"Action movies are bad for you. You must know that. Everyone knows it to be true. “It's as bright, shiny and noisy as a video game, and so fast-paced that even bogus thrills count,” New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote of Die Hard, when it was released in 1988 “It leaves no trace whatsoever. It's an utterly silly movie that ... renders even basic reasoning skills superfluous... [it] has the form of a movie, one made with a great many sophisticated skills, but it works on the audience less as a coherent movie than as an amusement park ride.” The only problem with this view — leaving aside for a second the fact that DieHard turned out to be one of the best films of the eighties, let alone action movies, a national treasure of coherence, sophistication, reasoning, etc — is that DieHard happens to agree with you, too. DieHard knows its bad for you. It says so. “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child. Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne... Rambo...” taunts Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). “Actually I was always partial to Roy Rogers myself” responds John McClane (Bruce Willis), like the good film historian we all are these days.
When did this happen? When did the action movie reach this startling degree of debonaire belligerence, such no-flies-on-me swank? When did everyone get so wise? In the seventies, the job of action director was essentially a speciality act, a renegade career-path, the province of lone wolfs like Walter Hill and Don Siegel — tough, leathery types who peeled off from the Hollywood pack to pay their silent debt to Sam Peckinpah and Howard Hawks with movies that were set in the city — The Taking of Pelham 123, The Driver, The French Connection — but which felt like Westerns, lean and loping, with hides like an old boot. In the eighties, everyone joined in. Action movie-making became a loud, raucous party, much closer to the suburbs of Hollywood, if not bang-smack in the middle of it, with a lunch-time booking at Spago’s, thronged with young pups fresh from the world of advertising or pop videos, where they had honed their editing skills to within passing semblance of the skills necessary to shoot action. In the process, the action movie would undergo a complete makeover, losing its air of civic sweat and moral unease, to make way for a brasher, bright air of hard-edged modernity. Heroes who probed the thin fault line between cop and vigilante (The French Connection, Dirty Harry), became cops who enthusiastically trounced you for a parking ticket (48 Hours, Lethal Weapon); action heroes with a lurking resemblance to inhuman automatons, became inhuman automatons (Robocop). Villains who were terrorists (The Enforcer) gave way to villains who only pretended to be terrorists, in order to pull of a high-end bank heist (Die Hard), and from being people the audience called “the bad guys” to people the film’s heroes referred to as “the bad guys”.
Above all, the dress code for American movies were about to undergo its biggest overhaul since tuxes and tails went out in the forties. It was to be out with Spielberg’s bathers in their skimpy beachwear, or Sylvester Stallone, baring his flesh like a saint approaching annunciation, and in with Robocop in his full metal jacket. The daringly low neck-line of Superman was about to give way to the full body armour of Batman; Indy’s rumpled civvies to Tom Cruise’s crisp white Navy uniforms; the sight of Ripley in her panties — from which we all, quite frankly, needed to move on — to that of Ripley strapped into her power-loader. Even Bruce Willis — doing his bit for bare-chested machismo — would seek modest cover in the form of his ever-darkening vest. In short, the age of flesh-tones — and all the pink vulnerability they signified — was over. Hollywood’s Heavy Metal age was about to begin.
The exact point at which everything changed is hard to determine, but if you had to pick the point where the era of Dirty Harry made way for the era of DieHard, you would, I think, want to pick Jim Cameron’s Tarzana apartment in the spring of 1983; and in particular the point exactly midway between the Rambo desk and The Terminator desk. Cameron would later disown Rambo, saying, “the action was mine, the politics is Stallone’s” and indeed, his draft has a breezier snap to it, with John Rambo bundling out of a Blackbird spy plane and and freefalling 70,000 feet. He also rectified a glaring oversight of the first movie, First Blood, in which Vietnam vet John Rambo is hunted by his own military commanders to within an inch of his life, but signally fails to take anyone else’s. Must have been a typing error. In Rambo, he makes up for lost time, enthusiastically ploughing through villages, mowing down armies, and swatting helicopters from the skies like flies. A one-man biochemical army, a porcupine of bristling muzzles and barrels, this John Rambo is “A pure fighting machine with only one desire... No fear. No regrets...” Would that this were true. In Sylvester Stallone’s hands, John Rambo turns into one big bag of regrets, sauced with self-pity and mixed up into one big trembling martyr, peeking out from behind his wall of weaponry with a stare closely modelled on a recently-orphaned Basset hound. It was basically Rocky-in-a-bandana — a noble punch bag, masochistically soaking up punishment on behalf of a demoralised nation, a noble brute with his mind on higher matters. ”The mind is the greatest weapon” says Rambo, before strapping some beefy rocket launchers to his torso, in case his mind wanders.
The mistake, as hindsight now makes clear, was to give him a mind at all, and to root that ruthlessness is anything resembling human psychology. Who needed it? How much more effectively that power chord (“no fear no regrets”) plays when it glances off the sleek chrome surfaces of The Terminator, where it appears again, but this time stripped of its bandana and its sweaty geopolitics: “It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop, ever.” Where Rambo started out a fighting machine and ended up fleshy punch-bag, the Terminator takes the opposite course, starting out as a semblance of a human being, whose flesh peels away to reveal a chassis of gleaming exo-skeleton — or as the script puts it, “Death rendered in steel.” The evolution of the anti- hero in American film is a little like the search for the basic building blocks of matter conducted by physicists at the start of the last century — first molecules, then atoms, then neutrons, then neutrinos, quarks and so on, as each seemingly irreducible element is split into something even more compact and durable, each baseline assumption collapsing into yet another fresh start. Audiences thought Robert Mitchum a little thuggish and taciturn, but he was a model of garrulity when set next to Lee Marvin; and those who thought Marvin a little hard to read would find him an open book compared to Clint Eastwood came along... and so on down the chain, endlessly ramifying, endlessly subdividing.
Until you hit the Terminator: speaking only 74 words and killing 24 people, Cameron’s creation remains the closest anyone has come to locating cinema’s answer to the unsplittable atom, cinematic base-matter. I could be wrong. In fact precedent suggests that one day a director will in fact introduce a character who simply walks on screen, says nothing and blows up; but until that day, the Terminator remains an unsurpassed model of ruthless implacability. Other directors would attempt to spark up a little chemistry between the Austrian and his-co stars — striking matches off the monolith — but the key to Schwarzenegger is not chemistry, but physics. Cameron would stand over him issuing instructions — “I want you to lay there, Arnold, then when I tell you I want you to start lifting up with your head, then your shoulders, then I want you to sit up, then I want you to look straight ahead’ — and if anything went wrong, he would explode. “He was like an encyclopaedia of technology, and if a shot was a half inch off the way he visualised it, he would go crazy,” said Schwarzenegger. “I would do a scene and would ask him how it was. He’d say something like, ‘It was disastrous, but probably a human being could do no worse.’ He was talking to me like I was the Terminator. It got pretty freaky at times.”
The best advice on dealing with the director came from actor Michael Beihn. “You don’t fuck with his movies,” he said. “When he throws a tantrum, it’s almost like the movie is throwing a tantrum.” A sobering thought, for The Terminator is not a movie you would wish to pick a fight with. If Rambo was a movie in a sulk, then The Terminator is a movie in a rage, a drama of almost messianic self-announcement — Mein Kampf as rewritten by J G Ballard — in which disbelievers are punished with a swift death, while the future takes shape around them; it is a heavy metal hymn to the textures of chrome and concrete, all specified with glinting exactitude in Cameron’s script, from the Hunter-Killer, mobile ground units (“a blast-scarred Chrome leviathan with hydraulic arms folded mantis like against its torso”), to the “phased plasma pulse-rifles in the 40-watt range”. It’s all there on the page, like manifest destiny awaiting hook-up: “Sarah dodges to one side and LOCKS THE BRAKES. The bike slides, fish-tailing. The truck roars past, hitting the air brakes.” If you didn’t know that before he made films, Cameron drove trucks for a living, and that before he drove trucks, he studied physics, you would be able to guess, I think, from that. What the what the speeding fighter was to George Lucas, and the airborne bicycle was to Spielberg, the skidding 18-wheel kenworth tanker is to Jim Cameron. In Terminator 2, Arnie would even surf one down the highway — a vision of juggernaut cool, and as close to a heraldic image as the Cameron oeuvre possesses."
— reprinted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004)