Action movies aren’t what they used to be. With the incredible advancement of CGI allowing for ever-increasing financial success, modern action has become all about sequels, remakes and adaptations. This isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. Certain facets of what we see today can be traced back to the earliest screen adventures, with the majority of blockbusters opting for formulas that have been proven to work. The hero has evolved, surrounded herself or himself with a team, and agreed to take on the biggest and most colourful of villains. Though these aspects contribute to a huge percentage of cinematic fare, they don’t quite define modern action cinema just yet. The proof: the remarkable success of the now franchised John Wick story. Wick is an anomaly, a hero of an age that seems to have been beaten into submission by computer-generated baddies. But don’t count him out just yet.
The staples of an action film as we know it in Western culture have been around since the early days of cinema – the chariot racing Ben-Hur (the 1925 original) and the swashbuckling, arrow launching adventures of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn defined what it meant to be an underdog hero despite insurmountable odds. You only have to look at the sheer number of remakes of those ’20s and ’30s epics to see that very little has actually changed, except perhaps the quality – last year’s Taron Egerton-starring Robin Hood follows an uncountable number of incarnations of the character, and even Ben-Hur received a computerised update that no one asked for in 2016. But notwithstanding these subsequent reincarnations, here the template was set for the solo action hero that we have come to know so well.
The ’40s and ’50s fixated on the Wild West for action stories, but also flooded the market with World War II yarns. Maybe it was the proximity to the war itself, but for a number of years the genre seemed to be limited to more dramatic, albeit brilliantly moving, pieces. It was the ’60s before directors really began to have some fun. Along came the era of the group caper – perhaps this wasn’t the invention of such a thing (Robin’s Merry Men long predate this) but this era was almost certainly its perfection. Each with their own identities and sets of skills, these team members shone for being part of something bigger than themselves. Highlights include The Guns of Navarone, A Bridge Too Far, The Dirty Dozen, and of course the defining team adventure: John Sturges’ The Great Escape.
Running with his success, Sturges set his sights on desert-scapes, reaching across the Pacific to borrow the story from Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai from a few years earlier. The result, western The Magnificent Seven, gave way to ever more impressive groups just as directors began to throw away the old Hollywood book of filmmaking. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch summarises a decade of pioneering: a wonderfully drawn posse trapped fighting for an outdated life, the action stitched together from hundreds of sharp cuts edited together with an artistic precision that had never been seen before.
This was the next step in the development of action movies – now that there were archetypal characters to draw on, the change came in the scale of the action itself. The editing became quicker and slicker, the stunts bigger and the effects exponentially more impressive. This latter fact was arguably solely responsible for the biggest change to old-fashioned action as we knew it: the re-birth of science fiction. Gone was a reliance on eerie locations and impressive costume and makeup; here were fully realised worlds and scenes of eye-popping interstellar warfare. The influence of Star Wars on modern cinema is undeniable, and a reinvigorated genre spurred on by practical and computerised effects seeped into not just action in the late ’70s and ’80s, but horror, comedy and even noir. James Cameron spearheaded a charge forward, The Terminator and Aliens playing with space monsters and time travel but retaining those all-important heroic character and team tropes. “Game over, man!”, Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson yells, echoing decades of desperation felt by his predecessors: trapped behind enemy lines, cornered in a shootout by army battalions, or stuck between the slowly compressing walls of a spaceship’s trash compactor.
These facets can be traced directly to their place in today’s blockbusters. Whether it’s the Avengers, the crew of the Enterprise or Vin Diesel’s “family”, the ragtag group of individuals on a mission is a staple of big-budget fare. Individually too, every new impossible mission or realisation of a supervillain’s evil agenda brings near-death experiences for our modern heroes, who must summon all their courage, cunning and skill to win the day. Just as Sir Robin squares off against castle guards to rescue Maid Marian, Ethan Hunt clings to the tallest building in the world, and Tony Stark pushes a nuclear missile through a wormhole in space.
The noticeable change is therefore in the stakes. The lack of limitations that the science fiction element provides, coupled with the incredible development of effects (from practical to CGI), has allowed for all-new ways that the world might be endangered. Fighting to entertain a restless modern audience, screenwriters and directors resort to ever more ambitious and ridiculous set pieces to invigorate their films. And with ever more money raked in by the franchises who dare to dream bigger, why not keep pushing that ludicrous boundary?
Somewhere along the line, when Lee Marvin and Yul Brynner were pulling their teams together, a splinter group of loner heroes began to develop. This was a time heroes needed at least one comedy sidekick to succeed, and single-handedly saving the day seemed unrealistic. So where in the cinematic world was it still cool to strike out on your own against forces of evil? Against the backdrop of McCarthyism in the US, cowboys stood symbolically strong in the face of those who would threaten the justice of their country. This all-American lone gunman built the careers of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Though he was soon to hang up his hat and spurs, his legacy blossomed a few decades down the line.
In 1981, one man thwarted a Nazi plan to win the war through sacred mystical power, and set the stage for some of the most brilliant heroes of all time to swing into action. Indiana Jones reinvigorated the adventuring legend of the ’30s – not only is he a highly intelligent archaeologist, but a determined, physically capable and witty screen figure, wielding a whip to top it all off. Complete with all the skills that a team might split between them in another film, Jones arguably gave rise to the almost infallible US killing machine that became so overused in the ’80s and ’90s. Next came Rambo, Commando, Predator – built on the backs of stars that could command such screen presence. Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone, Van Damme, Norris, Seagal. The list goes on.
While this trend was building in the west, the rest of the world was articulating their own definition of the genre. Norris owes his success to the work of martial artists like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, bringing incredibly coordinated fight sequences to the screen like never before. Elsewhere, world directors were adopting First Blood’s one-vs.-100 format – itself borrowing from the martial arts genre – giving us films like John Woo’s Hard Boiled. The hero might have turned to effects and teammates for assistance in many cases, but the solo star enjoyed fantastic success in this time through a combination of swagger, brawn and awesome fighting skills. Not to forget the quips and catchphrases. Yippee ki yay.
What separates these films from their spectacular rivals was the ability to thrill through character and precision. John Wick combines two decades of predecessors that knew exactly what their audiences wanted, and credit is most certainly due to the directors. David Leitch and Chad Stahelski came up as stuntmen, and their talent is blindingly obvious. The original Wick film showed off beautiful choreography in the set pieces and impressed with the slick filming and editing of its Asian predecessors. Perhaps it is a little light on plot, but Wick’s characterisation is more than enough to keep audiences invested, and the second film develops brilliantly on the (under)world he inhabits. But Wick isn’t the only newcomer this century to capitalise on the dark, talented loner-killer figure. Jason Bourne’s antics were a tense breath of fresh air, repeated a few years later by probably the best incarnation of James Bond – Daniel Craig taking the mantle for his tonally darker run. Overseas, directors have continued to impress, with Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee creating more fantastical period action hits Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Taking the fight into the air on wires didn’t hold back the fast-paced, violent back-and-forth, and grounded combat has gotten better and better since Lee – the more said about Gareth Evans’ astonishing work on The Raid, the better.
Sadly, John Wick seems to be the last of a dying breed of heroes. In recent times, ’80s actioners have settled for grouping to form The Expendables, which promised so much more than it delivered. Even John McClane appears to have hung up the vest after ill-fated 2013 outing A Good Day to Die Hard, although perhaps not for long given the origin story reportedly in the works. But with the big budget franchises taking ever more money at the box office, will the small-time one-man-army film be ruled out completely a few years from now? Sadly, John Wick just doesn’t play in the same financial leagues, and maybe the best we can hope for is instant cult status. Then again, maybe Wick is energetically barging through a door that supers and the like have been fighting to close.
Watch out Avengers, John Wick’s coming at you with nothing but a pencil.