As The Expendables 3 makes its North American debut, let's take a moment to reflect on how we came to this point.
Popular opinion would have us believe that action films are in a slump, or worse still, the era of the American action movie is over. People are increasingly looking to foreign imports for their action fix because Hollywood can't deliver the goods. Instead of hard-hitting action movies, studios are churning out hard-to-watch action sequences bookended by drawn-out dramatic interludes and the whole thing is shaped like one giant explosion. Yes, these films make money, but movies like Ong-bak (2003), The Raid: Redemption (2011), and District 13 (2004, remade as Brick Mansions (2014)) are catching the attention of critics and audiences alike. Indeed, it must sting to find out that other countries have appropriated what is considered to be an American filmmaking genre and are doing a better job at it.
When The Expendables was released in 2010, it was both hailed and criticized for being a nostalgia-fuelled adolescent fantasy. Some liked it, others hated, and usually for the same reasons: the writing is terrible, the characters are flat, and Stallone's ego gets in the way of what should be a dumb action movie. Or, put another way, The Expendables is a delightfully campy romp, populated by ageing though guys which proves that American action cinema can still kick ass.
“Viewed though a fog of testosterone, The Expendables is a glorious throwback to the dumb action movies of the eighties and nineties.”
Action cinema as a distinct genre only really came about in the 1980s. Prior to that, action movies were largely categorized based on their narrative or stylistic elements. Exploitation movies, fantasy-adventure films, and sci-fi from the '60s and '70s were all action-packed but they weren't unified under a single banner. Film genres generally form as the result of the repeated success of a certain type of filmmaking, and action cinema's popularity in the '80s led to the creation of the genre.
Action cinema finds its roots in the historical epics of the early 20th century. When Italy hit it big with The Fall of Troy (1910) and Quo Vadis? (1913), the fledgeling American film industry saw box office potential in releasing its own historical films. Audiences thrilled to Judith and Bethulia (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Intolerance (1916). In addition to controversy (Birth was criticized for being overtly racist, and Intolerance was director D.W. Griffith's attempt to make ammends) these films shared length, largess, and expense in common. Producing these epics was itself an epic undertaking as the need for massive sets, travel to exotic locations, and a cast of thousands stressed the budget.
The cost was worth it. The movies were a big draw throughout the early and mid-century. Cinema attendance dropped off in the 1960s, and hit an all-time low in the '70s. There are a number of reasons why. Television is one, an increase in other leisure activities another. When studios could no longer count on habitual movie-going, they looked for new ways to entice people back to the cinema. A splashy, effects-heavy event movie not unlike those made in the teens seemed liked a good idea.
Genre history is a funny thing: it's revisionist to a fault. Cinephiles like to think of the 1970s as the era of the art house picture, but that's the decade that gave us The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Jaws (1975), and Star Wars (1977). Jaws was the game-changer. Its premise is exploitation to the core, but the movie was given a big-budget treatment. The resulting film was the first summer blockbuster and its success revolutionized the way studios conceived and managed their production slate. The “tentpole movie” grew out of Jaws' success as all studios sought to create their own blockbusters, event films that would both cost and make a lot of money and, in essence, pay for the other films studios released throughout the year.
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