Bad Action Heroes (and Why I Love Them)

I love action movies, good, bad and indifferent. I don’t just watch them; I inhale them, and sometimes the worse they are the more I like them.

Usually these strictly B movie action flicks do poorly at the box office. Successful ones earn back the money they cost to make. Under Siege, a Steven Seagal film, was one such surprise hit. Seagal plays Casey Rybeck, a Black Ops commando working on a Navy vessel as a cook. The maniacal Gary Busey almost certainly helped propel this movie to success. I enjoyed this one, but my favorite Seagal is On Deadly Ground. The acting is typically bad, and some of the Inuit are played by Chinese (Joan Chen as an Eskimo, really?) but Seagal’s concern for the environment shines through. I give him two stars for that.

Few action heroes can be counted as competent (forget about good) actors. The acting generally ranges from the wooden (Van Damme and Norris) to flat. Steven Seagal, Jason Statham, and Vin Diesel have all adopted the soft-spoken delivery designed to demonstrate a man unfazed by anything. Vin Diesel carries it off pretty well; it works in Pitch Black. Steven Seagal, on the other hand; well, let’s just say that his flat acting style works better in some movies than others.

But perhaps I am being unfair. After all, some action stars start out at a pretty low level and work themselves up to “not bad.” Take Van Damme, for instance. He works his way up from Bloodsport to Time Cop, his finest hour.

Dwayne Johnson is another example of an actor trying to improve his acting chops. Although some of his movie credits are pretty typical for this genre (Doom), he has tried to broaden his acting reach with a few children’s films (The Tooth Fairy—just awful—and Escape to Witch Mountain are two). But my favorite is The Rundown with Seann William Scott and Rosario Dawson. Johnson plays against type, as a mob enforcer whose dream is to become a gourmet chef. He agrees to one last job, running down the son of the mob boss, and ends up in Central America. Christopher Walken is suitably evil, Johnson doesn’t take himself too seriously, and there are several laugh out loud moments. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

One commonality to these films is the lack of sensitivity towards women; heck, how about the lack of women characters? This is a male-centric universe. While most of the teams include black men, Asian men, Latino men, there are few women and they usually occupy well-defined roles: stripper, girlfriend, or helpmeet. My favorites use their women as proto men. Even in Expendables 2, a movie I do NOT consider a bad action movie, (there is a certain fascination in watching these old lions work), Maggie Chen is combat ready and just as quick to shoot as any man.

So why do I watch these movies?

Partly because they are exciting. I admit it; I’m an explosion junkie. Usually the first ten minutes include at least five explosions—cars, planes, bridges. The action hero or heroes are outmanned by at least a battalion or two, but they never lose. And from this violent beginning, the plot races from one crisis to another, each one more exciting than the last, until the screen is filled with detonating machinery and balls of flame.

Life is simple in these films. There is no moral complexity. Bad guys are bad, deserving of death without remorse or pity. (Think Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator). No excuses. And the hero, if not good, is bad for the right reasons. Take John Rambo, for example. There is no question that he is the good guy and that however many combatants he kills, he is fighting for RIGHT. He never hesitates in doing his duty. (And this one reason why few women inhabit this world; women would bring messy feelings and add nuance to this simple life.)

Clearing the screen of the enemy is the same as clearing a chessboard of the pawns; no emotional baggage. No worrying that the dead have lives and families. And, certainly, no heroes wind up with PTSD from the brutality and violence.

And this is the core reason I watch even the worst of the worst. Who wouldn’t want to be absolutely confident of his moral rightness? Secure in the notion that every problem is easily solveable with the correct combination of weaponry and moral high ground? In Commando, when John Matrix’s daughter is kidnapped, he singlehandedly kills every single one of the kidnappers without even a flicker of regret.

Real life is full of gray; what a relief to escape into a world of simple moral truths. And I can’t be the only one who wishes, no matter how unrealistically, that she were always in such control. Never frustrated, never thrown by life’s curves—able to handle everything, and always completely calm no matter what. After a stressful day dealing with bosses, other people, kids, bills and all the irritants that make life so difficult, it is relaxing to enter the clarity of the action movie world.

Note: Sharp readers will see that I have not included Arnold Schwarzenegger (not thoroughly at least), Wesley Snipes, Bruce Willis, or Milla Jovovich in my list of action heroes. Stay tuned for the second installment.

Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition. A career librarian, this will be her first novel. She lives in New York.

Read all posts by Eleanor Kuhns for Criminal Element.


  1. Carmen Pinzon

    I love action films precisely because they are mostly black and white in their morality. I endure the bad guys doing heinous things for a few minutes and then settle back to watch the good guy wipe the floor with them. If all of them end up dead in incredibly gory ways, so much the better. It’s cathartic, for me, to experience these films and reach an end in which there are no ambiguities.

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