Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Two Weeks Since You've Been Gone: Notes on Action Movies

Charles Bronson with his Wildey .475 in a promotional still for Death Wish 3

I've been watching a lot of Anerican action films lately--the kind of pure action that flourished from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Before that, action had to have at least a bit of adventure to it--a sense of removal. In the pure action film, though, reasons and locations are treated as banal--every house, jungle, fortress and oil rig is introduced with the same auspicious pomp, so that we no longer assign locations or motivations significance. The pure action film is the opposite of the noir film--not only does the situation of the world not seem hopeless, but in fact there is no situation at all. Even in films such as the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cobra, which, like many pure action movies, builds it basic premise around the audience's moral outrage at crime, the underworld seems not to matter because it is emphasized as much as the ordinary world. There is no class struggle in the pure action film--only the struggle of individuals against each other.
This is because the concept of a class struggle not only opposes the predominantly right-wing politics of American action movies, but also destroys the hermiticism inherent to the genre. Action movies must exist in a vacuum. The forces we are expected to rally against--liberal neglect, drug cartels, kidnapping rings--are reduced and personified. In order to give the film a sense of resolve, the enemy is always quantifiable and defeatable; there is a concrete solution to a concrete problem. Even in the Death Wish movies, where Charles Bronson, with his middle-aged man's physique and dour expression, seems to be fighting the whole world, there is always a sense of complete resolution in the end. The entire series rests on the denial of the existence of other problems--Bronson seems endlessly surprised whenever he stumbles upon a gang or a crime syndicate, moving from city to city. The action movie rests of the denial of the big picture--not only moral questions (the prevalence of political intervention, or, for that matter, murder), but contexts as well (and this includes contexts familiar to the films' intended Reagan/Bush American audiences). The films therefore paradoxically strive to play off of the audiences' fears (reductionism, ascribed values, and other products of capitalism) while simultaneously attempting to deny outside influences or possibilities making them, therefore, material in every respect.

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