Thursday, May 24, 2018

Los Angeles in the Action Film

Looking back at the action films of the '80s, and even the '90s, one is struck by how much they used  Los Angeles as a setting.

Classics like Beverly Hills Cop (and its two sequels), and The Terminator (and its first two sequels), and Commando, and Lethal Weapon (and all three of its sequels), and the original Die Hard--they were all set in L.A.. So were Blue Thunder, and Speed. And along with them a slew of less celebrated films, like To Live and Die in L.A., and Cobra, and Tango & Cash, and Hard to Kill, and Predator 2, and Point Break, and The Last Boy Scout, and The Last Action Hero (appropriately, given its being a compendium of action movie cliche), and Demolition Man, and Volcano, and Face/Off, and Rush Hour, and Gone in 60 Seconds, and, and, and . . .

It seems fair to say that if an action movie was not pointedly set abroad (like the second and third Rambo films), or in a fantasy world or outer space (like Conan the Barbarian or Aliens); and especially when our heroes, as was so often the case, were big-city cops fighting criminals; L.A. was not just the most popular setting, but the default setting, such that the car chase through the Los Angeles River became a cliche of the genre.1

One doesn't see L.A. in such movies nearly so much now.

Of course, an obvious explanation is that L.A. was where the movie industry was, and so a logical, convenient place for writers to write about, and for crews to shoot in. That industry has since sent its production away--to Vancouver, to Atlanta (where the local Pinewood Studios franchise became the locus of the Marvel movie machine from Ant-Man forward), and any other locality where the government is willing to foot part of the bill for the megabudget blockbusters.

But I don't think that's the whole story, especially given that the film industry often enough used other locations prior to that (not least, San Francisco and New York for those founding cop-action movies, Bullitt, The French Connection, Dirty Harry and 48 Hrs.), and has never stopped playing the game of shooting in one place while pretending that it's in another. (That a lot of movies are shot in Vancouver and Atlanta doesn't mean that we have a lot of movies actually set in Vancouver and Atlanta. Indeed, some of the $400 million reportedly spent on the last Avengers film was devoted to making Atlanta look like New York.)

And as it happens, there was plenty of reason not just to shoot in L.A., but to say they were doing so. After all, by the 1980s Los Angeles was the country's second-largest city (just overtaking Chicago then), and, fast-growing in its fast-growing region, the Sun Belt, the West coast, the Pacific coast on the verge of what everyone said would be the Pacific century, looking more dynamic, more like the future, than the older metropolises in the older Northeast and Midwest (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston). Unsurprisingly L.A. seemed to incarnate more than other American cities the dreams and fantasies of the age, and at the same time, fear that that dream was souring. Beverly Hills Cop played up the luxury and glamour and sunshine (a striking contrast with Axel Foley's hometown of Detroit)--while in Predator 2 urban decay and crime gang problems turned it into a blighted war zone as appealing to the Yautja as a place for sport hunting as the Central American jungle from the first film.

Something of this remains with us. Just as it was natural for Baywatch to be set in L.A., it wasn't just a dubious faithfulness to or nostalgia for the original that made the inevitable feature film version also an L.A. production.

But at the same time, the action movies changed. The paramilitary action genre that made the LAPD officer chasing a drug lord through the L.A River seem so obvious a choice of theme got tired, its associated neuroses grew less compelling, while American film became more thoroughly unmoored from and less interested in addressing any kind of American reality in general (even in the silly, backward way action movies tended to do). At the same time action movies scaled up beyond the natural limits of what cop-and-criminal car chase and gunplay could accommodate (already the helicopters and international villains of the Lethal Weapon movies, the James Bond gadgetry and massive vehicles of Tango & Cash, reflected a certain imaginative strain), while the disaster movies to which the L.A.-as-future-disaster area theme played also became less salient, since the escalating mayhem meant that just about every action movie was a disaster movie.

Spy-themed action endured a bit better, but that was usually set abroad, and to the extent that cops and street hoods were still on the big screen, they increasingly acted like superspies. (Thus did Rush Hour go foreign for its sequels, to Hong Kong, to Paris, while the Fast and Furious escalated from car theft to superspy action complete with missile-firing submarines, and even the Bad Boys, who had never been in L.A. at all, had the big finish of their second film in Cuba.) Superhero-themed movies exploded, but superheroes are New York, not L.A. (explicitly so in the Marvel films, implicitly so in the D.C. Comics movies), while the proportion of films not set on anything even pretending to be contemporary Earth shot way up.

And so while Hollywood remains in L.A., one would be less likely to suspect it looking at today's movies, and certainly its action movies. In fact (and this is a decidedly unscientific impression), looking at the film of recent years L.A. never seems so conspicuous as it does in crummy independent movies about people trying to make movies--almost as if actually shooting your film in Los Angeles just shows that you haven't made the big time yet.

1. The only exception among the really top-rank, classic '80s action movies of this type would seem to be Robocop, which was set in Detroit, an even more pointed choice for a story of urban decay.

My Posts on Superhero Movies
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
The Summer 2013 Movie Season: Other Takes
My Posts on the '80s Action Movie

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