For those expecting another CLASS of ’82 article, well, we’re jumping into the DeLorean ahead five years for this one. It was 25 years ago that the next two movies were released, and I think both changed action cinema in their way. Plus, they make for a killer double feature, one I experienced that summer of 1987, and one that really brought home a point that’s occurred time and again in my life. But more on that later.
I think that we can all agree that the modern day action film, for the most part, has had its teeth pulled. Because they are so expensive to make now, the studios meticulously oversee all manner of production, all the way up to release, and if they can’t get a PG-13, they cut until they can. R rated films can’t bring in the box office like the PG-13s can; that’s just a cold hard truth. They may release so-called director’s cuts or unrated edits for home release, but for the most part, the days of DIE HARD or LETHAL WEAPON, with their kind of violence, are gone. Sure, we get some harder-edged action films once in a while – THE RAID looks to be one of those – but they aren’t the norm. Even THE EXPENDABLES 2, filled to the brim with 1980s action heroes that would have never balked at being in an R rated movie back in the day, will be PG-13. Chuck Norris used to embrace the ultraviolence; now he outwardly says that those movies aren’t for him anymore.
So what’s happened to the real action movies from the 1980s and even the 1990s that we know and love? Michael Bay’s doing TRANSFORMERS movies, for Christ’s sake – this is the guy who in BAD BOYS 2 had our heroes destroy a shantytown in Cuba in a Humvee, because he took the phrase “war on poverty” literally. John Woo went back to China. John McTiernan’s gotten into legal trouble, and we haven’t seen Paul Verhoeven for a while now. There isn’t one thing that can define why action films in general have become tamer – we live in a different world now, for certain, than in the Cold War 1980s. Our sensibilities are different.
Take PREDATOR, for example. PREDATOR is a solid R, and I don’t think they would have even attempted to make it otherwise in 1987. We see people disemboweled, arms severed, shot, exploded, without any hesitation by the filmmakers. PREDATOR just wouldn’t be the same movie if there wasn’t a credible threat and the movie lets the audience know that these men are in a life-or-death situation. Furthermore, the actors play this squad of badasses as real people – they are all braggarts at first, not above making fun of each other’s manhoods, but when they actually get into the business of war they are no-nonsense and react to events in a realistic manner. In 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger was pretty well-known, but I think it was PREDATOR that truly finalized his status as a superstar, and I think it’s because he portrayed Dutch as someone who wasn’t just an emotionless soldier on a killing spree. Dutch has scruples – he considers his unit to be a rescue team, and not cold-hearted killers. He won’t hesitate to take down a bad guy or even quip a one-liner or two as he does it, but he’s not soulless.
He’s not fearless, either. When his squad runs into something that is outside their field of reference, he reacts appropriately. He’s afraid – not so afraid to be crippled by it, but he genuinely fears for his life and the lives of his men, and when the Predator comes along and attacks them, his first response isn’t to turn around and fight but to “get to the choppah!” He knows he’s outarmed and outmanned. He only stays because he knows that if he didn’t the Predator would shoot that helicopter from the sky, and he doesn’t want anyone else to die.
None of the action heroes that came along since in the 1980s seemed to get that intrinsic truth that Schwarzenegger did, and that informed his movies as a result: with the exception of the Terminator (obviously), he wasn’t some unstoppable killing machine. He was very much human, with human problems, and I think that’s the key to his critical and financial success at the box office. Sure, he can blow ‘em up with the best of them, but he was vulnerable where it mattered. I’m very excited about THE LAST STAND because it seems like Schwarzenegger is returning to that mode of action hero. Dutch was very much the guy who could take care of business, but he was also a genuine soldier in the fact that he knew his own limitations.
Once the Predator and Dutch go into the jungle, one on one, Dutch uses his natural surroundings and the little pieces of information that he knows about the Predator to fight him. Again, this is how Schwarzenegger differs from other action stars of the time – he wasn’t afraid to show his character thinking, and what’s more, he wasn’t afraid to show it if his character didn’t know something either. People might think that the larger budgets that Schwarzenegger films seemed to get were the reason for their success, but I don’t agree. I think it’s because for all the muscle and bravado, Schwarzenegger played real people, or at least as real as his movies could get. This was a theme that John McTiernan would pick up and run with in DIE HARD – Bruce Willis is certainly a vulnerable guy in that movie, and though McClane jokes about Schwarzenegger a bit, I think the point is made in PREDATOR.
I don’t think PREDATOR could be made today – at least, not in that style of filmmaking. I’m not saying that we couldn’t handle the violence; I still think PREDATOR would garnish an R rating, but I think studios would overthink the film to the point of inertia. PREDATOR is a fairly lean movie, and doesn’t take long to get to the point. We don’t get the Predator’s backstory at all except through his actions, and that’s what makes him such a fascinating villain. I don’t think the current studio mentality would go for that. No, PREDATOR would wind up explaining everything about the creature’s motivations, and it would cease being a movie about Dutch and instead being a movie about the monster effects. Dutch would be given a huge backstory as well – we’d learn all about why he passed on Libya, and everyone else would be given their own story, and the whole thing would become pointless. PREDATOR works because it’s direct, no-nonsense, and doesn’t pull the punches where it counts.
Speaking of no punches pulled, when it comes to violence, ROBOCOP makes PREDATOR look like a children’s learning show in comparison, especially the unrated cut. ROBOCOP was submitted to the ratings board a whopping 11 times before getting its R rating, and the result, says Paul Verhoeven, was a much more serious tone to the violence than was intended. Even so, it’s still spectacularly violent for its day, and I can’t imagine ROBOCOP passing muster in today’s climate. I think the humor of it still comes through. “Will someone call a goddamn paramedic!?” kills me every time I see the movie, which is often.
ROBOCOP is now considered a classic, but at the time of its release I remember seeing the trailers and thinking it was some sort of joke. ROBOCOP looked like more of a parody than a movie, and I had no idea of the impact it would have on film and on me personally. This may be a weird statement, but for my generation, ROBOCOP is very much what Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE is for the baby boomer generation; ROBOCOP deals with serious subjects in a comedic, satirical way that calls to mind that classic film.
For example, the idea that corporations would run everything, including city services, seemed ridiculous at the time. The idea that big business was the enemy, that corporate greed would have a body count, certainly wasn’t a new concept, even in 1987, but it’s presented in such a way that it seems almost inevitable to our future at the time. Now, of course, many of the ideas and concepts of ROBOCOP have come to pass; the public is definitely aware of the reach and power of giant corporations, and due to the economy ROBOCOP seems almost like a documentary when it comes to the portrayal of Detroit and the economic devastation that the recession caused. ROBOCOP is full of abandoned warehouses and factories while the hoi polloi toast champagne in the high rises – to us, ROBOCOP isn’t the future anymore. It’s the reality of the present.
Now, of course, everyone’s ripped off ROBOCOP, and ROBOCOP itself comes from a long line of comic book stories and science fiction novels. It seems directly influenced by Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, so much so, in fact, that Miller wrote the second and co-wrote the third film. NETWORK was a film that decried the escalation of TV culture into our lives; ROBOCOP shows that culture has infiltrated every aspect of daily life. From perverts on a TV show, to commercials for the latest artificial heart, to board games about thermonuclear war, this is a society that has been entirely co-opted by the corporations that run everything. Even a hostage situation becomes a negotiation for a new car. Into this world comes Robocop, who has simple directives and simple goals, but even he’s been co-opted by OCP. We’re all bought and sold in some way, and integrity and honor has to rise above the programming that we’re all fed every day.
The script is deceptive in that it’s about so much more than the surface action film that we were sold in the trailers. Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner wrote a sharp, knowing screenplay, and Verhoeven found the teeth in the satire with his directing. The dialogue is golden - where else would we get such famous lines as "Bitches leave!" or "I'd buy that for a dollar!" My personal favorite, and mostly it's because of Peter Weller's delivery, is, "You have suffered an emotional shock. I will notify a rape crisis center." It just sounds so programmed, and in the context of the scene, hilarious. Or "Let the mayor go, we'll even throw in a Blaupunkt!" It changes a lot. The movie's rich with lines like that.
Plus, it’s just such a good movie in that it works not just as a satire but as a terrific action movie on its own. We care for Murphy (Peter Weller in his signature role) and even though he seeks vengeance, what he really wants is a life that’s his own, and not something that’s simply a commodity. In today’s world, that’s something we strive for more than ever.
Both of these movies, for me, hit me more personally than others – both PREDATOR and ROBOCOP have special significance to me. Some people have those memorable baseball games that they spent with family, or weddings, or barbecues, or various other events that they mark the time with throughout their lives. I have those, for sure, but increasingly I find that I have many moments in my life that I mark with movies. And for PREDATOR and ROBOCOP, the first thing that comes to my mind is the funeral of my father. ROBOCOP was released in theaters on July 17th, 1987. Two days before, my father passed away in the night due to cancer. I remember seeing ROBOCOP that next day after the funeral, as a friend of mine wanted to be there for me and he knew that I loved movies pretty much more than anything. I laughed hard at ROBOCOP, and it made a very difficult time for me much more tolerable, and PREDATOR did as well. Sometimes, after hard truths and situations in life, you need things to blow up real good to put things in perspective, and these two movies in particular will always have a special place because of that. For those brief hours in the theater, PREDATOR and ROBOCOP took me away from my troubles, and for that I’m forever grateful to those movies and those filmmakers. As always, thanks for reading.