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 film tells the (allegedly, but not at all, true) story of US Army Captain Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who goes AWOL to compete in Kumite, an underground, no-rules martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. The film is largely just an excuse to watch Van Damme fight various racial stereotypes, and the subplots about two US Army investigators tracking Dux down, and the American journalist trying to expose the secrets of Kumite, fail to add depth to a movie about people fighting to the end.
What Makes It Brilliant: The realism. That may sound like a joke, but an aspect of Bloodsport that has remained fresh and fascinating is the brutality of the Kumite fight scenes. The gritty level of realism was achieved by casting genuinely skilled martial arts masters - experts in various disciplines and styles - to play Dux's various opponents. Unlike many American martial arts films of the time, there were no stunt people hired to pose as professional fighters.
Not everyone on screen was a trained expert, but as the real Dux - a producer on the film - told Buzzfeed in 2013, "When we cast the guys, it wasn't necessary that they be martial artists, but everyone needed to be able to take a punch. Many of the guys had professional dance backgrounds." Additionally, many of the techniques, stances, and fighting styles were truly authentic, making the film feel more like an expose of the secretive, underground world of Kumite.
Actors: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Forest Whitaker, Bolo Yeung, Leah Ayres, Donald Gibb, + more
Directed by: Newt Arnold
Why It's Stupid: This over-the-top blockbuster - which follows a recently paroled convict and former Army Ranger named Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), who's flying home on a prison transport plane that gets taken over by the inmates, leaving Poe to try and foil their plans from the inside - is often dismissed as typical Jerry Bruckheimer-style mindless spectacle with some fun action sequences but no substance. Cage's terrible and intermittent accent doesn't earn it any brownie points, either.
What Makes It Brilliant: While Con Air ticks a lot of "mindless action" boxes for most people, the film is actually a remarkably self-aware, subversive study of the expectations audiences have of character archetypes in mainstream Hollywood. Poe is a good person who, nonetheless, did take a man's life in the past and is forced to do so again. He's a loving father who's never met his child (she was born after his incarceration); he's a leading-man hero figure with a long, flowing mane, intentionally challenging the norms for action heroes in big-budget blockbusters.
Meanwhile, Cyrus "The Virus" (John Malkovich), is equally complex. He's a villain who's unafraid of, and unfazed by, the taking of human life - but he despises rapists. He also comments on his own inability to pass for a "tough guy," due to his lack of an overtly masculine voice. Rarely do you hear the action movie villains openly contemplate the nature of their own personas. This devotion to presenting characters with ingrained contradictions and insecurities adds a layer of depth to the fights and destruction that otherwise define the film.
Actors: Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, Dave Chappelle, + more
Directed by: Simon West