THE POWER OF EXCESS: The Phenomenon of the 1980s Hollywood Action Film
Ah, the ‘80s. The decade that brought us personal computers, disposable cameras, and Chicken McNuggets was one of the most technologically and artistically innovative times in recent American history. The decade that brought us the horrors of AIDS, the escalation of the Cold War, and toy store fistfights for Cabbage Patch Kids. To those of us who were there, it was truly either the best of times or the worst of times.
The same can be said of the most singular and outlandish of all movie sub-genres, the 1980s Hollywood action film. At no other time in cinema history could these films have existed and thrived. They were both an influence on, and a reflection of, their times and their creators, which made them ripe for equal amounts of unbridled reverence and disgusted criticism.
Directly before the 1980s, Hollywood action films were mostly rooted in the grit and realism of crime. Whether it was a story about rogue cops in The French Connection and Dirty Harry, or the civilian vigilantes in Death Wish and Rolling Thunder, those action films felt grounded and their characters were sadly relatable. We all knew how bad and mean the streets could be, and oh boy didn’t we understand the desire for revenge and retribution.
There was also another type of action film at the time that was just as successful, yet rooted in a sense of play and outright silliness. At the same time Clint Eastwood was asking punks if they wanted to take a chance with his most powerful handgun in the world, he was also getting into melees alongside his orangutan buddy, Clyde, when he followed up a series of Dirty Harry and other cop films with Every Which Way But Loose.
While the 1970s separated the tone and elements of action films, the 1980s brought it all together in an insane mixture. Why have action films with just conspiracy theories in them like Black Sunday and Executive Action, or action films with just tough guy truckers in them like Convoy and White Lightning, or action films with just epic adventures in them like The Man Who Would Be King and The Deep, when you can have EVERYTHING in your action films?
The genesis of the 1980s Hollywood action film, like other chronological sub-genres, actually began in the previous decade, and the film itself is not debatable. The same way that even though Friday The 13th was the first major slasher film of the ‘80s, the first great slasher film was Halloween in 1978. It is the same way that even though First Blood was the first major Hollywood action film of the ‘80s, the first great one was Apocalypse Now! in 1979.
Apocalypse Now! was a film chock full of visceral horror and madness, both in its making and in its on screen result. Its shooting schedule and budget ballooned to unimaginable proportions, and its cast and crew were subjected to tropical disease, infighting, and a near-fatal heart attack. Yet, somehow, it was completed and became an instant modern-day classic. Filmmakers took the lessons “learned” from Apocalypse Now! and applied them to their own overblown cinematic dream projects.
First up was First Blood. A film about the harsh treatment of a Vietnam War veteran that had been floating around since the end of the Vietnam War. Under the guidance of Sylvester Stallone, who was desperate to shed off his Rocky persona, he changed the book version of John Rambo from suicidal to homicidal. Audiences fell in love with this man who had been pushed too far and knew how to do something about it. They wanted more of Rambo and more characters like him.
But to understand why audiences gravitated so quickly and eagerly to these films, one must also understand the decade in which they thrived. The 1980s in America was a time of a precarious combination of consumer surplus, luxurious decadence and gargantuan might. Everything was big and strong and expensive, and we not only reveled in it, we wanted it all to be even bigger and stronger and more expensive. Our films, of course, had to follow suit, and no genre was more ripe for that belief system than the action film.
Any 1980s Hollywood action film had to follow a strict formula in order to be successful. It had to star a larger than life “actor,” who looked stronger than the average man, like Stallone in the subsequent Rambo films or Arnold Schwarzenegger in everything he made from The Terminator to Commando to Red Heat. Or the star had to have the skill set and the wit to outsmart the villain, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. The films had to have countless explosions, a cavalcade of firearms, post-murder wisecracks, an evil villain with a decidedly Slavic or Middle Eastern accent, and an unapologetic tone of jingoism. The bigger the final explosion, the better. The more rounds fired from the hero’s size-increasing machine guns, the better. The more spot-on corny the one-liner said to a dead body, the better. And, of course, in Cold War “Love It Or Leave It” America, the more foreign the villain, the better.
But with time also comes hindsight, and the action films of 1980s Hollywood are now seen as both a cautionary tale and a blueprint in just how much and how little “big” films can be. On the one hand, you can argue that Hollywood has learned nothing from its mistakes because instead of overgrown muscle men and wisecracking smart alecks, we now have man-boy superheroes in tights and geriatric actors as our action stars. Instead of spending millions on practical explosions, the money is now spent on the VFX and CGI. Even more money is being spent to make and market Hollywood action films, and audiences’ desire for them has increased.
On the other hand, when the formula is changed, the product either loses its potency or the audience’s tastes shifts in a different direction. For every Lethal Weapon, Robocop and Escape From New York there are dreadful flops like City Heat, Iron Eagle and the aptly-named Over The Top. Just as Reaganomics, yuppie aesthetics, and Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous were seen for the shams that they always were, audiences grew tired of these rote films as quickly as they had embraced them.
When I think back on the ‘80s, I remember these films with equal amounts of fondness and distaste. On the one hand, they were just as fun and harmless to watch as the ultra-violent Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry cartoons I grew up with. On the other hand, they helped to usher in, and sustain to this day, an unhealthy view of patriotism and a fetishized relationship with weapons.
Ultimately, the best 1980s comparison I can think of for these action films are all the hairstyles and clothes folks wore at the time. We put a mountain of Dippity Doo on our heads and combed and teased our hair up and forward, so it could look as big as possible from the front. But if you took a picture from the back, all you saw was a flat head. We thought we looked fantastic in our parachute pants, when in reality, nobody looks good in parachute pants.
Why didn’t anyone tell us how ridiculous this all was? Because we were all in on it together. That need to be seen no matter how foolish, and that need to be the biggest no matter how weak the foundation, was the hallmark for the 1980s, for Hollywood even now, and for those great big, beautiful, cathartic action films that can never be replicated again. But now that I think of it, I actually did look good in my parachute pants.
This article is written by Theresa Hawkins celebrating the cultural impact of the action genre in cinema & TV, and promoting THE LONDON ACTION FESTIVAL taking place in London from Wednesday 21st – Sunday 25th June. Sign up to the newsletter to receive all news, updates, and Early Bird ticket release.