[Wednesday would have been Charles Bronson’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Bronson and other action film stars and characters. Share your own thoughts on these and all other action figures and films for a popcorn-popping crowd-sourced weekend blockbuster!]
On what differentiated the two 80s action superstars, and one important parallel.
I’ve written about ‘80s action movies a few times on this blog, most notably in response to contemporary events like the invasion of Granada or the war in Afghanistan. But while the decade’s over-the-top cinematic action was indeed often related to (I was going to say “in response to,” but that might be pushing things a bit) real-world events and issues, it was also, well, ridiculously over-the-top (emphasis on ridiculous). I’m not suggesting that the prior decade’s action heroes like the subjects of my last two posts, John Shaft and Paul Kersey, were purely grounded in realism; but those characters and films were cinema verité compared to the ‘80s action oeuvre. There were lots of action stars who contributed to that ‘80s craze and craziness, from Chuck Norris to Dolph Lundgren to Jean-Claude Van Damme (and with more unexpected examples like comedy legend Eddie Murphy and TV star Bruce Willis in the mix as well), but two icons really defined and in many ways dominated the decade’s larger-than-life action explosion: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
As that last hyperlinked article indicates, Arnie and Sly really didn’t like each other during the ‘80s. But my interest in this paragraph is not on such personal differences (entertaining as the idea of a rumble between the two icons might be), but instead on what differentiated their action movie characters and performances in the decade (and beyond). Schwarzenegger came to action films from the literally larger-than-life world of Mr. Universe bodybuilding competitions, and his action heroes tended to be similarly unrealistic, capable of feats and body counts as extreme as his musculature. Stallone’s first major film performances were in Rocky (which he also wrote) and First Blood (later renamed Rambo: First Blood), both featuring main characters who feel far more representative of everyday identities and experiences (despite Stallone’s similarly extreme, if not quite Schwarzeneggeresque, physique). I’ve written before about how the character of John Rambo in particular evolved to become more like an Arnie hero (with him shooting down Russian helicopters with arrows in Rambo III, for example); but despite that movement across Sly’s sequels, I would still argue that Stallone’s ‘80s action characters retained a level of everyman believability, while the very idea of Schwarzenegger in a “normal” marriage and family (for example) was treated as intrinsically comic.
Despite those differences in their origins and tones, however, I would say that in a significant number of their ‘80s action films, Arnie and Sly’s characters embodied something fundamentally similar: a fantasy vision of America taking on its adversaries. In Schwarzenegger’s case, those adversaries were as likely to be literal aliens (1987’s Predator) as foreign mercenaries (1985’s Commando); while in Stallone’s films, they were often more directly Cold War enemies like the Russians and the Vietnamese in his two 1985 movies, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. But in any case, these supersoldiers, superboxers, supermen were warding off enemies who seemed to draw on both longstanding Cold War narratives and newer 1980s fears of invaders and threats to America’s hegemony. While 70s action characters like John Shaft and Paul Kersey found themselves fighting against fellow Americans in a troublingly dangerous and divided nation, that is, Arnie and Sly and their ‘80s action counterparts took the fight to the rest of the world.
Last action figure tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these figures and films, or others you’d add to the mix?