Geriaction: Reviewing three recent action films

We at Noumenal Realm have been pining for an excuse to get together, usually this takes form with going to the cinema and then ending up at a dive pub/club or some variant of that. We’ve been looking forward to seeing the following films: Bullet to the Head (dir. Walter Hill, starring: Sly Stallone) ; The Last Stand (dir: Kim Ji-Woon, starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Die Hard 5: Live Free or Die Hard (dir: John Moore, starring: Bruce Willis). After seeing these films, I think the reasonable conclusion to make is that these films are pretty dire. The following post will go into the specificities of this appraisal, as well as address cultural themes within these films.

Geriaction as a genre

There is larger recognition of a sub-genre in action films: namely that of the aging action hero. These films have come to be known as geriation (a portmanteau of geriatric and action). Following the success of films like the Expendables, action films have experienced a cinema revival in that most action films have been oriented to the ‘straight-to-DVD’ (formerly ‘straight-to-video) model.

Action films usually commonly to have starring actors who were a bit off the usual youthful appearance a little bit older. Stallone’s Rambo character was constantly drawn back into combat situations after a career as a soldier; Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix character in Commando also possesses a world-weariness in terms of his refusal to willingly go back into combat. Let’s not forget Danny Glover’s character Murtagh’s catchphrase: ‘I’m too old for this shit!’.

Geriaction is not the veneration of the slightly older action hero, its the veneration for the retirement age variety of action hero. The kind of hero whose age pushes the boundaries of what we assume persons from their mid-fifties onwards would be capable of. Part of me thinks that these films are a cynical vehicle to retain some semblance of a career for those individuals whose physicality and proximity to gun battles were the bread and butter of their acting career, another part of me thinks that this is an interesting perspective on the activity and potential of a baby boomer generation who have taken the spotlight for so long; as well as a sociological commentary on how (mostly men) are physically active later on in life.

Some cynicism

I think its fair to say some comments on gender are appropriate. It’s kind of nice that the action heroes in Bullet to the Head (Bullet), The Last Stand (TLS), or Die Hard 5 don’t follow the cliche of having a romantic dimension to their character. It almost, and I say almost, makes them look like they might not be action heroes of the misogynist and sexist variety of yesteryear. This is a bit of a stretch to argue this case though.

While the protagonists in these films are aged males, aged females are virtually invisible. The most notable women present in these films display obvious attractiveness although their not strongly within the male gaze focus. The most notable women in these films have interesting relationships with the leading actor. In Bullet, the lead female is Stallone’s daughter and a key plot element, who represents the moral compass that is non-existent in Stallone’s Bobo character, athough she does unfortunately form a ‘damsel in distress’ plot moment. The female lead in TLS is an ambitious police deputy who is very career minded and dedicated to her duties, which contrasts to one of the other (male) deputies. It is fair to say that action films in recent years have gone a bit of a way since the crassness of films like Commando or Total Recall in terms of gender. Something should be said of the presence of gender in Jason Statham’s Transporter trilogy, which supposedly tried to create an homosexual protagonist, although this is more of an apocryphal story and non-canonical.

Some remarks on male aging

In Northern nations, it is fair to say that living standards have continually improved, which has led to lots of various health related side effects. One issue is that the improvement of female health has become relevant to issues of contraceptive health, with issues such as the improved viability of pregnancies or contraceptive treatments in ages that were not as physically possible before. There is also an ongoing problem, which has little attention, of how to deal with an aging population, which in turn has implications on wider governmental and social agencies. The UK has a currently running drama-comedy, Derek, which addresses the social issues about the elderly.

Aging is a cultural issue: there has been so much emphasis on youth, where youth is a valuable quantity, that looking young has become an industry for the older. I also suspect that with improved living standards there is an issue of difficulty of how older people find their place in the world. Stallone’s character in Bullet to a large extent does not even acknowledge this issue, although Bullet and Die Hard 5 address aging in terms of parenting adult progeny. The emphasis on Die Hard 5 is McClane’s relationship with his son and trying to repair the damage that was done from being career focussed during his son’s formative years and the negative impact that has had, to some extent Bullet explore this as well to a lesser degree. Its interesting to portray adults as still children to a parent, as well as men taking to parenthood as a large part of their identity.

In TLS, Schwarzenegger’s character is a mentor. Someone who has been there and done that, and has a weariness about the consequences of living a life of action and adventure, balanced with the reality of the terror of an armed dispute and the psychology of being in that situation. As a mentor, Schwarzenegger’s character also attempts to better his charges and lead by example as a role model. In these ways films of the geriaction sort can reveal pathways of the aging male.

Trope: the ever changing villain

One characteristic of Bullet and Die Hard 5 was the ever changing villain. These films had so many double cross-betrayals from the villains that it made one not care about the plot. The plots seem to be overly complicated and underdeveloped. The identity of the ‘true’ villain in Die Hard 5 changed around 3 times at least and by the third time it was kind of obvious who the villain was at the end, with no surprise at the triple/quadruple crossing that has transpired. Bullet to the Head by contrast had a senseless double-cross. The ‘main’ villain happened to be the henchman who happens to be in the big fight (another tropey staple of action films). The main villain (spoiler) was Keegan, Jason Momoa’s character who had very little development except for a few background conversations about his history and mentality.

There was an interesting monologue at the end of the film: a key plot point of Bullet was that a convoluted conspiracy unfolded that unveiled the manipulation of government contacts to create a building contract, the final fight was at the site of one of these buildings that were to be rebuilt for some kind of gentrification building scheme. Momoa’s character points out how there is a placard celebrating the lifesaving efforts of the fire service to save people from that very building over 100 years ago. Momoa’s character points out how their nobility is ignored and nobody remembers the heroism inside the building as its history and literal foundations will be built over for some political short term social project. The senseless nature of this forgetting to Momoa is what he finds objectionable and becomes important to his moral outlook, which is an attempt at his justification for his senseless betrayal at murdering his employer at the end of the film. The problem is, this aspect of the film is under developed and these themes are only drawn out tenuously.

Trope: ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’

One of the other lazy tropes of the film, which is essential to the geriaction genre, is that the hero of the film is physically old, although they might still be pretty badass and can hold their own in the action, they still have back complaints and other such things associated with aging. When the hero gets hit, it takes them a bit of a while to get back up again, and in a sense this is realistic, in another it represents a little bit of suspending one’s imagination. Action films used to be about suspending the imagination with certain physical feats (such as Rambo’s ability with an explosive tipped arrow, or that bit in Timecop when two bullets hit each other), however the suspending of imagination comes from thinking that a sixty-something year old man is capable of stopping a convoy of criminals crossing the US-Mexico border, or John McClane’s escape from an helicopter crashing into a building.

The aspects of dealing with aging seem not to be a worry for just the old, but signifier of a wider cultural preoccupation with aging and decay for all men. As someone who reads Men’s Health and other magazines, a fair few pages are devoted to products targeting ‘anti-aging’ or ‘preventing hair loss’, and the unfortunate thing is I too buy into the whole cultural worry of aging. Another interesting feature of the geriaction film is that the protagonist cannot single handedly eliminate their main villain, but they must do so with the support of their younger charges. In Bullet, Stallone’s character nearly defeated Momoa’s character except the latter kept coming, then it was only through the help of his young sidekick that he was saved. Die Hard’s McClane and son worked as a pair in a fairly equal partnership in order to defeat their foes, McClane Jnr (played by Jai Courtney) is a physically imposing character who displays just as much, if not more ability to be the action hero to his veteran father.

Trope: The gen Y younger guy

Another aspect which is interesting about these geriaction films is the aspect of the Gen Y younger guy. The Gen Y younger guy is the ‘next generation’ or ‘potential future’ of the protagonist’s moral project. In TLS, a young deputy shows ambition to work in a busier and more dangerous police department and asks the Sheriff for his support in the former’s application. The token Gen Y younger guy in Bullet is officer Kwon (played by Sung Kang), whose youth and post-racial discourse is a large contrast to the antiquated Stallone protagonist, who is awfully prone to politically incorrect (not to mention ethnically incorrect) jibes at his Korean sidekick. Expendables 2 also exhibits the Gen Y younger guy in the sniper character. I think it is interesting how the Gen Y type character is usually second fiddle to the baby boomer protagonist. Almost as if in a commercial and a sociological sense: the younger generation is not given a chance to succeed and is often in the shadow of the baby boomer who will not step down.

Courtney’s McClane Jnr character is portrayed as someone who is not taken as seriously by his father initially, his work diminished as ‘spy shit’ has both humorous and demeaning effect, both to the efforts of a younger generation trying to make it on their own, as well as to anyone outside of that generation who made it in the 80s.

A common feature: a disposable plot

These films, it is fair to say, have exceptionally convoluted plots. It is fairly transparent that these geriaction films are marketed not because of their directors, or even the majority of their casting; but because of the leading actor who is guaranteed to bank at the box office. With the case of Bullet, this was not the case. Apparently the film did worse than ‘Stop or my mom will Shoot!’. It is an utterly cynical thing to put these films out when they display obvious low quality in terms of their storyline and are an obvious vehicle to promote star power. Mark Kermode pointed out how the censorship ratings for Die Hard were potentially manipulated to maximise their audience: create a lower rating to get as many younger people as possible, and then put in the originally more violent scenes on DVD release to maximise an audience on that front.

Political themes – guns, vigilantism, role of the state and individualism

These films had political themes, although it could have just have easily been missed in the otherwise dull plots. The acceptance of possessing arms is quite covertly accepted and taken for granted. There are varying views on the perspective of vigilantism: TLS emphasises the authority of official state agents, but on the other hand points out the importance of taking a stand against what you believe in and reporting wrongdoing. In Bullet, Stallone’s character is repeatedly told that his job as a hitman will not go without consequences from the younger sidekick. There are interesting dynamics between these films about the role of state agents and the individual. Die Hard goes strongly along the individualist line, as in most of the premises of the Die Hard films, McClane’s character is often unassisted by police or military and acts alone to save the day..

Conclusion: Why I will still watch asinine films

These films have discernable themes, tropes and so forth, however it is fair to say that one has to look fairly deeper than the shallow plot to find it. It’s utterly cynical to deride these films, in a sense it is also hypocritical as if a new Die Hard came out in a few years time, I’d probably go and watch it. It’s a cheap thrill and often production companies like Lionsgate know their targeted audiences all too well – not a great film, but I’d see the latest one when it comes out. Oh Geriaction, what’s next?