Action Cinema

Action cinema speaks volumes about our visual culture, the state of cinema, and how entertainment is produced. Furthermore, action cinema also engages the American mythologies, speaking volumes about how America sees itself.

This course will be an experiment, since it is open for both 2nd and 4th semester students but the semesters are assigned different readings. My hope is that synergies will form between contextual readings (2nd semester) and aesthetic readings (4th semester). For this reason, take care that you read the correct articles.

Also, you are not required to purchase a textbook but you are required to acquaint yourselves with the following five movies:

  • First Blood (Ted Kotcheff 1982)
  • Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988)
  • Commando (Mark L. Lester 1985)
  • The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan 2008)
  • Domino (Tony Scott 2005)

1. Action Cinema: First Blood

2. semester readings

  • King, Geoff. “Introduction: Spectacle, Narrative and ‘Frontier’ Mythology” in Spectacular narratives: Hollywood in the age of the blockbuster. IB Tauris Publishers, 2000.

4. semester readings

  • Bean, Jennifer M. “’Trauma Thrills’: Notes on Early Action Cinema.” in Tasker, Yvonne, ed. The Action and Adventure Cinema. Routledge, 2004. (pdf)
  • Neale, Steve. “Action-adventure as Hollywood genre.” in Tasker, Yvonne, ed. The Action and Adventure Cinema. Routledge, 2004: 71-83. (pdf)

Discussion questions

  • What is action cinema? What examples, traits, and conventions can you think of?
  • Describe John Rambo’s relationship to the US and to the town Hope, Washington.
  • Why set the film in Hope, Washington?
  • How is First Blood spectacular?
  • How is First Blood an action film?
  • Does First Blood offer any form of reconciliation? And if so, for whom?
  • In which ways is First Blood an action film?
  • Is First Blood’s expressive form (i.e. editing, mise-en-scene, sound) congruent with the action genre?
  • How is trauma, shock, civilization, and frontier explored in First Blood?
  • What is the ‘textual volume’ (repetitions across narrative and audiovisual form which structure themes) of First Blood?
  • What connotations do we get from John Rambo’s body?
  • Would you say that First Blood belongs to ‘muscular movies’?
  • Is First Blood an adventure film?

2. Action Narratives: Die Hard

2. semester readings

  • Tasker, Yvonne. “The Family in Action” in Tasker, Yvonne, ed. The Action and Adventure Cinema. Routledge, 2004. (pdf)

4. semester readings

Discussion questions

  • Identify the narrative structure of Die Hard.
  • Does it follow the three-act structure?
  • Does that structure diverge from our expectations/assumptions?
  • Is Die Hard a causal or situational narrative?
  • Where/when do we find spectacles in Die Hard?
  • When/where do we find suspenseful situations in Die Hard? Do they correlate to the moments of spectacle?
  • Is there an emphasis on either narrative or spectacle in Die Hard?
  • What obstacles does John McClane face?
  • What is the first whammo in Die Hard?
  • How is the action both emotional and cerebral?
  • What forms of suspense do we find in Die Hard?
  • Are these moments of suspense understandable in terms of morality and desirability?
  • What forms of suspense do we find in Die Hard?
  • Are these moments of suspense understandable in terms of morality and desirability?
  • Does Die Hard present us with a moral legibility which we can use in everyday life?
  • How does family work as key narrative device in Die Hard?
  • Does Die Hard shift/change masculinity or shore up/reinforce masculinity?
  • How does crisis/reconciliation work in Die Hard?
  • What narrative transformation occurs in Die Hard?
  • Is Die Hard a fantasy of aggression against a dysfunctional wife?

3. Action Bodies: Commando

2. semester readings

  • Fradley, Martin. “Maximus Melodramaticus: Masculinity, Masochism and White Male Paranoia in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema.” in Tasker, Yvonne, ed. The Action and Adventure Cinema. Routledge, 2004. (pdf)

4. semester readings

Discussion questions

  • Why is bodily motion important for action films?
  • Are the opening scenes in Commando dependent mostly on muscularity or movement?
  • Are the fight sequences on Commando primarily constructed through editing or long takes?
  • What story do the fights in Commando convey?
  • Do the fights in Commando transfer any emotions? If so, which?
  • If Schwarzenegger’s body is unrealistically represented, how can it provide us with muscular sympathy?
  • Is Commando a compensatory fiction for the single father?
  • Does Commando exhibit paranoid traits? (Ie does it involve conspiracies, etc)
  • Does John Matrix reassert his masculinity through the film?
  • How is Commando an example of masculine hypervisibility?
  • How is the socio-somatic process of masculinity connected to bodily motion and muscular sympathy?
  • Explain Schwarzenegger’s body and its function in Commando. Is it feminized? Is it idealized?
  • How is Matrix’s body a repressed hardbody?
  • Contrast this to Bennett’s body and its function.
  • How does Commando operate around an authentic/inauthentic binary of national-masculine ideals?
  • If Matrix/Schwarzenegger represents a national-masculine ideal, why is he also on the social frontier?

4. Action Spectacles: The Dark Knight

2. semester readings

Christiansen, Steen. “Hyper Attention Blockbusters” in Akademisk Kvarter, vol 7. 2013.

4. semester readings

  • Richard Dyer, “Action!” from Only Entertainment (pdf)
  • Tomasovic, Dick. “The Hollywood Cobweb: New Laws of Attraction.” Strauven, Wanda, ed. The cinema of attractions reloaded. Amsterdam University Press, 2006. (pdf)

Discussion questions

  • How does The Dark Knight titillate us?
  • How are sensations of motion created in The Dark Knight?
  • Who ‘gets in the way’ in The Dark Knight?
  • What subject of worldly experience does The Dark Knight create/suppose?
  • How does The Dark Knight pleasure us?
  • Is The Dark Knight visually aggressive?
  • Is The Dark Knight more concerned with the gaze or the body?
  • How does The Dark Knight’s rhythm feel?
  • How often do we experience sensations of vertiginous mobility in The Dark Knight?
  • How does technology fascinate in The Dark Knight?
  • How does attention and fascination intersect in The Dark Knight?
  • How does The Dark Knight command attention?
  • Is this different or similar to how other action films command attention?
  • Why must we continue the affective work of the film outside the film experience?

5. Action Experiences: Domino

2. semester readings

O’Day, Marc. “Beauty in Motion: Gender, spectacle and action babe cinema” in Tasker, Yvonne, ed. The Action and Adventure Cinema. Routledge, 2004. (pdf)

4. semester readings

Discussion questions

  • Do you believe that Domino is postclassical or goes beyond?
  • Does high concept imagery overpower narrative coherence in Domino?
  • How is Domino ‘heightened realism’?
  • How is Domino excessive?
  • How does Domino undo gender binaries?
  • Does Domino manage to be both the erotic object of visual spectacle and the action subject of the narrative?
  • Does Domino straddle the have me/be me fantasy?
  • Is the experience of Domino both hard and soft?
  • Is the human body an abstract graphical element in Domino?
  • How is Domino eroticized through the story?

6. Summary and Workshop

In this session, we will primarily focus on what you have learned, what we need to elaborate on further, difficult issues, and finally your ideas for your projects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *