Monday, March 18, 2013

The Last Demolition Man and The Action Hero

Or: In Defense of Two 90’s Action Classics
Action Movies. What’s the first thing that came to your mind after reading that sentence? Images of Jason Bourne smashing some skulls? The Caped Crusader tangling with a newfound nemesis? Chev Chelios running around like a madman, as if his very life depended on it? Some Parkour, perhaps? If any of the aforementioned sequences/films came to mind, then perhaps it is a testament to the shifting template of action films. At least here in America, anyway. 

Save for films like The Expendables franchise, the continually anemic Die Hard Franchise, or the newest theatrical effort of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, it seems that the (mutually agreed upon notion of) glory days of 80s action films are nothing but a distant memory. Who but the most stalwart of action fans can recall flicks like Cobra, Commando, Bloodsport, et al? Titans like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and The Terminator have etched their bullet-ridden initials in the testosterone-amped and weapons-heavy vehicle of the 1980s.
But what happened after the big party? Was the immediate hangover to come?
From one decade to the next, the 80s to the 90s, guys like  Arnie and Sly saw their box office stock begin to take a slow dive (Last Action Hero and Judge Dredd). There were, of course, exceptions for those gentlemen. One need look no further than Terminator 2 (Highest grossing film of 1991). 

And to be sure, the public’s thirst for this relatively new genre (its predecessors can certainly be identified as the Western and the gangster picture, at least in the most basic of elements) hadn’t been sated. But it was HOW they wanted their action that was evolving. Suddenly big biceps and an endless supply of body-annihilating artillery were out. The body itself as a weapon was the new vogue. Guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal enjoyed a rise in popularity.

So in a curious spot, between the advent of martial arts’ resurgence of onscreen, and the impending debuts of both Michael Bay and the American debut of John Woo, there dropped 2 films that marked not just a callback to the halcyon days of the neon decade, but perhaps a personal struggle on the part of both stars to beat back a fate worse than death: irrelevance. The 2 flicks I speak of are Demolition Man and Last Action Hero. One is, at first glance, a feeble attempt to reignite the popularity of a man who, less than 2 decades into his career, was already seeming to face pop culture oblivion. The other seems to exist only as a pastiche of rote clich├ęs, familiar faces, and a heartfelt yearning for the director’s better days.

I love both of these films. Not in any postmodern or ironic sense. I legitimately love them. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any academic rationale to defend such a position. After all, Hero was almost universally panned, and Demolition received mostly mixed reviews. But both films boasted intriguing alternate/futuristic versions of Los Angeles, a hero remarkably out of his depth, and deliciously over the top villains who seemed to be having far more fun than the hero. Granted, both were also saddled with occasionally irritating sidekicks and appearances that were blatantly unwise (I’m looking at YOU, Denis Leary). But hey, no action movie’s perfect.

Demolition Man is set in 2032, in a California burg that is an amalgamation of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. Cars run on electricity, Taco Bell is the sole survivor of a literal franchise war, the police force dress in fashion that shocking resembles stuff out of the 90s, and all forms of violence, swearing, red meat, caffeine, cigarettes, sex, etc. are banned and enforced under law. A vision of utopia that seems to have finally given mankind a tangential piece of that most elusive of concepts: redemption. So what happens when you drop in a notorious criminal and a highly decorated AND controversial cop, both from the 90s? Sheer unadulterated mayhem, that’s what. Perhaps the most striking element about this film is its clear contempt for the future depicted onscreen. Why, the film seeks to ask, would any of us want to live in such a pussified future? Why should we have to give up our pleasures, even if it’s for the greater good of the world? One could, if they were so inclined, regard that attitude as a thinly veiled commentary on political correctness, in whose direction we as a country were headed. Stallone’s character John Spartan exists less as an agent of chaos (that honor belongs to Wesley Snipes’ outrageous and enjoyable Simon Phoenix) out to eradicate the cleanliness of California, than an ultra-macho throwback to the good ole days. Such an approach, though rather bullheaded, is one to not pass over for consideration.

Last Action Hero is perhaps THE penultimate love letter to action movies, at least until The Expendables came along. Is it the smartest, sharpest, most well-acted, or even most well-choreographed? Not necessarily. But that’s really the joy of it. It pokes fun at all the impossibilities and jaw-dropping moments we had seen before and come to cherish. Arnold was very relaxed, and very at ease with notion of knocking his own legendary status down a few pegs. A great moment is when he and his sidekick are in a video store, and said sidekick sees a standup poster for Terminator 2, starring…Sylvester Stallone. With the bad puns and clear bonding with the younger character, Arnie seemed, as strange as it may sound, to be having fun. The character of Danny, the sidekick, may have been a touch irritating. But he’s an 11-year-old action movie devotee. Would ANY of us not be so quick to point out all the implausible scenarios inherent, of which there were many, in such an environment? Especially at so young an age? Some of the winks may have gone on too long. Some of the elbow nudges to the ribs may have hurt. But the film had huge heart. At least to my dazzled eyes.

Both men have resurfaced, with critical AND commercial success to back them up this time. Though they may be both getting a little too old for this shit, they’re sure as shit gonna go down swinging. And isn’t THAT the very essence of the genre that sent them both skyrocketing into our pop culture conscious?

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