Friday, February 10, 2017

Heavy Action: 1987 Year in Review

by Patrick Bromley
I'm on record as saying that 1991 might be the best year for action movies in history. If that's true, 1987 sure does give it a run for its money.

I wanted to do a #HeavyAction column to close out 1987 week (only one more day until F This Movie Fest!), but I had too hard a time settling on which movie to write about. The solution? Write about a whole bunch of action movies! This was a great year for the genre, with a handful of all-time classics, influential films and movies that just plain kick ass. Let's take a look back at the year in action.

1987 was really the year that cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the biggest movie stars of the day, with two of his best-loved action movies released in a single year: Predator (dir. John McTiernan) in the summer and The Running Man (dir. Paul Michael Glaser) just a few months later. Between these two movies, we get to see almost everything he does best: kick ass, crack one-liners and get to the chopper. A lot of his films have leaned towards sci-fi and sometimes horror, both of which are represented by these two films. Shortly after this he could make a couple of hugely successful comedies (Twins and Kindergarten Cop) and then hit absolute peak stardom with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, after which there was a slow but steady decline in his box office power. Predator and The Running Man are like those two great albums a band makes just before they get super popular and mainstream. There's a purity to them that makes them special while still being glossy enough to cross over to the big show.
This was the year that gave us Lethal Weapon (dir. Richard Donner), still maybe the best buddy cop movie ever made. It's exciting and violent and incredibly entertaining but still surprisingly dark, without all the silly humor that would creep into the franchise more and more. I know it's all gone upside down since Mel Gibson was revealed to be a raging asshole, but he really brings it in this one. Richard Donner directs with his usual no-nonsense style and the movie has none of the bloat that its sequels would carry (said as someone who is a fan of the first three movies in the series to one degree or another). Plus, Gary Busey is the series' best villain, and that's an area where Lethal Weapon has always come up a little short. But really it's Danny Glover who is the soul of that movie -- a normal family guy who is a good and professional cop sucked into something big and dangerous because he's partnered up with a suicidal psychopath. As much as Lethal Weapon is about Martin Riggs teaching Roger Murtaugh that sometimes you have kick ass and get your hands dirty, it's about Murtaugh teaching Riggs that life is good and worth living. Theirs feels like a real friendship. While Mel Gibson gets to do all the crazy, fun, badass stuff, Danny Glover has to sell the hard material.

One of the very best action movies of the year...actually, one of the best action movies of all time...actually, one of the best movies of all time RoboCop, Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven's brilliant satire of American fascism and corporate culture. Part dystopian sci-fi, part monster movie, part black comedy, part insanely violent action film, RoboCop is the movie that has everything and a movie that hasn't lost a step in 30 years -- neither the comedy nor the effects have dated (though some might disagree when it comes to Phil Tippett's stop-motion effects, but those people are bastard people). I know I have a lot of favorite movies, but RoboCop is absolutely one of them. RIP Miguel Ferrer.
Another action masterpiece released in 1987 is Walter Hill's Extreme Prejudice, still maybe the best Sam Peckinpah movie that Sam Peckinpah never made. With one of the best casts of badasses ever assembled for a showdown in a border town run by Powers Booth, Extreme Prejudice is everything that Walter Hill does so well cranked up as far as it will go: violent, tough, sweaty, hard-boiled and rigid in its adherence to a code. How this movie is not better known I still don't understand, even though part of me suspects it has something to do with the title. It's also never been readily available in any decent format; the only Region 1 DVD is a garbage full frame hatchet job from Artisan (the kings of the garbage full frame hatchet jobs back in the day). There's a UK Blu-ray that exists but I have not been able to check it out. If you're a fan of action movies or westerns and have never seen this, fix that as soon as possible.

The Bond franchise celebrated its 25th anniversary by introducing new 007 Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights (dir. John Glen), a film I'm on the record as loving more than almost any other Bond movie. It's not just that I think T. Dalts is an underrated Bond (I don't automatically love his only other outing, Licence to Kill, a movie with which I still have a lot of problems), but also because I love the old-fashioned sense of adventure and globe-trotting scope. The romance between Bond and Kara (Maryam d'Abo) is very sweet and genuine and there are a lot of really great set pieces. This isn't just a good Bond movie in comparison to the Roger Moore entries that precede it; it's one of the best of the whole franchise.
Burt Reynolds released no fewer than three action films in 1987 alone, with varying degrees of success. The best of them is probably Heat (dir. Dick Richards, Jerry Jameson), written by William Goldman based on his novel. The production itself was a disaster -- five different directors reportedly worked on the film (including Robert Altman for a day, supposedly), with two credited for the end result -- but Reynolds is good as a Vegas bodyguard who takes a job working for Peter MacNicol and gets caught up with some gangsters after they rough up a call girl. Though more of a crime drama than a traditional action film, there's good character work and some strong sequences that shine through all the behind-the-scenes drama. It was remade a couple of years ago as Wild Card, starring Jason Statham. Schlockier but not much less entertaining, Malone (dir. Harley Cokeliss) casts Reynolds as an ex-CIA operative who gets temporarily laid over in a small Northwest town being systematically dismantled by Cliff Robertson as a wealthy asshole. This is Reynolds' On Deadly Ground; his Nowhere to Run. It's dopey but has just enough coolness -- and the presence of Cynthia Gibb -- to be totally good. Finally there's Rent-a-Cop (dir. Jerry London), a really odd and not entirely successful cop drama/romance pairing Reynolds' ex-Chicago cop agreeing to protect a daffy call girl played by Liza Minnelli. If you think this sounds like an odd pairing, you're right. They are in very different movies, and Rent-a-Cop never quite figures out how to handle the comedy that threatens to overtake the movie. It's a fascinating misfire for Burt Reynolds fans, but doesn't work as a film.

One of the highest-grossing movies of 1987, the action-comedy Beverly Hills Cop II (dir. Tony Scott) emphasized the "action" half of the "action comedy" hybrid Martin Brest did so well with the original Beverly Hills Cop to much lesser effect. Tony Scott takes over as director so the movie is slick and looks great, but is also hollow and mean-spirited and driven almost entirely by star Eddie Murphy's ego. The action is good -- of course it is with Tony Scott directing -- but the movie is a huge step down from the original and I suspect only as successful as it was because there was so much goodwill towards Eddie Murphy and the first Beverly Hills Cop. Movies like Beverly Hills Cop II are a big part of why audiences eventually turned on Murphy.
1987 was also the year that saw Whoopi Goldberg try to launch her own Beverly Hills Cop with Fatal Beauty (dir. Tom Holland), a movie that lifts the BH Cop formula wholesale but is too violent and nonsensical to break through with the same box office success. Goldberg is an L.A. narcotics cop battling the spread of a new street drug ("Fatal Beauty") that's killing off those who take it, leading her to a characteristically psychotic Brad Dourif as the big bad. I like this one a lot more than the same year's BH Cop II, if only because it manages to retain the scrappy spirit of the original BH Cop and the action is handled better because it's not being undercut with vanity and inappropriate humor. Fatal Beauty is the nastier movie, but it comes by its nastiness much more honestly.

A movie I've championed a handful of times on this site, Enemy Territory (dir. Peter Manoogian), comes from the heyday of Empire Pictures, the studio run by Charles Band in his pre-Full Moon days. I won't repeat what I've written about it in the past -- you can read it here and here -- but I will use it as proof that even the low-budget action scene was prospering in 1987. By this point we had movies being made that would do their business primarily on the home video market but which still played movie screens, meaning we got action films with a DTV sensibility but a big-screen budget and scope. Enemy Territory feels like that kind of movie.

My beloved Cannon Films was also still going strong in 1987, though their days were numbered thanks to expensive but unsuccessful attempts at competing with the majors like Over the Top, Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for PeaceDeath Wish 4: The Crackdown (dir. J. Lee Thompson) couldn't possibly live up to the violent insanity of Death Wish 3, but it's not for lack of trying. Charlie Bronson is a little too aged and stiff to still be a convincing action hero, but there's enough craziness throughout to make it worthwhile. If nothing else, it has one of the best last scenes of any '80s action movie. Bronson made a second film for Cannon in 1987, Assassination (dir. Peter R. Hunt), in which he plays a Secret Service agent assigned to protect the First Lady (played by his real-life wife Jill Ireland, who often brings out the best in Bronson on screen). Cannon also put out American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, the first follow-up to the long-running American Ninja series starring Michael Dudikoff and the great Steve James. The plot is as ridiculous as ever, but the movie is fun and any chance to watch Steve James throw ninjas through tables is an easy recommendation. Then there's the buddy cop movie Number One With a Bullet (dir. Jack Smight), a movie I've recommended a handful of times on this site starring Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams with screenplay credit going to Jim Belushi. I still can't decide if this movie is meant to be a parody of buddy cop action movies or the real deal -- I lean towards the latter -- but either way it's incredibly entertaining. Robert Carradine is completely miscast as the cigar chomping, smartass tough guy cop but he completely runs with it. This movie needs a Blu-ray release. You listening, Kino?
Rutger Hauer headlined Wanted Dead or Alive, one of the first times he got to headline an action movie as the hero instead of the villain. It's a sequel/spin-off of the '50s TV series of the same name starring Steve McQueen, with Hauer playing a badass bounty hunter to track down a terrorist played by motherfucking Gene Simmons from KISS. One, please. Directed by the underrated Gary Sherman, this is really good (not great) '80s action drive-in fare with one of all-time great bad guy dispatchings. It's a New World title, so maybe it will get a Vestron Series Blu-ray sometime soon, provided they branch out from a horror and into other genre titles.

While the theatrical #HeaveyAction scene was booming in 1987, there were just as many also-rans that barely played in limited release -- the '87 equivalent of the DTV action movie. Some, like the Shô Kosugi vehicle Rage of Honor (dir. Gordon Hessler), I've seen. Others, like No Retreat, No Surrender 2 (dir. Corey Yuen), the in-name-only sequel to the JCVD classic, have eluded me. The king of Italian schlock Bruno Mattei made Strike Commando, a Vietnam action film starring Reb Brown, while the king of American schlock Fred Olen Ray made Commando Squad, in which former Playmate Kathy Shower must travel to Mexico to rescue her boyfriend, '80s action staple Brian Thompson (aka the bad guy in Cobra). Sid Haig, Russ Tamblyn, William Smith and Tane McClure all have supporting roles, so you'd better believe I'll be tracking this down sooner than later. Even the original Man on Fire (dir. Élie Chouraqui), the first attempt to adapt the 1980 novel of the same name that would be made famous years later by Tony Scott (who reportedly was originally considered to direct this version) and Denzel Washington, was released this year. Scott Glenn plays Creasy and Joe Pesci plays the Christopher Walken role as his ex-special forces pal. Hunter star and ex-football player Fred Dryer made his lone attempt at action movie stardom with Death Before Dishonour, in which he plays a Marine fighting off an army of Middle Eastern soldiers when they attack an embassy. Martin Kove, a regular supporting player in several classic '80s movies (including The Karate Kid and Rambo: First Blood Part II), made the jump to leading man status with Steele Justice (dir. Robert Boris), another Vietnam-influenced action film about a vet seeking revenge for the death of his friend.
Maybe most important of all is Hard Ticket to Hawaii, one of the many shitty action movies made by Andy Sidaris and a movie that will forever be very, very special to me. The movie, a typical blend of Sidaris action and women in bikinis, has become meme-worth in recent years thanks to a frisbee sequence that has to be seen to be believed. On one of the last nights hanging out before moving to California, Doug came to the house with Mike and Adam Thas and we watched Hard Ticket to Hawaii complete with a pizza buffet and plastic leis. To say that we had a good time with it is an understatement; it remains one of my all-time favorite viewing experiences in large part because of a late movie surprise that got a reaction from the four of us unlike I've ever had watching a movie before or since. I can't recommend watching it on your own because I suspect it would be pretty boring, but if you ever get the chance to watch it with Doug, Mike and Adam I suggest you do it. And always remember Chekov's snake.


  1. Slight correction, I think you meant Steele Justice. Steel Dawn is Patrick Swayze starring in a Mad Max ripoff which also came out in 1987 making it easy to get the two titles conflated.

    1. I was literally looking at the title when I wrote this and STILL typed Dawn. I'm a real Swayze-brain. Thanks.

  2. I saw a 1987 action movie called The Order of the Black Eagle the other day, and loved it! It's got everything you could want: ninjas, nazis, nazi ninjas, a James Bond wannabe as a star, a baboon driving a tank, a knife assassin played by a women's volleyball Olympic medalist, an Orson Welles lookalike bad guy with an eyepatch, an asian Q, a dirtbike decapitation, sooo many explosions and a cryogenically frozen Hitler.

    Apparently it's hard to come by, but it is on YouTube in its entirety (with hardcoded Russian(?) subtitles).

    1. There's also a Red Letter Media Best of the Words video of it on YouTube (they didn't love the movie as much as I did) and an episode of bmfcast (they did).

    2. Jezz, you had me sold at nazi ninjas, but a baboon driving a tank? I want to watch this right now.

    3. To be fair, the nazi ninjas appear in only one scene. On the other hand, the baboon also flies a light aircraft.

  3. The fact that late-in-the-game Burt Reynolds action movies are having a renaissance on this site is the reason I keep coming back.

  4. HARD TICKET TO HAWAII. Anyone reading this article who hasn't seen it yet, drop whatever the fuck you're doing and fix. that. shit.

  5. I would add THE HIDDEN, which is more scifi than actioner, but has an excellent munitions budget and fine opening car chase. (Bonus: It also has Ed O'Ross, also of LETHAL WEAPON fame.) And maybe throw in THE UNTOUCHABLES as well.