I ran a poll recently. It was arguably the most important poll in the history of Western Civilization:
Bloodsport vs. Road House vs. Point Break vs. Commando. Who ya got?
Commando won, but each movie got some love. I also got a lot of great reactions about all four films.
In short, these four mainstays of the 1980s/early 1990s action movie genre remain memorable despite of–or maybe because of–their alleged “cheesiness.”
Maybe they’re cheesy. All I know is that I, along with millions of others, love these four films to death.
I have written about Road House before, and Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton’s recommendation to “I want you to be nice . . . until it’s time to not be nice. He also say stuff like “Pain don’t hurt” and “You’re too stupid to have a good time.”
Lines like these are other reasons why the four movies I polled people on remain popular. I mean, Commando is pretty much one big one-liner. Even Point Break has some classics, with “Vaya con dios,” and “Utah! Get me two!”
Bloodsport is a little light on the one-liners, but I still chuckle whenever Ray Jackson, played by Donald Gibb, tells the Federal agent–played by Forrest Whitaker!–“I ain’t your pal, dickface.”
Yeah, I’m mature.
But the one-liners aren’t the only reason these movies remain so beloved, or watchable.
Scratch that. They’re not just watchable, they’re re-watchable. Is it because they’re “so bad they’re good”? Kind of. I think it’s deeper than that. I think they are actually well-made movies that do what they set out to do: entertain.
Movies–how do they work? Tight Scripts: These four movies are all plotted and paced lean, without any extra fat, extraneous subplots, or useless characters. Exposition is kept to a minimum, and flows either naturally through the dialogue or through the characters’ actions. The fact that the plots are supposedly “absurd” isn’t the point. Why is a gang of surfing bank robbers any stupider than space wizards who fight with light swords or magician kids fighting a snake man? They’re not. If you think they are, then you, sir or madame, have no sense of fun.
Clear Goals, Stakes, and Urgency: Each of these movies has GSU that Carson over at Scripshadow would be proud of. Each plot is clear: Bloodsport–win the kumite; Commando–save Jenny (“CHENNY!”); Point Break–find the Ex-Presidents bank robber gang; Road House–save the town from the diabolical Wesley. The set-ups are simple, they come early, the stakes for failure are clearly defined and important to each character, and there is urgency. Bad stuff will happen if our characters don’t accomplish their mission in time! Commando is the clearest exemplar of urgency, but in each of these movies you get the sense that the hero better get moving and keep moving.
Memorable Villains: Who can forget the relationship between Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah and Patrick Swayze’s Bohdi in Point Break? They’re frenemies, but Bohdi is one dangerous, unhinged wild-man. Dalton versus Wesley is hotly anticipated in Road House. In Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Colonel John Matrix is constantly tormented by his former colleague, Bennett, as expertly played by Vernon Wells. And who can forget Bloodsport‘s big heavy and reigning kumite champion Chong Li, played expertly by Bolo Yeung. By the time Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Frank Dux fights him at the end, you’re pumped. Are these baddies cartoonish? A little bit.
No Smirking Sense of Irony and No Moral Ambiguity: These movies are played straight. The heroism is earnest and sincere. The bad guys are assholes who deserve justice. There is no moral equivocation or equivalence or guilt on the part of the heroes for doing the right thing. Even Johnny Utah in Point Break realizes that Bohdi has to be stopped despite the fact that he actually likes and respects the guy. Sure, Johnny wrestles with his conscience, but he makes the right choice at the end. And Matrix in Commando is about as glib about taking out the bad guys as one can get. They are on the side of evil, they are standing in front of daughter, and nothing is going to stand in his way.
Pure, Unabashed Masculinity: These heroes are men, and don’t rely on gimmicks to make you like them. Each one is doing the right thing for the right reasons, they are tough, competent men of action, and they make no apologies for it. Plus, the actions scenes are well-shot, easy to follow, and kick ass, improbable though they may be.
It helps that each male lead is good looking, charismatic, and in fantastic shape. And they like women! And it’s not viewed as “problematic”! There is on switching of gender roles and expectations, no “tough grrl beats up hapless, weak, sniveling and not-all-that-heroic-after-all icky man” nonsense here. Female characters are bad-ass in their own rights and more then hold their own–Kelly Lynch’s Elizabeth Clay is a doctor, for crying out loud!–but they don’t exist to cut the male characters down to size. And who doesn’t love it when the good guy gets the girl . . . especially when the girl is worthy of fighting through hordes of bad guys for? As a member of the movie-going public in the Year of Our Lord 2018, you have no idea how refreshing and revolutionary this concept seems.
(Note: The above all partly explains why The Fast and the Furious franchise is so popular, and why Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is such a megastar).
Maybe this genre of movie is pure adolescent male fantasy that we should all grow out of. Whatever. So does your intersectional, uber-political, hysterically fragile and psychologically unstable nonsense. As that crowd is so fond of saying, representation matters. And I enjoy seeing people like me, or that I aspire to be. Deal with it.
In other words, if you don’t like it, turn it off, and let off some steam.
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