I sit on my couch, devoid of movement, a freshly made screwdriver thawing on the end table beside me, and stare at the spots sporadically dotting the red accent wall in my living room, like holes on a blouse teasing a hint of white skin underneath, the effects, obviously, of a poor painting job. As I remain static, the room half lit and only partially clean, I am stricken with an epiphany - five words illuminating before me: I do not know karate. There should be no reason why this thought has entered my brain at this hour. But right now, it’s what I am screaming at my fourteen year old self, as if I had somehow discovered a gateway to the late eighties, stood in the middle of my old bedroom and raised a fist to block the pathetic roundhouse kick my youthful counterpart was unloading.
Curtains spread, I watch the young me pose on a stage of delusion, the audience eyeing him ever so adoringly as he struggles to keep his right leg suspended in mid-air like Jean Claude Van Damme in Kickboxer. I watch in horror. Hilarity even. I turn to the spotlight and announce my plan to the group: to slap this fucker silly, point the hazards at the truth and have him repeat after me: ’I do not know karate.' When I was younger, I used to believe that simply watching the movies of Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal or even Jeff Speakman, would be enough to magically awaken the martial arts master within me, all the while foregoing the need of any form of proper training. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you just how ridiculous this was.
I knew, even as I held the water in my mouth that I would spew onto my own face to simulate blood from an opponent’s strike, that this was total horse shit. This was the effect that cheesy action movies had on me. It belabored the fantasy, only making me believe I was tough while not encouraging me to actually prove it. I didn’t really want to beat anybody up. I just wanted to know that if required to, I could, unleashing the sweet crane kick Daniel Larusso famously landed on the face of his feather-haired adversary at the end of The Karate Kid. Shadow punches and impact gestures became the nightly ritual. My parents, as they sat peacefully in front of the television, would be forced to listen to the racket piercing through the wall. It was exercise at its most embarrassing level, fueled by an imagination that was free from distraction and the incessant tap on the shoulder that I now know as the internet.
The Digital Revolution
Back then, the internet was barely even a concept to me. It was a flux capacitor in the backseat of my dad’s Chrysler LeBaron, a reality that just didn’t exist. While I pretended to fight the bad guys in my bedroom following a viewing of whatever action movie I saw that week, the moment ended there, within my four walls, without the video selfie or World’s Best Knockout clips on YouTube to encourage the delusion. There was no trolling, no digital shield to provoke the completely baseless and mean-spirited jabs at others, while guarding you from the repercussions one would surely suffer in a web-free world. The internet seems to have bred a flash mob of false confidence, continually strengthened by our own naivety and longing to be heard. It’s turned seemingly peaceful individuals into robots of verbal mayhem, behaviour of which over time, began to spill into their real lives, only intensifying the douchebaggery.
Strangely, another by-product of this newly armored fellowship has been the scores of remakes Hollywood has released of these once classic films, all of which have been stripped completely of the charm that made their original counterparts so enjoyable. It may sound silly to blame the internet for this, but the ever-abated attention span that the 3 minute video clip gave birth to has done exactly that. While every worn out idea rests at the center of the sandbox, leagues of writers and producers have been repeatedly pulled toward the core to exhume the same concepts over and over again.
A History And Essential Viewing
What I loved most about the action movies of the 80s and 90s wasn’t so much the action itself as it was the goofiness they portrayed. They didn’t take themselves seriously and often poked fun at the genre itself and had an appeal that simply did not translate to their re-imagined copies. When Patrick Swayze’s Dalton tells Kelly Lynch’s adorably curious Doc that “pain don’t hurt” as she applies staples to a knife wound, my heart flutters with joy. These movies were ridiculous, gratuitously violent, and endearingly silly. They were also original. As idiotic as that may sound, their ideas were based on genuine concepts and the understanding that in the action genre, more is less, so truthfully, more is welcome (my apologies, but Michael Bay does not qualify). Sure, there were the occasional plot holes you could shove a bus through, but the execution of the story telling and humor is what made them all so addictively watchable.
The acting was often top notch and the villains were fun, shooting life into the veins of the story's hero. Hans Gruber was the hair on John McClane’s rugged chest and if Dalton had any hair on his, those sandy-coated locks of virility would belong to none other than Brad Wesley. Central characters were key and these films were riddled with them. Stars emerged from the trenches, aching to be leave their mark, but before bathing in the ashes of the spotlight's nuclear embrace, a 10 year old boy from Belgium harbored dreams of becoming the next big action star in America, and would later be known worldwide as The Muscles from Brussels.
When Jean Claude Van Damme burst onto the scene, I wanted nothing more than to do the splits and work on my fake Belgian accent. I tried eagerly to perfect the actor's signature roundhouse kick. I would practice it in the backyard of my parents’ house, wearing tiny shorts and probably a Gumby t-shirt. I always felt the slow motion in Van Damme's movies was a bit overused, like dumping salt on an already seasoned dish. But I remained loyal, determined to get that kick right. I never expected to have to use it in real life, but I wanted a reason to show off for my friends and any cute girl who almost never gave two shits about action movies, or the fact that I could demonstrate a comically amateurish roundhouse kick.
1988’s Bloodsport cemented my admiration for just how silly these movies and their stars could be. You could argue that this movie was just plain bad. And although I won't challenge that sentiment, there was something so appealing about the movie's lack of any real storytelling while actually attempting to add heart, in addition to, although laughable at times, some pretty kick ass fight choreography. The movie follows U.S. Army Captain Frank Dux as he travels to Hong Kong to take part in an underground full contact martial arts tournament called the Kumite, an event that takes place once every five years. Despite people having been killed in the tournament, Dux is determined to honor the memory of his master, Senzo Tanaka, and be the first Westerner to win the title of this highly exclusive competition.
Bloodsport became the ‘go to’ movie years later when a tradition was started with my friends called “bad movie night." The night would consist of us drinking, eating delicious bacon wrapped hot dogs and watching bad action movies all night long. We would anticipate the final fight scene between Dux and the villainess Chong Li, played by Chinese actor Bolo Yeung, as well as the unintentionally funny dialogue between them. This forever classic remains one of my favorite line deliveries of all time. I watched all of JCVD’s movies up until 1995’s Sudden Death, when I began to lose interest. Pulp Fiction was released the prior year and altered the trajectory of my film watching priorities for good. But I still loved me some cheesy action flicks.
Following Bloodsport, Van Damme went on to make 1989’s Kickboxer, where he played Kurt Sloan, corner man to his brother Eric, a U.S. kickboxing champion, who in an ill-advised foray into the world of Muay Thai, is severely injured by the ruthless Tong Po, Thailand’s reigning king. Weeks after the film was released, I was still trying to master that goddamn roundhouse, only now adding Van Damme’s then famous mid-air leg hold to my list of life goals; I got as high as my chest. It wasn’t all bad news, though. That same year, another film was released starring the late Patrick Swayze, known by many as the pinnacle of wonderfully cheesy action flicks, Rowdy Herrington’s masterpiece: Roadhouse.
The arrival of Roadhouse was enough to feed any fifteen year old boy's obsession with these movies. The film told the story of James Dalton, a tough as nails bouncer from Memphis, arguably one of the best in the game, who operates by principles only a bouncer with a degree in philosophy can understand. The ideas behind this film were unparalleled in the action genre. The charm of the storytelling and balls out execution made it one of the most entertaining movies to watch.
The final showdown between Dalton and Brad Wesley’s equally skilled henchman Jimmy is one of the best choreographed fight scenes I’ve ever seen. Sure, you could find far more technically advanced fight scenes in many of the films coming out of Asian cinema, but when you watch two regular dudes duke it out like these two did amid the backdrop of a burning house, your attention is seized. And that fucking throat rip! Glorious.
A close second for me was the all-out slugfest between Roddy Piper and Keith David in John Carpenter’s They Live, a scene that seemed to last for hours. I walked out of that movie wanting to kick some serious ass. I tried desperately to exude Dalton’s cool as ice exterior but failed at every turn. An attempt to carve my body out of wood only turned to my housing it in glass, the image I portrayed laughably translucent and farcical. But I was a kid. It wasn’t my job to give a shit about that. I was drawn to these films because, to me, the fights looked like something I could actually do. I loved the films of Bruce Lee and was entranced by the way in which Jackie Chan’s body seemed to always defy logic, but I knew that I would never be able to do any of that stuff, which made them less relatable for me. I was more drawn to the repetition of Van Damme's slow motion karate or even Steven Seagal’s goofy arm breaks. (I’ve never broken a man’s arm before but it looked cool as hell).
One moment in class, a young boy became agitated and began to berate another student behind me. As he lunged forward, I rose and immediately broke into a karate stance. I had no goddamn clue what I as planning to do next. As our eyes locked, he asked “Who the fuck are you, Mr. Karate?” We studied each other as he slowly began to recede toward the door. I thought to myself “Holy shit, did that just work?” I took my seat and sat through the rest of the class feeling like I had just stabbed the devil through the chest. My adrenaline swelled and my ego clawed upward, slaying every obstacle in its path. I was the master of all that was right. Truth be told, the teacher had already asked the boy to leave the classroom which was probably his main inspiration for doing so, but I chose to believe otherwise. I was “Mr. Karate” and I was not going to give that shit up.
Even when I got into a fight at the local Taco Bell the following year, a moment that did not go as planned, I could’ve very well been standing on the platform of the Kumite. That roundhouse kick was now officially within reach. The delusion was determined to advance, and had something so significant as the internet existed back then, as I struggled to find myself, it could have. The skin of the my former self would have been pulled back to reveal to bastard commentator underneath. It may have been me trolling for laughs, or harassing relatively good people for no reason at all. Fuck that, though. Restraint is not without its benefits.
As the internet has developed a bridge to a seemingly endless amount of information and opportunity, it also gave rise to a new group of people. Before, it was nerdy kids without an identity who just wanted to feel tough. Now, it's overly confident assholes who just want to kick the shit out of the world, erecting their own statues amid the self-congratulating stadium of the future: social network. There was a time when we could move beyond the humiliating experiences, waving goodbye to the banal missteps we often took, but the internet wishes to immortalize every embarrassing moment that befalls us, like an always active bully shoving a fist down our fucking throats. Applications, video services and websites primarily targeted at life fails and fuck ups cater to this demographic and the movies of the past are all being remade to appeal to this very group. Is it a shortage of ideas or merely a deficit of principles? I refuse to believe the former.
This may sound petty, or even premature in thought, but I can't help but long for the charm that saturated some of those early films, as ludicrous as they may have been, and what it means to watch my children grow up in a world so heavily dependent on recycled concepts. With the swell of distractions technology has created over the years, I wonder what my boys will pretend to be in the privacy of their bedrooms. Or will they pretend at all? The people who hound the comments section of today's blogs with their brainless attacks represent the worst of today's hyperactive culture. They pretend to be intelligent, thought-provoking and witty, but in the end only come off as rude, chauvinistic and utterly fucking stupid. And to think it all may have all started with a simple love of silly action movies.
Closing The Curtain
To be fair, I have yet to see some of the newer remakes that have been released, specifically 2012's Red Dawn, but only because I failed to wrap my head around why a remake of Red Dawn was necessary. Fairness lay in the rubble, I'm afraid. A rumor floated around recently of a plan to add Die Hard to the list of future reboots. The mere thought of this made my blood boil. I can only imagine the impact the FHRITP (research at your own risk) screaming crowd will have on the finished product should it eventually come to fruition. The reboots have to appeal to the new generation of fans, but those very fans may be the reason said reboots are so poorly executed. But maybe I'm wrong. I usually am. Maybe I'll leave it up to my children.
A few weeks ago, I showed my son Sammy the latest film interpretation of Godzilla. It was actually a pretty decent movie, ripe with sweet, albeit skimpy, monster battles. And the big boy looked good. Though I ache to show him where the big lizard's character originated. Not "the water" like my son would most likely claim, but from the depths of an earlier imagination. I'll admit that some stories deserve to be commemorated by the eventual remake. It's what makes the recent advances in technology and special effects so exciting. But there's a drawback. The more stories we re-tell, the less impact those very stories will have on their audience. The copies will become more faded over time. Less significant. What used to be a source of inspiration will become ground zero for mockery. Visual elegance will need a voice, and so will your children.