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Escalation in the American Action Film

Escalation in the American Action Film

The action film, a genre that should be a celebration of vitality and physical perfection, doesn’t seem all that vital or perfect these days. Last month, The New York Times Magazine mourned the loss of the great American action film; last week, Den of Geek’s Simon Brew wrote his own assessment of this fallen artform.  If The Times‘ piece was a kind of death announcement, Den of Geek’s is a kind of autopsy; it cracks open the corpse corpus of modern American action cinema to find out what killed it.  His coroner’s report reads something like this: “Asphyxiation caused by acute acromegaly.”  American action films got too big for their own good and choked on their own gigantism.  Modern action is all about spectacle, but enlarging the scope of these movies doesn’t enlarge their entertainment value in equal measure:

“Look at the action movies we remember and cherish the most. Part and parcel of them was a mission that we could get behind, understand, and root for. In the ‘Bourne’ series, everything that Jason Bourne did was motivated by finding out who he was. In the best Indiana Jones films, there was a quest for an object of sorts. ‘Speed?’ Well, the bus is going to blow up, with the characters on it, unless something is done about it… In the scheme of the world, these aren’t big objectives. It’s not the only contributory factor to the individual films’ successes (you can have a great story and crappy action sequences, and that rarely makes for a great action movie), but it’s important… Ramping up the worldwide stakes isn’t always a bad idea, but it is an increasingly lazy one. That’s because, instead of finding a smaller, more interesting story, it follows the tired mantra of make another one, and make it bigger.”

This is a smart observation, and one that dovetails nicely with the problems in modern action that Adam Sternbergh identified in that Times Magazine article.  He bemoaned American action films’ move away from determined everymen (with admittedly un-everymanish muscles) to super-heroes with magical powers.  When you ratchet up your hero’s abilities — when he goes from a guy who’s strong to a guy who can casually pick up an airplane and toss it a couple million miles on a whim — you also have to ratchet up the stakes.  In “Die Hard,” it took John McClane the entire movie to save the hostages in Nakatomi Plaza; in a Superman movie, that would barely qualify as a threat worthy of a pre-credits sequence.  Lately the increasing stakes of superhero movies have started reflecting back on non-superhero action movies.  In the last “Die Hard,” McClane went from saving one office building to saving the entire United States.  After the upcoming fifth film in the franchise, Brew quips, “you couldn’t convincingly rule out sending John McClane into space to take out a freshly discovered Death Star.”

One super-hero movie does address this subject directly.  At the end of 2005’s “Batman Begins,” the Dark Knight and Lieutenant Gordon have a conversation about the ordeal they’ve just endured.  When Gordon reminds Batman that there’s still work to be done, the Caped Crusader assures him that they’ll finish the job they started.  “What about escalation?” Gordon asks.  “Escalation?” Batman replies.  Gordon continues:

“We start carrying semi automatics, they buy automatics, we start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds, and *you’re* wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops.”

Gordon’s words anticipate and just about every American action movie of the last couple years.  Because everything is a sequel or a remake or a reboot, filmmakers need to do something, anything, to differentiate their new product from the old.  The only thing Hollywood has in ample supply is money, hence every new movie becomes bigger than the last.  “Batman Begins” begets “The Dark Knight,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” begets “At World’s End” (the whole world‘s end!) and a $19.95 board game begets a hundred million dollar production about alien spaceship battles on the high seas.  In other words, Hollywood has a major escalation problem.

Meanwhile, the superb foreign action films both Sternbergh and Brew mention like “The Raid: Redemption” have far more modest goals and far more pleasurable outcomes.  In movies, as in life, it’s about quality, not quantity.  

Read more of Simon Brew’s “Why the Goals of Action Movies Need to Be More Contained.”

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Duder NME

This article seems like a thinly veiled diatribe on superhero films in the context of comparative criticism, the weakest and silliest sort of critique. It's not the movies that got too big, it's the execs whose storytelling prowess became too small. The YouTube videos regarding "Chaos Theory" are far more intricate and revealing about this issue.


I think the rising issue with action related moving pictures is less about the audience interest and more about immigration. In particularly the ever so rising niggerette games that is going on in the world.

Im bored.


I agree that sequels have a tendency towards escalation, but I think there is some faulty logic. You reference Star Wars, which is about as high stakes as you get, and Superman, who has been saving the planet for decades. Indiana Jones's 'objects' in the first and third films would have led to a global Nazi regime. Even James Bond has been saving the world time and again since his first incarnation. High stakes is not something new, but I agree, it can be lazy and good stories with tight clear purposes make for the best action films. Writing writing writing!

On a different note, do you find there is an escalation of violence in horror films with the torture porn kind of films that have become more popular? "Let's really screw with their heads!" gore and violence.

Oh one more note! Editing! I'd argue that in general the cuts have gotten faster and faster so you don't know what's going on. An adrenaline increase as a substitution for writing and characters.

Rick J

We are already starting to look at the period from the mid-eighties to the early-nineties as the great period of the Hollywood action film as we see the late-forties to the mid-fifties as the high point of the Hollywood musical. Its worth mentioning that the rot set in by the mid-nineties. The directors that emerge in the eighties, James Cameron for example, come out of the tail end of the drive-in movie age, when producers from Corman to Golan and Golbus, produced upteen low budget B-movies that a young director could cut his teeth on. They learned how to build a scene by actually creating it on the set. Even Tony Scott, who is responsible for so much of what when wrong with the action film in the nineties, actually was interested in building real tension through the dynamism of his performers.
In the period that followed, , film-makers began to emerge from new sources, notably music videos. Best personified by the Michael Bay style, it became about hiring a top cinematographer, getting lots of coverage of your stars posing provacatively, and then assuming with fast editing and great sound, it would all come together in the editing room. Even in the work of a fine former video director like David Fincher, you can see elements of this in Alien 3, his only action fest.
Finally, I disagree with the dismissal of the last decades comic book films, which really are our westerns. From spy films in the 60's, to disaster films of the 70's, to teen sex comedies in the 80's, its hard to think of another Hollywood trend with such a high ratio of above average films.
And who did Hollywood hire to make them. Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan, all of whom come out of low-budget independent films. These are film-makers who do not believe a scene is directed in the editing room.

Classic Steve

Ironically, two summers ago, I read someone bemoaning how superhero movies had a trend toward lower and lower stakes (think "Hulk" and "Iron Man 2").

Adam K

John McClane versus the Death Star, you say?


I thought The Dark Knight was amazing. There may have been escalation, but it was counteracted by some really intelligent writing. There were more ideas and themes stuffed into that movie that really had an impact than many dramas I've watched recently.

Will escalation really be contained? For the most part I doubt it. To me Batman Begins and The Dark Knight show where the medium should be heading. Take your standard action film and start adding layers. Casino Royale is a great example of this. For years Bond got away with lazy writing, bigger villains, crazier gadgets etc. With CR we were given a Bond that had faults, and more importantly humanity.

What is the effect on someone who kills? How does a soul survive that kind of life, regardless of whether or not it's done in the name of heroism? Does getting as dirty as the bad guy your trying to kill/stop/arrest mean you are just as bad as he, or is it ok because you are doing it for the greater good?

These ideas if done correctly help enhance what is a tired genre. We have seen enough great action flicks like Die Hard to know the beats. I agree however that these recent flicks for the most part are not very good, but with the right modifications we might see better flicks that manage to impart some ideas and make us think a bit while walking out of the theatre.


I think you made a mistake mentioning the Dark Knight, at it is quite easily the best sequel of the past thirty years.


I have an easy fix for you Hollywood. Make fewer action movies, make more good ones and make more movies with elements that don't get old easily; atmosphere and human relationships. Armageddon is a plot device that gets silly fast, and was also the title of a supremely awful movie.


All is not lost, recently Haywire and Hanna both had relatively modest goals in mind (though it could be argued neither of these are particularly great action films, but for other reasons).

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