The Physical Language of Action Movies

Posted by IanWilliams at 5:54 PM on May 29, 2015

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I was tagged into a conversation on G+ today about action movies and violence. It was a small circle conversation, so I'll refrain from giving names, but it was an interesting discussion about violence, maleness, and media. Obviously, those are things which are on everyone's minds since Mad Max: Fury Road is (depending on who's talking) the most feminist big budget film produced this century or a false prophet injecting acceptance of violence into feminist discourse.

I can't speak to that. I've not seen Mad Max and I probably won't until it's on DVD or streaming. Having a five year old and a wariness of expensive babysitters tends to curtail your movie options. Plus I just hate watching movies in theaters. I'm old and cranky. So this blog post isn't about this.

Instead, it's about the notion that violence is what action movies are about. I was tagged into the conversation because I wrote and am currently trading edits on ACTION MOVIE WORLD: FIRST BLOOD, an upcoming tabletop roleplaying game which will hopefully be out this year. My purpose with that game is to deconstruct what makes action movies of the genre's golden era (say 1980-1998, or roughly the VHS era) tick. Sometimes I write an article when I want to examine something, sometimes (rare) a blog post, every so often a game.

So here's my thesis: action movies aren't about violence. They are, of course, violent. Very violent. And that violence is very front and center. But rather than being about violence, what they're actually about is physical expression of emotions.

Think about action movies. Yes, anger turns into killing. But love and lust turn immediately into sex scenes. Friendships become about back pats, high fives, and surviving physical adversity together. Characters in action flicks yell and laugh louder than we do, because a big laugh or a loud yell are fundamentally physical acts.

The ramping up of the physicality in quick fashion is the trick. If the natural expression of feeling is physical in the world of action movies, going at a more traditionally dramatic pace is, by definition, unnatural. So you see action heroes behaving in really weird ways, like high fives turning into impromptu arm wrestling matches:


It strikes me that zeroing in on the violence of action movies misses a lot of interesting things. The scale of the violence seems like low-lying fruit when we talk about this type of movie. And, maybe counter-intuitively, I think the more low budget the action movie, the more honest and open this portrayal of physical emotion is. Deadly Prey isn't trying to subvert anything like maybe Mad Max or Alien are. It merely is, and that is is maybe ugly or funny or weird, but it's stripped down and lean. This is part of the reason why I love low budget and/or bad movies. You've got filmmakers and actors who aren't quite good enough to conceal their ids from the viewer.

There's definitely a discussion to be had about the maleness of action movies, their role as propaganda, whether they inure us to violence, etc. All of that is worthy. But I think that when we zero in on violence as the essential kernel of the genre, we're missing out on more interesting questions about how we express emotion and, maybe more importantly, how we wish we could express emotions in our dream worlds.