I was watching Lethal Weapon, for this first time, this weekend. I’ve seen all the other movies in the series but never the original. I really like the series as a whole and the first movie did not disappoint. It has everything that made 80’s action movies the best ever and this got me thinking, “what makes a great action movie”? Right off the bat, explosions, car chases and bone-cracking fight scenes come to mind and these are integral parts but I don’t think they’re truly the essence of what makes a great action movie.
In my opinion, a great action movie (and any other type of movie) has three paramount features: a likeable hero, a villain we all hate and, most importantly, a reason why the hero needs to defeat the villain. And this reason needs to be more than just “it’s my job”; things need to get personal because when things are personal, the hero acts recklessly and this makes things entertaining. One of my favourite action movies of all time is FaceOff (I know this was released in the 90s but it has all the things that a great 80s action movie has). John Travolta and Nicholas Cage’s characters hate each other and killing the other person is all that matters – whether it be with guns, knives, spear guns or with their bare hands.That spirit of doing whatever it takes to get the guy is what 80s action was all about.
But back to the point of this post – technology’s role in killing the action genre. While the advancement of CGI and special effects has greatly improved many genres, I think it’s done more harm than good to action. It feels like the focus has changed from providing gritty, compelling action heroes to making the explosion bigger than it ever was. Seeing something explode is awesome but it exploding for a reason is even better. I know how it sounds, like I’m trying to force emotion and too much thought into something that’s supposed to be all about great one-liners and things blowing up. But all great action movies have pretty deep storylines. Lethal Weapon is about a cop struggling with suicide; Terminator is about a women (and subsequently a child) who has the responsibility of the whole world’s future placed on them out of nowhere; Rambo is about a war veteran trying to find his place in society whilst coming to terms with the horror of his past. Sure, when we talk about these movies, over beers and steak, these plot lines aren’t the focus of our discussions but the fact that the plot is rooted in such a profound issue is why we care so much when the hero gets shot at and why we celebrate so deeply when he eventually achieves victory.
This is why whenever I hear a remake is being made of an 80s classic – action or not – I immediately know it won’t live up to the original. The writers and directors are so busy trying to visually update the movie that they miss out on recreating the connection we had with the characters. This is why they’ll never be another Robocop, another John McClane or another John Rambo – not because the writers aren’t talented enough to write a complex character we care about but because more emphasis is placed on how the character looks to us than how the character makes us feel.
But then again, maybe I am putting too much thought and emotion into a genre that’s meant to be about big guns an loud explosions.