Did you see the Transformers or Live Free or Die Hard this summer? Aside from the giant Japanese robots, did you notice that they were pretty much the same movie?
The modern action movie is among the youngest of all film genres. Its cinematic parents, westerns and war movies, though once ubiquitous, have been supplanted so completely that whenever one of the old ones does show up, it tends to get an Oscar nomination for its trouble, like last year's Letters from Iwo Jima and Brokeback Mountain. While westerns and war movies have evolved from genres to locations -- a backdrop of desert or beachhead upon which can be made a meditation on forbidden love, an update of a Joseph Conrad story, or a Holocaust comedy -- action movies have streamlined themselves into a seen-one-seen-em-all fabric of thoroughly predictable and frequently enjoyable pageants of violence, one-liners, and unconsummated sexual innuendo. But it took them a long time to arrive at the satisfying commercial product they currently inhabit: they had to evolve a long way from the lumpy, auteur-driven missteps and classics of yesteryear to get to this point.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the early action movies were largely plot-driven beasts marked by method acting and bursts of violence, like Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection, Three Days of the Condor and The Day of the Jackal. They were hard to distinguish in tone from the darker films of the period, like Taxi Driver or The Godfather. Very little levity leavened the grit. That all changed in 1977, when Star Wars created the summer blockbuster archetype, refined and distilled by the Indiana Jones trilogy of the 1980s. Indiana Jones and Star Wars were heavily grounded in the old movie serials of the 1930s, and their stylized combination of fantasy and period detail, swashbuckling heroes, and witty sitcom-inflected banter left a heavy influence on all such movies to come.
Like rap, a genre with which it shares a general timeline, action movies saw their first and greatest flowering in the 1980s. In 1984 alone, your hard-earned $5 could buy you a ticket to The Terminator, Ghost Busters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Romancing the Stone, The Karate Kid, Gremlins, or Beverly Hills Cop -- the last of which was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, who became a cottage industry unto themselves. The movies were glorious, the action furious, the soundtracks interchangeably cheesy electro and embarrassingly hummable arena rock. It was a hell of a time to be young.
The next 20 years saw the genre enter a lather, rinse, repeat cycle, as increasingly desperate attempts to find source material and shoehorn it into the pre-existing formula sometimes bore fruit and sometimes came up embarrassingly short. There were literary adaptations from Conan the Barbarian to Starship Troopers to The Hunt for Red October. Comic books gave us Superman, Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man, and Blade, but also The Fantastic Four. Disneyland rides inspired Pirates of the Caribbean, but also The Haunted Mansion. Topps Trading Cards inspired Mars Attacks! Television bequeathed The Fugitive and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, but also Charlie's Angels. "True-life events" inspired Bloodsport, which in turn spawned cheap knockoffs like Best of the Best and American Kickboxer. All but The Haunted Mansion and Mars Attacks! gave way to sequels. Teeming multitudes of sequels.
The genre had long since hit a wall in content and style, but by the end of the millenium, it seemed to have hit a wall in enjoyability as well. 1999 saw the emergence of The Matrix, a fun enough movie taken on its own, but one whose determinedly shallow postmodernism created a subgenre of action movies for freshman philosophy majors that, along with the Britney Spears and *NSYNC albums released during the same period, nearly ended life on earth as we know it. The era was mercifully short-lived, however, as the Matrix sequels bombed under their own crippling pomposity, *NSYNC broke up, and Spears was finally appraised at a level commensurate with her talent. In movies, once again, the tastes of 12-year old boys prevailed over the tastes of the moody, deep-thinking 18-year olds, and comic book movies like Spider-Man and X-Men saved the day, much like Babe Ruth's effect on baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
We're now in the action movie Silver Age, as action movies have regained their rightful tone and place, wonderfully enjoyable throwaways that sit atop the box office chart, then lie atop your roommate's DVD player. Some of them, like Top Gun or The Fugitive, will be as artlessly fun in 50 years as they are today; the rest will simply make our lives better for a 120 minutes or so, with a few popcorn kernels in the teeth for memory's sake. Isn't that what life's all about?