Monday, March 16, 2020

Self-Quarantine Viewing: In Search of Last Action Heroes

In times like these, we could use some heroes. It makes us nostalgic for the 1980s, the golden age of action heroes. That was the decade action really came into its own as a distinct genre. Back then, even our president, Ronald Reagan, was an action hero. At a time when we’re self-quarantining and social-distancing, we will try catch up on some DVD/VOD releases we missed when they released earlier in the year. Oliver Harper’s In Search of Last Action Heroes, (co-produced by David A. Weiner, director of In Search of Darkness) is a particularly good viewing choice, because as an entertaining documentary survey of 80’s action, it also gives viewers plenty of good ideas for subsequent films to watch—and it is indeed available on DVD and VOD.

Of course, it is hard to chronicle 80s films without referencing some films of the 70s that they built on. This is particularly true of Death Wish and Alien, whose sequel Aliens is considered an action film rather than horror movie (that is a debatable but defensible position). Two stars come to define the era for Harper and co-writer Timon Singh: Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, which makes sense.

As was the case for In Search of Darkness, Harper follows the development of 80s action in roughly chronological order. Along the way, he and his many talking heads cover the rise of Cannon Films and the influence of Hong Kong action auteurs. Fans will be thrilled to hear director Sam Firstenberg look back on the American Ninja franchise, but they will be disappointed the late great Steve James is overlooked during the discussion. (Honestly, I would argue James is sufficiently significance to warrant his own documentary. Email me if you agree.)

None of the really big stars like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, or even Michael Dudikoff (the American Ninja) appear in Last Action as interview subjects, but Harper talks to some really cool character actors and bad guy specialists, like Al Leong (Lethal Weapon), Bill Duke (Predator), Ronny Cox (Robocop), Vernon Wells (Commando), and Jenette Goldstein (Aliens), as well as Eric Roberts, who is in a class of his own. However, he gets a good deal of commentary from two contemporary action stars: Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White.

Still, the real strength of the film is the behind-the-camera expertise provided by the likes of Peter MacDonald (Rambo III director), Mario Kassar (T2 & Rambo I-III producer), Sheldon Lettich (Bloodsport screenwriter), Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard & 48 Hours screenwriter), James Bruner (Missing in Action screenwriter), Boaz Davidson (Expendables 1-3 executive producer), and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon screenwriter). Harper and company really show their understanding of the 80s action aesthetic with the inclusion on Stan Bush, the rock anthem recording artist best known for “The Touch” from The Transformers Movie original soundtrack (famously covered by Dirk Diggler), whose songs were also heard in Bloodsport and Kickboxer.

Since it runs a mere one-hundred-and-forty minutes, versus the ambitious two-hundred-and-forty minutes of In Search of Darkness, Last Action is nowhere near as exhaustive. Still, the absence of 80s-vintage James Bond movies (including the entire Timothy Dalton era) is a glaring oversight (perhaps due to permissions issues). Regardless, Harper and company prompt many fond movie memories. You just can’t beat Eighties nostalgia, especially when it comes to action movies. Highly recommended for 80s pop culture fans (as are just about all the films it covers), In Search of Last Action Heroes is now available on DVD and VOD platforms.