Action Movies Essay, Research Paper Simply by its name, the action film genre would seem to be the easiest of all genres to describe. In fact, unlike a genre such as the Western, whose generic markers are largely clear-cut (deserts, cowboys, horses, shoot-outs on Main Street, the frontier), the action film can be defined so broadly that it becomes a term of almost no use at all.
Action Movies Essay, Research Paper
Simply by its name, the action film genre would seem to be the easiest of all genres to describe. In fact, unlike a genre such as the Western, whose generic markers are largely clear-cut (deserts, cowboys, horses, shoot-outs on Main Street, the frontier), the action film can be defined so broadly that it becomes a term of almost no use at all. Technically, as marked by the cry of "action" by the director at the beginning of all scenes, every film is an action film, and all films have action in them. But the categorization of any film in the action genre has come to mean that it has two essential things: violence and death. Additionally, there is almost always an overtly masculine ethos.The history of action films is almost as old as cinema, evidenced, for instance, in the battle sequences of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915), or (later) in the climactic shoot-out and race against the Apache to make it to the town of Tonto in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939), or (much later) in the dizzying chases that open and close Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). But action films as we regard them today are almost exclusively both a post-Classical Hollywood Studio and a post-Vietnam War phenomenon; this is for two major reasons.First, the breakdown of the studio system (which was initiated by the Paramount Decrees in 1949) and the crisis in which mainstream American cinema found itself in the face of television forced Hollywood to distinguish itself from the small screen and to offer experiences to audiences which TV could not deliver. One important way film did this was to emphasize widescreen (including Vistavision and Cinescope), new color processes (from Technicolor to Tru-color), and special effects (3-D being the most ignominious, though it seems to have found a suitable legacy in IMAX films). This development of the big screen paved the way for the pyrotechnics, high speed car chases, nuclear explosions (True Lies, 1994), planes crash-landing on the Las Vegas Strip (Con Air, 1997), and even aliens blowing up the White House (Independence Day, 1997), the apotheosis — so far — of the action film's appetite for destruction). All of these are par for the course in the genre today, so much so that in the action film's latest incarnations, there is often a sense of self-reflexive irony to the proceedings, as when Nicolas Cage remarks to his partner Sean Connery in The Rock (1996) that he senses just a little too much male adolescent, testosterone-based anxiety in the motivations of their adversary (Ed Harris). This is precisely what — sociologically speaking — seems to be at the root of the action film's raison d'?tre in the first place.Second, it is commonplace that the Vietnam War brought an unprecedented, immediate, and real violence into America's living rooms. This, combined with the seemingly endless string of assassinations in the '60s (starting with President John F. Kennedy and moving through Robert F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the students at Kent State, and probably ending only with the failed assassination attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan), incited a need to work through these traumas through cathartically violent narratives (e.g Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), a Western well on its way to being an action film). But it also had the effect, somewhat ironically, of sanctioning the increased representation of violence in cinema simply for its own sake. Certainly, in the wake of the assassinations, the war in Southeast Asia, the protests and riots in urban centers in the United States (Chicago 1968, Newark, Watts), violence as represented in the "reality" of television, found its exaggerated counterpart in cinema, and mostly in the action film.There are no action films without violence, and in which no one dies, and this distinguishes action films from highly physical comedies and "caper" films — also works with plenty of action in them — from the silent period of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd to more recent madcap tales such as A Fish Called Wanda (1988) or the films of Jim Carrey (The Mask, 1994; Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, 1994). Action films are also distinct from other films with an emphasis on death and violence, including disaster films (Airport, 1970; Towering Inferno, 1974; Earthquake, 1974; and The Poseidon Adventure, 1972), in which the narrative is driven by nature or the elements run amuck. The action film is also distinct from adventure films in the swashbuckling tradition of Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, 1935; The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938), in which the emphasis on swordplay over gunplay changes the stakes and the style of the violence and invests in a more courtly version of aggression. The Three Musketeers, (1993) is a teen pic disguised as a costume drama. The Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), and the The Mask of Zorro (1997), starring Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas, are all invested in this earlier paradigm, though each shows the influence of the action film. Seen this way, the Steven Spielberg/Harrison Ford Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)) series is as much adventure film as it is action.The action film is also distinct from the war and combat genres, since the violence that erupts tends to occur in ostensibly safe places, such as the home, or public spheres of culture (the theatre), consumption (the department store or mall), and travel (planes, trains, cars, and buses). Finally, a broad definition of the action film might include films such as Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequel Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997), or Star Wars (1977) and its sequels (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980, and Return of the Jedi, 1982) and prequel (The Phantom Menace 1999). But at least two factors rule it out in a narrower consideration: the fantasy elements of both extreme past or future override the action, and none of these films is driven by a strong male star presence.The action film is also eminently hybrid, and increasingly so under postmodern conditions where hybridity is a going rate of exchange. Consider the strong presence of the Western genre in Die Hard (1988), the action film that made Bruce Willis an international star. The cop Dirty Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry, 1971) overlapped with other Clint Eastwood figures of the Western protagonist, presenting generic differentiation but embodying a very similar paradigm of masculinity. Both the Western hero and Dirty Harry (a paradigmatically 1970s action figure) usually wind up at the end of the film as solitary as they started, isolated from the very society whose needs they serve and protect and unsure whether or not they'd really prefer things to have worked out any differently. In any case, no one doubts their ability to get the job done. One is only left wondering, at the end, whether, in the Vietnam and Watergate Era, there is now anything at all left for them to do. The ascendance of Ronald Reagan changed that, and inspired evolutions in the action hero and the action film.Bruce Willis in Die Hard represents a full shift, a move (as did Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo before him in First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985), and Rambo III (1988) (a blatantly Reaganite film "Dedicated to the Brave People of Afghanistan"), into a whole new permutation of the action genre, which displaces the Western's struggle for control of the frontier into the context of both the present tense and an urban environment, two things anathema to the Western. Also, unlike either most Westerns or '70s action films, the hero ends the film integrated into, rather than separate from, the community he has just saved. As writer Susan Jeffords has described, heroes such as Willis are the hardbodies of the Reagan Era. At the first level of address, Die Hard articulates a gleeful re-engagement with the ability to do that which Reagan seemed to enable, and given the explicitly serial nature of so many of these films (as opposed to Dirty Harry's films which never had sequentially numbered titles), it was implied that the Hard Body hero could do it endlessly. Hewing (more symptomatically than actively) to a Reaganite attachment to the ideology of Manifest Destiny, Die Hard is dependent on a Western-derived understanding that the frontier is a space of contention, both physical and ideological, and that the resolution of this contention in favor of the hero will also result in the ability to call that space "home." The film redefines the tensions of the frontier as 1) between corporations and the ideologies that serve them, and 2) between the individual and the corporation, rather than the community. The frontier does not exist as a horizontal geographic space but has been metaphorized in the corporate office building. John McTiernan, a director who specializes in confined spaces (e.g. The Hunt for Red October (1990), which takes place in a submarine), has a knack for using ideological struggle to open them up. The spaces seem larger because they articulate something so huge, and the frontiers they represent are no less tied to American identity in the 20th century than Westerns had previously been.Die Hard is, as critic William J. Palmer observes, one of the many "Terrorist Plot" films of the '80s, and one he reads as wiser than most, since its gets the joke of its own genre, laughs, and still plays along. "Ironically, Die Hard presents a scenario in which the '80s villain, the terrorist, attacks the '70s villain, the corporation, in this case a Japanese corporation operating in America." In a reading that distinguishes between neoconservative and New Right politics, Jeffords notes the film's typically hypocritical Reaganesque hostility toward Big Government and its interference in the economy, while still insisting on government's right to control the individual's body and private sphere. But, generically, Die Hard is also significantly more, as so many action films of the '80s and '90s are, and to some extent, it stakes its claims to action on the political necessities derived from the Western. Early on, John McClane adopts the pseudonym Roy Rogers, the name by which almost everyone in the film but his wife knows and refers to him, and constantly refers to himself: a cowboy riding to the rescue.Die Hard has two major ideological tasks, one foreign, one domestic. It is important that the film takes place in California, because it means that the interlopers are infringing on American soil, and this outer edge of American soil is a vital aspect of the definition of the frontier. (Ten years later, Independence Day will take this even further, exploding America's frontier limits as a Clintonesque American president (Bill Pullman) will rally his troops by declaring that July 4th used to be America's Independence Day, but now it is Independence Day for the whole world.) By proclaiming early on an affinity for the Western through the protagonist's self-re-naming, the space that John McClane/"Roy Rogers" moves through becomes reconfigured as analogous to the Western frontier, and what transpires on that 40-story, vertical frontier becomes analogous to Western narratives as well.Die Hard's historical maneuvers are those of a pronounced wishful thinking about the past as well as an anxiety about the present. The villains are two-pronged. The obvious one is the multi-cultural band of terrorists, whose ringleaders are German (though they are played by Alan Rickman, a British national, and Alexander Gudonov, a Russian). The less evident one is the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation, led by a well-meaning but (in a crisis situation) ineffectual Japanese boss (James Shigeta). The crime of the Nakatomi corporation is that it has taken Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), now "masquerading" under her maiden name Holly Generro (designating her for the audience as the generic wife, mother, and career woman), away from her family. More broadly though, the Nakatomi's presence represents frequently-voiced anxieties about Japan's economic superiority and competitiveness in world markets. Die Hard combined this with the presence of equally capitalist-minded German terrorists, who add insult to injury by only pretending to be ideologically motivated when all they really want is money. After listing a number of imaginary radical political organizations whose insurgents he wants released from the world's prisons in exchange for the hostages he now holds, Hans Gruber (Rickman) says in a politically camp aside, "I read about them in Time magazine." What this particular configuration of nationalities allows for is a restaging by the film of World War II, which re-enforces the inevitability of a McClane victory within the narrative, and a global economic victory outside of it.Die Hard is a transitional action film. Like the action heroes of the '70s, McClane works alone, without a company, without a battalion, and this solitary heroic framework is also suggestive of the Western, especially when combined with the recognition of McClane as a cowboy by almost everyone in the film. This brings to the fore another tendency of action films: to better highlight (and fetishize) masculinity, action films almost always have solo heroes, but seldom more than a partnership of two. If a third male is present, he's usually there for comic relief, as is Joe Pesci in the second through fourth Lethal Weapon films. Willis as McClane adopts the persona of a cowboy not just because he wants to, but because he already knows that this is how Gruber will see him as he moves solo through the building, moving from floor to floor as a gunfighter in a Western moves from Main Street building to Main Street building, or from protective rock to protective rock. But his is a very Reaganite version of the Western. Gruber questions the mystery man who threatens to ruin his plans:Gruber: Who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne, Rambo, and Marshall Dillon?McClane: I was always kind of partial to Roy Rogers, actually. I really liked those sequined shirts.Gruber: Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?McClane: Yippee-ki-yay, motherf**ker.Two things are notable in this exchange. First of all, as Gruber accurately states, Rambo has already become comfortably lodged in the canon of ass-kickers between John Wayne (a real person) and Marshal Dillon (another fictional character), both Western icons, one from film, one from television. In this, the terrorist also puts his finger on Reagan's own difficulties discerning the difference between representation and fact, filmic re-enactment and history, problems which seemed also subsequently to effect the nation. The Wayne/Rambo/Dillon trajectory is seen as an undifferentiated continuum, and this brings us back to the way in which action films exist as a space of hyper-fantasy in which anxieties about masculinity, and its loss of power and agency, are expressed and resolved partly through this conflation of fiction and reality. Secondly, McClane rejects the macho models Gruber offers him in favor of a Western figure whose primary purpose, like Reagan's before he was president, was to entertain. The disingenuousness of the response is also clear. Nevertheless, McClane will continue to masquerade as the ironic embodiment of the "King of the Cowboys" for the rest of the film. What will be in keeping with the appropriation of the Roy Rogers persona is the way that through the course of the film, McClane, like Rogers over his career, will become increasingly violent in order to bring the narrative to a successful close. Ultimately, the frontier of the high-rise Nakatomi Corporation is re-Americanized, saved from foreign interlopers, and made safe for American civilization.In the film's second ideological agenda, a domestic one, McClane engages in community preservation. In the political logic of both Reagan and Die Hard, this project is two-fold. First, it means saving his wife from her feminist leanings, which ultimately displays itself in McClane's saving her from the German terrorist and her Japanese multinational corporation. This makes Die Hard a classic captivity narrative, in which the white woman needs to be saved from the advances of cultural Others who are depicted as savage. His wife is, of course, glad to be rescued. At the end of the film she re-adopts her married name, proudly and girlishly proclaiming herself not Holly Generro but, as she corrects her husband, "McClane. Holly McClane."Die Hard's other domestic chore (one that Lethal Weapon also attempts) is the restoration of a particularly white masculinity, and this, too, is typical of action films of the 1980s, though with the rise of African American male stars like Wesley Snipes (Passenger 57 (1992), Blade (1998)) and especially Will Smith (Bad Boys (1995), Men in Black (1997), Independence Day (1997), Enemy of the State (1998), and Wild, Wild, West (1999)), the generic definition of masculinity is no longer so strictly race-based. But in Die Hard, Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), a black L.A. police officer who is initially the only one who believes that McClane is not a crackpot, and stands loyally by this man he has never met, is the first to recognize the heroic implications of McClane's cowboy pseudonym, and it is through this recognition that the pair form their bond. As the plot thickens, we also learn that Powell has accidently shot and killed a child and is therefore no longer capable of drawing his weapon. Emasculated, he is further desexualized by being relentlessly drawn as a family man (as is Danny Glover's Sergeant Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon), whose sex drive has been safely reigned in for pro-creative purposes (his wife is expecting their first child). This remains true until the very end of the film, when one of the terrorists, seemingly returning from the dead, comes back to wreak revenge on McClane, coming at him from behind to shoot him in the back. Only then, when the life of the Great White Hero is in danger and the cowboy himself is unaware, can the black man, now properly inspired, draw his weapon and save McClane. Black male violence and the sexuality the film equates it with is acceptable only if executed by an officer of the law in the service of saving a white subject.Even as it expresses anxiety about its loss, the action film is deeply invested in maintaining patriarchal power, and this explains why most action heroes are either cops, soldiers, or government agents of some sort. The archetypal action heroes of the '70s, Charles Bronson (Death Wish, 1974) and Clint Eastwood (Magnum Force, 1973), set a precedent for these figures of patriarchal authority. They themselves having problems following orders, and, as with so many of the classical Western heroes, seem uncomfortable in the societies and institutions they themselves help protect. Dirty Harry (1971) famously ends with Eastwood's Harry Callahan tossing away his police badge in disgust. But in the '80s, as action films became increasingly symptomatic of the Reagan Administration's ideology and values, action heros began to change not only in physical appearance, but also in character. Rather than being the outsiders and vigilante loners of the '70s, they tended to be part of society. John McClane is a family man who begins Die Hard estranged from his wife and children and ends up reunited and reconciled. In the Lethal Weapon series, Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs starts out as an anti-social broken-hearted widower/Vietnam War vet, and ends up, by the fourth installment, married to a pregnant Rene Russo. In Con Air, Nicolas Cage's wrongly accused Green Beret inmate can kick recidivist ass while still protecting a stuffed bunny rabbit he is obsessed with bringing home to his daughter. In John Woo's Face/Off (1997), John Travolta's FBI agent Sean Archer is brought into conflict with Nicolas Cage's Castor Troy when Troy shoots Archer's son. Even single men in action films often find love among the bullets. Broken Arrow's good guy, Christian Slater ends up with park ranger and accidental partner Suzi Amis, and, in a film that was aggressively marketed as "Die Hard on a bus," Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock spend enough time confined together in the tight space of a bus in Speed (1994) to get to know each other rather well. In yet another role as the sassy action hero's love interest, Bullock's nostalgia-obsessed police officer of the future becomes the object of choice for the recently unfrozen Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man (1993).Given their masculinist bent, it is not surprising that, despite this relentless coupling, action films are also the site of an extraordinary amount of homosociality, the liminally erotic, but decidedly non-(overtly)-sexual congregation and social formation of men. In yet another generic hybrid, the fighter pilot film combines the action film and the space film and provides the rigorously masculine environment of the armed forces to present its homosociality. If The Right Stuff (1984) is infused with the real history of the development of the space program to the point where its identity as a fighter pilot film is submerged (far more so than Tom Wolfe's book on which it is based), then Top Gun (1986), existing outside of any real historical claims, announces itself loud and clear. Like Die Hard, Top Gun is emblematic of both the hard body and the Reagan Era neokitsch aesthetic. As a typical Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production, it comes with all the requisite testosterone a fighter pilot film needs. The star pilot (Tom Cruise) is named Maverick, making explicit the link between gunfighters and fighter pilots, F-15s and horses. In another tip to the Western, Cruise is depicted as a gunfighter initiate with a serious Oedipal complex about his father, (cf. Shane and Red River), who, also a fighter pilot, was downed under mysterious circumstances in Vietnam (again, as with Gibson's Sergeant Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, echoing the crucible of violence in which action films are formed). It would be inaccurate to consider it a Combat film, not least because the only actual fighting that takes place happens at the end, and is covert; officially, it never happened. Rather, Maverick and the other cowboys literally ride the range in their F-15s; all they do is train high above the Mojave desert, but not so high that the landscape over which they fly isn't essential to how the space they traverse is articulated.This is a space-oriented action film in which the anxiety about being a man and living up to the Reagan image of masculinity is a narrative obsession. The homoeroticism that is often barely submerged in traditional Westerns, combat films, and other masculinist genres prior to 1980 comes utterly to the surface in Top Gun. Early in the film, Cruise, in an effort to win over Kelly McGillis, follows her into the ladies room. On the one hand, this is the kind of heteropredatory behavior sanctioned by Reagan-era masculine paradigms. Cruise, the film suggests, is so manly that he can go into a ladies room without being mistaken for a gay man. But the looks he gets from the women in the rest room, and the men as he enters and exits, suggest otherwise.The film continues to vacillate between a comfort in its homosociality (whose very purpose is to exclude the homosexual) and a deep homophobia which, apropos to a return of the repressed, is expressed in a homoerotic discourse of which the film is only partially aware. As his flight partner Goose (Anthony Edwards) watches Maverick preparing for a date with McGillis, he says, "Honey, you look great." The film finds this funny; fighter pilot teams are as intimate as married couples, and for the safety of the nation they have to be. But when comedy turns to tragedy, the social turns erotic. Says Maverick in a tone something more than grief-stricken as he mourns Goose's death, "God, I want him back."As action films nearly always do, Top Gun revels in the magnificence of the male body as it shows the pilots cavorting during a game of beach volleyball. To acknowledge the body-eroticism of Cruise, Val Kilmer, and the other young male stars, there needs to be this spectacle, this equivalent of a musical number to arrest the narrative. Fighter pilots don't fly naked, after all. But perhaps the most delicious moment of both pan-sexual body delectation and homoerotic splendor is when Cruise, leaning over the locker room sink in his tighty-whities, is himself cruised by the father-figure of his Commanding Officer (Tom Skerrit). After telling Maverick that he has to get on with life after Goose's death, he leaves the locker room. His parting gesture is not the expected manly pat on the back, or even a slightly more intimate hug. Rather, it is the languorous gesture of running his fingers slowly across Cruise's back. One wonders why Maverick continues to have Oedipal anxieties after that, for it is clear that the father does indeed love his son.As with Die Hard, there is a crisis of masculinity (though here with the central figure of Cruise) which manifests itself in the loss of the ability to draw and fire. As in the Western and combat films, this ability is regained by the external threat; in Top Gun, the Communist threat is generic, untied to any particular nation. At best, the construction of this Cold War enemy is something between an Arab abstraction and a Soviet. This parallels the generic threat of Indians in Westerns, which, even when identified by tribe, were seldom ever depicted with any real cultural specificity. Again, though this is obviously more readily connected to the War film, the fact is that Top Gun takes place largely in domestic space, which to say American space, and takes place there in a certain way. So it is just as intimately linked with the frontier as it is with borders of conflict abroad, though certainly not more so.The film's only partially spoken historical referents are easier to locate. Like the Rambo series and Westerns of the '70s, the specter of Vietnam haunts the film, from the details of Maverick's father's disappearance right down to the film's desire to return to the Manichean ethics of WWII, a desire Reagan made altogether possible to articulate, and even, far too often, to achieve. Early in the film, McGillis' civilian flight instructor is seen entering the fighter pilot class she teaches only from the back and only with a view of her legs, which are covered in retro-1940s seamed stockings. But unlike the earnest counter-Westerns of the '70s, the Vietnam in Top Gun was as much a theme park as a historical referent. In his discussion of the re-historicization and re-narrativization of Vietnam, Jim Hoberman mentions that Top Gun producer "Don Simpson actually bragged to one interviewer that he wrecked his motorcycle to beat the draft."The more recent paradigms of action film masculinity are as symptomatic of the Clinton years as the Hard Bodies were of the Reagan Era, as heralded by the evolution of the Terminator from one film to the next. In The Terminator (1984), Arnold Schwarzenegger plays what is literally a killing machine in a hybrid of biological and technological matter, unfeeling and unstoppable. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), the Terminator has become an agent of good, who, sent to save Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong), eventually demonstrates even better mothering skills than Sarah does. Perhaps most symptomatic of the country's anxieties about the President's anti-war record (though Reagan never served in the Armed Forces either), there have been a number of action films in which the hero is the American President himself, Clintonesque in policy and warm, fuzzy accessibility, but revised in the imaginary world of the action film so as to be simultaneously capable of physical force, with the military record to prove it. Bill Pullman not only inspires his troops in Independence Day, he also hops into his jet fighter, as the film tells us he did in the Gulf War, and leads them into battle. In Air Force One (1997), U.S. president Harrison Ford protects his Hillary-esque wife and Chelsea-esque daughter from rogue terrorists (in American action films, an eminently reliable and repeatable adversary), reaching back to his experience in the field to become an indignant one-man army ("get off my plane," he tells arch-villain Gary Oldman, as he tosses him whirling into the atmosphere).The '90s have brought inevitable twists and tinkering to the action film genre. Certainly there have been forays into feminizing the genre, starting earlier with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Aliens (1986), who is far less contemplative than she is in the first film (Alien, 1979). Point of No Return (1993), starring Bridget Fonda, was based on the French film La Femme Nikita (1990), starring Anne Parillaud, and it has since become a successful syndicated television serial. Most cartoonishly, Pamela Anderson starred in the comic-based Barb Wire (1997).But if there is a new classicism to the genre, it is to be found in the work of John Woo. Largely as a result of the American "discovery" of the work of Woo and director/producer Tsui Hark, Hong Kong Action Cinema (itself profoundly influenced by American action films, Westerns, and even melodrama, as well as Cantonese theatre and martial arts films) has made its mark on some of the most successful recent action films. John Woo's first American feature, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target (1993) was not particularly successful, but an increasing familiarity with Hong Kong Action films, as well as the popularity of some of its stars (Jackie Chan and Jet Li, as well as Michelle Yeoh) has led to an increasing intermixing of the two cinemas. Jackie Chan's features have been dubbed into English, and also made here (Rumble in the Bronx, Supercop, Who Am I?). Rush Hour, in which he co-starred with Chris Tucker, was one of the most successful films of 1998. Michelle Yeoh was an unusually independent and self-sufficient Bond Girl, playing opposite Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies (1998). After his success playing a villain in Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li's first feature with United States first-run distribution, The Black Mask was released in the summer of 1999.Woo's second U.S. feature, over which he retained considerably more creative control than Hard Target, was Broken Arrow (1996), with John Travolta in his first explicitly villainous role. This was followed by Face/Off (1997), in which the starring role is split by Travolta and Nicolas Cage. That Travolta is the good guy and Cage is the baddie is complicated by the fact that they assume each other identities, and in this they are typical Woo protagonists: one cop, one gangster, both stretching the limits of their professions, both, by the end, indistinguishable from one another, and often as close as brothers. In many ways, Face/Off is in fact a re-treatment of an earlier film Woo made in Hong Kong, the Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Killer (1989). Woo's internalization of a variety of American film genres also makes visible the ways in which action films have, at least in formal terms, replaced the one genre that seems to have almost no place in American film today: the classical song and dance musical. The action sequences, so carefully and often balletically choreographed, take the place of musical numbers, and the climactic action scene which audiences have come to expect as the grand finale (which could be no more emphatically or offensively punctuated than the reunion kiss between Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in front of a nuclear mushroom cloud in True Lies, is not unlike the closing number of a musical, in which no punch is pulled, all the dancers are on the stage, and all instruments are blaring.The action film is not only predicated almost exclusively on a masculine subjectivity (and an appeal to a masculine spectator), but is also dependent on a body of male stars who replicate their action roles as reliably as John Wayne inhabited the Western, or Katharine Hepburn significantly defined the urbane romantic comedy. If the action films of the '70s belonged primarily to male stars like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson (and, primarily through the James Bond series, Sean Connery and Roger Moore), the '80s belonged to Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Mel Gibson. Though they all continue to make action films with varying degrees of success, the fact that action films require a significant physical ability on the part of any star inevitably means that aging stars are simply less convincing and sometimes simply unable to continue to perform in this genre. When they do, their roles often shift explicitly to that of a patriarch or eminence grise (e.g. Sean Connery as Harrison Ford's father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or Bruce Willis as Liv Tyler's father in Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998). The '90s have seen a slightly more diverse group of performers, including former Independent film star Nicolas Cage, Jackie Chan, Will Smith, and with far less consistency, Keanu Reeves (The Matrix, 1999), take up the mantle from the previous generation. In an unusual exception (and in some ways this is typical of his career), John Travolta was never an action star until his post-Pulp Fiction (1994) renaissance, and his image in any action film he undertakes is frequently in relation to his markedly unfit physique.However, what is true as often as not is that it doesn't take a big star to make a successful action film (Independence Day, Godzilla, Starship Troopers) as long as there are exceptional special effects, though these films often solidify the careers of their stars, as was the case with Will Smith and Independence Day, but which does not seem to have happened with the cast of Godzilla. The vast majority of the top grossing films of all time are action films, and some of the most successful series of sequel films have been action films, including the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series. This speaks not only to a global desire to see special effects, gun battles and car chases, but also to an attraction to the odd portrait of money that these obviously expensive films paint.
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