Free Film School #45: Badass Cinema

Professor Witney Seibold looks back at the gloriously gory tradition of action movies from the 1980s.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


On Friday, here in the vast and dreamlike Babylonian library of CraveOnline, there was published an article in The Series Project, on the first three Dirty Harry movies, authored by none other than yours truly. I also, about a week ago, reviewed a recently updated book all about the films of Steven Seagal called Seagalogy by Vern. As a result of these two humble projects, I have been giving an awful lot of recent thought to the notion of, as Vern calls it, “Badass Cinema.” My mind has been swirling with flying fists, crashing cars, exploding labs, bleeding knuckles, and countless thugs being tossed bodily through plate-glass windows.

Indeed, when I think about it, I realize that my entire youth was peppered liberally with dozens, if not hundreds, of Badass action films. Without even trying, I have seen more bullets fired, more exquisitely bursting squibs, more crashing cars, and more scowling badasses than I probably would have actively sought in my adult years. The action films of the 1980s were my wheelhouse, and are, in many ways, the very germ of my film education. I may have eloquent things to say about the brilliance of Ikiru, or the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, but I would be remiss if I did not mention what an important step it was for me to have seen Gymkata on cable TV in 1986. Or what a huge presence American Ninja played in my mind in elementary school. I think the time has come in the Free Film School to delve into the philosophy and the impact and the history of Badass Cinema. In many ways, Badass Cinema is more influential on a generation of filmgoers than any musty old Top 10 films. 

First, to give a definition: Badass films are a very particular type of middle-budget action movie that first began appearing in the late 1970s. Before then, action films were often tales of bold-faced and righteous heroism, and followed clean-cut, often playful protagonists as they fought against evil forces, often in a wartime setting. Picture Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. Or Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone. During the 1970s, however, that bold form of clean heroism was replaced by a darker and more ambivalent form of heroism, as characters like Dirty Harry began appearing in films. The heroes turned into quietly righteous, but burnt and cynical hardasses who had to break rules in order to fight in the futile endeavor of the world’s ever-rising tide of wickedness. Films like Taxi Driver replaced the fun shootouts of a previous generation. Many American action films of the 1970s (and I am pointedly excluding Asian kung fu films here) were marked less by their kick-ass qualities, and more by their dour sense of waning hope. Sure, there was the occasional fun Blaxploitation flick, or “jiggle” film (so-called for the jiggling body parts of the foxy heroines), but the decade is well known for its marked darkness.

This may explain why Star Wars became such a big hit in 1977. After a darkened decade of moral ambiguity and gritty hopelessness, audiences were likely relieved to have a boldly fantastical and morally simple space fable. Enough adult complexity, let’s have a film for the kid in us. Then, for a while, the world of the day was fun fantasy. Star Wars spawned hundreds of rip-offs and sparked a new interest in special effects and fantasy. Most any sci-fi or fantasy film you enjoyed from 1978 all the way through maybe 1988 was a direct descendant of Star Wars.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. I will make no comment on his policies or his dubious economic legacy, but I will say that his term in office had a direct influence on the way we looked at action heroes in film. The 1980s were, politically, an era of invasion and of taking action abroad. During his terms, Reagan was noted for his involvement in military excursions in Grenada, Libya, and Iran. Not to mention the enormous cloud of the ever-growing Cold War. I hate to gloss over these historical events, but I must for the sake of brevity. There is plenty of information online about these conflicts, and I encourage you to look them up.

Action heroes in movies started to drift away from Dirty Harry, and more toward Rambo: First Blood part II. Levels of violence in film escalated, and, thanks to a new cultural lionization of the muscled, take-no-prisoners, ultra-capable “freedom fighter,” action heroes turned from badasses into BADASSES. No more, the scowling cynics. Now we had ‘roided-out all-American gun nuts with an adolescent disregard for anything un-American. Ironically, many of these Badasses would be played by Europeans.

Consider the Rambo films. The first film in that series, First Blood (1982), was actually an extension of the dour 1970s mold, following, as it did, a sad Vietnam vet (played by Sylvester Stallone) trying to find peace in a small town, only to be harassed into violence by the local law (represented by Brian Dennehy). The second film in the series, Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985), was critically panned for its oversimplified politics, and followed the title character back into combat. Gone were notions of PTSD, and in their place were the newfound Badass notions of kick-ass, unkillable super-men who murder with impunity. Badass films rarely, if ever, aspired for realism, and preferred an overblown, almost cartoonish melodrama in which to stage their over-the-top action. By the time John Rambo was assisting Afghanis in the stultifyingly-titled Rambo III (1988), all bets were off, and Rambo himself became something entirely different than what he started out as.

In 1976, Stallone was also involved in an iconic, dour, and morally hazy boxing movie called Rocky. You know it. Everyone has seen Rocky, and it stands as the current model on which all sports movies are measured. Indeed, every sports movie now is, in a way, an imitation of Rocky. Compare the first film’s thoughtfulness, though, to the version of Rocky Balboa as seen in Rocky IV (1985). Rocky is less a struggling Philly coulda-been, and more an American superman. Rocky is now fighting in the ring against an android-like Russian fighter with the comically evil name of Ivan Drago (played by iconic Swedish badass Dolph Lundgren) all in the name of bold jingoistic Cold War patriotism. All our heroes were mutating from morally struggling adults into Badass action figures.

Consider, also, the 1979 sci-fi film Alien, one of my favorites. Alien is about a group of unprepared laborers, temporarily living on a spaceship, who have to face a bizarre and seemingly unkillable creature. Compare Alien to its 1986 descendant Aliens. The quiet haunted house-like dread of the first was replaced by the bluster of space marines who deliberately go to a planet where they know monsters are hiding out. It’s not so much about dread, as it is about weapon fetish, military fetish, and wholesale badassery.

Heck, look at James Bond. When he started out in the early 1960s, he was a charming playboy better known for his sexual prowess than for his ability to beat up bad guys. He remained playful through the 1980s era of the Badass (thank you, Roger Moore), and remained flip for many years. But, by 2006, James Bond had mutated into a badass himself, and was more of a humorless scowler that was a Eurotrash cross between Dirty Harry and Steven Seagal. Well, not to sound too harsh when describing Daniel Craig. I liked Casino Royale a lot.

The official face of Badass Cinema, though, is probably most strongly represented by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even though he is an Austrian body builder (whose accent has been infamously imitated over the years by impressionists), he remains – through sci-fi movies like The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987 which was, according to the screenwriter, supposed to be a spoof of Badass Cinema and ended up being an exemplar of the genre), and Total Recall (1990), sword & sandal films like Conan the Barbarian (1982), and outright shoot-‘em-ups like Raw Deal (1986), Red Heat (1988), and True Lies (1994) – one of the most recognizable and toughest action stars the genre has seen. He is not known for his acting, and it’s odd to see such a striking figure play characters with such all-American names like Douglas Quaid and Ben Richards. I know few people who outwardly admire his skill as an actor, but as a Badass he is first rate, and many people love the films he starred in. In my mind, Schwarzenegger’s pinnacle as a Badass came in the gloriously trashy 1985 actioner Commando. Commando followed an ex-soldier named John Matrix (snicker) who murders about 300 people in order to rescue his kidnapped daughter (a young Alyssa Milano) from an evil criminal (Dan Hedaya). The film features such an unapologetic tone of violence worship (Schwarzenegger kills a man by throwing a rotary saw at one point) that it’s hard not to have fun. Politically, the film is disgusting. As an entertainment, Badass films don’t get much better. Well, unless it’s Die Hard (1988).

There was also a second wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s of neo-Badasses in the form of stars like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Although, when compared to their bulky, weapon toting forbears, these two lithe martial artists seemed to have a different flavor. I would argue that there is only one modern-day Badass still making movies, and that would be Jason Statham. Few of his peers can match his intensity, his power, and his convincing strength.

Reagan-era Cold War politicking, combined with steroidal, tough-talking heroes, simple stories, and a shocking moral certitude marks Badass Cinema. I don’t want to sound like I’m too critical of the genre, as it is exhilarating. At their best, they are perfect genre entertainments. Even at their worst, there is something pleasantly quaint about their propaganda-like qualities.

I think what we can take from Badass Cinema is an indicator of how audiences view and express strength. In the 1970s, strength came from a vague sense of moral outrage. We didn’t want our action heroes to be on the side of the government. We wanted them to be righteous free agents who were the only sense of order in a world gone mad. We didn’t want victory. We wanted revenge. Hence, our mainstream “action” stars were people like Gene Hackman (as in The French Connection) and Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson (as in the Death Wish movies) and William Devane (as in Rolling Thunder). Borderline madmen whose resolute sense of old-fashioned order and willingness to do necessary violence would be the best weapon against American disillusionment surrounding the Vietnam War.

The 1980s hadn’t cleaned up politics (will they ever be “clean?”), but the Cold War had, at the very least, made some people sense that the U.S. had a tangible enemy for the first time since WWII. Reagan’s America produced a new kind of hero that was molded on the jingoistic war heroes of the 1940s, but with bigger biceps, less wit, larger guns, a cartoonishly dark attitude, and a fetish for violence that bordered on the ridiculous. An entire generation of boys began to worship the strength of violence. Strength did not spring from rebellion or revenge. It sprang from an adolescent need for playful destruction, all hiding under the aegis of patriotism and/or righteousness. “Gritty” fell by the wayside, and “cool” took its place. Heck. There's a reason we use the word “badass” instead of “strong” or “heroic” when describing such people.

Are heroes of today Badasses? I would say that they aren't. These days, most action heroes are delicate and prettier, and are more about panache and fashion than they are about kicking ass and blowing stuff up. Perhaps audiences grew tired of the outright Badass, and sought something cleaner. These days, our heroes all seem to be costumed, superpowered beings who fight for simplified righteousness, and rarely relate to any politics of the day. Our Badasses are now all vague power fantasies. It could be argued that the 1970s were about adult cynicism, the 1980s were about adolescent violence fantasies, and the 2000s were about the rise of childhood fantasy. The appearance of adult males who are into My Little Pony makes me suspect that our heroes will become increasingly infantalized.

Of course, every generation needs its heroes, and I'm hardly the one to criticize superhero movies (I own several on home video). When it comes to movie action heroes, to this day, we are still living down (or attempting to live up to) the legacy of the 1980s Badass Cinema. We see a hard-punching, no-nonsense cop these days, and we are hearing a distant echo of John McClane. Every rocket-toting marine is a child of John Rambo or John Matrix. Every space marine is a direct descendant of the sweaty, bulging monster-killers from Aliens.

Eat some apple pie, play some jazz, mount your Harley, and keep the Badasses in mind. They are, after all, at the very heart of American action.


Homework for the Week:

Watch Commando, then watch any action flick made in the last five years. How do the heroes compare? Do like a hero better or worse when they are capable of casual violence? What kind of violence is “good” and what kind is “bad?” How much of your own sense of justice comes from heroes you've seen in movies? Which movies were they? Do you value badass strength, or quiet introspection? Would it be better to be a Badass or a cynic? What is your favorite action film? Is it your favorite because of the central hero?