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Dynamic Dozen: 80s Action in 12 Movies Part 2

  There had to be a sequel. We continue our journey through eighties action as we reach 1986...

On the subject of deluded villains, they didn't come much more deluded than Brian Thompson's "Night Slasher" (no, not named because he had reached a certain age and bathroom visits were more frequent) who exposes his entire criminal operation thanks to a mistaken belief he could be identified by a witness to one of his murders. She was Brigitte Nielsen, and the cop who had to take the killer down was '86's Cobra, Sylvester Stallone's answer to the eighties craze for movie supercops. Indeed, he was set to be the Beverly Hills Cop Eddie Murphy became until disagreement saw he and that production parting ways, but he opted to apply his big ideas to the Paula Gosling novel Fair Game instead, which coincidentally was adapted later under its original name for Cindy Crawford's debut as a leading lady. Like Cobra, it also underperformed, but both were notable for resisting the cliché that the hero's girlfriend dies to give him an excuse for vengeance.

Not that Stallone resisted many other clichés, in fact Cobra was awash with them, prominently the one where the maverick cop who slaughters bad guys as easily as playing Space Invaders unjustly has problems from his superiors who bleat that criminals have rights too. Now, the United States was not especially known for its lenient penal system, and still isn't, but the action thrillers of the day played out in a fantasy world where rapists and murderers were let off with a slap on the wrist, and the only way to counter this was to tear up the rule book and start gunning down any dodgy geezer who so much as looked at you in a funny way. Therefore Cobra - real name Lt. Marion Cobretti, is that supposed to be funny or not? - must battle the red tape as much as he battles the psychos who populate Los Angeles, though a sock to the jaw sees the officials put in their place, and more elaborate means are necessary for the criminals.

Said criminals were an odd bunch, a cult of killers who wanted to prove themselves the inheritors of the Earth by wiping out all they considered inferior, which on this evidence appeared to be women, once again the victims in a crime saga. Nielsen was a potential victim who kept giving them the slip (when they were not performing aerobics with axes in a warehouse, my the hours must have flown by), and if they were trying to keep their operations secret and mysterious they were doing a terrible job, giving the game away at every opportunity, not that Brigitte could do much to stop them without the assistance of he-man Sly. Cobra was a comparatively brief example of the genre, and the uncut workprint of the longer, original version was much sought after by the fans, but in its cinematic incarnation it unfolded like a distillation of what eighties cop thrillers were about, compressed into an ungainly and reactionary eighty-seven minutes that even those who enjoyed it ironically would appreciate, Stallone's catchphrase-heavy dialogue and all.

1986 was really a year that the action movie began to branch out in different variations after some notable precedents from what had gone before: Highlander is often tied to James Cameron's The Terminator in many minds for those who recall the way fantastical fictions were adapted to the more obvious action tropes like shootouts, explosions or car chases. Not that they were much like one another when not in their New York scenes, for Highlander, as the name suggests, had a strong Scottish connection in its plentiful flashbacks - there are Scots who prefer this to Trainspotting. And it was not guns this was so concerned with, it was swords, as a bunch of immortals from across the world were drawn together in mid-eighties New York City to see who was the best at chopping heads off. Once their opponents had been separated from their noggins, the victor would (somehow) gather up all their life force.

It was a very involved, some would say overinvolved, mythology, and yet while there were those who rejected it, for other more attuned to the complexities of fantasy cinema it was the very dab, and one which subsequent sequels and a TV series failed to truly capture the particular essence or novelty of in quite the way this did. There was something about its decade-specific appeal that seemed to have been left back in '86, be that the fun of seeing Sean Connery show up to train Highlander Connor McLeod (Christopher Lambert) in the art of immortality and swordplay, or the sheer unexpectedly swooning romanticism of the hero choosing to stay with the love of his life (Beatie Edney) until the days she ages and dies, himself staying young, all while the Queen music swells on the soundtrack. Let's not forget, too, Clancy Brown as big bad Kurgan, having a ball as the black-clad, gravel-voiced bruiser who is Connor's biggest threat.

But what of the action itself? This was a Cannon production, one of the companies most identified with the genre in the eighties, and their most common attraction was heaps of brainless activity in the violence stakes. Much of that here was taken up with the sword fighting, where the actors (and their stunt doubles) were directed by Russell Mulcahy to launch themselves at one another with steel flashing and clashing, not perhaps the most remarkable display of the art ever seen, but one which got the job done as far as providing visual interest went thanks to his technique with a slick image, all honed to perfection by years of music video efforts in a manner that would come to be the norm for many an action flick, especially one with a science fiction or horror leaning. Outright fantasy, as well, as Highlander was; perhaps what made it successful was that it never winked at the audience, never let on it knew this was silly. There was humour, but it was serious where it counted.

Bearing all that in mind, maybe a more typical example of Cannon's output were the action they produced for the stars who became associated with their studio, either newly minted ones who never really caught on like Andrew Dudikoff, or those who had been established in the years before this decade, such as Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris. Speaking of whom, the martial arts champ had been keen to make a name for himself as a movie star since the seventies, the sixties even, and the eighties was his most prolific era in that regard with Cannon placing his Missing in Action series or Invasion USA prominently in cinemas worldwide, often those owned by the company itself as they were spending money like water by this stage - money they did not really have. You can tell how the pitch for Firewalker went, for instance: it'll be like Indiana Jones, except with more roundhouse kicks from the leading man!

Don't discredit Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark for the effect it had on eighties action, it featured what are still some of the greatest sequences in that vein ever seen, and many lower budget enterprises wished to emulate that pulse-pounding success. Cannon most notoriously cast Richard Chamberlain as Alan Quartermain in two desperately underwhelming efforts (how on Earth did it make it to two instalments, you may well ask?) but they were not about to leave the genre alone, and stuck Chuck in his very own rip-off complete with a jungle setting, lost city and nasty natives (as opposed to nasty Nazis), for it was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that they were evidently inspired by. Taking all that into account, you might have anticipated a lighthearted romp through a selection of hoary old serial clichés, rather than the seriously half-arsed, barely interested in the material plod we had instead.

This was an issue with much of Cannon's product, more fun to see in extract than to sit through an entire movie: not for nothing were there rumours at the time of audience booing their distinctive logo in the cinemas that showed them. Firewalker resembled little more than an extended episode of one of the Jones-aping television series of the eighties, no, not Bring 'Em Back Alive, but Tales of the Gold Monkey (which is impossible to enjoy now after the revelations about its leading man in the twenty-first century), though it was Manimal's leading lady, Melody Anderson, cast as the love interest for Chuck here. Naturally, you would be forgiven for thinking Lou Gossett Jr was Chuck's love interest as oddly director J. Lee Thompson emulated the buddy formula to make it look as if the two chaps were rather closer than they would care to admit. This was more interesting than the treadmill of barroom brawls, rapist soldiers (in a family film?) and hidden passages on offer.

Action Jackson popped up in 1988 to kickstart a franchise from super producer Joel Silver, but it never happened, and though it did fairly well, it was not enough to spawn more entries, in spite of Carl Weathers obviously being very capable of headlining this type of thriller. He never really won a leading role in a film of that high a profile again, and thus this effort was largely forgotten about until the cult following of select action genre works from its decade began to gather interest some years later. This one had it all, aside from a genuinely major star of the style: the plot that bore no scrutiny, the explosive sequences, a car chase or two, leading ladies (two of them here) for the hero to avenge/rescue and look decorative (both Sharon Stone and Vanity disrobed for the camera), and a dash of comedy with wisecracks and a bit of physical humour. Though what Jackson had that stood out was its ridiculous quality.

This was a film whose idea of a setpiece saw Weathers run after the taxi driver (actually a hitman) who had just tried to run him over, catch up with the speeding car by leaping onto its roof (prompting a little joke about wondering if this was a good idea), avoiding bullets fired through the roof, flying off when the taxi brakes, getting up, jumping over the entire vehicle when it tries to run him down - well, you get the idea. Of course it ended with an explosion, too. There was a strong degree of car stunts, director Craig R. Baxley a veteran of stuntwork who had cut his teeth on episodes of The A-Team on television which made a lot of sense in retrospect, culminating in the grand finale where Weathers drove a Ferrari into the bad guy's mansion, up the (wide) stairs and into his bedroom (through the door) to save the damsel in distress. It was so stupid that you simply went with it or were left behind in a fug of indignation.

Not that the storyline held up to much examination, with a one-scene character invented purely to explain the plot and set up that finale - and the character was a hairdresser, not a cop (!). More interesting was that in this decade of holding up ruthless business practices and entrepreneurs as the heroes of the eighties, a lot of the bad guys in the action movies were precisely that, riding roughshod over citizens and the law of the land, as if these films were channelling some guilt that not many of those in power would admit to (and these businessmen were making the cinema product too, let's not forget). Craig T. Nelson was the villain here, with kung fu skills as mad as his habit of executing his rivals in moneymaking, and he frames Jackson for the murders, which his Chief (Bill Duke) has no problem accepting no matter that Nelson is the most obvious culprit. But the eccentricities ("Hello, I'm Mister Ed!") merely enhanced the absurdities.

Joel Silver was the man on producing duties for Action Jackson, part of his would-be domination of the field whose main competition was Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, operating for much the same target audience, though while the duo were more keen on glossy high concepts like Top Gun or Beverly Hills Cop, Silver concentrated on what to many looked similarly cocaine-fuelled, in presentation if not actual creation. Silver was more prolific, certainly, and some would agree his crowning achievement of the eighties as far as cult movies went showed up almost at its close with 1989's Road House - he had already owned the latter half of the decade with Die Hard, but this Patrick Swayze vehicle was considered one for the connoisseur of the form. That was not because it was any kind of masterpiece, it was more to do with its perfect distillation of the clichés, manly themes and cheesiness that had succeeded so well in this era.

There are many who will tell you Road House is a load of rubbish (it was nominated for a bunch of Golden Raspberries), and it probably is, but there are times when you just want to watch junk that will not tax you overmuch and what director Rowdy Herrington served up undoubtedly filled that category. It was the story of the world's best bouncer (is that a hotly contested award?), played by Swayze, who is hired to clean up one of the roughest bars in America, just outside Kansas City, where there are brawls and excessive drunkenness every night. To be honest, there appear to be brawls continuing even after Swayze takes over the security, but such was the nature of a flick where bare knuckle boxing was the order of the day, our protagonist kicking the asses of all the bad guys chief villain Ben Gazzara can throw at him, which includes Marshall R. Teague offering one of the most memorable insults mid-combat of all time.

Do not underestimate the power of a quotable line, and there were a fair few here, from Swayze's "Pain don't hurt" to Gazzara's "I see you found my trophy room, Dalton. The only thing missing... is your ass!" and many points in between. Road House was secretly an Elvis Presley movie, it had the songs, the modern cowboy attitude, the star showing off his fistfighting skills but more importantly that sense we were watching some philosophy of how to be a real man, which in Swayze's case was a demonstration of that eighties notion, the so-called "new man". He can handle himself in a tough situation if necessary, but he has a spiritual side (and he reads!), he respects women (Kelly Lynch was the recipient of his gentle romantic attentions) whereas the bad guys treat them like pets, he has a mentor (Sam Elliott) who he accepts may be better at life than he is, and has no problem with that, in fact the only thing missing from his constitution was an ability with a witty comeback.

Just to confirm Silver's domination of the action landscape, he blazed a trail into the nineties with the sequel business. Lethal Weapon in 1987 had been a surprise runaway hit, Shane Black's screenplay working like gangbusters to provide the thrills and a very particular sense of broad, somehow desperate (for the characters) sense of humour and made its money back many times over. Silver wanted a sequel and hired Black to pen the script, which became one of the most legendary sequel scripts of all time - but not because it was used, it was because it wasn't used since it was regarded as far too intense, taking the darker, nihilistic themes of the original and ramping them up, ditching the humour in the process. It was decided the jokes were what made the material palatable to a blockbuster-hungry audience and thus Lethal Weapon 2's screenplay was the result of a bunch of writers, literally concocting scenes as the movie was being shot.

For that reason it was a miracle it hung together quite as well as it did, and went on not only to be the most profitable entry in the eventually four-film franchise, but one of the most successful sequels of all time. Mel Gibson as Riggs and Danny Glover as Murtaugh were back, and added to the mix were the likes of Joe Pesci as a comic relief accountant, Patsy Kensit as the love interest for widowed Riggs, and Joss Ackland as the chief bad guy, leader of a gang of South African officials who ride roughshod over the laws of the U.S.A., including drug deals and murder, but get away with their crimes because they claim "diplomatic immunity" which apparently means you can get up to all sorts of heinous shit and nobody can touch you for it. Whether this would be accurate to real life was debatable, particularly as the diplomats proceed to slaughter about a dozen Los Angeles police detectives just to get their way.

The villains could be more interesting now in light of Gibson's well-publicised downfall which featured racists rants of the kind that the South Africans here would have applauded, but all that was in the future, and besides, Kensit was essaying the token nice person from her character's country (no surprises what happens to her, then). But what of the action? We kicked off in media res as our heroes were in full buddy cop mode (a style very important to this decade) pursuing a speeding madman with plenty of humorous asides, an ideal car chase scenario that director Richard Donner attempted to top by sticking Gibson on the front of a truck later on. Yet this might be best remembered for the scene where they have a heart to heart as Murtaugh is trapped on a booby-trapped toilet, if only because it was all over the advertising. That was eighties action in a nutshell: crass, ridiculous, sort of in on the joke but sort of not, and going all out for over the top effect. There was never a time like it.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006