Action and Adventure Films
CHALLENGES AND CHANGE:THE 1970s AND AFTER
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).