years. It was perhaps a sign that the cycle was coming towards its end when, in 1993, a parody was released. National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 really is not a particulary good movie, but it did serve as a sign of the times. Any time a genre has been done as much as the police action/talented amateur films of the late Eighties/early Nineties had been, that genre is often seen as ripe for parody. And when that time comes, it usually means the cycle had grown worn and tired, and is more than ready for retirement. The following years would still see several more films of this type released. The cycle was still ongoing as late as 1995, when Broken Arrow (another good film of this type, directed by the master John Woo) and Die Hard With a Vengeance were released. But the cycle gradually faded away, to be replaced by big budget, special effects bonanzas (such as Independence Day) and, still later, superhero movies. Given the continued popularity of the Dirty Harry movies, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard, I rather suspect the genre will return to the big screen soon.

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