Interview: Eric Lichtenfeld Part 2 of 2
This is the second half of my talk with Eric Lichtenfeld, author of Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. Please don’t forget to check out the first half of this interview or my original review of his book.
BOB ROSE: Do you enjoy action film satires such as True Lies, Shoot ’Em Up, or Hot Fuzz?
ERIC LICHTENFELD: I like True Lies a lot.
BR: It’s definitely a satire, at least to some degree.
EL: Yes, a loving one. It’s one of those films that works both ways. I think Robocop is an even better example than True Lies, but both of them illustrate this well: it’s a satire that works as a movie even if you don’t get the satire. You don’t watch them and think that there is something you’re missing.
BR: Robocop is a movie that I don’t feel has been fully appreciated for what’s under its skin.
EL: I think the critical thinking concerning Robocop over the years has matured to the point where it has gotten its due. Obviously not in all corners–I’d be surprised if Michael Medved went for it, though he might; I honestly don’t know.
BR: Sequels have diluted the way it is remembered.
EL: The sequels really have very little to do with the original, and what made the original special.
BR: I agree, however, when people view a franchise as a whole they tend to have trouble separating the installments in their mind.
EL: Rocky and the Rambo franchise are great examples of that. You might be right about that with Robocop, but, I think anyone who spends any time thinking about this even remotely seriously would still look at Robocop as its own entity.
BR: Sure, I was just saying that, for instance, Robocop 2, which I admit to enjoying as an action film, made the “joke” of Robocop the point of the movie. It makes people forget.
EL: Yeah, you’re right.
BR: My life experience has been, when I tell people I’m interested in film and that Robocop is one of my favorite films…I get funny looks. You actually start your book with a quote from Robocop. Clarence Bodeker quipping “guns, guns, guns.”
EL: I was always a very big fan of Robocop. I remember a very close family friend, a friend of my parents, watched it on my recommendation and told me, “Your taste is up your ass.”
EL: I thought, “ok, they just didn’t get it.” One of the clichés I really hate is when people talk about movies and say that some inanimate object was “like another character in the movie,” but in Robocop, violence really is like another character: it goes through a lot of changes and progression. Almost every major violent episode of Robocop has a distinctly different tone. Sometimes the violence is darkly comic, such as when ED209 kills the executive in the boardroom–
BR: Which is even longer and more violent in the unrated cut.
EL: Right, and even funnier. In the drug warehouse or the showdown at the steel mill, the violence is heroic. When the gang converges on Murphy it’s very tragic. So Verhoeven crafted a lot of violence in the movie, but always found a way to give it different emotional flavors, and that’s just one facet of how smart that movie is.
BR: Do you think that is affected by how Paul Verhoeven views the movie, as a form of Christ’s story? Murphy’s death is played so serious and sad, like as if it’s his crucifixion, even though it preceded by something as funny as ED209 malfunctioning.
EL: Well, Verhoeven has described himself as a Christ scholar. So, the short answer to your question is “sure.” I’m sure that how he treats Murphy is a reflection of his investment in the Christ story. At the same time I’m hesitant to make too big a deal about that because all action movies are Christ stories. Most hero stories involve the basic building blocks. Most heroes have–I’m saying this figuratively–an almost supernatural quality. Dirty Harry is set apart from other men. Martin Riggs is set apart from other men. An action hero is set apart from others, has special abilities, has a divine purpose (again, I’m speaking figuratively,) is forsaken by his community (that’s a really important point,) and rises again. So I think that Verhoeven’s fascination with Jesus is certainly informing that scene, but I think you would read the same thing into the movie even if that wasn’t a particular interest of his.
BR: Yeah, I would have never singled out Robocop specifically for that if he had not said “This is my version of the Christ story.”
EL: I’m certainly not disagreeing with Verhoeven on this, but that would have probably been in there to one extent or another, even if—
BR: He’d not been trying.
EL: Exactly, because it’s the nature of the genre. Cobra is a very similar thing. It depends on how “literal vs. figurative” you want to be with some of your language about martyrdom, and about being forsaken and so forth. But the building blocks of that story are present in most these stories.
BR: In keeping with the topic of the hero story, in your book you discuss the archetype of “the man that knows Indians.” The hero as the outsider.
EL: Yeah, he is one of us, except that he has a very intimate knowledge of “the other.”
BR: Like Travis Bickle?
EL: Travis Bickle is certainly based on that archetype as Taxi Driver is very much an inverted The Searchers. Rambo is a perfect example, he’s a guerilla fighter.
BR: Yet he fights for the norm of the people he doesn’t know.
EL: Not just the people he doesn’t know, he fights to protect a society that will not integrate him into it.
BR: What I like about your book is that it shows how Taxi Driver is part of the evolution of the action movie, even though it isn’t really part of the genre.
EL: It’s very interesting: when I would tell people that I was including Taxi Driver in the book, some people got kind of pissed.
BR: Because they thought you were diluting what Taxi Driver is?
EL: Exactly, like I was defacing Taxi Driver by including it in this un-scrubbed mass of movies.
BR: Which you weren’t at all.
EL: Thank you. Once again, that insult kind of goes to the standing of the action genre, in terms of how people validate it, or not. The fact that some people were annoyed that I put Taxi Driver in with this sort of un-washed, un-scrubbed genre says a lot about the standing that the genre enjoys.
BR: Especially now. I admit I don’t remember a lot of criticism from 20 years ago, but do you think that with what action has become, it is respected less?
EL: I think in terms of most critics, action has stayed pretty much where it’s always been, on one of the lower tiers, critically speaking. There are films that break out, and there are ones that over time can grow in stature. I think most critics would argue that Die Hard is one of the great action movies, but if you go back to 1988 and read the reviews, they were mixed.
BR: But, in hindsight, Die Hard can be looked back at as simply a great movie.
EL: I agree. Going back to Taxi Driver, people were very irritated. I wouldn’t reduce Taxi Driver to just an action movie; I think it is a lot more then just that.
BR: Sure, it’s a drama or a dark comedy much more then an action film.
EL: It’s a lot of things. It’s a modern day western. It’s a horror movie. Taxi Driver is one of those films that is such a complicated, but ultimately organic, constellation of genre elements, there are many different ways to parse it.
BR: It’s a film that could be analyzed till judgment day and still not be fully cracked.
EL: It’s made by cinephiles, by true cinephiles. What I tried to do was say that in addition to all the ways that Taxi Driver has been looked at up to this point, you can also look at it as this stepping stone in the evolution of the modern action movie. An important one especially in how it directly engages the idea of the vigilante. That is such an important part of the transition from westerns to modern day action films, and an important transition from basically everything that had come up to ‘70s, in terms of film history, to the ‘80s and what would become that classical period.
BR: Movies like Taxi Driver, and even say, Dirty Harry, compared to the action films of the present day almost feel like dramas.
EL: I would agree with you about Taxi Driver; Dirty Harry less so. I think what you’re probably picking up on is that idea you were discussing earlier that the movies have gotten so much bigger that when you look at Dirty Harry today it’s hard to know how to classify it, because it doesn’t look like the actions movies we’ve grown accustomed to.
BR: I hate to be one of the people that have grown accustomed to it, but we are bombarded so consistently how can you not?
EL: [Laughs] I’ll give you another good example of this idea. I was teaching my class, and that particular semester, our genre unit was on the action movie and we had a 35mm print of Lethal Weapon. Now I have seen Lethal Weapon numerous times, but I hadn’t seen it projected since 1987. So I was very excited to see it in 35mm again for the first time in about 20 years. Know what amazed me? That foot chase over Hollywood Blvd., It’s a great sequence, there isn’t a frame wrong with it. But I kept thinking about how conceptually small it is, and wondering how often you could get away with making it the big third-act sequence today.
BR: Compared to today, that is the action-equivalent of the first act of a movie.
EL: Very true. That made me sad; it made me lonesome for that time.
BR: Yes, but the subtext of that scene is big. The subtext of a mammoth action scene, let’s say of a movie like Transformers, is nil, where as the subtext of the action in Lethal Weapon’s climax is enormous.
EL: [Laughs] I wouldn’t call it subtext in that case, but I would call it intensity. You have characters you really care about, that you are really invested in. I mean, yes, the whole movie is kind of comic-book like, especially the third act, but the performances are real, the dynamic is real, you feel something for these people. I hate reducing the movie or the genre to this issue, but there’s something to it. Yes, the concept might be small, but it does allow for a much more visceral, kinetic experience. That’s why, throughout the book, I try to write so much about craftsmanship and this is the point I concluded on: that what I think is missing today is that physical investment in what’s happening on screen. When I look at something like the first Transformers, and I look at those action sequences, I don’t know what it is I’m suppose to be feeling.
BR: Or what it is you are even looking at… [laughs]
EL: Sure, but one issue is more fundamental than the other. Yes, I don’t always know what I’m looking at, which is a problem, and that’s a big issue with not just Michael Bay, but other filmmakers.
BR: The action-geography influences the physical investment of the scene as well.
EL: Exactly. What I believe is that without a clear sense of geography there’s not a clear sense of jeopardy. So when I look at something like Transformers, and I see the action sequences, I don’t know what I am supposed to be feeling. Am I supposed to feel excited, the way you feel excited when you watch the foot chase in Lethal Weapon, or in First Blood? Or are you just supposed to feel kind of generally overwhelmed (which is a completely different feeling)? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I prefer to be excited over being bombarded.
BR: Overwhelmed is sort of the mantra of the Transformers franchise as well. The goal of the sequel seems to be, “How big can we go? How much can we throw at them, and how fast can we do it?” The movie doesn’t want you there for the characters; it wants you there for the experience.
EL: Yes, Lethal Weapon works in part because we care about the characters and that is all great, but as I was talking about before it was all about sheer craftsmanship. In his review of Lethal Weapon, I think, Roger Ebert said it absolutely beautifully that the pleasure of the action movie is in the choreography of bullets and bodies and all of these elements. There is an aesthetic pleasure that can be gotten from all that. Look at the first Die Hard. Also, and this is a movie that gets knocked around a lot, but I was watching Die Hard With A Vengeance yesterday, and there is some stuff in there that I think is just incredible. It’s all about basic film style and craftsmanship. That is one of the points that I concluded the book with. When it’s done right, the pleasure of the action movie is that it truly physically makes you feel alive. You sense these things on your flesh, you sense these things on your nerve endings and in your gut. Thinking about how filmmakers have the power to do that is really an extraordinary thing and it makes me sad that it’s so forsaken.
BR: It’s dying.
EL: Yeah, probably. I like to think that there are filmmakers that just aren’t on my radar right now, who are, frankly, on lots and lots of other people’s radars. I saw Star Trek and I saw glimmers of that alive in that film. I thought Star Trek was a really good movie. I remember when Waterworld came out, and not unlike Last Action Hero, Waterworld was a movie that had a lot of the story behind the movie dogging it and following it…
BR: The biggest budget ever.
EL: Right, and when the movie came out it wasn’t even it hype, it was like anti-hype.
BR: It was also part of the Kevin Costner backlash.
EL: At that point, yes. When it was released, Steven Spielberg was being interviewed about something else, and they asked him “have you seen Waterworld?’ and he said “yes” and they said “was it worth 300 million dollars?” and I loved his answer. His answer was “It doesn’t have to be worth 300 million dollars, it has to be worth seven dollars.” I thought that was just perfect. I thought so much about that after I saw Star Trek, because we can talk about this stuff all day long, but what does this all ultimately come down to? You went to a movie, you bought a ticket, you either had an experience or you didn’t. When I came out of Star Trek, I think we paid about $15 to see it, I said “You know, that was worth my money, I had an experience.”
BR: Flaws aside, I agree it worked as great entertainment.
EL: Yeah, and how often can that be said of these very impressive light shows? You know Transformers was a very impressive light show, but did I have an experience? If I had one, is it a worthwhile one?
BR: Was it worth $10?
EL: Was it even worth the time? I’d say no.
BR: There’s a reason we needed movies like District 9 and Inglourious Basterds this summer. People are all too often are going to films like Transformers, and saying “why did I just pay money for that? What did I just watch?” Seeing something like Basterds, or District 9, which is a light show plus more, at least gives you your money’s worth. I think it has a lot to do with passion. While all “big” movies are product, some movies, like Transformers, feel like only product. At least with Basterds or District 9, even if you didn’t like those movies you can still feel the passion behind them, and that in turn inflates the experience. It makes you say “that was worth my money.”
EL: Yeah, I think that’s a fair way to put it.
BR: This has been a very droll summer. Every film looks like G.I. Joe or Transformers, and while I didn’t see G.I. Joe, I think I can get a picture of what G.I. Joe would be.
EL: [Laughs] Like everyone else, I heard it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be.
BR: Is that ever really a compliment? [Laughs] One of the chapters of your book is titled “Terror and the Confined Area,” dealing with the sub-genre created by Die Hard. This decade we have sort of seen the confined area die. I guess we could blame the rise of fantasy and comic book films. Do you think audiences have forgotten that an action scene can take place in an elevator just as easily as a battlefield?
EL: [Laughs] Well, let’s start broad and narrow our focus. I would say that the last significant movie in that Die Hard vein was Air Force One.
BR: That long ago?
EL: Yeah. I don’t really even think Live Free Or Die Hard follows the format. When you talk about that state of all those movies coming out on top of each other in the ‘90s, it was because we had a few dominant trends and that was one of them. That cycle ended with Air Force One in July of 1997. That is a movie I really admire. We were talking about craftsmanship; that is a very finely crafted movie. I think the trend died out for two reasons, the rise of CG making other things possible as we talked about before, but also there was such a distinctive trend that had been going on for so long it had to stop. Genre is a funny thing. It’s about formula and variation and carefully controlling that balance between the familiar and the new. This is no fault of the concept, it happens all the time; the cycle just reached its end. I’m glad it went out with a movie that was so well-crafted in that it really got the idea of geography, which is what made the first Die Hard so effective.
BR: Ironically, the biggest criticism of Air Force One is the CG plane crash.
EL: Yeah, that sequence doesn’t work very well. The technology wasn’t that far along yet, they overshot their capability. Air Force One is not one of those widely-admired movies necessarily. I’m usually on the leading edge of its cheerleaders.
BR: Honestly, I was expecting you to be very negative toward it. I love the movie, but in my experience, it usually isn’t greeted with much welcome. [Laughs]
EL: Yeah, I think that’s really unfortunate. In fact, I’ll give you a great illustration of what I’m talking about. A few weeks before Air Force One came out, there was the summer’s other terrorists-take-over-a-plane-movie which was Con Air. I saw it with friends, and I said to them, “You know in the interior of the plane, there’s that cage where they keep the dangerous psychopath?”
BR: Danny Trejo, the rapist character, Johnny 23.
EL: I said, “Where was that cage in relationship to the seats?” and everybody had a different answer. Now how hard would it have been to very clearly map out the geography of the plane? If John McTiernan had directed that movie, one shot would have taken care of all of that. A stedi-cam shot. When the concept is absolutely dependent on your sense of geography, that kind of frenetic style ran roughshod over it. Go back and watch the dogfight where it’s Air Force One between the F-16s and Migs. Whenever they cut into a cockpit the pilots are always facing the direction their planes were facing. Screen direction is preserved there and really, really well. There’s a certain level of craftsmanship there, a lot to admire and learn from in Air Force One between [the director Wolfgang Petersen] and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography. So that cycle had ended, and your question was about if we had forgotten that action can take place in an elevator or a confined space.
BR: We have such epic action now. I think if you said “action scene” to a 12-15 year old right now, they would think of a battlefield or a desert covered in billions of minions. There’s nothing wrong with that sometimes, but action scenes don’t always have to be a fully filmed war, or a CG equivalent of a classic Godzilla battle in fast motion.
EL: I think that is a fair observation. Again, I think it’s because of CG. It allows you to do things on such a grand scale without paying for it like you had to in the past.
It allows these spectacles to happen, and filmmakers take advantage of it. Yes, there probably has been a loss of more intimate kinds of sequences, which is a pity because I think one of the things that filmmakers most often would tell you is that as much as they always want more time and more money, less time and less money is what often forces them into sharper, more innovative thinking.
BR: You get Jaws out of that.
EL: You get Die Hard.
BR: Do you consider the fantasy genre when you think about action? Lord of the Rings has plenty of action, but do you include it in the category?
EL: I don’t. My general way of looking at this is that since so many genres involve physical action, battles, combat or whatever you want to call it, if you were to talk about all the movies that have action in them as “action movies” the label would stop meaning anything. I talk a little bit about that in the introduction to the book. So, no I wouldn’t. If a movie with action more immediately belongs to another genre, and visually and in everyway you instinctively know it belongs to another genre…it probably belongs to that genre, or several genres. I don’t talk about Aliens very much in the book, even though it has a lot of the genre’s elements because Aliens is much more immediately a science fiction movie or a horror film.
BR: I agree. It’s confusing when Entertainment Weekly puts Aliens as the second greatest action film of all time on their list.
EL: Exactly, what does “action” mean then? I talk about science fiction and superhero movies in the book because over time the genre does expand to incorporate these other types of movies, especially with technology and so forth. But no, I don’t consider fantasy to be action movies. It doesn’t mean I dismiss them, and it doesn’t mean they are unrelated. Like I said, all these genres exist on sort of a family tree, some branches are further apart, some are much closer together.
BR: Your book talks about something I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never realized. That is the tendency of huge action films, specifically concentrating on Armageddon, to have a fear of intellectualism.
EL: An outright disdain for it. [Laughs]
BR: Yeah, you dissect Armageddon in your book, a movie I have seen many times, and you really, successfully, point out how the movie outright makes fun of science and scientists.
EL: In what is inherently a science-fiction scenario.
BR: From every vantage you look at the conflict in the movie it’s fully encapsulated by scientific knowledge.
EL: Remember the line that Bruce Willis says “You guys at NASA, aren’t you the guys who are thinking stuff up, and behind you there are guys thinking stuff up.” Well, we know what Michael Bay thinks about “guys who think stuff up.”
BR: Do you think that is a way of trying to pander to the audience? Not that the audience is inherently stupid, but everyone can’t be an astronomer or a physicist. I know I’m not.
EL: Yeah, and I think it’s committed by Michael Bay in particular. I think it is part of a very broad, very caustic, very noxious form of pandering. What [Bay] does in his movies, he also does in his interviews when discussing his movies and the critics, and he does it when talking about his past. There’s a theme running through all of that, which kind of separates the intellectual realm from “the people.” He positions himself as kind of the vanguard of the people, and of the people’s tastes. He “doesn’t make movies for the critics, he makes movies for the people,” as though critics aren’t people.
BR: I know he believes that quality should be based on financial success.
EL: Right, which is absurd. I wish I could take credit for this, but concerning the new Transformers movie someone wrote, “When people tell me to shut off my brain and have fun, I tell them I can’t because my brain is where I have fun.”
BR: That should be on T-shirts.
EL: It should. I wish I could take credit for it, because it’s absolutely brilliant and perfect. I think what Michael Bay does is beyond pandering. It is consistent with the anti-intellectualism that has blighted our country cyclically for generations. I’m certainly not saying Michael Bay is to blame for all this, but if you look at what’s happening with the environment, economically, to the country, to the planet, this really isn’t a time when we want to be saying that intellectualism isn’t cool. When National Treasure came out, critics really savaged it, and I will say that it’s a pretty imperfect movie, but there was one aspect of it that I really, really liked, and wished more critics had picked up on and championed. This is a movie that made being smart cool. There are lots of critics who rightly dump on action movies because they’re so mindless, and mind-numbing. So when an action movie comes along, imperfections aside, that makes being smart cool, the intellectually honest thing to do is to call out the movie for that and champion at least that aspect of it. I really respected the first National Treasure for doing that. We are really at a point in our history when the smart people need to show up. People in general need to know that intellectualism is a good thing.
BR: In your book, you point to the much less successful movie The Core as almost the inverse of Armageddon, due to how it shows intellectuals in such a positive light.
EL: Yeah, the intellectuals solved the problem, and the writer of The Core, John Rogers, is a brilliant guy, a first class intellect. Yes, The Core is kind of a wonky movie, but he’s a good writer and he’s a physicist; he studied physics for crying out loud. The Core might be wonky, but give me that attitude over Armageddon’s any day.
BR: The entire point of Armageddon is almost saying: scientists can’t stop a giant asteroid from destroying the planet, but John McClane can.
EL: [Laughs] I don’t even mind the fact that “John McClane” is doing it, because these are action movies it’s the way science is portrayed. Why couldn’t science be portrayed in a healthier, more positive light? My problem is funny, because how do you reconcile being very passionate about anti-intellectualism, while being a scholar of action movies? It’s two things that shouldn’t exactly go together. Most people would argue that the action genre is inherently anti-intellectual, and to that my argument is “no,” action movies are not anti-intellectual, they are non-intellectual. They don’t care one way or the other about intellectualism, and that’s fine. What Bay does so often is refuse to sit on the sidelines, which Die Hard might, or Lethal Weapon might. He’s hostile toward intellectualism. In Armageddon, what bothers me is the scene where the scientists were pitching their other ideas. How hard would it have been to craft a scene where those ideas are introduced, and for logistical reasons, none of them are tenable, and then Bruce Willis and his team are the only option, as opposed to showing why all those ideas are ridiculous? It’s not that the movie can’t have a butch hero stopping the meteor; the problem is that you don’t need to make Bruce Willis look good by making the smart people look bad. It’s a very cynical view of the audience, and it’s a view of science and intellectualism that is full of contempt, but that’s what Michael Bay does when he talks about critics, or his education. Bay has made the point that critics don’t like him because he makes things like Armageddon and not Schindler’s List.
BR: Which isn’t true.
EL: That’s not true at all. They don’t like him because he makes bad “Armageddons.” Maybe the action movie is kind of handicapped critically, a weak drama is likely to do better critically than a good action movie, but a really good action film is still going to break through. One of the other charges leveled against Michael Bay is the racism in his movies, and I read about the robots with the gold teeth and such. Do I personally think he’s a racist? I have no idea, but I don’t think he is, I think he just has a corny, cynical sense of humor. What I thought was very interesting about the first Transformers was how that kind of hostility was still there, but some of it was sort of transferred over to adults. The kid’s parents were these big boobs, basically a strategy that Saturday morning television shows use. In shows like Saved By The Bell, and all those clones in the early ‘90s, they would display the adults in those situations as very “boobish” to kind of break children’s identification with adults and authority.
BR: Well, even though Transformers was a Saturday morning cartoon, in the sequel that is turned up to the maximum degree with the parents.
EL: A little comic relief is always a good thing, but when Michael Bay does it there’s a cynicism and a hostility pumping out of it. I will give him credit for one thing, the movies he makes are so enormous that getting a movie that big made, on time, on budget and on that release date is impressive. That doesn’t take a director, that takes a general, and he is that guy and I give him a lot of credit for that. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do. A lot of people who might dismiss him in favor of directors of smaller, more personal dramas certainly might have a lot of grounds on which to do that, but he does have a very particular and very impressive skill set.
BR: In the last decade Judd Apatow has, in cinema, brought about the age of the Beta male, and even though he did it through comedy, do you think it reflects in action? We get a lot of action films starring “everymen” now, like Shia LaBeouf, which is ironic considering that Bruce Willis was once looked at as the “everyman” hero. In comparison to today’s action heroes, John McClane is a testosterone fueled muscle head.
EL: [Laughs] I think the function of the “everyman” in the action genre is safe. Their job now is to be the lens through which the audience looks at the real star of the show, which is the concept or special effects. With John McClane, and to a certain extent before him, Martin Riggs, going forward into the ‘90s, that trend of “everyman” was more pronounced because it was in contrast to the model of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Chuck Norris.
BR: Who are, as you say in the book, almost like machines themselves.
EL: Machines and supermen. They were the supermen before the genre got all superhero- happy. I think the role of the “everyman” in the late ‘80s to mid ‘90s was much more about that fundamental everyman quality, it wasn’t about making room for the concept, or the technology.
BR: What is your take on what Jason Statham has recently become? He is almost the last pure action star we have, discounting the action stars who have lasted since the classical period.
EL: I’ve liked him well enough in what I’ve seen. Time will tell if he’s a great action star, one who is going to endure, and become iconic. To know that is hard to tell, you have to have a longer track record that he hasn’t had time to amass yet. Another point is that you can’t really tell that until you know what his era looked like. We don’t know what this time is going to look like five, ten, twenty years from now.
BR: This is going to sound like an insult, but it’s not, I personally believe he is going to be looked back on as the Van Damme or Seagal of this era.
EL: Maybe, I think his movies, or his fate would be better if he was in sort of bigger productions that were less obviously B-movie in nature. I look at him right now as he is a little bit like Vin Diesel, not just cause of the hair. It feels like his career is happening, but it also feels like it could just short out. Time will tell. Yeah, he is sort of the last action hero right now, but you know what? Vin Diesel was before him. If it doesn’t happen for Statham, then someone else will come along to fill in his shoes. Film history has shown that there is always an appetite for stars, there’s always an appetite for action, whether you call it an action movie or not, whether the genre has fully formed yet or not. The genre, as I defined in the book, doesn’t really come into existence until the ‘70s, yet there was action from the very first movie. There have been movies since 1895, so does that mean that there was no action for 75 years? There was always an appetite, different modes come along to address that appetite, and that’s true of action, and as long as that’s true of action, it will be true of action stars.
BR: With Statham in mind, how do you feel about The Expendables?
EL: I’m looking forward to The Expendables. I love these kinds of exercises in nostalgia. Whenever the last installment was ten or fifteen years ago, I get so excited. I was even excited about Basic Instinct 2.
EL: Because of the sheer audacity of doing it thirteen years later.
BR: It can work. Look at The Color of Money.
EL: Oh yeah, it can work, I think 2010 worked great. So, yeah I am very much looking forward to The Expendables.
BR: Stallone has admitted that it’s going to be a “1980s action film.”
EL: As a matter of fact this might be the tiebreaker in a way because I thought that Rocky Balboa was really, very, very good and Rambo was really, very disappointing.
BR: I remember reading on your blog that you thought Rambo 4 wasn’t “silly” enough, which I would agree with.
EL: My problem with Rambo 4 was this: it had been 19 years since Rambo III and except for some of the specifics of the geopolitics of the movie, there was no reason why Rambo 4 couldn’t have been made in 1992. What I mean by that is, the movie did not reward the audience for having waited 19 years. I just showed my nephew, who is 8 years old, The Empire Strikes Back and he was very frustrated with the ending, because he doesn’t know what happens to Han Solo. I’m going to show him Return of the Jedi at Thanksgiving. I said to him that when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back the wait to see what happens was three years long, and you should have seen his face. He was stricken at that idea. The new Rambo was 19 years coming and there was nothing inherent to it that necessitated that wait. Rocky Balboa was about the passage of time; the story needs time to have passed so the audience is rewarded for that wait. Rambo 4 does that to the barest degree possible, and yes, from what I remember it was also a little too over earnest. The fact that it starts with stock footage, I think was a big mistake. I’m sitting there watching the actual atrocity, feeling really guilty, feeling like I should be out volunteering instead of sitting in a theater watching escapist faire like a Rambo movie.
BR: Your review was one of the only ones that I agreed with, only because some of that movie just seemed to put this enormous guilt trip on the viewer. Do you think that a campy or silly nature usually increases with action sequels? Even more so, should it?
EL: No, not necessarily, I don’t think you have to keep getting bigger and more ridiculous. That’s how things tend to evolve, but I don’t think they have to. I think it’s ok to use the movie to reflect on what’s come before and be serious about the characters and their lives, that’s fine. My problem wasn’t with the tone of the whole of Rambo, if he wants to take it in a serious direction, that was actually probably appropriate, because how much more ridiculous than Rambo III do you want to be?
BR: Have you heard that he announced a Rambo 5?
EL: Yeah, apparently Rambo 5 has been greenlit.
BR: Considering it was Rambo 4, and Stallone’s current career, admittedly it was a success, all things considered. Do you think he’s pushing his luck with a fifth movie?
EL: I think it’s probably going to dull the instrument a little bit. When you have a 19 year hiatus, and then you bring the character back, that’s pretty powerful, regardless of how successful the movie is.
BR: We’ve seen it so much this decade, it’s starting to feel commonplace.
EL: Yeah, and even less then a decade. It’s more like 3-5 years. When you bring the character back again, when you follow that up with another one, that element is now diluted.
BR: The nostalgia is not playing a part anymore.
EL: It’s reduced, and then what’s special about the movie? I think what winds up happening is that you lose the curiosity, and nostalgia factors, so now the movie just has to deliver. [laughs]
BR: Are there any other action films on the horizon that you are looking forward too?
EL: I hate to be a downer, I can’t think of anything I’m particularly excited about. All of the characters, all of the ‘80s action characters who’ve been brought back and who were ever going to be brought back have been brought back. I don’t think there’s a Lethal Weapon 5 in the pipeline.
BR: I think Joel Silver is still trying…
EL: I can’t imagine that it would happen. You can always hear rumors with internet reports and this or that, but I tend to only believe things when the cameras roll, and sometimes not even then. What I’m curious about is the remake of Red Dawn.
BR: Especially considering your book goes into such depth about Red Dawn. I’ll say this, before I read Action Speaks Louder I thought Red Dawn was a cheesy ‘80s movie. After reading it, Red Dawn became a different movie in my mind, and I haven’t even had the chance to revisit it yet. You kind of rewrote the movie in my mind.
BR: It went from being nostalgia to an important piece of cinema that I need to revisit. If I can praise your book real quick, any movie you discuss in it, I wanted to revisit.
EL: I really appreciate that. Of the compliments I’ve received on the book, that is always my favorite. “You made me want to see this again, or that again.” I’m always very happy to hear that.
BR: Your book does that amazingly well. I watched Lethal Weapon twice right after I started reading it. I just haven’t had the chance to revisit Red Dawn and many others, basically just because you talk about so many films in the book. I think the politics of [Red Dawn] is something I was too young to appreciate.
EL: I’m very interested to hear that, because I think Red Dawn is a very good movie. Its critics are usually a little reactionary, no pun intended. I think it is exquisitely crafted. [Red Dawn] is much more ambivalent than people give it credit for. In the book I try not to come out too strongly for a movie or against a movie, at least not very explicitly, but there were times where I was trying to imply my feelings. Red Dawn and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome are good examples of that.
BR: [laughs] It’s funny that you say that, because your assessment of Beyond Thunderdome was probably one of the biggest stand outs for me, next to Red Dawn. Like most people I never gave much attention to the movie, basically since The Road Warrior is always the one that gets the reverence, you put Mad Max 3 in an entirely new light in your book.
EL: My take on those two movies back to back is this: The Road Warrior is a perfectly made movie, but what it’s trying to do is not especially original, and not especially grand. It is a perfect execution of a pretty conventional vision. Thunderdome is a wildly imperfect movie, but what it’s trying to do is so much grander and so much more interesting, and so much more beautiful. They compliment each other. I wish Thunderdome was more perfect. I admire the vision that it had, and it’s just exquisitely made, it’s beautiful. I hope there is a really nice Bluray of it in the pipeline.
BR: George Miller put a lot into those films, and it shows.
EL: I was very excited about Mad Max 4—especially when George Miller was going to be directing with Mel Gibson.
BR: While I agree it could be exciting, there is a lot of room for serious disappointment. I say that a lot these days though, post Indy 4.
BR: I’ll admit it, Indy 4 kind of soured me on the whole concept of bringing back these old franchises. I’ll still give them a chance. Rambo was fine, Die Hard 4 was fine…
EL: Well Die Hard 4 wasn’t a Die Hard movie. I thought Die Hard 4 could have been a lot worse, but I’ll tell you when I knew they were in trouble. It was when I saw the first picture of Bruce Willis with a shaved head. John McClane would not shave his head; Bruce Willis would. John McClane is proud, but he’s not vain. When I saw that I said to myself, “this isn’t about John McClane, this movie is about Bruce Willis in generic action star mode.” So, I was sort of preparing for the worst. That said, it was better then it could have been. What I liked best about it was its undercurrent of darkness. It was a pretty grim McClane, and I liked that.
BR: More grim then the alcoholic, smoking, pathetic, end of his rope John McClane of Die Hard 3?
EL: Yeah, I think in Die Hard 3 he is more of a burnout. This will sound strange, but I think in 3 there is sort of a more robust grimness. In 3 they put it front and center; I think they underplay it more in 4, which makes it a little bit more stirring.
BR: While I liked Live Free or Die Hard, I’ll admit it was kind of the John McClane I didn’t ask for. The character specifically. The one who got older, smarter, and cleaner. I prefer the one who is a mess, not the one who probably eats fiber every morning now. It’s just a personal preference.
EL: Well I think the problem was that in 1 and 3 he feels like John McClane, and in 4 he feels like Bruce Willis.
BR: Do you have plans to write another book? Would it involve film?
EL: Yes, I have a few projects down the line. I just actually finished writing an essay on the Rocky series for an academic anthology, which is not due out for quite a while unfortunately. That was a lot of fun. There are a few other ideas that I’m developing that are on the scale of Action Speaks Louder, but they’re in the embryonic stage right now. I’m not talking about them too much yet, I’m still trying to figure out exactly how the research would go, and even if they are doable. They are in a very similar vein of talking about film over time, but through a very specific lens.
That’s all folks. I want to thank Eric Lichtenfeld for his time and the interview. Thanks for reading!
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