Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Cinemaniacal: Where Have All The Tough Guys Gone?

Welcome to the show folks...

Take a look at this trailer for the upcoming Green Hornet movie.

This trailer, which actually looks pretty entertaining, has sparked Mike Fleming, one of the writers at Deadline: Hollywood to ask "What happened to the bad-ass action heroes who could really win a fistfight?"

Well, first thing, it looks like Rogen, who co-wrote the film, is banking on the improbability of him in the role as "action hero" as a source of comedy, so neither he, or the film, are supposed to be bad-ass. Yet the author does make a point.

What did happen the bad-ass action hero?

It's a long story, and involves quite a bit of history.

Back in ye-olden days, happy golden days of yore, there really wasn't such a thing as an "action" movie genre. If you craved action, and demanded satisfaction, you had to drop your nickel at the bijou for the action and adventure dished out in war movies, science fiction films, historical swashbucklers, detective and gangster movies, and westerns.

Now most of these genres didn't really require a specialist "action star." Most of Hollywood's male leads dipped their toe into those genres, but one genre provided the template for what would become the quintessential action hero.

That was the Western.

The bulk of western movies were pure action, emphasizing stunts, fights, and shoot-outs. And while the historical swashbucklers starring pirates, knights, and dashing musketeers, were popular, they weren't quite as culturally prevalent as the western, because they cost more to make. If you wanted to make an adventure movie in the 1930s, all you had to do was drive an hour outside of Hollywood, and you had a perfect location for a cheap western.

As I mentioned before, the Western provided the template of the action hero. The ordinary man, both a man's man, and a lady's man, with a strict personal code of behavior/honor, who is willing to stand and fight, alone if they have to, against what they consider evil and injustice.

Any actor of the golden age of movies leading men had to be able to carry at least one western to prove their macho bona-fides.

World War 2 marked the beginning of a
major shift. The population of real-life action heroes skyrocketed as the men came home from the front, and the movies and their attitude toward heroes were effected.

Film noir, and darker more "adult"
westerns, emerged, expressing the cynicism created by the horrors of World War 2. They toyed with heroes that weren't complete paragons of purity. They could be ill tempered, drunk, and even corrupt, and some had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing. But they did end up doing the right thing in the end.

Harder edged heroes emerged from the trenches of low budget b-movies like Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. Marvin and Bronson were actual war veterans from hardscrabble backgrounds, and the evidence of the trials they faced was etched in their faces. However, there really wasn't an action genre all of its own... not yet.

The action genre came of age and got its driver's license when a certain Englishman named James Bond hit the scene.

Suddenly here was a movie that didn't rely on World War 2, The Old West, battling gangsters, or the legend of Robin Hood to provide an excuse for action. It was just action. You had a hero, a suave, yet slightly sociopathic, whose job was to swan around the world, getting into car chases, shootouts, and seductions while he saved the world on a thrice weekly basis.

This spawned thousands of imitators, most of them rightfully forgotten, but it also liberated other storytellers. They could go back to the more familiar homes for action, like war movies, cops and robbers, and westerns, and amp them up. This was especially true of war pictures, who evolved from being just dramatizations of actual events, to the more action-adventure oriented "Men on a Mission" film. These movies were about spies, freedom hungry POWs, and commandos operating behind enemy lines, and were less about the horrors of war, than about the thrill of sticking it to an evil enemy with as much suspense and action you can stuff in.

Westerns were also freed to be darker and more violent under the direction of men like Sam Peckinpah. By the end of the 60s it reached its peak with The Wild Bunch, a story without heroes until the very end, where the career criminals silently decide that their lives had been wasted, and seek redemption in a bloody nihilistic, bullet riddled finale. They do the right thing by dying, and taking the vicious General Mapache with them.

The seventies marked further evolution in the action movie. Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson entered the mainstream, Clint Eastwood leaped from spaghetti westerns to American crime films, and Burt Reynolds came in, blending action heroics with a sly nod and a wink. Most of these films were more grounded in a sense of gritty realism, dealing with the audience's concerns over crime, drugs, corruption, and general societal decay.

Seventies action film heroes were treated like anachronisms. Western gunfighters trapped in a world that doesn't understand or want their views of right and wrong. They are misfits for fighting for what's right, because it looked like society gave up.

Things changed again in the 1980s.

The 1980s saw the malaise of the 1970s shift into an attitude of extreme exuberance. America, and Hollywood, were both feeling good about themselves again, and they wanted to have fun.

Action heroes began to change. The battle hardened tough guy in the mold of Marvin and Bronson was still around, but they were getting older, and their films smaller. Eastwood forged a niche for himself as an action star and drama director, and his contemporary Burt Reynolds veered between action and comedy with his own career.

They were soon to be replaced by a new generation of action stars. These new stars went beyond bad-ass into the realm of the live action cartoon. You had Schwarzenegger, Seagal, Van Damme, and Stallone, who changed his image from underdog to action hero with the second Rambo movie. These new stars were either superhuman-sized, like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, or were presented as having super-mad-skills like Seagal and Van Damme. These were guys who weren't dragged into a battle, they were born for it, and had a legion of special effects technicians to amp up their battles and stunts to new levels of the outrageous.

Bruce Willis made himself stand out with a more everyman caught in over his head image, but even that began to blend in with his more cartoonish contemporaries.

The street level, small scale threats were gone. Replaced by literally armies of bad guys and infinite numbers of bullets.

The 80s rolled into the 90s, and the trend went on... and on... and on... The 80s generation began to age, some badly. With action centering mostly on cartoonish hyperbole, the sight of aging actors trying to flit around like they were 30, started to look kind of ridiculous.

Another poison was irony.

Most of the action films of the 80s had humor. It was natural to inject some laughs when things were so over the top, but most of those were natural occurrences within the logic of the story's universe. But then everything became some sort of ironic statement about the genre itself, and got a little too cute to accepted.

Irony's fine, but too much irony, and you're just being repetitive.

Another problem was that most of the next crop of actors could carry an action role. Most were just too pretty, too childish, or too goofy, but all were too inexperienced. They lacked the all important quality that real action stars needed, which was to look believable in a street fight.

Things shifted yet again. Stars became secondary, almost disposable, as long as there was enough CGI to do the work for them. Special effects went from just amplifying the action, to completely creating the action. The characters went from being pretty-much superhuman, to being completely superhuman, doing not just the physically trying, but the physically impossible.

Now we're a bit stuck. There's very few actors under the age of 50 who look like they're capable of watching your back in a brawl, and the ones under 50, just don't measure up to their predecessors.


  1. Apropos of your topic,I recently rewatched ,Bullitt with Steve McQueen and was bowled over by how much better car chases and shootouts look ,when shot live with no CGI.The story just drew you in and didn't let go.Then I rewatched L.A.Confidential, also realistic and compelling.This kind of story needs to be made,we need to see corruption and retribution in real time.This world we live in is treacherous and being reminded of that fact on film is practically a community service.Good question you posed,where have all the men gone? Well aside from Russell Crowe alias Bud White, Maximus,Ben Wade and Richie Roberts or Robin Hood, there is DiCaprio? Clooney? Depp? Bloom? and now Jolie as Salt as tough guys. As a kid I saw films with Heston, Quinn, Brando,Wayne, and my favorite at the time Lancaster.Aha but that was when adults attended films made for adults and now the movie business is primarily aimed at the kiddies and the wannabe kiddies.The action pictures excuse the expression stink.I miss Mel Gibson,Harrison Ford,Kurt Russell,the good-looking grown-up tough guys. Toby McGuire and that Harry Potter guy in a film like Point Blank is a bad joke.

  2. Dirty_McDingus sezs:
    It is perhaps the influence of the female side of the coin that has DE-manned all movies now as well. Close to 50% of the population is of the fairer side and spend just as -or More!- as the males do. Those dollars count to change the producers choices in what is made, so "safe" male action "heroes" come to the forefront~ But yes; CGI took the spine out of Male Action Heroes because they're no longer the draw anymore. Heck you have dicrapio as the tough guy in the new 'inception' since it's all.. a dream.....

  3. Dirty McDingus-

    I've suspected that a lot of the "non-threatening boy" phenomena of most leading men comes from what I call "Juvenile Dementia." That's Hollywood's never-ending obsession with youth. That includes being young (or at least looking young) and selling to the young.

    Tweenage and teenage girls are a huge market, look at Twilight, and exploiting that market which looks like it will buy anything, has left some pretty big gaps that Hollywood tries to fill with the leftover pretty boys.

  4. I really do not see any of the new crop of male talent becoming ACTION STARS. Most men get their action from video games these days. First person shooters like Call of Duty have killed the gun blazing shoot'em up film.

    I am really getting sick of all the films that put effects and other crafts above the core fundamentals. I was not impressed by Avatar it was just a 500 million dollar overpriced tech gimmick with a overdone ecostory.

    I am more impressed by films like the The Wrestler which only cost 6 mil and shot on digital camera. When you do not have the budget or wizbang technology you have to rely more on your talents. I tis the low budget films where real talent shines through.

  5. Since so many films are aimed at the humans under age 25,is it any wonder that Hollywood is obsessed with young actors? Juvenile dementia does exist and it does drive away people who really do not want to pay to see wooden actors (Worthington is the latest), or the cutey-pie boys with the smooth bland expressions on their faces and acting skills that run the gamut from A to B.Methinks that the obsession with youth flows from casting directors offices and People magazine.Life experience makes for more interesting actors and actresses and more nuanced,subtle performances.For action acting the guys have to emote like they mean it,demeanor,facial expressions convey so much more than just violence.The possibility of violence is ever present and creates tension within the story,and that is a good thing...for the story.Also big movies can deliver the goods with action,I saw so many as a kid,Guns of Navaronne,Ben-Hur,Lawrence of Arabia,the first three Bond pictures were all really well done.

  6. I think Bale has done good with Batman despite the chain-smoking voice.