Here’s Why We’ll Never Get Over Our Love Of Action Films

The best ones feel like a party.

Die Hard
Brought to you by Universal Pictures

Part action film, part human story. Skyscraper hits Australian cinemas July 12.

There’s a great line (one of many) in Die Hard that really hits on why we love action movies. John McClane, our hero in a soiled white singlet, has just flung a bad guy from a high-rise window. As the body hits the hood of an unsuspecting cop car, setting off a volley of terrorist gunfire, McClane greets the mayhem with a well-timed quip: “Welcome to the party, pal!”

The best action movies feel like a party. Not a quiet midweek get-together, but a big, brash rager aimed right at your pleasure centres. You leave overstimulated and exhausted, already looking forward to the next one.

But our obsession with this genre goes deeper than just stunts and set pieces. Without real stakes, all that on-screen adrenaline is just a cheap rush. So what really keeps us running back to action movies?

Action Heroes – They’re Just Like Us!

Super-people are everywhere in 2018, but not all action heroes wear capes. In the comic book universe, bullets bounce off breastplates, wounds heal in a blink, and small scuffles raze entire city blocks. The classic action movie model, meanwhile, stays a little closer to the ground.

Take John McClane, the archetypal everyman hero. Sure, he’s an NYPD cop, but not an indestructible one. He’s handy with a stolen machine gun but lousy at marriage. And, as über-villain Hans Gruber identifies in a classic scene, if you cut him (“Shoot the glass”), he will bleed. That combination of grit and vulnerability is played perfectly by Bruce Willis, who at the time was best known as Cybill Shepherd’s comedy sidekick on the TV series Moonlighting.

After Die Hard conquered the box office in 1988, relatable action heroes ruled the ’90s. In  Speed (1994), Keanu Reeves gets the cool earpiece and buzzcut as SWAT officer Jack Traven, but it’s Sandra Bullock’s ordinary citizen Annie Porter steering the bus to safety. Then there’s surgeon-on-the-run Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (1993), one of the great harried Harrison Ford performances. Special mention also goes to Nicolas Cage as Dr Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock (1996). A jittery chemist flung into a machismo-soaked takeover of Alcatraz Island, Goodspeed plays right into Cage’s talents. (The next year, he dialled up the Cage-isms for the one-two punch of Con Air and Face/Off.)

And it’s a trope that’s not going anywhere. In the upcoming movie Skyscraper, Hollywood’s busiest leading man Dwayne Johnson plays former FBI agent Will Sawyer, who wears a prosthetic leg after a raid gone wrong. Now a security consultant, he’s called to China to assess the world’s tallest building, which is where the trouble begins. Sure, Sawyer looks like Dwayne Johnson, but he brings a complicated past – and, if the trailer is anything to go by, no love for heights – to all his heroics.

Of course, not all our favourite action protagonists have to feel like real people. There’s a different pleasure in watching John Wick or Mission Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt doing the impossible in sharp suits. But it’s fun to imagine yourself as the scrappy, resourceful hero, discovering Harrison Ford-like courage you never knew existed.

Let My Daughter Go, And That’ll Be The End Of It

In The Long Kiss Goodnight, an underrated ’90s action-comedy gem, Geena Davis plays small town school teacher Samantha Caine. She lives a quiet suburban life with her daughter, Caitlin, but Samantha’s not who she thinks she is. Spoiler: she’s an amnesiac super-spy! Naturally, her past comes knocking, and we’re off on an outlandish Pleasantville-meets-The Bourne Identity adventure.

The Long Kiss Goodnight is anchored to any kind of reality by Samuel L. Jackson’s dumbfounded detective character and Samantha’s relationship with Caitlin. Spoiler #2: bad guys just can’t leave kids out of it. But, needless to say, they picked the wrong daughter to kidnap.

If action movie history is to be believed, audiences can’t get enough of families in peril. Explosions and espionage are cool, but we all understand the drive to save our loved ones – on good days, at least. It’s an elemental hook that keeps us grounded in even the most out-there action.

After the close-quarters horror of Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley went full action hero in Aliens (1986). And who can forget the plucky survivor Newt, who Ripley protects as if she’s her flesh and blood? (All together now: “Get away from her, you bitch!”) This age-old trope spans everything from Commando (1985) – AKA Arnold Schwarzenegger taking out a small army to save his daughter – to Taken (2008), AKA Liam Neeson taking out Albanian sex traffickers to save his daughter.

On one of the Skyscraper posters, we clearly see Will Sawyer’s wedding ring as he dangles from that blazing building. (Again, all in a day’s work for Dwayne Johnson.) With his wife and kids in peril, he’s the classic family man called into action.

Here’s a tip for movie villains: stay away from the families of anyone with a very particular set of skills.

Don’t Try This At Home…

Once we believe in our hero, an action movie needs – wait for it – action. And that doesn’t have to mean shootouts and punch-ups. Some of the most thrilling movie set pieces don’t hinge on violence at all. There’s eternal appeal in watching death-defying feats from the safety of your cinema seat.

You can’t talk about high-concept stunts without mentioning Point Break (1991): two glorious hours of surfing, skydiving, bank robbing and Keanu as  an “F-B-I agent”. Or other classic blood-pumping sequences like the prison-transfer chase in The Dark Knight (2008), the opening of Cliffhanger (1993), and the vault heist in Mission: Impossible (1996). Also don’t sleep on white-knuckle Denzel Washington vehicle Unstoppable (2010), which casts a runaway train in the bad guy role. Now, with visual effects slicker than ever, set pieces are getting even more audacious.

When they nail the essentials (and work in a few surprises), action movies are so easy to love. Here’s a genre that just wants to show you a rollicking good time. Welcome to the party, pal.

(Lead image: 20th Century Fox)

Part action film, part human story. Skyscraper hits Australian cinemas July 12.