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Action Heroes and muscly superstars

posted by Mike on 7/18/02

Of all movie genres that flourished during the 80's, (and into the late 90's) perhaps the most over used was the action genre. It seemed like every month for 10 solid years, one could stroll into a movieplex and see any one of a number of films with loud, flashy three word titles: Above The Law… Code Of Silence… The Dead Pool… Last Action Hero…

But where films like the Dead Pool had a fairly interesting lead hero in Harry Callahan, most action films were vehicles for a few select "actors," built to sell on the sheer star power of their name being emblazoned across the top of the movie's poster. How many times has there been a film released where the poster said nothing of the plot, but simply said "Stallone,"Schwarzenegger," "Van Damme" or "Seagal" across the top? More than any of us would like to admit, I think.

The action star vehicle has faded from popularity in the last few years. What was once a guaranteed powerhouse of box office buck making has now disappeared, replaced with action films that star "respectable" actors, who seemingly star in these films in an effort to go "movie slumming." They expect us to all forget what came before: the forefathers of action, if you will. And so I thought I might take you all back to a time when explosions were still cool, bad accents were expected, and no evil masterminds died without being thrown a cheesy one-liner.

AAAADRIE…er, wrong movie… ARRRRGGHHHHH!!!!!

When I was a kid, it was all about Stallone and Schwarzenegger. No matter how implausible the films seemed. No matter how bad the acting was. None of it mattered, so long as there were lots of explosions, lots of gratuitous death, and the bad guys got dissed before being blown to smithereens. Both Arnold and Stallone came to prominence around the same time, and interestingly enough, both through sports-related films.

Stallone's ticket to stardom was, of course, Rocky, a film about the common man who overcomes adversity. It was a brilliant script, had stellar acting performances, and tugged on all the right heart strings. Arnold's was Pumping Iron, a documentary about professional body building. Somewhere along the way, someone got the idea from these films that Arnold and Sly would be perfect for testosterone spewing no brainers. This led to Stallone beginning his run with First Blood, and Arnold with Conan The Barbarian. Off the strength of those two films, these men created their own niche genre that lasted up until the late 90's. Stallone's swan song (that being the film that ended anyone's interest in his films) was the abysmally horrid Judge Dredd (which wasn't as much his fault as it was Rob Schneiders' of SNL fame.) Arnold's was arguably Collateral Damage, though I think it really died for him with End of Days, a thrown together conglomerate of Commando and the Exorcist, where Arnold takes on…and beats… the Devil. Well think about it… part of what made these films was the increasingly powerful and evil villains… once you've beat the Devil, there's not much else you can do…

Terminator 4: The Rescue Of Princess Di.

These films all followed the same basic formula. All of them had a female lead in distress. In all of them, the villain had a special connection to the hero in some way, shape or form. The hero would always be on the verge of defeat before coming back and saving the day. And without question, the films all lived (or died, such as the case may be) by the following non-negotiable rules:

1) All action heroes speak with barely decipherable accents. (Arnold is from Austria. Stallone has no excuse.)
2) Villains can't shoot straight.
3) When the hero runs from something about to explode, time as we know it slows to half speed.
4) All cars are built with the ability to instantaneously soar twenty feet in the air and land without blowing their tires… that is, unless the villains' henchmen are driving.
5) The only time a hero will speak softly to the female lead is when he's about to fuck her.
6) All action heroes have cocks that hang to their ankles.
7) All female leads are smart, independent women… until a bullet flies over their head, and then they become squeamish, gibbering bags of dead weight.
8) All evil masterminds are European.
9) Vietnamese soldiers run in single file, making them easier to shoot.
10) When caught outnumbered, the hero can always count on the villains to be good sports and wait in line for the ass whipping they are about to partake in.
11) When the hero is trapped and about to die, the master villain will always take time to explain to him exactly how to foil his vile scheme. You can thank the James Bond films for this tradition…
12) There is no such thing as a steel barrel that is not filled with an explosive substance.
13) Automatic weapons are the only guns that have to be reloaded. Six shooters have an endless supply.
14) Every major war in history could have been won by one man with full access to weaponry and assault vehicles.
15) A henchman should never try to shoot the hero from a distance of less than twenty feet. Any closer, and his gun will jam.
16) Heroes will always plant their explosive mines on top of hidden trampolines. This is why explosives never incinerate the villains, but merely throw them three feet into the air. Unless it's the head villain, in which case he can be completely atomized by a stun grenade.
17) Heroes hit on the head may forget who they are, but they never forget the roughly 266 different ways to kill a man with your thumb.
18) Gun powder is an appropriate substitution for antibiotic cream.
19) Action Heroes have the smartest dogs alive.
20) (And finally) When jumping out of a plane, parachutes are optional… but only for the hero.

Now certainly, Arnold and Sly weren't the only guys out there sniffing for a piece of the action pie. There was Jean Claude Van Damme, possibly the gayest action star in movie history. Nicknamed "The Muscles From Brussels," Van Damme certainly fit the bill. He was muscular, he had a terrible accent, and he couldn't act worth a crystal shit. His first American release was a laughably low budget film called No Retreat, No Surrender. In it, he portrayed a Russian martial arts master who comes to America to show local karate dojo masters who's boss. He kills the father of the film's hero, a teenager who idolizes Bruce Lee. Knowing that he can't defeat the Mad Russian alone, he prays to the spirit of Bruce for help. Logically, Bruce's ghost appears in his garage, teaches him Jeet Kun Do in three days, and leads him on to victory against the evil Jean Claude. In other words, this wasn't exactly Oscar calibur material.

Van Damme eventually won mainstream praise with his role in the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin actioner Universal Soldier. Unfortunately, a bout of alcoholism and drug abuse would ensure Van Damme a place on the direct-to-video shelf, especially after his last theatrical release, the ironic career killer Universal Soldier: The Return. Then again, he also made a film with SNL's Rob Schneider... perhaps I should do some research into how many other failed action stars have co-starred with this man... perhaps there is a connection:

Rare photos from Jean-Claude's tryouts for The Lion King and The Crying Game.

And who could forget Steven Seagal? The 7th degree Aikido master and self-proclaimed former body guard for US political figureheads (whose acting skills lie somewhere between William Shatner on crack and a three-toed sloth) karate chopped his way into the big time with his first theatrical release, Above The Law, where he played an Italian cop who just happened to be a master of Kickassztu. This spawned a seemingly unending bout of films with three word/syllable titles: Out For Justice, Hard To Kill, Under Siege (his biggest hit), Marked For Death, On Deadly Ground, and so on… Recently, he's taken to making buddy-cop pictures where he stars opposite a black co-star. This started with The Glimmer Man, a cheesy Lethal Weapon rip off that co-starred Keenan Ivory Wayans. He followed that up with a film called Exit Wounds, where he starred opposite rap star DMX… amazingly enough, this filmed ranked #1 its opening weekend. So he's following it up with a new film entitled Half Past Dead, this time with hip hop star Ja Rule. It's going up against the new Harry Potter film this fall, so expect it to hit video the week thereafter.


All of this has come and gone. Most action films released in this, the 21st century, are slum roles for non-action stars who want to live out some unfocused childhood fantasy fed by Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. The two most annoying offenders of this new pseudo action genre are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon's a lost cause (the Bourne Identity was worse than even I could've predicted, getting beaten out by Scooby Doo its opening weekend) but Affleck has a chance to redeem himself next year with the release of Daredevil. Then again, I don't know if anything will ever make up for Reindeer Games. With films like those, you would almost think that the genre en masse is extinct, especially when the top action film of 2002 starred Tobey fucking Macguire.

Yet all is not lost. For all the heroes who have faded away, new ones are emerging. Vin Diesel, hot off the release of last year's summer blockbuster The Fast and The Furious, is starting not one, but two franchises. The first is XXX, his new spy movie that opens in August. From the previews, it looks to have "James Bond With Balls" written all over it. His second series will be based on his "Riddick" character from the sleeper hit "Pitch Black," which is being pitched as a sort of "Rambo in Space." I don't think I really need to comment on that any further.

Then you have Duane "The Rock" Johnson. Jet Li's actioner The One was originally written with the Rock in mind. He pulled out at the last minute in favor of a cameo role in the Mummy Returns. His debut The Scorpion King (which played like a slightly more coherent version of Kull The Conqueror) pulled in a cool 90 million at the box office last spring. He's currently filming a new action film called Helldorado, and talks are ongoing for an as yet unnamed sci-fi flick. It could be anything really.. with his face on the poster, it'll make money... just so long as his character doesn't end up with "A BOMB IN HIS RIBCAGE!!!!"

And old Arnold himself is refusing to go quietly into the night. In light of his last several failures (End Of Days, The Sixth Day, Collateral Damage) he's banking on what he knows will work. Yeah, old Arnie is in the full grip of sequel fever. He has Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines due out next summer. Following that, he'll be filming King Conan and True Lies 2. So long as he doesn't announce Junior 2: Electric Boogaloo, I couldn't give less of a shit what he does.

Which gets me to the point of all this: Yes, these men made millions at the box office. Yes, their faces are all over the classic action section at Blockbuster. Yes, their films will be played on TNT and the USA network for the rest of eternity. But in my honest opinion, they were not THE quintessential action heroes of the last two decades. Oh no, far from it. That honor belongs to a slightly lesser known select few, whom I have decided to pay tribute to today. So, without further ado, I hereby present WHATEVER-DUDE'S TOP FIVE ACTION HEROES OF ALL TIME:

You're dead meat, soon as I finish my smoke.

5) Snake Pliskin: Played by Kurt Russell, Snake Pliskin was the ultimate silent hero. A former US military badass, he has been on the wrong side of the tracks for some time when we first meet him in John Carpenter's Escape From New York. He is offered a pardon in exchange for rescuing the President, whose plane has crash landed on Manhatten Island, now a prison facility for America's worst criminals. He seems to take this all with a dull, uninterested stare, a stare which never leaves his face for the entire film, nor in its horrendous sequel, Escape From LA, where he single-handedly destroys all modern technology... all because the government pissed him the fuck off.

I'm all about eating ass and kicking pussy... no, wait!

4) Jack Burton: Jack was also played by Kurt Russell in another John Carpenter action epic, Big Trouble In Little China. But where Snake Pliskin is little talk, and all action, Jack Burton is a loud-mouthed braggart truck driver who can't shoot straight, has a drinking problem, couldn't get laid in a morgue, and also has the worst luck on the planet. But despite all this, he manages to more or less single-handedly save the world with nothing more than an 18 wheeler, a pocket knife, and his world famous "Six Demon Bag." Many may scoff at me including him here, since he was a character in only one film, but hey… how could you not get behind a guy who names his truck "The Pork Chop Express"… and brags about it?

How can the same thing happen to the same guy... let's see... one...two... THREE TIMES?!

3) John McClane: The role of John McClane was Bruce Willis' breakout performance. Up until then, he was known for shitty comedies like Blind Date and getting into bitch slapping fests with Cybill Sheppard. But with the release of Die Hard, everything changed. John McClane was a beat cop who, throughout three films, had the unfortunate ability to find himself caught in the worst, absolutely most unwinnable situations imaginable. By the end of the film, he would be beaten, broken, bloodied up, and re-re-re-separated from his wife. But not before he had blown up the corrupt European bad guy whilst whispering "Yippy kiyay, motha fuckah!" to no one but himself… The third film in particular, Die Hard With A Vengeance, was the harshest on poor John. He was beaten, shot, stabbed, shot up out of a manhole by rushing flood waters, dropped a hundred feet from a bridge onto a moving cargo ship, thrown safely from a nuclear explosion that took place on said ship in New York harbor, and worst of all, made to stand naked in the middle of Harlem wearing a sign that read "I hate niggers." If he could live through that, he can survive anything, and thereby wins his place in our top five.

Coming next summer, Indiana Jones And The Turban of Death

2) Indiana Jones: Jones was played masterfully by veteran actor Harrison Ford, in a role tailor made for him by George Lucas, who was attempting to revive the feel of the old 50's action serials. I'm not going to get into the who's and why's of Indiana, as everyone who is reading this has seen at least one of the Indiana Jones films. I include him here, mainly, because of the times we now live in. After what went on last September, it comforts my heart to no end to watch Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, wherein Indy kills roughly 40,000 towel-headed individuals with a six shooter and a bull whip. Perhaps our fears of terrorism would end if we dropped a few thousand copies of this film over Afghanistan, and dressed all of our airport security officers and airline pilots in brown leather jackets and fedora hats.

And finally, Whatever-dude's #1 Action Movie Hero Of All Time:

Nerves of steel, and a fistful of boomstick… Superman ain't got shit on me, baby.

1)Ash: In case some of you still aren't familiar with the greatness of Ash, allow me to expound for you. His story is chronicled in the Evil Dead Trilogy, the masterpieces of Spider-man director Sam Raimi. Ash, as played by B-actor extraordinaire Bruce Campbell, is a reluctant hero. He is your basic coward. He works at S-Mart in the sporting goods department. He drives the shittiest piece of shit on wheels ever conceived by the masters of Detroit Steel. He has a bad habit of taking his girlfriends to haunted cabins where they become demon bitches and try to kill him. But he also has a chainsaw for a hand, more one-liners than the newest Rock promo, can travel back in time and practically become king of any nation he chooses before dinnertime, and can handle a double-barrel shotgun like nobody's business. He's the only action hero I can think of who can scream like a twelve year old girl through half the movie, and yet still come off as the ultimate shitkicker when the closing credits roll. That takes more than a chiseled physique and a bad accent. That takes skill, baby. Ash has become so engrained in the public consciousness that several of his catchphrases are emblazoned across bumper stickers and fansites everywhere. Many of them were included in the PC hit "Duke Nukem' 3D." For this, and for his ability to use 12th century technology to turn his car into a Death Buggy battle wagon, we hereby decree Ash the Greatest Action Hero Of All Time. In the future, we can only hope that forthcoming action stars live by his example. Do not take this as me condoning self-amputation in favor of asskicking attachments, but it couldn't hurt… Just think of how more affective Matt Damon's acting performance would be if he were to replace his head with an olive fork.


Plug (for my old WPF writing buddy Twitmare): ... go check it out, if that kind of thing butters your bread.

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