May 31, 2007


Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie. By Eric Lichtenfeld. Wesleyan University Press. $24.95.

      A work of considerable fascination for students and makers of films, but a case of analytical overkill for everyday moviegoers, Action Speaks Louder is a bold attempt to figure out what action movies mean, and how they mean it. This is an easy thesis to dismiss: they don’t mean anything – they exist strictly as mass-market entertainment, especially targeting a segment of moviegoers (primarily young men) for whom shoot-‘em-ups and blow-‘em-ups are about the only thing as exciting as video games (which, not insignificantly, are often tied to the action movies).

      This dismissal, though, is an oversimplification. Even if producers and directors seek merely to reach a particular audience and make as much money as possible, the way they reach that audience has changed over time, and a study of those changes can tell us something about the audience and about moviemaking in general.

      This is the study that Eric Lichtenfeld, a teacher of film and frequent writer about it, here seeks to do. How well he succeeds will depend largely on who is reading Action Speaks Louder. Parts of the book will resonate with everyone who has seen the films being analyzed. For example, after discussing Clint Eastwood’s urban-avenger film Dirty Harry, Lichtenfeld turns to that film’s successor, Magnum Force, which was originally to be called Vigilance. He discusses the daytime settings of most of this sequel (as opposed to the nighttime of much of the original), comments on the industrial backdrops that replace the “expressionistic shadows” of the earlier film, and points out that “frequently, machines and instruments (including weapons) are the most commanding part of the frame, even when relegated to the set-dressing.” From this and other points, Lichtenfeld concludes that the elements of Magnum Force “do not evoke the individualism inherent to the Western myth (and the previous Dirty Harry film), but rather, an industrial, if still violent, world.” This sort of analysis can actually make a re-viewing of the film under discussion more interesting.

      On the other hand, Lichtenfeld sometimes just seems to be showing off, as when discussing a portion of the animated film The Incredibles – “a sequence in which missiles seek and destroy a jet carrying Helen, Violet, and Dash.” Here, Lichtenfeld discusses the pacing by breaking the scene down into parts, and then those parts into smaller parts: “With each [portion of the narrative,] the sequence gets progressively more intense as average shot lengths decrease by one-third of a second—from approximately 1.67 seconds to roughly 1.29 seconds to about .91 seconds.” Okay, thanks for that.

      Lichtenfeld makes some excellent points about changes in action films through the years, and illustrates some of them with well-chosen stills from his own collection. And even when he gets into more detail than most readers are likely to care about, he does so quite knowledgeably. He dissects the innards of the Rambo series, the Mad Max films, Die Hard and its successors, the Spider-Man franchise, Taxi Driver, The Day After Tomorrow, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and many other movies – always with a critic’s eye and an expert’s industry knowledge. But it all gets to be a bit much after a while; and some of Lichtenberg’s conclusions make him seem a little too close to his subject: “What all good action movies must first share is that they are well-crafted. …[T]he filmmakers must balance ferocity and finesse.” Lichtenfeld’s own analyses seem to indicate otherwise: that finesse is all well and good, but can fall by the wayside, and often does, if there is enough explosive slam-bang action to guarantee big box-office receipts in the U.S. and, increasingly, around the world.

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