Last year Adam Sternbergh published an article in the New York Times titled "How the American Action Movie Went Kablooey." It is an interesting and entertaining piece, but contrary to the title's promise, rather short on cause and effect--on how the American action movies of the '80s (the Rambo series, Schwarzenegger films like Commando, and the rest) took their shape, and why their pattern fell out of use. Still, it is common to view Vietnam and its aftermath as having had something to do with it, and Sternbergh is no exception.
I have to admit that for a long time I was quite skeptical of claims about such a connection, taking them as exercises in that shallow sort of instant cultural analysis that forces every pop cultural hit or miss into an ultra-conventional narrative of national tragedies and triumphs, with the most recent success or failure necessarily a loud and clear expression of popular feeling toward the most recent event.1 And yet . . . these movies about big men with big guns effortlessly mowing down hordes of faceless foreign enemies very plausibly seem the power fantasy of a deeply wounded culture.
There is also no denying the shocks of that period, of which defeat in Vietnam was only one. There was, more broadly, something analogous, if rather weaker, than what Britain went through in the twentieth century, that sense of unraveling empire--in Europe and Japan's turning from militarily occupied aid recipients into politically assertive economic rivals, the end of the Bretton Woods monetary system (still lamented by today's gold bugs), the OPEC oil embargo and the subsequent energy shocks, the end of the post-war boom (a generation which had seen 4 percent a year growth nearly flatline, full-ish employment give way to stagflation), the perceived advances of the Soviet Union in a "hostile" Third World. There was, too, mainstream, traditionalist resentment of the cultural changes that did not begin in the 1960s, but which were widely regarded as having come to a head in it, as marginalized groups (women, minorities, the young) became more assertive, and attitudes toward matters such as sex, drugs and the natural environment changed. That all this was accompanied by rising crime and urban decay did not make it any more bearable for those discomfited by the trends.
Reactions to this succession of economic and foreign policy setbacks, and the cultural changes which accompanied them, varied enormously. Some, like John Kenneth Galbraith or William Appleman Williams, hoped for, and even expected, the United States to change the way in which it dealt with other nations, and the role its government played in the economy, redressing the private sector's failings in areas from health care to the environment, and accommodating the calls of the left for a more egalitarian society.
However, the dominant reaction was conservative, and ultimately expressed in the policies and attitudes of the once improbable-seeming Reagan era. As this developed much of what had seemed threatening went into retreat, or was tamed, or was simply ignored, as bad memories faded, old failures were apparently redeemed, and big problems ameliorated or simply papered over.2 The Gulf of Sidra, Grenada, the famous and infamous PR of and for the era, weakened the memory of the last war's defeat and divisiveness. The decade's bubble economics, the constant emphasis of the media on how well the rich were doing (and the tendency to overlook how the non-rich were doing) made the stagflation of the '70s look like trouble overcome (even as the problems which became so prominent in that era--deindustrialization, financial instability, rising trade deficits, falling wages, urban decay--kept worsening).
Pop culture played its part, not least on the movie screen, replete with images of avengers "setting the world to rights." Harry Callahan cleaned up streets overrun with hoodlums and radicals and other such types, while John Rambo refought the Vietnam War--as did the legions of imitators who made the loose cannon cop and the killing machine commando clichès of '80s cinema.3 However, in the process they helped diminish their own appeal, while at the same time also using up their potentials in the way that all intensively mined genres do, fairly quickly attaining the limits of concept and scale (quite evident in the absurd finale of the third Rambo movie). The box office receipts tell the tale: the summer of 1988 saw those two biggest icons of the post-Vietnam action movie, Dirty Harry and Rambo, each snubbed by moviegoers as The Dead Pool flopped and Rambo III underperformed badly.4
In the years that followed, American triumph in the 1991 Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the stagnation of Europe and Japan, the (mis)reading of the tech bubble and bull market of the '90s as signs of endless good times ahead, made all those '70s-era frustrations that much more distant by repeatedly reassuring American conservatives time and again that "the American way" was the only way. Even the September 11 terrorist attacks drew forth a new wave of triumphalism that lasted for much of the first decade of the twenty-first century. And all the while, a new generation was coming into the world for which "post-Vietnam" was as distant as post-Peloponnesian War.
Quite naturally, the cops and commandos, their old relevance lost, were succeeded by protagonists with a more "everyman" quality, evinced in such things as domestic troubles (already evident in the buddy cops of Lethal Weapon or John McClane), or outright superheroes (starting with 1989's blockbuster Batman). Instead of mean streets, Third World landscapes and villains from the nightly news, their adventures featured science fiction and fantasy elements like imaginary CGI-based creatures (which really came of age with 1993's Jurassic Park), and junkets in outer space (the mid- and late 1990s seeing more of these than any other period but the post-Star Wars rush, circa 1979-1984), and the bigger, more exotic spectacles they afforded.5
The transition certainly took its time. Much of the '80s action movie remained in the films of the '90s, from the continuation of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series' in that decade (Lethal Weapon in 1992 and 1998, Die Hard in 1990 and 1995); to later Schwarzenegger movies like the affectionate if ill-conceived parody Last Action Hero (1993), True Lies (1994) (the biggest action hit of its year) and Eraser (1996); to high-tech military thrillers like Air Force One (1997); to the special forces action of The Rock (1996) and Con Air (1997) (each prominently featuring American soldiers wronged by their governments). However, by the 2000s the transition to a different cinematic universe was virtually complete, the older style of action film persisting on lower budgets and pure nostalgia, as quaint to younger moviegoers as yesteryear's fascination with the Western.
Of course, this second decade of the twenty-first century, a time of financial crisis, frustration in overseas wars, and deep national divisions, echoes the 1970s in many ways. One may wonder if this does not imply a return to something like the movies of the '80s in a more than imitative or nostalgic way. For the time being, though, the defining action movies of recent years--superhero films like the Spiderman series or The Avengers, grand-scale fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean sagas, or The Transformers movies--have tended less toward fantasies of forcing reality into line with right-wing populist images of how the world should be than a politically less contentious escape from reality altogether.6
1. An instance of this is the reading of the success of Sam Raimi's 2002 Spiderman as a matter of its analogy with post-9/11 America, which I have always found unconvincing. A country which has taken its position as the world's dominant superpower for granted for generations is hardly comparable to a nerdy orphan who has just received superpowers as a windfall, and only secretly regards himself as a hero.
2. There was, too, a measure of mainstream acceptance of the social changes that had earlier been troubling--if with caveats and modifications. As Chris Hedges put it in Death of the Liberal Class, Martin Luther King was turned "into a red-white-and-blue icon . . . [like] Most of our great social reformers . . . sanitized for mainstream public consumption."
3. Paramilitary action-adventure on TV and in print, and the military techno-thriller, also played their parts.
4. The Dead Pool was the end of the Dirty Harry series, Rambo III virtually that for the Rambo films. (Not another such movie was made until 2008, and that a comparative small, low-profile release.)
5. There was even a spurt of renewed interest in the Hong Kong action film, with directors and actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li featuring prominently in a number of Hollywood films--Woo helming Broken Arrow and Face/Off, Jackie Chan making up half of the last really successful buddy cop duo in 1998's Rush Hour, and Jet Li's minor role in the last fourth and installment of the '80s-vintage Lethal Weapon series played up in the press to capitalize on the interest.
6. Of course, this is not to deny that some of these films have been taken as conveying political messages, including messages of the type discussed here. Christopher Nolan's Batman series has frequently been read as not merely political, but political in this manner, and one may say the same of Iron Man. Still, this seems less common, and when it does appear, more ambiguous than in many of the films of the '70s and '80s.
Seven Days Until A Good Day to Die Hard
The Return(?) of the '80s Action Movie
On the Graying of the Action Hero