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Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie by Eric Lichtenfeld

Jonathon Walter

You’d probably learn more about action films by just watching Die Hard one more time than by reading this.

Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie

Publisher: Wesleyan University
ISBN: 0819568015
Author: Eric Lichtenfeld
Price: $24.95
Length: 400
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-04

Someone once posited the theory that action films are today’s equivalent of yesterday’s musicals. The moth-eaten skeleton of plot in any musical or action film serves as little more than a clothesline to connect the film’s various musical numbers (or action scenes). Sure, a plot is nice, but the filmmakers know what we’re really there for.

Whether it’s Donald O’Connor careening across an empty Hollywood set in Make ‘Em Laugh or Arnold Schwarzenegger impaling Vernon Wells on a steam pipe and quipping “Let off some steam, Bennett,” in Commando, the purpose is the same: vicarious delight in what can be achieved, physically, on film. Eric Lichtenfeld’s Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle and the American Action Movie attempts to analyze both the action film’s effect on viewers and why it became the box office’s dominant genre in the '80s through '00s.

Lichtenfeld’s thesis is that an embryonic version of the modern action film (which he defines disappointingly vaguely as a sort of combination of the Western and film noir) began with Bonnie and Clyde but did not reach full maturity until 1972, when two films were released that, in his view, define the modern action film as we know it today: Dirty Harry and Billy Jack.

Now, the gap in quality between these two films is about as wide as the Grand Canyon, but Lichtenfeld clearly isn’t interested in analyzing these films for their artistic excellence or lack thereof. “Because genre filmmaking is primarily an exercise in repetition and mass-market appeal, it does not tend toward excellence,” he states in the preface, and the action films he actually seems to think are 'good' could probably be counted on two hands (he singles out Dirty Harry, First Blood, Die Hard, Air Force One, Robocop, and Speed for special praise).

The meat of the book is made up of a series of close viewings of action films from the early '70s till now, passing chapter by chapter from the “vigilante films” popular 35 years ago to the comic-book adaptations so popular today. The problem with this method of analysis is that Lichtenfeld does not allocate more or less space in this book based on a film’s importance, leading to strange situations like Van Helsing getting about as much space as Death Wish. I had to stop and laugh while reading that section -- did I really just read the phrase “saint/ sinner dichotomy” in reference to a Van Helsing, a piece of junk made less than three years ago?

To be fair, there’s a purpose to such language; there are numerous archetypes that Lichtefeld attempts to track throughout the modern action film’s 30-plus year span, the one he references most frequently being The Man Who Knows Indians, an archetype that Lichtenfeld claims began with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers and continues, albeit in different forms, all the way up to Jason Lee’s Syndrome in The Incredibles (a rare animated action film).

“The Man Who Knows ____” is basically a member of modern society who, in order to protect said society, must involve him or her-self with something outside that society in order to protect it. However, this knowledge comes with a price: that person is changed, somewhat corrupted, by that knowledge of the outsider and because of that can never be fully integrated into the society that he/she must protect.

This is, according to Lichtenfeld, one of the key aspects of the modern action film, and variations on it can be seen in dozens of films today (ex: Blade is The Man Who Knows Vampires, Van Helsing is The Man Who Knows Monsters). This concept is hammered into your head incessantly, but give Lichtenfeld credit for his avoidance of the ubiquitous academic phrase “The Other”, at least.

The problem with huge sections of this book is easy to figure out: unless the writer is using a humorous tone, it is simply not interesting to read pages upon pages of analysis on bad films. After going through about the second page of analysis of Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, my mind wandered off and I began thinking about what I was going to eat for supper; around the fourth page, I suddenly developed an intense interest in the wood grain on the table upon which the book was perched.

I would perk up when Lichtenfeld reached a good movie, like Die Hard or Robocop, but in truth his analysis isn’t anything that a halfway intelligent person couldn’t figure out on their own or by listening to a commentary on the DVD (You mean to tell me that action films tend to fetishize guns? No way!).

Lichtenfeld also wastes a great deal of time detailing various action films’ production histories. One reads incredulously as he describes, again and again, which studio passed on which film before passing it on to another studio and so on ad infinitum. There seems to be little logic involved in what films Lichtenfeld chooses to cover and which he doesn’t; it’s stunning that in what is ostensibly a book on action films that James Cameron’s Aliens, widely considered to be the best action film ever made, is mentioned only in passing. Sure, you could argue that it’s more sci-fi than action, but then why all the discussion of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall?

Lichtenfeld fails to nail down exactly what he considers an “action” film, and despite his statement in the preface that he would “rather error on depth than breadth,” the reader is bound to spend half the book wondering why he chose one film and neglected another.

In a major lapse, he also manages to spend a half a page on the final showdown in Commando without even mentioning the scene’s infamous (whether intentional or unintentional) homoerotic element. This scene is the ne plus ultra of homoeroticism in action films (“Come on, Bennett. Stick it in me.” “You’re right! I don’t need the girl!”) and I have to admit I lost all faith in this book right there. It’s the action-film-scholarship equivalent of writing a book on Joyce’s Ulysses and neglecting to mention that each chapter is based on a particular section of The Odyssey.

Admittedly, there is some interesting material in this book (mostly involving Lichtenfeld’s analysis of the Dirty Harry - Death Wish vigilante films and his lengthy anti-Michael Bay screeds) but it’s simply not worth wading through all the other bone-dry material to get to, and you’d probably learn more about action films by just watching Die Hard one more time than by reading this.


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