Summer Blockbuster Month continues on Five Great Movies, and this week brings us one of our favorite topics of all: action heroes. Not just the movies themselves, although they’re also great, but great, exciting protagonists who carry their films like they carry their arsenals of weaponry… with remarkable ease. Let’s not beat around the bush, let’s beat the bush up entirely with these five iconic do-gooders.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1981)
Directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by George Lucas before… the unpleasantness… Raiders of the Lost Ark was a throwback to the days when men were men, women were women, and Nazis were bad guys. Come to think of it, all those things are still true, but Raiders of the Lost Ark brought them back to the pop culture foreground in a highfalutin adventure about a daring archaeologist named Indiana Jones on a quest to find the all-powerful Ark of the Covenant before Hitler’s cronies do. It may just be the perfect action movie. The story is fanciful but makes total sense, the action is stupendous and easy to follow, the jokes all work without sacrificing the drama and the hero, played to perfection by Harrison Ford, embodies the stoic leading men of Republic serials past while simultaneously imbuing him with affable charm and legitimate, if relatively minor flaws. Ford kept the persona intact for two excellent sequels, because sadly, there were only two sequels to this timeless classic.
There were only two sequels to this timeless classic. Moving on.
Conan the Barbarian (dir. John Milius, 1982)
Thirteen years after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big feature film debut in Hercules in New York (under the pseudonym “Arnold Strong,” no less), the man who would become the biggest star in the world finally found a film worthy of, or at least custom tailored to his talents as an actor. Which were somewhat limited. John Milius’s loving and satisfyingly R-rated adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s classic Conan stories, with a screenplay co-written by JFK director Oliver Stone, wasn’t entirely faithful to its source material but captured the epic tone and apathy towards traditional heroics. Schwarzenegger stars as Conan, a barbarian (natch) on a quest to kill Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the conqueror who slaughtered Conan’s people. But Conan isn’t driven by rage, nor is he a traditional do-gooder. He kills for the money, boinks anything that moves and trips his balls off before punching out an innocent camel. When people dream, they don’t necessarily dream of being righteous. They dream of doing whatever the hell they want, and in men’s cases probably looking like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger while they do it. To that end, Conan may be one of the greatest action heroes ever: powerful, uncompromising and fully capable of doing, and being, whatever he wants.
The Road Warrior (dir. George Miller, 1984)
In one of those rare sequels that’s not only better than the original, but also so much better that the original is often forgotten, George Miller’s The Road Warrior eclipsed the already decent Mad Max in every possible way. Mel Gibson’s protagonist, “Mad” Max Rockatansky, has moved on from the tragic death of his family to become the Man with No Name (besides Max) of the wasteland, traveling from place to place and trying to stay out of a violent conflict between the evil Lord Humongous (Kjell Nilsson) and a town with a valuable supply of oil. He just doesn’t give a f*ck until he absolutely has to, siding with the good guys because they’re more likely to reward him, and ultimately taking point in one of the most thrilling car chases ever filmed, a climax that combines all the best elements of Stagecoach, Convoy and just a hint of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Decades before he made being a total dickweed unpopular, Mel Gibson made it seem heroic in the role that turned him into a star.
Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988)
A short list of actors who reportedly turned down the role of John McClane in Die Hard: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson. As hard as it may be to believe these days, Bruce Willis was known as a mere comedian back in the 1980s thanks to his popular starring role on TV’s “Moonlighting,” and Die Hard was anything but a sure thing with this potentially miscast funnyman in the lead. As you may have noticed, everything turned out okay. Under the intelligent and thrilling direction of John McTiernan, who subverted as many action clichés as he lovingly included, John McClane became the new face of the Everyman hero, reacting with dismay rather than stoic resolve, and feeling genuine physical and emotional pain while his muscle-bound contemporaries were getting shot in the chest and calling it a flesh wound. As the sole law enforcement officer in a building filled with dangerous criminals, the perpetually screwed McClane had the odds against him and won the day via a combination of wit, grit and sh*t-talking, creating an iconic character who would go on for another three sequels (with a fourth on the way), and unfortunately only one really, really good one: 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, the only other film in the franchise directed by McTiernan.
The Bourne Identity (dir. Doug Liman, 2002)
Matt Damon, the Oscar-winning star of Good Will Hunting (it was for his screenplay, but whatever), was hardly anybody’s idea of an action star, but that made him just perfect for Doug Liman’s reinvention of the spy thriller genre, The Bourne Identity. Taking enormous liberties with Robert Ludlum’s original novel, the updated Jason Bourne was an amnesiac who discovered, to his horror, that before he was nobody he was an assassin for the United States government. Damon brought humanity to a character who could easily have been played as an old-fashioned badass, dealing with the character’s psychological torment when he wasn’t forced to embrace his inner demons in a string of wild car chases and intense, intimately photographed fights to the death. The Bourne Identity had legendary production difficulties resulting in reshoots galore, but the finished product was one of the breakout hits of 2002, spawning two excellent sequels from director Paul Greengrass that gave Damon even more opportunities to explore this uniquely tortured action protagonist.
That’s it for Five Great Movies this week. Come back next Wednesday for the penultimate installment of Summer Blockbuster Month!