For part #1 of this series see: The 1970s And The Birth Of The Action Hero
THE BEEFCAKE ERA
Ok, so here’s where the different eras don’t necessarily fit nicely to the decades. I’d argue that the first 80′s action movie actually came out in 1973.
That film was Enter The Dragon, Bruce Lee’s American debut. Crucially, what sets Bruce Lee’s character (conveniently called ‘Lee’) apart from Dirty Harry is that he was a martial artist, as opposed to a detective. So, that means that he had to solve every problem by fighting, instead of police work. And thus the film is full of fighting. The narrative becomes a structure to accommodate the fight sequences upon, as opposed to being the driving force of the film itself. And that, ladies and gentleman, is the definition of an action film.
So because of this, instead of following a film to see if the hero solves the crime, or gets his money back from the guys who ripped him off, or avenge his family’s murder, instead the motivation becomes physical, to see the hero overcome the physical object thrown at him, usually through active violence. The climax of Enter The Dragon begins with Lee taking on whole crowds of opponents, and obviously taking them down, because of course he’s Bruce Lee.
The defining image of the 80′s action hero is the singular hero taking down waves and waves of anonymous bad guys, completely unstoppable. Whereas we knew that Clint will catch the bad guy, we know that Arnie will kill loads and loads and loads of bad guys.
Bringing The Pump To Action
In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, he talks greatly about his struggles to bring bodybuilding into the mainstream. In the early 70′s it was a weird subculture often ridiculed by the media. Working out was strange. Most interestingly, Schwarzenegger claims that Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood would go to the gym like he did, but would never admit it “They were working out, but in secret. Whenever somebody commented on their muscles, they’d say ‘I was born this way’”.
By the 80′s this had changed. Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding doc Pumping Iron was a breakthrough hit. Professional wrestling grew in popularity as MTV ushered in the Rock N Wrestling Era. And action heroes got big.
But the action heroes of the 80′s weren’t just ripped – they also had an air of legitimacy. Eastwood and Bronson were just actors – the new decade brought real tough guys. Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilder, most of the new breed were real life martial arts – Jean Claude Van Damme, Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal , Cynthia Rothrock.
Carl Weathers was a former NFL player. Roddy Piper and Jesse Ventura were wrestlers. Notably, Sylvester Stallone didn’t have this legitimacy, but he did make his name playing a boxer, so maybe in the eyes of the public he did. The other notable feature that separated 80′s action heroes from those of the 70′s was their exotic-ness. They were not the all-Americans of Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen’s day – the likes of Schwarzenegger, JCVD and Dolph Lungren all were obviously European with silly accents and unpronounceable names. Stallone definitely had the wonky accent.
arnold schwarzenegger, bruce lee, chuck norris, commando, dolph lundgren, jean claude van damme, rambo, sylvester stallone