Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Action Adventure and Ethnicity


Following on from the idea of binary oppositions is another key issue/convention of these films: the hero is usually American and the villain is sometimes ‘foreign’.This has led to films being accused of American imperialistic values.
For example:
Die Hard (1988) – American hero; German villain (played by an Englishman)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – American hero; Nazi villains
The Mummy (1999) – American hero; Egyptian villain

This can be reinforced in the casting too. All American Tom Cruise’s villain in Mission Impossible II (2000) is played by Scottish actor Dougray Scott; Die Hard with a Vengeance’s (1995) German villain is played by Englishman Jeremy Irons.We can also see this in regards to the supporting cast and the setting of some films, as it is American know-how that wins the day over ‘less civilised’ foreigners. Look at The Mummy (1999), for example, or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where Indy defeats a group of Indians practising a sadistic, murderous cult.Furthermore, this representation of ethnic groups as inferior to white Americans is noticeable in the use of sidekicks in some films – the Chinese boy, Short Round, in The Temple of Doom; the traitorous Beni in The Mummy; Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark; Bey in The Mummy.

More than that, the white American hero in an American-set film sometimes has an ethnic sidekick (the comic Black limo driver in Die Hard); the cowardly, incompetent Black sidekick in Superman III; Samuel L. Jackson in Die Hard with a Vengeance; Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard and, later, Don Cheadle) in Iron Man and Iron Man II- suggesting the dominance of the white male American hero and the cultural dominance of the Hollywood film industry.

There are, of course, exceptions, notably the James Bond series about the British secret agent.However, things have been changing. Although there were several films featuring Black American protagonuists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only a few were successful big stars, but increasingly, we have seen Black actors take the lead in films aimed at a general audience – Will Smith in I am Legend (2007) or Hancock (2008), for example, or Denzil Washington in Man on Fire (2004) and Wesley Snipes in the Blade Trilogy (1998-2004).Perhaps another factor breaking down the dominance of the American star has been the influence of Martial Arts films, initially back in the early 1970s with the films of Bruce Lee, but more recently with the films of Jackie Chan, who made his own breakthrough in American cinema with movies like Shanghai Noon (2000), though his sidekick, Owen Wilson, undoubtedly acted as a point of interest to the American audiences. Another non-American influence has been the work of the Hong Kong director, John Woo. You can see the stylish fight choreography of his China-based films like The Killer (1989) in a number of American films, like the Bourne series, but he has also made action films in Hollywood, like Hard Target (1993), starring the Belgian Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Mission Impossible (2000).

Stylish martial arts fighting is now just another component of the action film – you can see it – complete with slow motion and speeded up sections - in the superhero film, Daredevil (2003), for example.Now, we have action adventure films made in other countries. One notable example is Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) set in 18th century France, where a rich nobleman exploits peasants and gypsies to maintain control of the land by using a trained lion, masked as a strange, savage beast to terrorise the land. He’s eventually defeated by the adventurer Fronsac, a typical blonde, good-looking hero, and his Mohawk Indian (played by a Hawaiian American) sidekick who happens to be a master of martial arts! Perhaps typically, the ethnic sidekick dies and it’s only after that the hero shows his own fighting ability and he eventually defeats the bad guy and gets the girl.

Although the film is meant to be saying something about the corruption of the nobility in pre-Revolutionary France, it’s interesting that the hero is an adventurer who has just returned from North America and his companion is American (albeit a Mohawk Indian).

On the surface, this is a historical drama, but is essentially about the two men on a quest or mission to tackle the problem of the beast and it has many typical action adventure features, like anachronistic martial arts fight sequences; it also contains elements of mystery, horror, romance, and fantasy.

This $29 million-budgeted film was an international box office success, grossing over $70 million in worldwide theatrical release. In the United States of America, the film also enjoyed commercial success; Universal Pictures paid $2 million to acquire the film's United States distribution rights and this film went on grossing $11,260,096 in limited theatrical release in the United States, making it the second-highest-grossing French-language film in the United States in the last two decades (this film also did brisk video and DVD sales in the United States). It was shown in major cinemas in Britain, something that rarely happens to non-English language films.

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