ACTION: THE UNSPOKEN GENRE

For years, action movies have been dismissed by serious cinephiles as “big and dumb.” But what if they weren’t just that? In our new column Into Action, we aim to remind movie fans of the worthiness of a genre many feel is nothing but mindless popcorn. Brian Miller offers this introduction.

Fan communities are a double-edged sword of support and toxicity, but from the view of those just wanting more access to lost films, who cares what trouble the foolish get into? Without decades of sci-fi conventions filled almost solely with Trekkies and the recent avalanche of support for horror-cons, Genre film wouldn’t be seeing the generous level of archival support it does these days. Sure, these feeding frenzies tend to devolve towards in-crowd fighting, herd mentality, and eventually just pure selling out into unrecognizable blandness; but they serve to energize legitimization of artworks once deemed too low for treasury treatment. We have watched over the past few years the full Cinderella treatment given countess forgotten slashers, drive-in exploiters, and regional horrors. We refer to these with the umbrella term “Genre films.” Capital G. Every film has a genre, but we’re not talking about comedies and rom-coms. It is a recognition of the Scarlet G such movies once had to wear: the dismissal of these films as just genre trash, making them unworthy of awards, discourse, and restoration. Mostly we mean horror and sci-fi–the runts–when we say Genre film.

There is a runt more runtier than the runts, though. It is the silent G. The unspoken Genre. There is a third branch of filmmaking trashed by culture for decades now–and just as deserving of being given the sort of support only a true Genre community can so we don’t lose it to history and bad jokes. It also feels like this genre is on the precipice of getting that exact sort of treatment. An essay like this isn’t a call to action from out of nowhere; it is just an extra little push over an edge where things are already tilting.

Action films have, for ages, been dismissed with the full title “just a dumb action movie.” Why might this be? Are we to believe that seeing things explode and seeing humans bend their bodies in nearly impossible ways are some form of idiocy? Over a century ago, the World’s Fair would celebrate radical accomplishments of human endeavor, in the forms of both mind and body. Martial Arts, as a pure concept, are held in high regard as something that we all know few can master. The term “black belt” holds gravity even for those without understanding of the exact time and dedication it takes to get one.
Organized sports and the Olympics are financial powerhouses that shape nations. Yet, when we put these sort of displays of accomplishment in cinema, it is “just a dumb action movie” to many.

Film itself is built on the backbone of action. In the silent era, nothing was more crowd-pleasing than a stunt. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are now mythological figures for risking life and limb on camera. They also proved that action isn’t just a language of fighting. Like any language, it can express anything. It is poetry. For them it was comedy. It was also jaw-dropping terror at times. Action isn’t just the unspoken genre because we don’t embrace it with the capital G that horror and sci-fi get; it is literally the genre of unspoken communication. It is body language on a poet laureate level. It is also the genre with famous dialogue like “I’ll be back.”

There lies, perhaps, the damning signature. How much of action heckling is really about what the stuntman do or how scientifically advanced the pyro and explosives are? Sure, we’ve all heard shallow critiques like “It’s just stuff blowing up,” but typically it is about
how the one-liners are worse than dad jokes. Here is the thing, though: after witnessing a person fall off a 30-story building as the top floor explodes and shoot a fireball into a helicopter that spins out of control into the ocean, what smart thing is there even to say?
These one-liners aren’t about dialogue. They are about how spoken language fails in the face of physical reality. They are the reminder that every grand philosophy, labored over by our most important thinkers ever, just gets put in the toilet the moment a human can do a triple backflip off of a motorcycle, land perfectly on a horse, and then ride into a burning forest while expertly knocking out a dozen bad guys with nunchaku.

Also silently the action genre persists to this day while most say the golden era was the ’80s and maybe the ’90s. Both the Kickboxer and Universal Soldier franchises are going wild lately, and arguably putting out their best content yet. Direct to streaming/video is still huge for the genre that should be Genre. Still, if you want most of the early Kickboxer films looking fantastic on Blu-Ray, let alone accompanied by in-depth historical extras, you are out of luck. If you want even rarer entries, like Hologram Man, you might be able to import something, but again, for the most part, film negatives are, at
best, just sitting somewhere unloved. A snarky hater might write all these off still, saying that only elevated action (a term no one uses) is worthy of such canonization. Criterion has dipped their toes with Bruce Lee lately, but it is hardly the exception that proves the point. Is the problem that Action is already dead – a flash in the pan after the ’80s and ’90s?

No. That is not a problem. The 21st century has given us 6 Underground, Bad Boys II, Blade II, Dredd, Fast Five, Punisher: War Zone, The Transporter, XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, and tons more on the mainstream level as well. Where are the conventions, though? Where are the slews of blogs and vlogs and podcasts dedicated to Action over-analyzing every lost gem and desperately trying to get on the promo list for the dozens of indie releases dropping every month? Recent efforts from boutique labels like 88 Films, who have quietly been finding huge success with deluxe Blu-Ray reissues of martial arts films primarily from Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme, are helping change the cultural conversation. Socials are frequently filled with calls to add a stunt category to the Academy Awards. People are ready. The so-called phantom hater this essay summons is nearly back in its tomb these days. Most likely, you are reading this thinking, “But I love action films, this isn’t about me.” Exactly.

Here we are. All loving Action. All in our own bubbles. Let’s start those overly long podcasts! Let’s demand online film fests with socially humiliating Q&A panels for stuntmen, fight choreographers, and a few muscle-bound celebs! Let’s leap off a skyscraper directly into the net of Action becoming the third capital-G Genre film. Let
the trinity become whole. We deserve it.

Action Week continues with a look back into the Action of yesteryear with 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood!