It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an action movie made in the 80s and early 90s must be superior to its successors. At least, that is the truth I universally acknowledge. They weren\'t great movies by any stretch of the imagination. The acting was often ropey at best, the plots were half-assed and occasionally borderline nonexistent, and the special effects owed more to Harryhausen than CGI. Despite this, they were still enjoyable. Seagal will never (I hope!) win an Oscar. Still, Under Siege is by far the best example of the “lone soldier fighting terrorists on a highjacked aircraft carrier” genre, with gunfights, fistfights and a wisecracking sidekick. Likewise, Commando (1985) has everything you need: improbably named hero, spunky sidekick, psychotic villain, and a gunfight in which one man wipes out the standing army of a small South American nation before impaling the antagonist on an industrial steam pipe. Don\'t get me wrong, I do like modern action movies - the Jason Bourne films are brilliant examples of the genre updated and done right. But, even then, they\'re a far cry from the over-the-top nonsense of the 80s and 90s. Part of this is down to the collapse of the Soviet Union. While I cannot argue that this was anything but a beneficial event in world history, it did remove the single most convenient villain for an entire generation of action movies.
Recently, I watched a few films that were billed as “old-fashioned” action movies - one explicitly, one by association, and one by virtue of its similarity to the other two! The varying enjoyment I took from each of these films got me thinking and, inevitably, comparing them to their forebears.
First up, the explicit one: The Expendables. So, to recap, here\'s the recipe behind the movie: take every aging actor who starred in 1980s/90s action movies, whether good or bad, then throw them into the plot of Commando (though it must be noted that what John Matrix did on his own, it took a half-dozen men to achieve here). Add a pinch of a few of the more recent generation of mindless action movie stars, and mix well. Season with cameos from other faded stars, and serve up on a bed of jerkily edited fight scenes. On paper, it sounded like fun. Absolute nonsense, of course, but fun nevertheless - a throwback to the movies in which most of the cast made their names; the movies I love. Sadly, Hot Fuzz was a more appropriate and loving nod to the genre than this mess. Prior to his performance in The Wrestler, I would have said something along the lines of “it\'s a sad situation when Mickey Rourke delivers the stand-out performance in a film”, but he\'s actually really good in that, and in this, delivering solid monologue about the horrors of war he experienced in Bosnia. It\'s worth noting that the ridiculous names of 80s action heroes are back: Lee Christmas, Toll Road, Hale Caesar, Barney Ross… hold on. But it\'s all style and no substance. Relatively unstylish style at that. Even the much-advertised cameo showdown between Bruce Willis (now, I\'ve always liked Bruce Willis - even Hudson Hawk - he\'s got a line on smug awesomeness that you just can\'t beat), Schwarzenegger and Stallone falls flat. From Arnie\'s entrance through the doorway of a church, looking like some kind of avenging mahogany-sculpted bicep angel, to the painfully dull banter between the three, it\'s a mess. My friend said afterwards that it would have funnier if they\'d held the meeting in an abandoned, run-down Planet Hollywood restaurant. I agree, though perhaps the producers thought that it might be too obvious a symbol of how far these stars had fallen. All in all, a truly execrable movie.
Having watched that travesty, I re-watched another film I had seen, wanted to like, and came away from sorely disappointed - The A-Team. A remake of the classic show, this one featured an updated version of the story, gunfire that was actually effective, and Liam Neeson. So far, so alright. Much more in the vein of the 80s, this (on second viewing, anyway), was a pretty fun romp through a couple of hours. Some good set pieces in keeping with the ridiculousness that should accompany any such movie, some fun lines, and a remarkably solid cast made this much more tolerable. But only on the second watching, when I had The Excrementals for comparison. First time through, I found the characters annoying, the “funny” moments irritatingly overwrought (the sudden, bathetic plunge with the incompetent CIA assassins in the back of a car is particularly painful), and the action scenes average at best. Drawing my particular ire was Sharlto Copley as Murdoch, who, despite maybe being the most solid actor in the main cast (he was great in District 9), seemed to have been directed to gurn and sweat his way through the movie, contributing very little other than a string of random accents (all of which are, it has to be said, very good). On reflection, I think what made the A-Team work in the 80s on TV was that it was made a) in the 80s, and b) for TV. The attitude and approach that made it work there just doesn\'t transpose well to the modern movie theatre.
Very close to the previous two films in terms of tone and style, was The Losers. Based on a recent comic book series, this feels like an old-fashioned action movie, but isn\'t. it\'s set and written for the modern era, but everything about it (special ops team gets betrayed and fights back, hidden agendas, secret betrayals, massive explosions) seems as though it could be from a different time. Running through the checklist, everything seems to fit: wisecracking sidekick(s)? Check. Banter between characters in an Arnie-meets-Belushi-in-Red-Heat way? Check. Ridiculous pseudo-scientific weapon MacGuffin? Check. Again, it\'s by no means a perfect movie, but it never sets out to be. With a quarter of the budget of The A-Team, and about a third of that of The Expendables, the smaller names and less extravagant special effects of The Losers produce a more effective result than the celebrities and CGI monstrosities of its competitors.
I\'m all for stupid action movies. That\'s what the 80s and 90s did really well - unapologetic, balls-to-the-wall action. Ridiculous, but fun. When this attitude is taken with modern movies, it still works - The Losers is a good example. This is, I think, what distinguishes that film from the other two - the latter is a modern film, made with a love of the films that went before it. The other two are 80s films made with a modern sensibility. When you set out to make a big, dumb action movie in the mould of those 80s and 90s classics, please just make a big, dumb action movie, and don\'t be ashamed of it!