I was late to the Action movie genre. Really late. In fact maybe all of the 90s was wasted on me. It was only a few years ago during a particularly stressful time that my partner said, You know what you need? A good action movie. Then we proceeded to watch Die Hard (1988), Die Harder (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2005). And guess what? After weekend of watching John McClane vanquish bad guys, both foreign and domestic, I felt a lot better. I mean what did I have to worry about? I didn’t have to run barefoot through broken glass to save my wife and everyone in her office from terrorists—on Christmas Eve, no less. So when I saw Action/Spectacle Cinema by Jose Arroyo on the “new” shelf at the library, I snapped it right up.
Action/Spectacle Cinema: A Sight and Sound Reader, is a collection of writings from The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound, a smart and not too academic magazine. Instead of being organized chronologically, Arroyo divided the book into thematic sections: Big, Loud Action Movie; A John Woo Interlude; Comics, TV, SFX, and ‘the Ride” at the Movies; Indie Pulp and Neo-noir; Serial Killer in ’90s Hollywood; Critical Perspectives on a Mode; and Action/Spectacle in Review. But my favorite section is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Spectacle in Action.
This section, as you can imagine takes, Schwarzenegger as its subject, or if not the subject, then the vehicle by which the authors discuss their ideas. J. Hoberman’s essay “Nietzsche’s Boy” examines the trajectory of Arnold’s career and the shift from total bloody body count to that of benevolent action savior. This is best demonstrated by the difference between The Terminator and Terminator 2. The thing that struck me so much about these essays were that they were written in the ’90s, at a time when Schwarzenegger’s career as a politician was just beginning. This chapter foreshadows the man we would see as governor of California . This section, like the others, ends with reviews.
Although the essays are for the most part excellent, the real meat is in the reviews. Let’s be honest. Action movies are meant to entertain. There’s a car/train/plane chase. Shit blows up. The good guy wins. He gets the girl. I never thought much past that, and if I do read a review for an action movie, it’s only to see if it’s worth my $10.50. Action/Spectacle Cinema contains dozens of reviews and it was great fun to read them and see these films through a new, much more critical and loving lens than that which I am used to viewing action movies. Reading these sometimes twenty year-old reviews reminded me of films I’d completely forgotten about and loved, like The Long Kiss Goodnight. I also learned a lot about my viewing habits. As someone who somehow missed both Avatar and Titanic, I was surprised to find I am a James Cameron fan. Who knew?
Action/Spectacle Cinema is a good time. It’s not the kind of book most people would read cover-to-cover, nor is it must have for every library. Despite being on the library’s “new” shelf, it turns out that Action/Spectacle Cinema is not so new—it was published in 2000. But because this is an anthology of ’90s film writing, it doesn’t feel dated, but instead like a snapshot of an exciting time in action film history.