Action is consistently one of the highest-grossing film genres, with arguably the longest shelf-life in terms of pop-culture relevance and general popularity. However, despite how much people love chaotic shootouts, high-octane car chases, and intense hand-to-hand combat, action movies don't always get credit for their hidden depths.
While people might love watching Jean-Claude Van Damme, Nicolas Cage, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone dispatch baddies with a hail of fire and a snarky one-liner, they don't necessarily expect those characters to embody philosophical points of view about the human condition. As much as audiences love watching aliens and natural catastrophes wreak havoc on major cities, comparatively few find it worthwhile to look for the brilliance hidden behind the spectacle.
But, if you take the time to appreciate some of the nuance, subtext, subtleties, and technical innovations that went into making some of Hollywood's most famously "stupid" action films, you'll see there's a real brilliance buried beneath the surface.
Why It's Stupid: In this sci-fi action spectacle, LAPD Sgt. John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) and extremist Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) are both incarcerated in a "cryo-penitentiary" in 1996, where they are cryogenically frozen for the duration of their sentences. In the year 2032, Phoenix manages to escape, and Lieutenant Lenina Huxley has Spartan thawed in an effort to hunt Phoenix down. In the decades since they were frozen, LA has become a peaceful utopia, and the police of the future aren't prepared for the kind of madness and chaos Phoenix is capable of. Ultimately, the whole film is a build-up to the inevitable throwdown between Stallone and Snipes, and the futuristic tech and costumes in the movie have long been ridiculed.
What Makes It Brilliant: The world-building in Demolition Man is next-level genius. The film tackles class warfare through a subplot about sewer-dwelling resistance fighters; it addresses economic corruption, police brutality, and media's effect on people's minds. In the future, all the food served in the city, from high-end restaurants to small diners, is Taco Bell. That's just one example of Demolition Man's legitimately biting satirical commentary. If the film is given the consideration it deserves, it's impossible not to recognize its significance as a work of prophetic speculative fiction.
Actors: Sandra Bullock, Sylvester Stallone, Jack Black, Rob Schneider, Wesley Snipes, + more
Directed by: Marco Brambilla
Why It's Stupid: Loosely based on a novel by Stephen King (written under his Richard Bachman pseudonym), The Running Man is an action-packed extravaganza of bizarre, schlocky gore. In a dystopian future, a wrongly convicted man named Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is coerced into participating in a dangerous game show in which he must fight different professional slayers in themed combat deathmatches. The whole movie feels like the 1980s love-child of American Gladiators, professional wrestling, and snuff movies. It's easy to dismiss this as a colorful, goofy showcase for Schwarzenegger to show off his action hero chops.
What Makes It Brilliant: Like Robocop, The Running Man is so much deeper in its biting political commentary than it often gets credit for being. The film revolves around a high-level conspiracy to frame Richards - formerly a police helicopter pilot - for a slaying of civilians during a riot. The movie serves as a condemnation of government corruption and systemic brutality in which the lowest economic classes are subjugated by the higher classes.
Even more than that, The Running Man is a prophetic warning against the rise of reality TV and the nation's increasing love of schadenfreude (the psychological phenomenon of deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others). With a bravado performance from real-life game show host Richard Dawson as the evil game show host Damon Killian, the message undergirding The Running Man was way ahead of its time.
Actors: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura, María Conchita Alonso, Mick Fleetwood, + more
Directed by: Paul Michael Glaser
Why It's Stupid: The movie is about a small, isolated desert town that comes under siege from a monstrous threat from beneath the earth. Massive, worm-like creatures, who the townspeople refer to as "graboids," terrorize the community. The movie is often written off as a mindless throwback to creature features of the 1950s filled with dumb, over-the-top, cartoonish characters who make dumb choices.
What Makes It Brilliant: Nearly everything about Tremors is perfect, and it's important to get that out of the way right off the bat. However, the film's hidden brilliance is in the attention to detail and care paid to the enormous, flesh-devouring graboids. While many creature features of a similar ilk feature unrelenting monsters hunting their prey, Tremors goes to great lengths to give detailed explanations for how, exactly, the graboids hunt.
One of the heroes is a geology grad student named Rhonda (Finn Carter), who's been conducting seismological tests in the area. After teaming up with Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), she figures out that the graboids, due to their subterranean existence, don't have eyes, which would be useless underground. Instead, she suspects they track and hunt by sensing surface-level vibrations that reveal the location of possible meals. This frightening ability allows the filmmakers to ratchet up the tension in some of the movie's most nerve-racking scenes - such as when one little girl with headphones is hopping on a pogo stick in the middle of the street and very nearly becomes a snack.
By exploring the physiology of the characters - not just adding a character with a scientific background but taking that science seriously - the film makes the graboids feel much more real and menacing than comparable beasts in lesser monster flicks.
Actors: Kevin Bacon, Reba McEntire, Fred Ward, Ariana Richards, Michael Gross, + more
Directed by: Ron Underwood
Why It's Stupid: The story follows American adventurer and former soldier Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), librarian Evelyn "Evie" Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), and her affable Egyptologist brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), as they team up to raid an Egyptian tomb in 1926. The film features some bizarre racial tropes about Middle Eastern culture, and the general premise, on its surface, feels like a silly Indiana Jones knockoff. When it comes to the story, the plot, and the characters, many think The Mummy is just your run-of-the-mill big-budget blockbuster with no brains.
What Makes It Brilliant: While The Mummy is certainly a charming big-budget update on the goofy B-movies of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, it also contains a low-key, cleverly defiant anti-misogyny narrative featuring a remarkably forward-thinking feminist hero in Evie Carnhan. Rick is the typical hyper-masculine uber-hero - brutish and quick-tempered at times - while Evie is an educated, contemplative academic who has limitless ambition and drive, and who risks her life for adventure. Like Rick, she's confident and self-assured, and says as much in her own defense, telling her male counterpart: "I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O'Connell, but I am proud of what I am. I am a librarian."
It's established early on that Evie was rejected from joining the prestigious Egyptological society known as the Bembridge Scholars due to a lack of field experience. This motivation to improve and develop her career sets the entire plot in motion. In fact, without Evie, there is no The Mummy. When the film is compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark (often unfavorably), Rick is invariably referred to as the film's Indiana Jones analog. However, in reality, Evie is closer to Indy in nearly every way, aside from her gender. She, like Jones, is an academic. She, like Jones, is the character who inadvertently serves as the catalyst for the bad guys gaining power - Evie reads from the book, summoning Imhotep, while Jones leads the villains to the Ark by accident.
Unlike Jones, however, Evie actually contributes to the eventual defeat of the evil - while Jones simply fails to stop the Nazis over and over until they accidentally take themselves out by opening the Ark. The Mummy is a subversive, feminist critique on the role of macho heroes in action films.
Actors: Rachel Weisz, Brendan Fraser, Patricia Velásquez, Omid Djalili, Arnold Vosloo, + more
Directed by: Stephen Sommers