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Dynamic Dozen: 80s Action in 12 Movies Part 1

  Many have observed that while the nineteen-seventies was not lacking in its share of action movies, where every crime thriller worth its salt featured a car chase as a matter of course, it was the following decade that defined the genre as we know it today. As it kicked off, the style had been channelled into comedies, so that for example The Blues Brothers was more often thought of as a film to make you laugh, yet nevertheless featured sequences where cars were trashed and sped across unsuitable locations as setpieces, leaning heavily on the spectacle. Other works like Honkytonk Freeway or The Cannonball Run did the same, the latter outperforming those contemporaries significantly, though perhaps the biggest in this vein was Superman II, the troubled sequel that delivered the splashy superhero vs supervillain battle in central Metropolis that would inform all those Marvel and DC epics to come in the twenty-first century.

That said, we still had to take the previous decade into account. While in Hong Kong and its neighbouring film industries' business continued much as it had, with nobody realising at the start of the eighties that the Shaw Brothers studio would not make it to the end, in Hollywood the more serious action movie was still yoked to the idea of what made a crime yarn relevant and sincere. The perfect summation of that was Michael Mann's Thief, which took over an hour of a two hour experience to deliver on its promise of guns, fist-fights, car chases and explosions, as if it was keen to prove its quality credentials before actually offering what the audience had turned up for. James Caan was the leading man, in what he claims was his favourite performance after Sonny in The Godfather, playing an expert safecracker who is persuaded/forced into that clichéd one final heist so he can retire.

This was at least interesting for fans of Mann, directing for the first time from his own script (drawn from a novel by a real life safecracker), for it established various elements that would become his stock in trade, namely thrillers where you were not very sure how you were supposed to be appreciating it when something so sober and sleek would appear to eschew any moves towards something as frivolous as jokes or even feeling your pulse pound when things were getting exciting. It was as if Mann was taking this on board as an intellectual exercise where, as in the seventies, character studies were as vital as the trappings of action surrounding, and indeed enveloping them, which made his name in film buff circles as one to reckon with should you take these efforts on the level that he so obviously wanted you to. Could an action movie be a work of art? Mann would like you to think that his were, at any rate.

Therefore Thief straddled the two decades like a Colossus in some fans' opinions, paying tribute to all those violent dramas your Robert Mitchum, Al Pacino or Robert De Niro were starring in during the past ten years, yet also looking far forward to what would be appreciated in the years to come if Mann had his way. As it turned out, he would have to resort to the small screen to make his presence felt in any major way, then return to the big screen to show everyone what he had had in mind all along; witness the diner scene here where Caan discusses with the love of his life Tuesday Weld (proving that occasionally this director could coax a really good performance out of his actresses) how he wants to settle down with her and start a family. This was obviously echoed with distinctly different subject matter in Heat some fourteen years later; arguably Thief contained the scene with most character resonance as opposed to movie legend importance.

Still, the seventies were difficult to shake, and many filmmakers were reluctant to leave them behind. The benchmark for Hollywood action for cop thrillers in that decade had been the Dirty Harry series, and star Clint Eastwood had gone on to make two more entries in that franchise during the eighties, effectively wrapping them up once he became too old for the role. But Burt Reynolds had arguably got in there first, not during the seventies but in 1981 where he showed how the character could be developed in Sharky's Machine, where he played an ageing detective who has switched to the Vice Squad after a stint in Narcotics has left him disillusioned when innocent bystanders were murdered by a criminal he was trying to take down. Naturally, he shoots him shortly after the opening credits have been completed (using a fancy helicopter sequence that Reynolds appeared to be enamoured with).

But for the next hour, hour and a half, we had one of those police dramas that the seventies was so keen on when there was an opportunity to delve into the psychology of the lawman in question, something that was quickly eschewed when the point became to gun down the bad guys with extreme prejudice as a one man judge, jury and executioner - we didn't need to know any further motivation than that. Reynolds was the world's most popular movie star in the seventies, and found that decade hard to leave behind as his career declined, but he had toned down his comedy side in plenty of efforts from that era, and so it was with Sharky's Machine as he pines after high class call girl Rachel Ward, playing Dominoe (what was that "e" there for? Was Dan Quayle giving script advice?). He has her under surveillance, as she may be the target of a hitman, and so it is after half an hour of gazing at her lovingly from afar she gets her face blown off by evildoer Henry Silva.

Some have seen elements of classic film noir Laura in this twist, but it was more like Reynolds was harking back to Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers Rear Window and Vertigo, two films that subverted James Stewart's image from the fifties, a decade where he experimented in what audiences would accept from him. Reynolds didn't go that far, but in this self-directed movie he was definitely trying out something different for himself, all the while cementing various aspects of the urban action flick such as the yelling Chief who is on the hero's case and threatens to have his badge (Charles Durning this time around), or more memorably the seemingly invincible villain who only the protagonist can take down: Silva's coked up assassin. Vittorio Gassman was the actual man pulling the strings, including that of the regulation corrupt authority figures (a seventies paranoia holdover), but Silva stuck in the mind, utterly ruthless in the style of his Italian poliziotteschi movies, but with a strain of pathetic neediness to him, as if realising killing people was no way to make a living.

Silva was back as a baddie in 1982 with the infamous flop Megaforce. This was a movie designed to sell a line of toys, and directed by Hal Needham fresh off his global success with The Cannonball Run where it seemed as if he had the pulse of the populist moviegoing public. He certainly did not with this, but it's instructive to have a look at its idea of what was essentially a live action cartoon version of the macho ideal, for it was indicative of what the decade was shaping up to deliver. The buzzword here was "camp" and that was a word that could be applied to plenty of those manly men who sweated and bulged their muscles through their testosterone-fuelled adventures, though there were few camper than our hero in this, Commander Ace Hunter, played with a curious resemblance to British television personality Noel Edmonds by Barry Bostwick, though Noel would never sport the gold spandex body stocking and powder blue headband across his fluffily-coiffed barnet that Baz did here.

The trouble was, Mattel, the toy manufacturer, had come up with the visual concepts, so basically the cast were dressed as toys, and driving around in toys too, as per the Megaforce organisation's remit to travel across the world and intervene in international incidents to promote their idea of freedom, which involved blowing things up. In a desert, in this case. You would think this was a simple concept to grasp, but for some reason half the movie was taken up with Commander Hunter explaining it all to newcomers Edward Mulhare and Persis Khambatta, guiding them round the facility, taking Persis training (which depicted a parachute jump that alternated between obvious doubles in the sky and the actors suspended clumsily against a blue screen for maximum hilarity), only to tell them after all this that he would not be taking them along on the mission anyway. So what was the point in them being there?

For Khambatta, she was there as the sole representative of womanhood, an unconvincing indication that Ace was not a homosexual. This was harder to believe when we were introduced to his relationship with Silva, who played the baddie, but the Commander greets like a long lost lover with much twinkly discussion of borrowed lighters and the good times they spent together. Megaforce was one of the films Hong Kong outfit Golden Harvest created for the American market, and it seems prescient in its characters bonding for the glut of superhero teams we would be offered decades later, not to mention the entire Fast and Furious franchise, but in the main, thanks to that design, it was relegated to the past as a relic. Sure, you can watch the clip of Hunter flying a motorbike into the back of a cargo plane and laugh heartily, but the entire movie was an embarrassing experience that once again proved Michael Beck had poor choices after The Warriors.

In 1983, Jackie Chan knew what to do to secure a hit, and Project A was an absolute smash across Asia, not to mention other parts of the world, though he remained largely a cult phenomenon in the West until the some say unworthy of him breakthrough Rush Hour in the late nineties. Back with his pirate movie, however, he was seeking to move away from the more traditional martial arts efforts that had provided his training and grounding and towards something that could demonstrate his aptitude with stuntwork. Or rather, his willingness to literally put his health, even his life, on the line for the sake of thrilling the audience, and here was the most blatant signal that he was going to shake up not only Hong Kong cinema but that of the whole globe. Inspired by the silent movie comedy daredevils and Jean-Paul Belmondo's action flicks that placed the stars in actual death-defying situations, there was no looking back.

Nowadays when you see a stunt in a movie, even post Terminator 2: Judgment Day which was the first to popularise the use of mixing real and fake techniques, computer generated graphics will be heavily implemented to create that unreal look to action scenes no matter how intricate the designers have been in bringing them to life. From one angle, this is a good thing for no longer will stuntmen and women be in danger of dying while at work, but in another way the spectacle of knowing you really are watching an incredibly human feat of derring-do has been lost, with only the occasional throwback to those days such as Mad Max: Fury Road reminding us of what they were like, and then we're so used to CGI anyway it doesn't cross our mind that they would be genuinely staged. But this means Chan's efforts are unlikely to ever be forgotten by anyone who wants to witness the real deal.

In Project A, you assuredly were given that, as Chan did something Harold Lloyd would never have done, he dangled from a high clock face - and fell off, landing in one, unbroken shot on the ground below. The plot saw him part of the Hong Kong Coast Guard at some unspecified time around the Victorian era and battling an evil Pirate King with the assistance of two buddies, not coincidentally played by Chan's actual buddies Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, thus consolidating their status as major stars of the Hong Kong eighties cinema. From a barroom brawl to a climactic swordfight, there were links to the past visually, but the mixture of his self-directed and penned martial arts with his distinctive, crowd-pleasing humour, as physical as his stunts and fighting remains a design classic that has never been bettered. In the West, however, humour was employed to make sure the hero was never the butt of the joke, very different from Chan's ingenuity.

Alternatively, you could use as little humour as you liked, as was the case with Charles Bronson's thriller The Evil That Men Do in 1984. This was unusual for his eighties output in that it was not produced by Cannon, who had taken him to their collective bosom and enabled him to continue headlining violent action well into his sixties and even seventies. Here it was Britain's ITC who picked up the cheque, funding what would be the last in a trio of suspense efforts for Bronson, though that country's censors found it necessary to trim the violence from what was in its uncut form one of Bronson's most brutal movies. For this leading man, that was saying something, but for a change he was not playing some cop on the edge or a vigilante who had been pushed too far by society's criminal element, nope, this time he was a professional hitman who has been hired to take down a notorious torturer.

The setting of South and Central America grew popular with action producers, whether taking advantage of the jungles or the urban areas, the idea that these were the last lawless hellholes on Earth, or at least close enough to the United States to be handy for filming, one which proved difficult to resist for stories that really needed irredeemable villains for their hero to look good blowing away with a handgun. Except Bronson didn't use his firearms as much here, preferring to implement other methods of doing in the nasty men, and occasional women, who he deliberately crossed paths with. Chief among them was that torturer who we are introduced to under the opening credits as he attaches electrodes to a victim's nipples and testicles then proceeds to get his sister (Antoinette Bower) to switch on the juice, a particularly grisly way of kicking off any movie, never mind one that was presumably supposed to be enjoyable.

You could question the morality of taking a very real situation, one blighting regimes across the southern continent, and getting the not exactly subtle diplomacy of Bronson to sort them out (and his character, retired in the Cayman Islands, does it for free!), but the fact remained action movies were an empowering form of diversion, and continue to be, so if you get thrills from watching a surrogate he-man righting the world's wrongs in a manner that did not trouble the complications reality would bring up, then more power to you. This was the one where Bronson defends the lady (Theresa Saldana) who he has been looking after in a bar by grabbing the testicles of a giant heavy (yes, more testicles) for what seems like a full minute, placing his foot on his throat for good measure until he passes out. There was also a car chase and a denouement that saw an appropriately gruesome retribution for the bad guy (played by Joseph Maher, curious casting).

But what of the newly minted eighties action stars, your Arnold Schwarzenegger, your Jean-Claude Van Damme, your... Shô Kosugi? After breaking onto the scene as the premier ninja operator in a clutch of Cannon efforts, he effectively remade one of them, Revenge of the Ninja, with Pray for Death in 1985, and that has proven popular with fans ever since though the debate rages about whether it was better than its source; well, the debate occasionally simmers, anyway. Kosugi was a Japanese star whose real life prowess with martial arts had translated into a screen career, which was increasingly the way to go with these performers seeking their time in the limelight, and the matter of whether they could actually act was almost always secondary. Certainly he knew his way around a samurai sword, and that would be his chief modus operandi when it came to dispatching his victims.

He assuredly had a lot of those bad guys to get through in Pray for Death, but one element that perhaps marked it down for the purists was Kosugi's insistence of including his two young sons as part of the narrative, and indeed the action. There was a whiff of the home movie about the way Kane and Shane would pop up to support their doting dad, always demonstrating the moves you imagine had been drilled into them every spare moment of the day, so they could follow in their father's footsteps. But you never had Schwarzenegger encouraging his kids to show up in his works to mow down or beat up a henchman, mainly because it would harm the credibility of the film, yet also because it came across as a little irresponsible to portray these children as smashing up the antagonists in such an otherwise violent effort. Sure, there was that 3 Ninjas trilogy for the kiddies to be introduced to kick ass heroes, but it wasn't the same.

The 3 Ninjas didn't have to suffer their mother getting run over by a car, then once in the hospital being sexually assaulted, beaten up and stabbed to death, after all, and nor should they have done, but that's what happened. Who would do such a thing? Step forward seasoned British character actor James Booth, who had written the script and presumably beefed up his own role as the maniacal villain to end all maniacal villains. If he hasn't made many top ten lists of evildoing, it was not for want of trying as he gets up to all sorts of brutality in the name of retrieving a precious necklace that he thinks restauranteur and secret ninja Kosugi has in his possession; he doesn't, but that doesn't stop Booth's rampage as the man is totally irrational, which was supposed to render him formidable but given how long it took to make him see sense in that grand finale (which managed to feature both chainsaw and buzzsaw) made him look like a total moron.

See you in part two for the second half of the decade…
Author: Graeme Clark.


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