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Eric Lichtenfeld, Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie (Wesport, CT, Praeger, 2004, $39.95, 313 pages, ISBN 0-275-98054-5)—Anne Cremieux, Paris X - Nanterre

 

Eric Lichtenfeld refuses to discard "action flix" as mindless entertainment, demonstrating that despite the makers’ deliberate disinterest in injecting subtlety into yet another mass-appeal product, a film’s reception need not imitate its style. Countering the general dismissal of film critics of low-brow, action-driven films, he offers a thorough analysis of one of the most prolific, and incidentally profitable, Hollywood genres.

Richard Slotkin, author of several scholarly bestsellers on the myth of the American Frontier, aptly opens the book with a short analysis of the importance of film genres and the emergence of the vigilante tradition in the wake of the Western’s demise. Lichtenfeld’s introduction further develops this idea, presenting the urban hero of the action genre as derived from the literary and filmic traditions of both the Western and the Film noir. Long considered as second-rate genres, the political subtext went largely unrecognized at the time of their release, to later spawn great numbers of critical analyses showing how the films drew upon and impacted America’s self-image. Clearly, Lichtenfeld believes that action films deserve equal scrutiny, which is what he provides in the subsequent 282 pages, connecting films such as Mad Max 2 with Stagecoach [131], or Die Hard with High Noon [168].

Lichtenfeld dates the birth of action films proper to 1971, with the release of Billy Jack, Shaft, The French Connection and finally, Dirty Harry. The first three he believes are still hybrid films, harking back to the Western for the first, detective fiction for the second, and documentary-style police procedural for the third. Dirty Harry, however, with its marginalized, dark hero protecting a community of passive potential victims he feels no connection to, was to become the archetype of the action film.

Lichtenfeld then divides his book into eight chapters that look at different aspects of the action film genre, and its evolution through the years. The first chapter is devoted to the myth of the vigilante, with a detailed analysis of the seminal Dirty Harry and its sequels, along with the much less straightforward Taxi Driver. Giving equal attention to the two, Lichtenfeld clearly states that he is not interested in artistic quality but in political impact and audience response, although he does contribute opinions about the films’ artistic merits in numerous, often comical asides. In this first chapter, Lichtenfeld develops the concept of the action hero as “the man who knows Indians,” [24, 48] a characterization ploy inherited from westerns and carried over copiously. He also convincingly warns readers against quick accusations of fascist tendencies, especially concerning a film like Dirty Harry, whose ideology is more libertarian than fascist, with no reverence for organized discipline. The second chapter, “Automatons: Hard Bodies and World Pacification,” focuses on body-building action heroes as killing machines, with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as ambassadors of Reagan’s world politics. Lichtenfeld brings forth all kinds of elements within the films and without, vividly recalling an era when action heroes were becoming part of the political jargon, before they became part of the body politic. The third chapter centers on a different kind of action hero: the fighter with less muscle, but apt to make more use of it, with particular attention given to Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, all martial art experts. As in the two previous chapters, the political aspect of their mission is looked into, with special emphasis given to race as they often fight against racial others, having mastered their skills, and surpassed them. Chapter 4 is entitled “Into the Jungle Out of the Wasteland: Action in the Wild,” where the action hero leaves the urban environment of US cities for more exotic spaces, with such films as Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and other post apocalyptic tales. Chapter 5 focuses on the particularly popular subgenre of “Terror and the Confined Arena,” with a detailed look at Die Hard, the action blockbuster that spawned countless others, Speed, the ride that took editing to a new level, and many more such as Con Air, Air Force One, The Rock… the list goes on. Unsurprisingly, Lichtenfeld moves on to greater mayhem in Chapter 6, with grand-scale disaster films such as Independence Day, Twister, Volcano, The Siege, and the aptly-named Armageddon. Chapter 7 introduces the fantastic with hybrid films such as The Matrix and Robocop, two films of great, unequally recognized influence, while Chapter 8 focuses on fantasy proper, inspired by bona-fide comic book superheroes such as Blade, the X-Men, Spiderman and Hulk.

Lichtenfeld’s book is very well-researched, with pages of compelling facts and figures about production, finances, special effects, editing, publicity, and how the actors’ personae blend in and bring flavor to the characters they personify. Possibly because the more recent films discussed in chapters 5 to 8 offer less critical hindsight, Lichtenfeld seems to lose sight of the bigger picture that makes the first half of his book so convincing. While applying a very interesting race and gender canvas to the early films, Lichtenfeld does not discuss the emergence of the black action hero, whether in the 70s with blaxploitation films or in the 90s, including his discussion of Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as a half-human, half-vampire hybrid. Women action heroes are also curiously absent, even though much of the focus of the book is on masculinity, and when appropriate, homoeroticism and gender-bending (daringly applying the term to Stallone wearing a blond wig as the very end of Nighthawks [60]). The detailed analysis of Terminator 2, for instance, never truly takes into account the presence of a newly buff Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).The mentions in passing of The Long Kiss Goodnight make no reference to the heroine (Geena Davis) and her impressive combat skills. From Cleopatra Jones to Lara Croft, it seems that the ladies could have contributed a little more to the discussion.

At the beginning of Chapter 6, Lichtenfeld quotes David Ansen protesting against the resurgence of the catastrophic in cinema:

The disaster movie is back, though I'm not sure anybody was asking for it. Why the sudden torrent of twisters, volcanoes and alien invasions? We could give you a sociopolitical tap dance about the post-cold-war Zeitgeist, and how we're projecting our fears of communism back onto Mother Nature, but it would be hard to keep a straight face. No, Hollywood is cranking out this stuff because it needs to put its new high-tech toys to work. [199]

Although Lichtenfeld takes great care in countering Ansen’s theory, the second half of the book tends to share the films’ undeniable attraction for gadgetry and to lose track of its original goal: to point out the sometimes scary, often more subtle than expected, ideological subtext of action films.

Thankfully, Action Speaks Louder mimics the genre it examines in yet another way: the book is fluid and captivating, with the occasional one-liners punctuating what could otherwise become as boring as a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. For instance, just as he is comparing the most brutal action films of the 90s to the greatest westerns of the 50s, Lichtenfeld humorously quotes some of the worst dialogue in Armageddon, refuting Michael Bay’s argument that a film’s popularity “should override questions of its quality.” [226]

Each chapter is illustrated by film stills “from the author’s collection,” the only way left to bypass exorbitant copyright fees. Usually representing the action heroes in their highly signifying garb, the images add much to the text, with the captions pointing out their iconic purpose. Strangely enough, several entries seem to be missing from the index and the bibliography is altogether absent, though the end notes more than make up for it.

 

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