Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Action/Adventure - Sean Wicks ""

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Sean Wicks

Sean is head archaeology professor at the Cinema-Scope blog ( An all-around social media rambler, he's very active on twitter (, tumblr ( facebook (, and letterboxd (
I feel like the golden years of this genre was the 1980s.  That just may be nostalgia from the fact that I was in grade school and transitioning into high school at the time but still it seems like the truly great action adventure movies (DIE HARD, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK , PREDATOR, LETHAL WEAPON, TANGO AND CASH, etc. etc.) came out sometime between 1980 and 1989. So my edition of this list is comprised almost entirely of movies from the 1980s (there is one picture from 1991, but that’s close enough to the previous decade and early enough in the new one to almost count as 80s).  It was the era of Indiana Jones, Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Snake Plissken, of Cannon films and THE A-TEAM.

I’m not discounting other eras, but it seems like not only were 80s action movies a lot more fun, but they often had serious subtext such as Vietnam war residue and cold war issues.

Well, enough of my babbling.  You’re here for the list not a pre-amble so here you are!

RED HEAT (1988; Directed by Walter Hill)
“I'm gonna get us something from all four food groups: hamburgers, french fries, coffee and doughnuts.”

As a child of the 1980s, any action movie featuring Stallone or Schwarzenegger was automatic means to drop everything and see it as quickly as possible.  This was also the era where the buddy-cop picture reigned supreme.  They were teaming detectives up with dogs, misfits, suicidal cops and of course Russians with slobby Chicago cops.

I feel like in the Schwarzenegger pantheon, RED HEAT is one of those titles that gets lost amongst the more popular films like THE TERMINTOR, PREDATOR, COMMANDO, T2, THE RUNNING MAN, etc.  However, I remember loving this movie when it first came out – I sadly was unable to see it in the theater, so my first viewing was on VHS – and re-watched it recently and feel that I liked it even more.

Schwarzenegger has the great character name of Ivan Danko, a Russian Police Captain who travels to Chicago after a drug lord who murdered his partner (poor partners, they’re always getting killed in these movies).  He is rigid and follows the rules strictly, so needless to say he’s not happy when he’s teamed with sloppy, foul-mouthed, wise-cracking Chicago cop James Belushi.

In many ways this movie has a lot in common with 48 HRS which should be much of a surprise since Walter Hill directed both films (and they are both scored by James Horner).  The violence is extreme but then again it’s mixed with smart-ass comedy thanks to Belushi.  The cops all look like they rolled out of bed after a heavy night of hookers, cocaine and booze – especially Belushi – and this is not a movie that paints Chicago as a scenic town to go vacation in.  No, it’s dirty and grimy and oozes sleaze and vice almost through the screen.  

This is the 80s, so we’re in full-on Reagan/Bush/Cold War territory here so some of the Russia/USA jokes may not translate well for anyone who didn’t experience the decade first hand (where’s Yakov Smirnoff when you need him) but the action and gritty tone make-up for it.

Arnold’s straight-laced by-the-book demeanor plays well off of Belushi’s free-wheeling smart-ass – although at times it’s hard to imagine how a slob like Belushi ever got the job as a cop, and has been able to keep it for so long.

UNCOMMON VALOR (1983; Directed by Ted Kotcheff)
“If a man were to know the end of this day's business ‘ere it come. But it suffices that the day will end and then the end be known. And if we meet again, well then we'll smile. And if not, then this parting was well made.”

Vietnam POWs were a big topic in the 80s, but before Rambo went back forFIRST BLOOD PART II and Oliver Stone made PLATOON, there was this thrilling action-adventure.

Gene Hackman is haunted by the idea that his son did not die in the Vietnam war, but is still being held in a POW camp.  He spends years and his life savings traveling back and forth, petitioning senators trying to prove to them – and himself – that his son is still a live and being held in captivity.

Finally, Robert Stack, who believes his son is also in the same predicament, backs Hackman who reunites his son’s ‘Nam platoon – which includes Randall “Tex”Cobb, Tim Thomerson and Fred Ward – as well as a young Patrick Swayze (who the battle-worn vets don’t take kindly to) to head back into the ‘Nam and hopefully find and rescue his son and other POWs.

Hackman is so good in this movie, but Swayze is also exceptional in his second feature role (following THE OUTSIDERS) in what ultimately is a rip-roaring, action-packed, thrilling adventure film with some very serious undertones.

I also have to note the James Horner score (which Intrada has releases on CD) which really adds to the tone and tension – especially the opening track which I love.

TOY SOLDIERS (1991; Directed by Daniel Petrie, Jr.)
“Great, the school gets taken over by terrorists and I'm still on pots and pans.”

The lone 90s movie of the list is essentially DIE HARD in a boarding school for troubled kids with powerful fathers.  Remember this was the decade of the “DIE HARD in a ____”pitch, but this movie is surprisingly strong thanks to a cast that includes Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton (as a mafia-Don’s son!), Keith Coogan, Louis Gossett, Jr., R. Lee Emery and Denholm Elliott.  

The thing that sets this movie apart from being just another DIE HARDclone is the fact that there is not one “John McClane”-like character getting under the terrorists skins, but several – and they’re just kids – but they’re smart and they don’t care much for authority, a fact that is firmly established in the opening act.  There are real stakes involved here as this is not an action movie where you think “ah, none of the leads are going to get killed” (and that’s where I’ll leave that, spoiler free) and it’s just so exciting that it’s impossible not to get completely caught up in the movie.

When I first saw this, I wasn’t expecting much.  However, I walked away on cloud 9 and couldn’t stop talking about it to everyone I saw (many of whom had no interest in seeing it and were doubtful of my praise) and I saw it twice more shortly after.
The score, by Robert Folk, for this is also great and really stands out.  This is a movie that I would love to see get a Blu-ray Disc release.

KING SOLOMON’S MINES (1985; Directed by J. Lee Thompson)
“If we'd crashed between them, we'd be at the mine!”

“Fine! Next time we steal a plane, i'll let you crash it!”

Ok so right off that bat I will say it, this is a complete INDIANA JONESknock-off, right down to the (still fantastic) Jerry Goldsmith score. Perhaps it’s not as blatant as atrocious ALLAN QUARTERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, but still.  Oh wait, John Rhys Davies – Sallah himself – is in this movie as Dogati. Ok so someone at Cannon saw RAIDERS

This is Cannon films in their heyday, with Richard Chamberlain in the title role created by author H. Rider Haggard, and a young Sharon Stone as his love interest (with a very strong resemblance to Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott, famous American vocalist, fromINDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM released the previous year).

There is plenty of humor in this film – there are multiple gags involving dynamite, and the villains are extremely cartoony (it’s way more tongue-in-cheek than Indiana Jones) - and the Goldsmith score really adds a fun romp vibe that makes this picture a whole lot of fun.

It also helps that Director J. Lee Thompson has some strong credits to his name like the original CAPE FEAR, THE GUNS OF NAVARONEand CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (my favorite of the original sequels).

THE PACKAGE (1989; Directed by Andrew Davis)
Before he directed THE FUGITIVEand UNDER SIEGE, Andrew Davis was responsible for this suspenseful action thriller – and hey look, all three of those titles have Tommy Lee Jones in them, well whaddya know.

Gene Hackman makes this list twice. Here he’s a soldier charged with escorting a prisoner a.k.a. “The Package” (the aforementioned Tommy Lee Jones)  from Germany to the U.S.A., but said package gets away and Hackman is determined to get him back, stumbling on a much bigger conspiracy involving disarmament talks (it’s a cold war reliant plot).

The direction on this movie is solid, as is Hackman and Jones, both consummate professionals in full charge of their craft.  Gene Hackman appeared in a lot of movies over his long career, and I can’t think of many where he didn’t bring his A-game, even if the movie was total crud (I will continue to scratch my head over HEARTBREAKERS and WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT however – he must have needed the cash).  

It’s not only strong on action, but a fantastic thriller with plenty of twists and surprises that keeps it moving quickly and is completely engaging. This is another movie that I have watched multiple times, and it stays solid with each repeat watch.

1 comment:

ThomasJames said...

With the exception of KING SOLOMON’S MINES, I enjoyed all of those films you mentioned. Especially Red Heat, Toy Soldiers and The Package, I've seen those films many times. And yes Toy Soldiers needs to come out on BD asap!

Somehow I never got into KING SOLOMON’S MINES, I saw it twice and just couldn't enjoy it. Good stuff!