Despite their importance to Hollywood’s financial bottom line both domestically and abroad, action movies always seem to get short shrift from the film elite. Author Eric Lichtenfeld attempts to correct that oversight with his compelling genre study “Action Speaks Louder.” It’s the perfect accompaniment to the high-octane summer movie season.
From the vigilante dramas of the ’70s (“Dirty Harry,” “Death Wish”) to the superhero blockbusters of today (“X-Men,” “Spider-Man”), Lichtenfeld traces the trends and evolution of a category that represents Hollywood at its most spectacular, most violent and, very often, most popular.
As far as significant film genres go, “action” is a relatively young one. It has roots in film noir, the Western, combat films, police procedurals and thrillers.
But “Action Speaks Louder” makes a strong case that it wasn’t until the ’70s that elements from all of these coalesced and formed a new, distinct genre defined by violent character confrontations and filmmaking that emphasize the visceral and kinetic.
(Lichtenfeld cites Variety to trace the gradual emergence of the action imprint via the “Dirty Harry” franchise. Original 1971 pic was dubbed a “Police Melodrama.” Classifications shifted with each successive pic until the final entry, 1988’s “The Dead Pool,” was categorized simply as “Action.”)
What it lacks in age, the action genre more than makes up for in depth and range. That’s a point Lichtenfeld successfully gets across without ever losing narrative focus. The book seizes on specific trends such as the indestructible “automatons” of the ’80s (think Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s defining roles) and the concept of terror in confined spaces, popularized by “Die Hard.”
Utilizing reviews, interviews, promotional materials and the films themselves, Lichtenfeld gives each trend its due in thoughtful, analytical terms. What emerges is an intelligent, coherent and frequently illuminating study of a genre that has become firmly entrenched in pop culture.
“Action Speaks Louder” flies in the face of those who hope to marginalize action films and look down on them as “popcorn entertainment” somehow unworthy of serious consideration. The book encourages the idea that, although some action films may be “mindless,” our reaction to them doesn’t have to be.