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Categories: Features

After the recent furore over Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake, John Higgins muses on where Action films have been and where they’re likely to head next.

Thirty years after he ushered in the modern action blockbuster with the incomparable Die Hard, Bruce Willis appears to be on a slippery slide with his new film, a remake of Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante classic Death Wish.

Given that recent events and the marches against gun control in the USA have dictated that the gun-toting approach and answer to society’s problems are rather passe to some people, I would say that this doesn’t essentially mean the end of the Action/Thriller genre as we know it, rather time for the old way of this type of film to die out and to make way for a brand-new approach to the blockbuster action film that has been prevalent in cinemas and on TV screens for years.

Walter Hill, whose film 48 Hrs has been regarded as the template for many of the buddy-cop blockbusters since its release in 1982, amongst them Bad Boys, Lethal Weapon and Hill’s Red Heat to name but three, stated at the time of Red Heat‘s 1988 release that ‘audiences don’t like to see the same movie, but they do like to see the same type’

The TV reboot of Lethal Weapon with Damon Wayans is still finding its’ way onto prime-time UK screens and unfortunate timing appears to be the reason why the Eli Roth’s Death Wish hasn’t found favour with audiences in the USA. However, it is also down to the relentless success of Black Panther, which is regarded as a key game-changer in the diversity stakes, that has sealed the fate of the film in the USA, which has only made a fraction of its budget back, coupled with some bad reviews, despite a reasonable opening against tough blockbuster competition.

The original Death Wish, presented by the late legendary mogul and producer Dino De Laurentiis, emerged at a time when crime and violence was ripe on the New York Subway. Based on a novel by Brian Garfield, it told the story of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), a mild-mannered New York architect returning from Hawaii with his wife (Hope Lange), who is faced with the tragedy of her death and brutal rape of his daughter-in-law (Kathleen Tolan) from three muggers (amongst them a teenage Jeff Goldblum making an early appearance).

A work trip to Tuscon, Arizona, in which he has to re-design a development for a local land-owner, reveals his past from service in the Korean War when he is invited by the land-owner to a gun club and is subsequently given a going-away present of a pistol, which he then proceeds to go out incognito amongst the street trash, starting to kill muggers et al. However, the police are none-too-keen on Kersey’s good deeds, although the politicians seem to be taking a more constructive viewpoint….

The film was regarded as an early example of modern-day crowd pleasing entertainment and spawned several sequels, most infamously 1981’s Death Wish II, which was cut heavily for UK release in light of an even more explicit rape sequence that didn’t exactly endear it to a public reeling from the then-recent attacks of the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ Peter Sutcliffe.

Eli Roth’s new version, which this writer still has to see, seems to be a blood-thirsty affair and retains much of the structure of the original film. Is it needed at all? The jury is still out.

In terms of the future of the action film, though, there appears to be a shift towards the comic-book and graphic novel style of films like the Marvel Avengers and Sin City, rather than the traditional action approach popularised by the likes of Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis.

Interestingly, Die Hard was originally seen as the anti-thesis of the gung-ho invincible soldier personified in films like Commando and Rambo: First Blood Part II, the latter of which re-wrote the Vietnam War (as stated in a question by Rambo (Stallone) at the film’s opening ‘Sir – do we get to win this time?’)

Based on a novel by Roderick Thorp, “Nothing Lasts Forever”, the film was originally offered (as a follow-up to his 1968 release “The Detective”) to Frank Sinatra, as it was literally that. If things had gone Sinatra’s way, we would not only have had Sinatra as John McClane, but also Detective Harry Callahan, for whom Sinatra was also offered the lead role in Dirty Harry but didn’t do it due to a broken hand.

John McTiernan’s 1988 film was a cheerfully extravagant and big-screen treat, particularly in 70mm, as Bruce Willis’ McClane, on vacation in LA to visit his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her workplace, the high-rise Nakatomi Corporation building, has to save her and her work colleagues from the clutches of brutal terrorist and petty thief Hans Gruber (the late, great Alan Rickman) in a cat-and-mouse shoot-out within thirty stories of battleground.

Die Hard was elevated from the norm of 1980s action films, thanks to a clever script by Jeb Stuart (who scripted The Fugitive) and Steven E. De Souza, responsible for the likes of Commando, as well as elevating Joel Silver to the pinnacle of action blockbuster production. It remains a true favourite of fans – and a perennial Christmas screening choice both on the big-screen and small.

In terms of British Cinema’s approach to action films, there hasn’t really been anything, aside from the Bond movies, to rival the American action film. The late Euan Lloyd probably came close with his two action affairs, The Wild Geese and Who Dares Wins (AKA in the USA as The Final Option – the latter title tends to be the one used on recent Freeview UK screenings).

Rambo: First Blood Part II does resemble an American version of The Wild Geese, as both show soldiers going into a dangerous country, only to be double-crossed by the powers-that-be.

The Wild Geese remains without question the best British Action film of the last four decades, directed with grit and swagger by the late Andrew V. McLaglen (son of Hollywood legend Victor McLaglen (John Wayne’s rival for the affection of Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man.

The film, based on a novel by Daniel Carney, tells of a group of mercenaries led by Col. Alan Faulkner (Richard Burton), who is assigned by merchant banker Sir Edward Matheson (Stewart Granger) to rescue Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona), the kidnapped President of the fictional country of Zimbala, from the clutches of tyrannical General Ndofa. They rescue Limbani, but Matheson has already made a deal with Ndofa, leaving the band of mercenaries stranded, but determined to fight their way out of Zimbala….

Who Dares Wins, directed by Ian Sharp, was the late Lewis Collins’ big-screen showcase and represented his best action role (which he repeated later on in Italian spaghetti actioners like Code Name: Wild Geese and Commando Leopard). He plays Peter Skellen, an SAS soldier discharged from active duty after an incident involving two cadets in the Brecon Beacons, but whom is recruited to infiltrate a terrorist organisation, The People’s Lobby, led by Frankie Leith (Judy Davis), in light of an imminent act of violence against a key official.

Shot partly on location in London and also in the grounds of Pinewood Studios main hall, it has more resonance today in light of recent world events than it did on its original release. Producer Lloyd did at one point have a film planned about the Falklands War, tentatively titled “Task Force South”, but feeling suggests that such a film would not be a good idea in light of the sensitive nature of the War, which still causes concern and high emotion to all involved.

So, where can Action films go in the future?

Well, given the on-set of CGI, Visual FX and Digital Cinema Presentation, it is still down to the story behind the production values. Steven Spielberg admitted recently that the Marvel successes of recent years are not going to last, but like everything, films and genres will come around in cycles.

It is important to remember that recent tragedies in the USA and across the world involving guns were instigated by people who had issues away from the big-screen rather than based on what they were watching.

Cinema at its best and most optimistic, remains an escapist art form – and the Action genre will definitely find its focus and bulls-eye once again given the right film-making team – and of course, a quality screenplay.


Posted on Apr 27, 2018

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