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Strongarm Tactics: The Ultimate in Eighties Action

  You could quite rightly observe the nineteen-eighties were the crucible out of which the modern blockbuster was formed; sure, the likes of Jaws and Star Wars in the previous decade had set out the parameters, but when it came to spectacle for its own sake mixed with a violent, us versus them view of the world which would only grow more tangible as the years went by, the eighties had it sorted out. With its signature trappings of guns, muscles and of course the absolutely essential explosions, you could trace various aspects from the such diverse points of reference as the Westerns and thrillers of Sam Peckinpah to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Enzo G. Castellari's action-packed thrillers and war epics on a middling budget from Italy, though arguably Bruce Lee's one man army in what films he was able to complete in Hong Kong before his untimely demise set the template for those lone combatants taking on masses of bad guys and emerging, after a lot of sweat and exertion, the victor.

This sense of our hero's values being under siege was very important, be they patriotism, conservatism or plain old family values, and would be played out time and again with very few variations: these were the days when Ronald Reagan, President of the United Goddam States, was endorsing the sort of gung ho attitude that was a gift to makers of action flicks. It took a short while before everything was in place and you could produce works in this genre no matter how much money you had at your disposal. Take the movie Reagan most admired, sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II, the Sylvester Stallone bid for renewed success after one of his mid-Rocky entries barren periods, it adhered so closely to the belief that any setback, such as the embarrassment and tragedy of the Vietnam War, could be made more palatable if America could stop pussyfooting around with bureaucrats and really take the bull by the horns.

Even if they were actually taking the bullshit by the horns, with Charles Napier’s untrustworthy government man - just following orders, naturally, isn't interested in saving the P.O.W.s who Rambo finds and rescues on return to Vietnam (much as former Bruce Lee opponent Chuck Norris had done the year before in Missing in Action) because it would be politically uncomfortable, though even that doesn't mean Rambo wants to kill him for his mealy-mouthed cowardice, no, he saves the bullets and bombs for the Vietnamese army and whatever Soviet masters they have hanging around for good measure, led by an inevitable Steven Berkoff. The Russians may be all bad in this movie's eyes, but the Vietnamese are not, for nice girl Julia Nickson as Co helps out Stallone, though in a recurring theme the hero must sublimate any desire for the opposite sex with his violent side; only when Rambo notices Co is actually rather fetching is she immediately gunned down, leaving him no option but to get his frustrations off his barrel chest by showing us what we really wanted to see, the protagonist blowing up a Viet Cong soldier with a bow and arrow and flying a helicopter armed to the teeth.

Funnily enough, one film which appeared to serve as the basis for the truly reactionary plots of this entertainment was a British one, the S.A.S. thriller Who Dares Wins, starring former TV he-man Lewis Collins of The Professionals fame. That took the view that anyone to the left of Genghis Khan was a genuine threat to society and set out to prove this by blowing shit up real good in the name of freedom from oppression, but it was really the Americans who picked up on it, though one Brit proved to have his finger on the pulse of what the more urban action experience should be. Sure, we had had The Exterminator and Vice Squad and countless other city hellholes for their leads to pick their way through over a slew of corpses, but step forward Michael Winner to tell us what we had already suspected: the inner cities were war zones, thus what was needed was bringing in the heavy artillery. Which brought us to his Death Wish 3, an effort now regarded as a camp classic of ludicrous moviemaking.

The studio responsible for this was not headed by Americans either, it was Cannon, led by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus who attempted by sheer volume of product to conquer the action flick market. There are a host of straightfaced yet silly in hindsight productions you could point to as their most typical, but their faith in the ageing Charles Bronson was almost endearing, and in this third Death Wish entry, following on from Winner's part 2 which had amped up the bloodshed considerably from his comparatively thoughtful original, saw him reach pensionable age with no signs of slowing down. One of the defining themes of these was no matter that the right wing was in charge politically, there was still much to be done because law abiding citizens would be victimised by the unsavoury elements threatening the status quo, in this case the criminals who had taken over with drugs and violence. The answer to those who would beat up little old ladies was simple: murder the culprits.

Death Wish 3 sees Paul Kersey transform a troubled area of, well, it was filmed in London (hence the overcast skies) but it’s meant to be New York from a downtrodden and fearful community into a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude, devastating the entire region in the process. With the undercover blessing of cop Ed Lauter, Kersey starts his own campaign against the scum who steal, rape and slaughter their way through the neighbourhood, led by Gavan O'Herlihy with a remarkable hairdo. It's so hyperbolic that it has prompted gales of laughter from many a bad movie buff, so much so that it’s difficult to remember if anyone took it seriously at all in the first place, which is what has provided it with the sizeable cult it has today. From Kersey's love interest Deborah Raffin getting blown up nanoseconds after sleeping with him (see also Rambo: First Blood Part II) to the residents turning into a crack team of guerrillas, including the old folks of whom Bronson was one, this was a ripe slice of fromage.

The same year halfway across the globe, another action megastar was making a signature effort, and arguably knocking his Western rivals into a cocked hat. Jackie Chan was that man, and Police Story was that film which opens with a sequence playfully and dishonestly presenting his heroic policeman Chan Ka-Kui as a tough cop in the style both Stallone and Bronson had essayed in their careers. We first see him on a mission, slapping female suspect Brigitte Lin and shaking sense into his panicky partner who is freaked out by the gunfire, quite unlike the teeth-gritted Ka-Kui who proceeds to drive a borrowed car after the bad guys through a shanty town, demolishing it in typically unthinking action hero mode, then hanging off the side of a bus the gangsters have hijacked before managing to bring them in single-handedly. The difference here is that Chan was performing every stunt himself, risking life and limb in a way the Hollywood tough guys would never dream of. And that was just the first ten minutes of a film determined to provide value for money.

Famously Police Story ends with a montage of all the outtakes, inspired by the similar ending to The Cannonball Run which Chan had a role in. Indeed, it was the failure of his American vehicle The Protector that inspired him to better it on his home turf, which is quite the understatement. Whereas the Hollywood pictures wanted you to take them very seriously, Chan was emulating his silent movie hero Buster Keaton in mixing genuine laughs with the bone crunching violence, and as those outtakes illustrated, Chan really did suffer for his art, hospitalised when stunts went wrong, but bouncing back as soon as he could, aware he was onto something of value here. He was rewarded with one of his biggest international hits, securing his megastar status, though would remain a cult figure in the West until the mainstream caught on with his Rush Hour vehicles; watching the last act of Police Story is a truly exhilarating experience as Ka-Kui loses his sense of humour after being framed and unleashes a flurry of martial arts moves and stunts which are still stunning, especially now CGI has taken over. This is the reason the Hollywood action stars can be regarded as phonies by the hardcore fans of Asian cinema.

But if there was one star in Hollywood whose appeal was just how weirdly unconvincing, even unreal, he could be, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. His whole image of the pumped up bodybuilder would have easily lent itself to parody, only he got in there first, or almost first, as like a comedian he had his own catchphrase - "I'll be back!" - and his screenwriters supplied him with a bunch of quips, none more so than in Commando. He had made an impact with Conan the Barbarian, and The Terminator was probably his best role, but it was with this film, also in 1985, that the purest form of the Schwarzenegger persona was offered. He never made a sequel to this, in spite of it being one of his biggest hits, as if aware that he could go no further with it in its mix of extreme violence (his John Matrix character must kill at least a hundred people with no troubling of his conscience) and wit borrowed from the gallows humour of the longest-running action franchise, Britain's James Bond series.

Bond was still going strong in '85, if you could call A View to a Kill going strong, but the new breed of eighties men of action were supplanting the public's idea of what that entailed. In Jackie Chan's hits, he used slapstick and wordplay for the humour, but in Schwarzenegger's world he was never the butt of the joke as Chan would be, he was always the coolest guy in the room and if you were laughing it was when he was prompting the gags. That said, with Commando especially its fans found most enjoyment in how over the top, dare we say camp it was, with main baddie Bennett (Vernon Wells) most often identified as one of the most obvious instances that there was a homosexual undercurrent to many of the action flicks of this decade. Matrix has potential love interest in Rae Dawn Chong's sidekick, but romance never appears to cross his mind as he tracks down his kidnapped daughter, all that matters is getting his frustrations out of his system through slaughtering umpteen villains in a fashion that suggested these protagonists were basically slasher movie baddies with better P.R.

Not that your action man of the eighties worked alone, as the buddy movie took off in this era as well thanks to the success of Walter Hill's 48 Hrs, offering another string to the bow, the comedian who took up weapons, the most obvious being Eddie Murphy. Again, unlike Chan and like Schwarzenegger, all the humour is directed by his deceptively jovial good guys, such as in his Beverly Hills Cop series, away from themselves and towards anyone unlucky enough not to be as cool as Murphy, a template still adhered to by his followers today. He usually had a straight man to sound the quips off of, but in the defining buddy cop movie of the decade Lethal Weapon the sense that this was really a lone wolf paired with a hapless partner fitted the more traditional format of self-reliance, or rather someone others could rely on - though Mel Gibson's Riggs in his masochistic fashion has his own demons to face up against, the cliché of the troubled Vietnam War veteran raising its head once again. Maybe Mel was better suited to roaming the post-apocalypse lands of Mad Max.

If there was anyone missing from these forthright, can-do individuals, it was the women, with heroines more often relegated to being saved by the hero; there were exceptions, as Asian cinema embraced the concept of the kick-ass ladies in a way other territories resisted. Think eighties and you might see Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Cynthia Rothrock, but it's not as likely as those testosterone-oozing blokes. As the nineties loomed, John McTiernan's Die Hard proved the genre could adapt, for Bruce Willis emerged as more the everyman character the Stallones, Schwarzeneggers and Van Dammes could never really be, a huge hit, it was very influential and the cartoonish he-men of the eighties bided their time for a few years before making a play for a comeback in the 21st century in the style of old geezer brutality that Bronson had made his own all that time ago. Was it possible to go back? Willis's formerly vulnerable John McClane had become an invincible entity himself in his sequels, and many pointed to the lower budget home video market for the satisfaction an eighties-style effort would provide. That said, you could trace many of the trappings of the genre back to this period, when computers were only good for Rambo to empty his machine gun into and being macho meant never having to say you were sorry. There were just so darn many of them you'd always find something to rediscover.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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