Action Movies & Masculinity [August 9-13, 2010]

Avi Santo's picture

Monday August 9, 2010 – Eric LeMay (Ohio University) presents: Action Tones

Tuesday August 10, 2010 – Jennifer Proctor (University of Michigan-Dearborn) presents: A Failure of Imagination: The role of disability in Avatar

Wednesday August 11, 2010 – Mark Gallagher (University of Nottingham) presents: The World in Action

Thursday August 12, 2010 – Yvonne Tasker (University of East Anglia) presents: Aging and Action Authenticity

Friday August 13, 2010 – Matt Thomas (University of Iowa) presents: The Body that Can’t Win


Theme week organized by Drew Ayers (Georgia State University)

Picture from Alexei Bazdarev via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License and altered with permission from the photographer.


  • Action Tones by Eric LeMay

  • How could a film of Miami Vice not be a spoof?  The damage done to American fashion by the 1980’s television series (pastel jackets and tee shirts, sockless loafers, designer stubble) should be enough to secure Miami Vice in the pantheon of post hoc camp.  Recall that Phil Collins was the show’s musical spirit, Don Johnson its star.

    Yet in 2006 Michael Mann, who produced the original series, made an unblinkingly straight adaptation of the story, one in which a comedian as talented as Jamie Foxx can say, without irony, “Let’s take it to the limit one more time.”  Mann creates the cool in Miami Vice through the same technique that marks his other films and that once made the original series so popular: an abiding emphasis on tone.  From the color palette to the soundtrack, tone defines the film as much, if not more, than the narrative events and characters who populate it.  Tone imbues the action, becomes it.  The film’s preview serves as a metonym; the action unfolds like a 134-minute music video (in this version, a fan has mashed up the theatrical preview with the iconic song from the television show, wedding old Vice and new).

    I’m taken by this tonal element in Mann’s aesthetic not only for its own sake, but also as a formal response to the ongoing crisis in the action genre, in which neither heroes nor plot can fully carry a film.  Hollywood’s established stars grow feeble and bald, and their would-be replacements are too vacuous or Adonis-like to shoulder the heroic mantle.  Blockbusters rely on safe formulas and plunder comic books for plots, avoiding even the faux realism that shaped Ford or Regan era action films and any unprofitable associations between the filmic action onscreen and the military actions overseas.  With such offerings, how are audiences willingly to suspend their disbelief, even if they want to?

    Tone is Mann’s answer.  Atmospheric, immersive, affective, the tone in his film creates action through “the patterns and the rhythms, the color tones and the frequencies” (the quote comes from an interview in which Mann is describing the “intensity” of American life).  In Mann’s take on the genre, action is not some event that happens, nor even some person who acts, but something—to borrow from the iconic and campy song by Phil Collins—“in the air.”

  • A Failure of Imagination: The role … by Jennifer Proctor

  • “When I was lying in the V.A. hospital with a big hole blown through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. But sooner or later, you always have to wake up.” – Jake Sully, Avatar

    This opening dialogue from James Cameron’s “game changing” blockbuster sets up the troubling dichotomy that pervades the film: Sully’s paraplegia is in direct opposition to his desire to be free. Hence, YouTube user AJewelledGirl’s admonition in this video excerpt: “F—k Broken Bodies.” (1)

    In a movie celebrated for its visual imagination and technological innovation, the future of those with disabilities remains couched in conventional ableist terms. Despite its widespread use of CGI, the film casts Jake in what many wheelchair users have noted is a circa 1990s chair, operated by an able-bodied actor. It’s not enough that Jake’s the psychological inferior of his twin brother; to be a true hero, he must be physically “inferior” as well.

    The film furthers its ableist representations by pitting portrayals of the mechanically-assisted body against “natural,” organic bodies. Mechanical technology aligns with the villainous corporate-military complex, and flesh-and-blood bodies with the altruism of scientific exploration and the victimized Na’vi. The wheelchair, as a mechanical substitution for legs, serves as a symbolic reminder of Jake’s status as victim and pawn in the corporation’s oppressive regime. In this narrative world, a body aided by equipment cannot succeed; only the “naturally” able will win. 

    Ultimately, in Avatar, disability is a condition that must be escaped. Jake’s disability is exploited for suspense in the climactic battle scene, as his useless human legs prevent him from reaching his life-saving breathing apparatus. He succeeds not with his disability, but in spite of it. His ultimate act is to abandon his own species (or “race,” as the film has it), transcending his “defective” body to become a Na’vi himself, and fully rising to the status of (able-bodied) hero.

    As developments in CGI technology enable greater fidelity to “real life” (and the life of the imagination), the absence of heroic, differently abled bodies in cinema becomes more difficult to defend. AJewelledGirl sardonically calls out these shortcomings, asking, “Mr. James Cameron, if you can build all these things…  robots and whatever else is in the movie…” why can’t you build a world that simply embraces the body with a disability?

    (1) Watch AJewelledGirl’s full post here:

  • The World in Action by Mark Gallagher

  • Well into the summer action-movie season, Hollywood’s prestige fare such as Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood may be a distant memory as such genre staples as The A-Team, Predators and Salt cycle through global multiplexes. The higher than high-concept The Expendables lands imminently. Entertainment publications and pop-crit handicappers have issued think pieces on this season’s action heroes—paleo men, nancy boys or metrosexuals?—and on CGI’s sophistication or creeping philistinism.

    Yet now, as ever, the most salient feature of action cinema is its pervasive internationalism. Whether harnessing stars and crews from around the world, filming on location to exploit foreign scenery or tax credits, or simply earning distribution in territories amenable to showcases of stylized mayhem, action cinema in 2010 continues the mode’s mission of global saturation. To grow its East Asian markets, Hollywood regularly casts Asian or Asian-American actors: Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid (coproduced by the China Film Group and with the more accurate title in some overseas markets of Gongfu meng, or The Kung Fu Kid), Jet Li in The Expendables, Louis Ozawa Changchien in Predators, K-pop star Rain in last year’s Ninja Assassin and more. Likewise, Expendables distributor Lionsgate’s most recent annual report specifically promotes coproduction agreements and pursuit of location-based tax incentives.

    Meanwhile, regional variants of action cinema continue to flourish. Russia’s action/horror/sci-fi extravaganzas Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) have earned writer-director Timur Bekmambetov entry into B+ list Hollywood. Kazakh coproductions such as Nomad (2005) and Mongol (2007) have joined the ranks of historical epics in the mold of Gladiator (2000) and Hero (2002). France’s Banlieue 13 films (2004, 2009) and others from Luc Besson’s Europa Corp. have stoked the screen popularity of parkour and free-running styles. Europe continues to deal the occasional wild card, most recently the Danish/British epic of one-man violence Valhalla Rising (2009). Oceans away, Tony Jaa’s kineticism has facilitated international distribution of the Ong-Bak series (2003, 2008, 2010) and other Thai action vehicles. From South Korea, Seung-wan Ryoo’s frenetic action-comedies City of Violence (2006) and Dachimawa Lee (2008) build on the model of Hong Kong cinema’s 1980s and 1990s action heyday, as do recent Vietnamese entries The Rebel (2006) and Clash (2009). Japan still corners the market in goretoonish ultraviolence with films such as 2008’s The Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police. And East and Southeast Asia continue to incubate female action stars.

    The combination of domestic talent, migrating performers and craftsmen, increasingly economical digital post-production, and niche-attentive distribution networks have enabled action cinemas to travel regionally and worldwide. Hollywood activities still dominate film discourse, but the true richness of popular cinema today lies in our opportunities to see much of the world in action.

  • Aging and Action Authenticity by Yvonne Tasker

  • The imminent release of The Expendables underlines the continuing presence of aging action stars. 1980s action stars such as Stallone, Willis, Ford and Gibson are hardly without precedent as they keep punching into their 50s and 60s. Indeed they follow earlier action stars such as Wayne, Lancaster, McQueen and Eastwood who all performed middle aged or senior tough guy roles (Astruc celebrated Wayne’s defiant aging in Rio Lobo: “He will enter the grave as he always lived. On horse.”). Stallone stands out as different from more usual patterns of action aging only because he remains defined by a built body. 

    The most recent film in the Die Hard series exemplifies a more familiar pattern of aging action. The dogged die hard persona – regular guy who just won’t give up – ties perfectly with a scenario of aging action bodies. Live Free or Die Hard played out an intergenerational scenario of McClane’s aging tough cop at a loss in a digital world, teaming him up with a younger guy who brings expertise but not experience.   The Indiana Jones films worked this inter-generational scenario both ways (Jones as son, then as father).  McClane was already weary in the original movie back in 1986, echoing the tough older guys played by Wayne in films like The Sands of Iwo Jima. Signifying experience, aging male bodies – whether buff or sagging – effectively add to action authenticity.
    This sort of longevity only really applies to men – Hollywood’s action women have been young and sexy for over a decade.   With the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s late-40s reprise of her role as Ripley in Alien: Resurrection – her role in Avatar raises a different set of issues  – Hollywood action and adventure tends to allow older male stars a fantasy space it denies to women. While a mid-40s Jodie Foster plays tough in The Brave One, the marks of age as experience-as-authenticity don’t register here. More often women figure in fantastical action scenarios in which their powers are magical, their bodies eroticised; both are rendered through digital effects rather than signs of physical strength.  Experience is effectively erased. 

  • The Body That Can’t Win by Matt Thomas

  • Sylvester Stallone’s body used to be relatively ordinary looking. Carl Weathers is the superior physical specimen in Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979). Likewise, in First Blood (1982), Stallone is shredded, sure, but otherwise there’s nothing especially extraordinary about his physique.

    In the early 1980s, however, Stallone transformed his body. The exaggerated musculature people tend to associate with Stallone isn’t fully on display until Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV in 1985, when Stallone is a decade into his career. The body Stallone built for Rocky/Rambo seemed ill-suited for anything but Rocky/Rambo though. Stallone’s attempts to branch out were, more often than not, met with bemusement followed by indifference, partly, I would argue, because when people looked at Stallone’s body, they saw Rocky/Rambo.

    Interestingly, by the 1990s, this body started to arouse concern. Here, for instance, is Michael Atkinson on Stallone’s body in The Specialist (1994): “The average audience’s primary concern will be for Sly’s aging physique; the veins bulge so alarmingly in his shoulders and neck we begin to imagine eventual Cronenbergian implosions. At the very least, a loved one should tell him to ease off the free weights.” In other words, although audiences and critics didn’t buy Stallone as anyone other than Rocky/Rambo, the body Stallone had built for Rocky/Rambo had become so passé it was worrisome.

    In 2006 and 2008, respectively, Stallone rebooted the Rocky and Rambo franchises. These films entailed a rebooting of the Rocky/Rambo body as well. In 2007, Stallone was busted for possession of human growth hormone.

    The Expendables hits theaters today, and Stallone’s bulging veins are back in the news, along with concern bordering on disgust about them. But there’s also interest in Stallone’s body. The above clip shows Stallone working out furiously prior to filming The Expendables. It’s a trailer, not for the movie but for the body that will be on display in the movie. The body bears a resemblance to the Rocky/Rambo body audiences once felt no compunction about cheering on, but it looks like a crumpled piece of paper version of that body someone’s trying desperately to smooth back out. It’s more vascular. It’s – unexpectedly – festooned with gnarly tattoos.

    It’s a body that elicits feelings of concern and awe like no other, and has for three decades now. Once average, then over the top, then unfit for anything but two roles, now repellent and/or revered. Though his characters always do, Stallone’s body, it seems, just can’t win.


Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 09 Aug 2010 04:01:55 +0000