Action and Adventure Films
Action and Adventure FilmsEARLY AND SILENT ACTION AND ADVENTURE
CLASSICAL CINEMA: HISTORICAL ADVENTURE
CHALLENGES AND CHANGE:
THE 1970s AND AFTER
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES: NATION,
GENDER, AND RACE
Action and adventure have long been established features of American and other national cinemas. Associated with narratives of quest and discovery, and spectacular scenes of combat, violence and pursuit, action and adventure films are not restricted to any particular historical or geographic setting. Indeed, the basic elements of conflict, chase, and challenge can be inflected in any number of different directions. As such, action and adventure as cinematic forms are constantly in the process of reinvention, manifesting themselves in a multiplicity of different genres and sub-genres over time. It is nonetheless useful to distinguish between the two terms and the kind of cinema to which they refer, since "action," "adventure," and "action-adventure" are all descriptors with difference valences. With this in mind, a rudimentary distinction can be made between action sequences and adventure narratives. Action is associated with a particular kind of scene or spectacle (explosions, chases, combat); adventure, by contrast, implies a story (typically, though not always, the quest narrative) often located within a fantasy or exoticized setting, for example, the search for mythical objects or treasure in such films as King Solomon's Mines (1950) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Despite their generic diversity, all action and adventure films focus on some form of conflict. Alone or as part of a group, the heroes face some figure, force, or element that challenges them physically and mentally. They may face an opponent of enormous size, strength (The Terminator, 1984) or intelligence (The Matrix trilogy, 1999, 2003, 2003), alien or supernatural forces (the monstrous creature in the Alien series, 1979, 1986, 1992, 1997; the invading alien ships in Independence Day, 1996), an unjust system (the British in Captain Blood, 1935; imperial power in the Star Wars series, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1999, 2002, 2005), mechanical malfunctions (runaway trains in The Hazards of Helen, 1914; the booby-trapped bus in Speed, 1994), a natural disaster (Volcano, 1997), or simply a harsh natural environment (the deserts of Lawrence of Arabia, 1962). Of course, many action and adventure films often call on several of these elements in combination: thus, in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Ahmed (Douglas Fairbanks) faces physical humiliation at the hands of palace guards before traversing a series of challenging environments and defeating a variety of monsters and treacherous human opponents in order to claim his prize (marriage to the princess). In all these circumstances, the action or adventure hero is called upon to demonstrate courage, initiative and physical endurance, ultimately triumphing over what are typically cast as impossible odds.
Action and adventure form a key component of early and silent cinema. At a relatively early stage of film history, elements of chase and pursuit were developed into basic narratives through innovations in editing, evident in such important cinematic reference points as The Great Train Robbery (1903) in the United States and A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) in the United Kingdom. Both titles involve crime, some form of pursuit, and the ultimate capture of the thieves in question by the forces of law. The sensational appeal of crime and pursuit remain evident throughout the silent era. Film historians such as Richard Abel and Ben Singer have done much to map the appeal of sensational cinema in the period, pointing out that what we now typically term "action" was framed within the silent era as a form of popular melodrama featuring scenes of peril, pursuit, villainy, and rescue, forms derived in part from spectacular theatrical traditions. These basic elements of chase and pursuit were also given comic inflection in Mack Sennett's highly successful slapstick Keystone productions, most notably through the antics of the "Keystone Kops."
As the silent cinema reached maturity in the United States, the most remarkable action star of the period was undoubtedly Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), who defined both the historical adventure and the action spectacle for the silent era. From his unexpected success with The Mark of Zorro (1920), a departure from the star's established association with comedy, Fairbanks appeared in a series of costly spectacles that showcased his athleticism and physical exuberance, notably Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The latter, directed by Raoul Walsh, is an epic fairytale film featuring extravagant sets and breathtaking choreography. The film follows Fairbanks's Ahmed from life as a thief on the streets of Bagdad through various adventures that end in his redemption through love and heroism. Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), Fairbanks's contemporary, was also associated with exoticized adventure in such films as The Sheik (1921) and his last film, Son of the Sheik (1926), his star persona foregrounding eroticism rather than the athleticism that was Fairbanks's trademark. However different, dance draws the two together, with The Thief of Bagdad clearly being influenced by contemporary dance styles and Valentino's being heavily associated with the ethnic eroticism of the tango. Both stars are analyzed in This Mad Masquerade by Gaylyn Studlar, who explores their images within the period's evolving and fluid discourses of American manhood. Their different images underline the centrality of the star body to action and adventure films: as a form that foregrounds the body in motion and in combat, action and adventure cinema advances a physical (frequently sexualized), imagery of heroism that veers between the poles of aggression and grace.
Though lacking the continuing cultural visibility of Valentino as star, the "serial queen" has attracted critical attention as an extremely popular site of action and spectacle in the silent era. As Singer notes, serial star Pearl White (1889–1938) was an extraordinarily popular performer, with high-grossing serials such as The Perils of Pauline (1914) demonstrating the association between intrepid action heroines, modernity and early cinema (Melodrama and Modernity, pp. 214–216). Jennifer Bean explores such connections to the long-running serial The Hazards of Helen (1914–1917). She foregrounds the railroad and other forms of transportation as important sources of cinematic thrills within these films and as a marker of the perceived speed and unreliability of modern life. The centrality of female performers to action and adventure in the silent period, admittedly within the less prestigious form of the serial, usefully frames the critical interest in contemporary Hollywood action heroines (Action and Adventure, pp. 21–23).
Finally, it should be noted that the silent cinema also sees the formation of a tradition of adventure filmmaking strongly associated with special effects. The fabulous sets of the Fairbanks adventures represent one such source of spectacle. Of equal significance is the appeal of landmark films such as the adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), complete with elaborate underwater sequences, or the ground-breaking stop-motion animation detailing dinosaurs in the lavish 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Such laboriously produced films exploiting a variety of technical innovations indicate the early importance of spectacular scenes as a defining feature of action and adventure cinema.
Within the classical period of American cinema, a variety of action and adventure types were produced, several achieving distinct generic status (the western, gangster, and war film pre-eminently). Setting aside for the moment these familiar action genres, we might consider the historical adventure film as the classical cinema's central manifestation of action and adventure. In his comprehensive study of the genre, Brian Taves suggests that historical adventure comprises five principal types which relate to the setting or activity associated with the major characters: swashbuckler, pirate, sea, empire, and fortune hunter. Of these, the swashbuckler is the most familiar, an adventure form associated with a hero who battles against unjust authority, displaying martial skills in extravagant scenes of swordplay, often combined with verbal wit. Though by no means associated with one studio alone, Warner Bros. notably generated a series of successful historical adventures featuring Errol Flynn (1909–1959), first as the eponymous hero in Captain Blood and subsequently in such titles as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). In the latter, both a commercial and critical success, Flynn was paired once more with female lead Olivia de Havilland (b. 1916). This Technicolor epic, with its spectacular sets and scenes of combat, built on Fairbanks's successes of the silent period. Flynn's Hood quips as he scales walls and fights in trees, atop tables, and on staircases, suggesting a hero equally at home in natural and human-made environments. Robin's good looks, hearty good humor, and martial skills position him as both one of the people and a leader of men, his virtues contrasted to the idle indulgence of most of the ruling class he opposes. Released on the eve of World War II, the film offered as explicit a condemnation of authoritarian regimes as was perhaps possible within the restrictions of the day. In its alignment with the Saxons, an oppressed group that has lost power (rather than never having had it), against the Normans, The Adventures of Robin Hood exploits the political impulses that Taves sees as central to the historical adventure, without ever needing to touch on the complexities of power and oppression within the United States itself. The historical adventure continued as a Hollywood staple through to the mid-1950s, showcasing various athletic, pin-up male stars, including Tyrone Power (1913–1958), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909–2000), Burt Lancaster (1913–1994), and Stewart Granger (1913–1993). In turn, this tradition was revived in the 1970s, with films such as the American-British co-production of The Three Musketeers (1973), and has remained evident in later successes, such as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), hybridized with horror elements.
Many adventure films depict their protagonists journeying to or through a geographically and culturally distant landscape. Whether explicitly figured as the space of empire, or simply evoked as primitive, non-western ("other") worlds, adventure space typically exists to be conquered or in some way mastered. Its inhabitants are defined as inferior and/or threatening to the white/western adventurers who enter these sites. The Lost World, with its Amazon setting, can be framed in this way, as can various H. Rider Haggard adaptations, such as She (1935) and King Solomon's Mines (both novels have been filmed on numerous occasions, the latter again in 2004). Perhaps the best-known character to function within this type of adventure space is Tarzan, a character first filmed in the silent period (Tarzan of the Apes, 1918) and forming a cinematic staple of the adventure film for decades. The former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller (1904–1984) portrayed Tarzan in a series of films, beginning with Tarzan the Ape Man (1932); subsequently, a number of other male stars and athletes portrayed the character in films featuring action sequences, an adventure setting, and a legitimate context in which to display near-naked bodies. The long-running cinematic success of the Tarzan story can be understood in terms of its deployment of a series of core action and adventure elements, which reassured viewers through white male dominance in an African landscape defined by its remoteness and racial difference. Such constructions are not limited to fantastic representations of Africa, of course; the construction of native American lands and peoples within the western may also be considered in this context—the much discussed John Ford film The Searchers (1956), for instance. As this suggests, sites closer to home may still be rendered as threatening, fantastic, and exotic within the codes of Hollywood adventure. Equally, though, the quest for empire may provide the explicit setting for war, as in the British action epic Zulu (1964); produced in a period defined by Britain's emerging post-imperial status, the
b. Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, 20 June 1909, d. 14 October 1959
Errol Flynn is the Hollywood star most closely associated with the genre of historical adventure at the height of that cycle's popularity. His good looks and athletic performance came to define the romantic male exuberance of the swashbuckler.
Flynn's most successful and influential films were made at the beginning of his career as a leading actor. Captain Blood (1935), which both propelled Flynn into stardom and set the terms of his subsequent image, was the first of several collaborations with the director Michael Curtiz and the co-star Olivia de Havilland. He plays Peter Blood—a doctor turned fighter who is sold into slavery by a tyrannical English monarch, flees with his fellow captives to escape slavery for a life of piracy, and finally reclaims his position and marries his former owner (de Havilland), when the monarchy changes—the archetypal redeemed rogue.
Flynn starred in a variety of different genre films, including westerns and war movies, romances and comedies. Early in his career he demonstrated dramatic versatility in the remade World War I aviation drama The Dawn Patrol (1938), yet Flynn's stardom remained linked to the swashbuckling roles he played in Warner Bros. historical adventures. Of these, the most accomplished and well regarded is certainly The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), an acclaimed Technicolor adventure in which Flynn romances de Havilland's Marion, fights memorably with Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and outwits Claude Rains's weaselly Prince John. Effectively showcasing his physical grace and athleticism, boyish good looks, and easy manner, Flynn plays Robin Hood as a charismatic figure of roguish charm, a conservative rebel whose robbery and violence is, like Peter Blood's piracy, a clear response to injustice. Produced during World War II, The Sea Hawk (1940) also effectively exploited Flynn's adventure-hero persona while emphasizing the contemporary resonances of its tale of Spanish imperial expansionism.
If Flynn's film career was defined by the romantic figure of the swashbuckler, his star persona was framed by sexual scandal. His (first) trial for statutory rape in 1942 had a devastating effect, even though Flynn was acquitted, initiating a period of personal and physical setbacks. Alcohol and drug use led to a marked decline in the looks on which his career had been founded. The Master of Ballantrae (1953) was his last swashbuckling hit (though not his last effort in the genre) and marked the end of his contract with Warner Bros. His final years included a series of performances as alcoholics, in a somewhat perverse on-screen enactment of his physical decline; the first of these, The Sun Also Rises (1957), received critical praise, generating renewed interest in the star's career.
Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), Adventures of Don Juan (1948), The Sun Also Rises (1957)
Flynn, Errol. My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Autobiography of Errol Flynn. New York: Cooper Square, 2003.
McNulty, Thomas. Errol Flynn: The Life and Career. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.
Richards, Jeffrey. Swordsmen of the Screen, from Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.
film depicts British forces as hopelessly outnumbered by Zulu opponents.
With the collapse of the Production Code in 1968 and the introduction of a ratings system, Hollywood action films of the 1970s begin to push acceptable boundaries with respect to screen violence. Arthur Penn's stylish gangster film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam Peckinpah's elegiac western The Wild Bunch (1969), both controversial at the time, have been read as important markers in a move toward a clearly differentiated, adult form of violent cinema in which scenes of dramatic and bloody death are vividly portrayed. The series of films initiated by Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971), featuring Clint Eastwood as the eponymous rogue cop, routinely feature shocking images of death, violence, and torture. The 1960s and 1970s saw not only a more explicit rendition of violence but also a reinvigoration of various chase and pursuit formats, a process facilitated by new technologies including more mobile cameras (Action and Adventure Cinema). For Romao, films such as Bullitt (1968) work to harness the counter-cultural associations of rebel masculinity signalled by the automobile, rendering old forms (the car chase) exciting for a new generation (pp. 139–141).
Informed in a rather different way by anti-traditional culture and politics, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed the emergence of a cycle of thrillers in which the protagonist is caught within a bewildering and extensive conspiracy. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) features both brainwashing by captors during the Korean War (a familiar construction of Southeast Asia as threatening to the United States) and a political conspiracy involving the protagonist's mother. The director John Frankenheimer followed up with another conspiratorial thriller, Seven Days in May (1964), which sees a military coup narrowly averted. Paranoid traditions continued well into the 1970s with such films as The Parallax View (1974) and Winter Kills (1979). Typically critics have framed this tradition in terms of popular scepticism toward official government in the wake of the Watergate scandal and US military involvement in Vietnam. Later surveillance/persecution fantasies, such as Enemy of the State (1998), Conspiracy Theory (1997), and the futuristic Minority Report (2002), suggest the more general appeal of this mode of narrative.
The 1970s also saw the emergence of black action cinema (sometimes called "blaxploitation") with both male and female heroes deploying violence, gun power, and martial arts against oppressive enemies and institutions. The sports star Fred Williamson (b. 1938) appeared in a variety of European and US productions during this period, while Pam Grier (b. 1949) established herself as an action icon in such films as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Many critics regard blaxploitation as a problematic mode of film production because it typically employed familiar but unwelcome racial and sexual stereotypes. Significantly, though, black action films of the 1970s strongly evince the influence of Hong Kong filmmaking on American cinema. In particular, the international stardom achieved by the Hong Kong cinema martial arts icon Bruce Lee (1940–1973) suggests the possibility of shifting the seemingly fixed association between heroism and whiteness in US cinema. Lee's premature death, in the same year that his first (and only) American production, Enter the Dragon (1973), scored a huge commercial hit, reinforced his iconic status.
Although some of these films have critical or cult status, it is worth noting that many black action films, and other films that potentially troubled traditional configurations of American heroism, were associated with low-budget production and/or restricted in their theatrical distribution. Yet from the end of the 1970s to the present day, action and adventure films have been associated with some of the most costly, highly promoted, and highly profitable Hollywood films and franchises. Thus, while action and adventure forms took on challenging material (in terms of both censorship and mainstream taste) in the 1970s, the decade also saw the reinvention of a family adventure tradition that has continued to fare well commercially, if not critically. The release of George Lucas's enormously successful fantasy adventure, Star Wars, underlined the commercial potential of "safe" adventure scenarios. Lucas and his contemporary Steven Spielberg, director of adventure hits such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park (1993), have come to represent a commercially lucrative yet culturally conservative vision of the action-adventure film, one which remains enormously influential.
Action, as distinct from adventure, was significantly redefined once more in the American cinema of the 1980s: "action" became a widely used term to promote films as generic, rather than for describing one element of a film's repertoire of pleasures or a type of sequence. Through its association with the blockbuster, action and adventure cinema is increasingly typified by pleasures of spectacle and excess, a showcase for innovations in special effects, including three-dimensional computerized imagery. Action and comedy also became an increasingly common pairing, as the earnest action narratives of the 1980s gave way to more or less explicit action-comedy and tongue-in-cheek enactments of the genre's conventions and character types, as seen in such films as Con Air (1997) and Charlie's Angels (2000). Such films ask, even require, that audiences not take them too seriously; it is as if filmmakers, aware of action cinema's reputation for ideological simplicity and spectacular violence, seek to acknowledge and to revel in the genre's fantastical premises.
Two male stars are particularly associated with the genre's prominence during the 1980s: Sylvester Stallone (b. 1946), star of the highly successful and culturally controversial Rambo series (1982, 1985, 1988), about a vengeful Vietnam veteran's quest for redemption; and the former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger (b. 1947), whose film career proved to have far greater longevity than Stallone's, arguably due to his greater talent for comedy. These stars' muscular bodies have stood in for the general excess with which 1980s action is associated. Shifting this emphasis onto bodily display, a new group of male action stars came to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s, among them such A-list stars as Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and Will Smith. In reflecting on the male stars associated with action and adventure in this period, it is notable that these genres have been somewhat more open to black, Asian, and Latino performers than some other Hollywood genres. Yet this diversity in casting is by no means in conflict with the cultural conservatism associated with action and adventure. Just as 1970s blaxploitation deploys uncomfortable racial and sexual stereotypes, the 1980s variant of biracial buddy movies, such as 48 Hours (1982), the Lethal Weapon series (1987, 1989, 1992, 1998), and the Die Hard series (1988, 1990, 1995), has been read as a strategy to exploit and contain black male stars, such as Eddie Murphy. These films pair black and white stars in order to appeal to the widest audience demographic, and in the process black characters are typically portrayed within primarily (or entirely) white institutional contexts. More recently, Mary Beltrán considered Hollywood's deployment of biracial and multi-ethnic stars such as Vin Diesel and Keanu Reeves in terms of economic and cultural expediency (p. 54).
European cinemas boast strong national action traditions. These range from Italian westerns and peplum, defined by Richard Dyer as "a cycle of adventure films centered on heroes drawn from classical antiquity played by American bodybuilders" (p. 286), to the British gangster film, such as Brighton Rock (1947) and The Long Good Friday (1980). Frequently European action films are successful primarily within local markets, although there are also notable international successes, such as Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990) and Lola rennt (Run, Lola Run, Tom Twyker, 1998). That both of these titles focus on female protagonists is not insignificant, since the marketing of a certain image of female action became increasingly central to the genre through the course of the 1990s. Hong Kong action cinema has also accorded female fighters a more central position than has Hollywood cinema. With the success of Hong Kong action cinema in the United States, a series of awkward attempts to incorporate Hong Kong stars within American filmmaking practices occurred, many featuring Jackie Chan (b. 1954) or Jet Li (b. 1963) (the latter moving from villain to hero in his American films). A huge star in Asian markets, Chan finally achieved a measure of consistent commercial success in the United States through variants of the bi-racial buddy formula, for instance, in Rush Hour (1998).
With the migration of many Hong Kong filmmaking personnel at the end of the 1990s, different patterns of influence and exchange become notable. The critical and commercial interest in the Hong Kong director John Woo (b. 1946), who has had some success in Hollywood with such films as Face/Off (1997) and Windtalkers (2002), is one manifestation. Perhaps more indicative is the use of Hong Kong fight choreography, though less often with Asian performers, in Hollywood films such as The Matrix series and Charlie's Angels. Quentin Tarantino's decision to film sections of his hit martial arts pastiche Kill Bill,Vols. 1 and 2 (2003, 2004) in China suggests that both economic and aesthetic interests are at work in the ongoing exchange between Asian and American cinemas. Alongside this American refiguring of martial arts as a more central component of its action cinema, Asian filmmakers have secured global successes, producing an internationalized cinema that drew initially on the commercial success in the West of Ang Lee's art house action movie, Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000). In this context, the commercial and
b. Thal, Styria, Austria, 30 July 1947
A bodybuilder, entrepreneur, and movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger is associated with the box-office prominence of spectacular action cinema through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Schwarzenegger achieved fame first as a bodybuilder, appearing in the documentary Pumping Iron (1977). From his early leading roles in comic book, fantasy muscle movies, notably Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), Schwarzenegger demonstrated a capacity for physical acting. His key success came with The Terminator (1984), a noirish science-fiction film in which he plays a cyborg sent from the future to kill the unwitting mother of a rebel leader yet to be born. Playing off the performer's machine/body and "robotic" delivery, the film ensured his iconic status. With minimal dialogue, Schwarzenegger's part focused on the formation of an image, one defined by his physical presence.
Schwarzenegger's subsequent 1980s action vehicles, such as Commando (1985) and Predator (1987), turned him from menacing villain to hero, frequently dwelling on his upper body in fetishistic detail. Many found the loving portrayal of strong, white male bodies to be a persistently troubling feature of the Hollywood cinema of this period. The qualities that had made Schwarzenegger so effective as a monstrous threat in The Terminator were harnessed with tongue-in-cheek humor in the films that position him as an action hero, yet the complex potential of such an iconic figure is evident, for instance, in Total Recall (1990), in which Schwarzenegger plays an everyman figure, his extraordinary physique somewhat less central against the futuristic context and various rebel mutants he encounters. The film that marked Schwarzenegger's mega-stardom, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), rewrote his earlier signature role in these new heroic terms. His Terminator comes back from the future with a mission to protect, facing down an enhanced model (Robert Patrick) whose relatively slim frame and shape-shifting potential contrast sharply with the muscular cyborg "hero."
Ironically, Terminator 2 foregrounded the built-in obsolescence of the muscular persona. The disappointing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) some twelve years later underlines the difficulty in sustaining such a physically-defined mode of performance. The star's move to comedy built on and fed his action roles, themselves tinged with an almost parodic excess. Generic crossover is most explicit in Kindergarten Cop (1990), in which he plays a tough cop who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher. In another kind of crossover activity, Schwarzenegger was elected as the Republican governor of California in 2003.
Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), Total Recall (1990), Kindergarten Cop (1990), Terminator 2 (1991), True Lies (1994)
Andrew, Nigel. True Myths: The Life and Times of Arnold Schwarzenegger, from Pumping Iron to Governor of California, revised and expanded. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Gallagher, Mark. "I Married Rambo: Spectacle and Melodrama in the Hollywood Action Film." In Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media, edited by Christopher Sharrett, 199–226. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1999.
Glass, Fred. "Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future." Film Quarterly 44, no.1 (1990): 2–13.
Jeffords, Susan. "Can Masculinity Be Terminated?" In Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, edited by Steve Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, 245–261. New York: Routledge, 1993.
——. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
critical success of Chinese director Zhang Yimou's Ying xiong (Hero, 2002) and Shi mian mai fu (House of Flying Daggers, 2004) after the failure to secure significant US distribution for the Hong Kong mega-hit Siu lam juk kau (Shaolin Soccer, 2001) suggests both the significant commercial potential of an emergent transnational action cinema within domestic markets and a conservative approach with respect to the marketing of such titles.
While westerns, war, and gangster films have long generated critical interest, action per se began to receive sustained critical attention in the wake of its commercial pre-eminence during the 1980s. Two early 1990s studies of American action films have been particularly influential, Susan Jeffords's Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (1993) and Yvonne Tasker's Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (1993). Both Jeffords and Tasker foreground questions of gender and politics, drawing attention to the genre's importance as a space for the elaboration of new formations of masculinity. Jeffords's analysis situates the muscular action stars of the 1980s against the contemporary neo-conservative context, suggesting a rhetorical association between the white, male "hard body" and the nation itself. Tasker frames the gender politics of 1980s action in related gender terms, emphasizing the class and racial dimensions of the genre. In line with the emphasis on action as a genre staging masculinity, several scholars in Steve Cohan and Ina Rae Hark's 1993 collection Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema engage with action cinema, foregrounding the (barely) latent homoeroticism of the 1980s buddy movie in particular.
While action cinema has been much discussed in relation to its presentation of masculinity and male heroism, critics have also emphasized the long-standing role of women within both Hollywood and Hong Kong action cinemas. Tasker's analysis of the action heroine's physicality in terms of "musculinity" serves to foreground the performative dimensions of gender with respect to the buff female figures, like Sigourney Weaver in the Alien series and Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 (1991), who attracted the attention of feminist critics throughout the 1990s. Although women had long played supporting roles in action and adventure films, and had taken more central roles during the 1980s, toward the end of the 1990s Hollywood cinema began to foreground (or return to the fore) a glamorous, sexualized action heroine in such titles as Charlie's Angels, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), and X-Men (2000). The toned bodies of these film's female stars—Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Cameron Diaz—were markedly different from the more muscular or androgynous incarnations of the action heroine of the previous decade. Just as writers engaged with the tough male heroism of contemporary male action stars consider these images to have a wider cultural significance, feminist writers have been keen to map evolving ideas about women and gender through a discussion of action women. The central contradiction, critics have repeatedly stated, consists of the obviously—for some, excessively—sexualized filming of the female body, on the one hand, and the potentially empowering images of female physical confidence and strength on the other.
As this difference of perceptions perhaps suggests, while marketing copy writers and reviewers might frequently refer to adventure films as "timeless," film scholars have demonstrated the historical and cultural specificity of such fantasy scenarios. Action and adventure films clearly develop over time, engaging with and responding to contemporary themes and concerns in a manner that is sometimes fairly straightforward and at other times more complex. Thus, for example, crime thrillers and cop and gangster films articulate perspectives on law and order, registering the social and ethnic upheavals of the 1970s. Yet while commonplace, it is somewhat reductive to read the vigilante or rogue cop cycles of the 1970s in the context of social upheaval. The muscular cinema and stars of the 1980s have been read as fantasized responses to the defeat of American forces in Vietnam. Similarly, such sprawling war films of the late 1970s as Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Deer Hunter (1978), which began to engage that conflict as a problematic aspect of US history, have been seen to register a cultural uncertainty about US involvement in the region.
Because action focuses on conflict, it is centrally concerned with defining heroism and presenting violence as just in some instances, unjust in others. As such, action and adventure narratives enact scenarios of social power at a variety of registers, whether as a response to oppression, a celebration of empire and conquest, or more generalized images of physical freedom from the restraints of culture (the hero as a commanding figure within a natural landscape, for instance). Yet violence and movement more generally are also presented as sources of formal pleasure within action cinema. Thus while it is important to place action and adventure narratives in their social and historical contexts, it is also necessary to understand their centrality as sites of pure cinematic spectacle.
Abel, Richard. "The 'Culture War' of Sensational Melodrama, 1910–1914." In Action and Adventure Cinema, edited by Yvonne Tasker, 31–51. London: Routledge, 2004.
Bean, Jennifer. "'Trauma Thrills': Notes on Early Action Cinema." In Action and Adventure Cinema, edited by Yvonne Tasker, 17–30. London: Routledge, 2004.
Beltrán, Mary C. "The New Hollywood Racelessness: Only the Fast, Furious, (and Multiracial) Will Survive," Cinema Journal 44, no. 2 (2005): 50–67.
Cohan, Steven, and Ina Rae Hark, eds. Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Dyer, Richard. "The White Man's Muscles." In Race and the Subject of Masculinities, edited by Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel, 286–314. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Holmlund, Chris. "Wham! Bam! Pam! Pam Grier as Hot Action Babe and Cool Action Mama." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 22 (2005): 97–112.
Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Romao, Tico. "Guns and Gas: Investigating the 1970s Car Chase Film." In Action and Adventure Cinema, edited by Yvonne Tasker, 130–152. London: Routledge, 2004.
Singer, Ben. Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993.
Taves, Brian. The Romance of Adventure: The Genre of Historical Adventure Movies. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.