restricted access 3. Pure Action, Packaged Violence: The Role of the Action Film in 1980s Hollywood
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79 3 pure action, packaged violence the role of the action film in s hollywood perhaps the quintessential product of 1980s Hollywood is the “pure action” movie, whose basic structure and style still dominate many of the most expensive movies produced by Hollywood today. This pure action genre did not simply emerge out of nowhere, nor was it just a reworking of a previously recognized genre or hybridization of multiple genres. Rather, it was the end product of a complex process spawned by controversies over screen violence and driven by a new generation of slick and savvy producers who focused on action spectacle and an ethos of winning at all costs to wipe away the memories of 1970s disillusionment. This was partially a result of increasingly sophisticated cinematic technologies, including the Steadicam, the blood squib, and improved pyrotechnics. But, while the technologies were a driving force, they were only part of the equation. As veteran actor Darren McGavin put it, “Technology has intensified the impact of violence in films. There’s a feeling in the industry that the technical possibilities are there, so let’s utilize them. The people involved in putting together the film—special effects, makeup, the director —aren’t concerned about the political or social connotations. Their concern is: How well does the vest blow out with Technicolor blood? Are the explosions good enough?” (qtd. in Sanoff). The emphasis on spectacle to the detriment of thematic complexity was central to the primary desires of the Hollywood studios in the 1980s to package screen violence in a way that mainstream audiences would readily accept. The studios understood that audiences wanted violence—this has never been in doubt—and its growing explicitness in the 1970s had set a precedent from which filmmakers could not retreat. Film history has shown repeatedly that depictions of violence tend to escalate over time in terms of their graphic nature and intensity and rarely if ever diminish once Kendrick Ch3.indd 79 2/5/09 7:44:24 AM PURE ACTION, PACKAGED VIOLENCE 80 a particular level has been reached (see Prince, Classical Film Violence 114). However, Hollywood filmmakers were reluctant to wade through the kind of attendant controversies and potentially limited box-office revenues associated with violent movies that touched nerves—the ones like Dressed to Kill and White Dog that used violence to make social, psychological, and political connections that might be disturbing. Thus, in an ironic turn, filmmakers made screen violence less controversial by treating it less seriously. The pure action film once again reduced screen violence to a cartoonish level, albeit with a surface of gory verisimilitude that was testament to the lasting influence of the increasing realism of violent films of the 1970s. Yet, after more than a decade of screen exposure, graphic violence had become not just commonplace for American audiences but expected. Even casual moviegoers had come to assume that, when someone was shot on-screen, a bloody squib would rupture to simulate the impact of the bullet, an image that had once been genuinely shocking in and of itself. This was largely true even in PG-rated films, such as Clint Eastwood’s Firefox (1982), which features a scene in which a scientist is gunned down by a Soviet soldier. The violence in this scene seems particularly gruesome because the contrast of the bloody squibs on the scientist’s white lab coat draws absolute attention to them, plus Eastwood frames the shot with the exploding wounds in the foreground and the shooter in the background, thus emphasizing the trauma of bodily damage. This suggests that CARA had also come to see such explicit depictions of violence as customary and accepted—in a word, normal. Thus, to move audiences beyond the simplest forms of bodily affect, screen violence had to be not only visually explicit but also placed within a particular context that was geared toward generating an emotional reaction through plot, character, theme, or some combination. This is precisely what pure action films tried not to do. Producers like Joel Silver, Lawrence Gordon, Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson, Mario Kassar, and Andrew Vajna, who were elevated to the level of auteur in the 1980s and became some of the dominant forces within the industry, used the strategy of the pure action genre as one way to package screen violence for profit (very successfully, as it turned out). From an economic standpoint, action films made sense in an increasingly globalized economy in...


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