Arnie beats Aristotle

Shane Murray, Carl Salter and Raymond Li 29 October 2009

Shane Murray, Carl Salter and Raymond Li on films that only play dumb

Over the years, action films have got a bad rap. They’re seen as the symbolic of everything that’s bad about Hollywood; crass, loud, and shallow. To be an action star or director is to be intellectually and cinematically second-rate; it’s alright for the masses, but no-one takes this kind of thing seriously.

However, many of the films that the most maligned stars of the genre (principally Stallone and Schwarzenegger) starred in films that only pretended to be stupid and then sneaked a smart allegory and message into the heart of Middle America.

To celebrate Vue’s re-release of Predator and to rehabilitate the intellectual legacy of Sly and Arnie, TCS Film has rounded up six of the best “dumb” action films that play smart.

1) Predator (1987)

On the face of things, Predator is a very simple and very silly film. A group of unbelievably steroidal US Special Forces are on a mission in Central America, before being interrupted by a deadly, seven foot alien hunter who slowly picks them off. That is, until Arnie strips to the waist and goes mano-a-mano with the titular creature. However, while the film is a fantastic slice of over-the-top macho action, it’s also a crafty sideways look at American foreign policy.

Against the superbly-shot backdrop of a verdant jungle, a group of heavily armed, technologically advanced American soldiers are picked off by an invisible enemy.Vietnam  allegory, anyone? The coup de grace comes when the soldiers are ambushed by the creature, and proceed to lay waste to a huge tract of jungle, only to find that the enemy has escaped and their huge firepower is wholly useless. It demonstrates the weakness of traditional American power and now looks remarkably like a metaphor for Afghanistan. SM

2) They Live (1988)

They Live was sold to the Great American Public on one factor alone: the prospect of seeing WWF star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper kick ass for 90 minutes. What audiences got from brilliant genre director John Carpenter was a sly tale about Reagan-era America. Piper plays a down on his luck construction worker who discovers that the world’s economic and political leaders are, in fact, aliens, farming Earth for its resources and using humans as livestock.

Armed only with an outrageous mullet and a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the aliens’ distortion, he goes on the rampage, memorably declaring: “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum”.

Best of all, the sunglasses not only reveal who’s an alien and who’s not, they also reveal subliminal messages such as “OBEY” and “CONSUME” in advertising, and the subversive motto “THIS IS YOUR GOD” written on the dollar. The film is dumb to its core, but delivers numerous savage kicks to the hypocrisies of Reaganism, as well as plenty of literal ass-kickings and a sack load of pithy one-liners. SM

3) Demolition Man (1993)

The last great film of the Stallone-Schwarzenegger era, before they became mere parodies of the cinema behemoths they were, Demolition Man, is perversely under-rated, perhaps more so than any other film on this list.

For a start, it has Stallone featuring as “The Demolition Man”, a cop famed for his destructive methods, being cryogenically frozen and woken up in a non-violent future to hunt down his nemesis, accidentally re-animated super-criminal, Wesley Snipes. The premise sets up Demolition Man as an outrageous, over-the-top action extravaganza, but the script brings a surprising amount of cultural criticism to the table.

The film contemplates what our century would look like 40 years into the future (bizarre and hilarious), and, making the best political argument of any Hollywood action film, asks whether we’d rather be safe but trapped, or free and exposed to danger. Given that this is a film in which Stallone consistently wreaks havoc, the latter option triumphs. Granted, it does take an annoying Denis Leary cameo to make the latter point, but, then again, when has libertarianism ever been as much fun as this? SM

4)First Blood (1982)

After Vietnam, after the oil crisis, after Watergate, America’s confidence was bruised and she wanted heroes. In the White House they had that B-lister Ronald Reagan who brought them the strategic defence initiative, voodoo economics and the Iran-Contra affair. On the silver screen they had Sly Stallone who brought them John Rambo.

“Rambo, John J. Born 7-6-47 in Bowie, Arizona. Of Indian-German descent – that’s a hell of a combination. Light weapon, medic, helicopter and language qualified. 59 confirmed kills. Two Silver Stars, four Bronze, four Purple Hearts, Holder of the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honour.”

Rambo, a disenfranchised Vietnam vet, symbolised America’s malaise and offered a solution. Watching First Blood taught America that, when you feel your place in the world is under threat, a sure fire way to improve your mood is to blow shit up.

It doesn’t actually solve any problems, but it feels damn good. Some might argue the natural consequence of this was neo-conservative foreign policy. I’d say it was Rambo IV, which boasted 236 confirmed kills in 91 minutes. CS

5) Starship Troopers (1997)

There are some things that divide people: war, religion, marmite and Starship Troopers. This may be an exaggeration but this applies to the film’s critics – dumb shoot-em-up or clever satire on American militarism?

The film takes place in the future, where mankind is fighting a war against the Bugs, a race of giant insects who ruthlessly tear anyone apart. On the ground, we follow a group of high school graduates from Buenos Aires. What follows are scenes of cliched romance, nudity and predictable deaths.

However, on closer inspection, it doesn’t play out as a one dimensional action flick.In the DVD commentary, director Paul Verhoeven says “War makes fascists of us all,” and he had meant it as a satire of American militarism. Not only is this seen in the violent action sequences, but also in the military propaganda commercials, which are cleverly embedded in between. The movie feels like it’s aimed at 11 year old sci-fi fanatics, but there’s a great deal for to the film.

Whilst the appetite for adrenaline-fuelled action is fulfilled, Verhoeven also delivers a poke at the glorification of militarism that’s prevalent in Hollywood action. RL

6)Planet of the Apes (1968)

Dr. Zaius! Dr, Zaius! Four sequels, a TV series, a reboot and endless spoofs later, it is easy to forget how good Planet of the Apes was, or, indeed, that it was any good at all. The original film, based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, is an astute parable, inciting consideration of man’s role in nature and attitudes to other species.

In the film Charlton Heston, playing Charlton Heston (always his best role), is tasked with defending mankind against the damning verdict of head orang-utan Dr. Zaius: “I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself.”

A smart premise intelligently developed, genuinely tense action sequences, the unnerving primitiveness of Jerry Goldsmith’s much imitated score, and one of cinema’s most enduring closing images make Planet of the Apes a highlight of Hollywood’s 1960s output. CS

Shane Murray, Carl Salter and Raymond Li