Cop Action Films

An Overview

Philippa Gates, Wilfrid Laurier University

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the police procedural introduced the first crime films focussed on the police officer as the investigating hero. The procedural showed the police as empowered by the organised force and scientific tools of investigation available to them. The cop shifted from being an average figure just doing his duty in the late 1940s to being a violent vigilante cop in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the vengeful vigilante cop became a wisecracking action-hero that offered an idealisation of law-enforcement and masculinity in American culture. The cop action film offered the film-going audience an image of American masculinity that was tough, independent, and victorious in the face of a society that was dominated by crime. Although the cop action-hero was in many ways an average guy just doing his job, more often he also functioned as a fantasy of indestructible masculinity. With a wisecracking defiance, the cop-action hero defeated the bad guys and challenged the impotence of law enforcement bureaucracy.

Retributive ‘Musculinity’

The impact of second-wave feminism caused social conceptions of masculinity to be thrown into flux by the 1980s and this confusion was echoed in the media. Magazines, television, and film offered conflicting conceptions of positive masculinity. The ‘New Man’ of the men’s fashion magazine represented a somewhat feminized type of masculinity – sensitive, romantic, and fashion-conscious. However, alongside the ‘New Man’ appeared the retributive man – an independent, violent, aggressive, and hyper-masculine hero. He was both a cop and an action hero and continued in the tradition of the vigilante cop, like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and the rampage hero, like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo. The cop action-hero, with his emphasis on physicality and violence, emerged, in part, as a backlash to the newer, more feminized, images of masculinity that pervaded the media, especially fashion magazines.

Despite the variety of types of masculinity that popular film offered audiences in the 1980s, audiences chose to watch films that were concerned with portrayals of white, male, action-heroes. Female empowerment had upset gender roles, altered the workplace, and incited new conceptions of masculinity like the New Man and the action-hero represented a backlash this seeming ‘feminisation’ of society. The action-heroes of the 1980s were defined as working-class in order to differentiate them from the seemingly impotent middle-class male, the victim of social change. The working-class hero represented a more traditional masculinity, unaffected by female empowerment. His job involved hard physical labour and a hyper-masculine physique to perform that labour, neither of which a woman could necessarily perform or attain. Women had become a significant presence in the workforce by the 1980s, including in professional and high-level positions, but they could not so readily invade the space of the working-class male. The 1980s was the zenith of the cop action film and the spectacle of the male body. In these films, the male body functioned as the site for the expression and the working through of personal, and often national, trauma, and two stars that repeatedly performed the role of, and have to come to embody, the cop action-hero are Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis.

The Male Body as a Lethal Weapon

Lethal WeaponIn Lethal Weapon (Donner 1987) the identity of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is not made clear at the beginning of the film. He is not established as a police detective but as dishevelled and unkempt, living in a run-down trailer, and waking up in the morning with a cigarette in his mouth, a gun in his bed, and a beer as his breakfast. In the scene that follows, he is shown buying drugs from dealers in a Christmas tree lot. When the dealers tell him they want ‘a hundred’ for the drugs (meaning $100,000), Riggs offers them $100 and a fight ensues, culminating in a shoot out between the dealers, their gunmen, and the police. As the cops surround the tree lot, the remaining dealer holds Riggs hostage with a gun to his temple; however, Riggs demands that his fellow officers shoot the dealer, unperturbed by the threat to his own safety. Riggs’ demands escalate to near-hysteria and he finally loses control, grabs the weapon from the dealer, and head-butts him into submission. As the other officers seize the dealer, Riggs is shown wild-eyed and struggling to bring himself under control. Riggs is thus established as a borderline psychotic and an unstable masculinity.

Riggs’ demonstration of the violent and heroic side of his masculinity is immediately contrasted in the following scene with the revelation of its emotional side. Alone in his trailer, nursing a drink in one hand and contemplating his wedding photos in another, Riggs breaks down. He examines a bullet (later revealed to be a special hollow-tipped one that he has purchased for his own suicide), loads it into his gun, and then studies the loaded weapon. Suddenly, he raises the gun to his forehead and struggles to pull the trigger. Tears of frustration and disappointment fill his eyes and he returns to the photo of his bride. ‘I miss you,’ he says to the photo. ‘I’ll see you later. I’ll see you much later.’ As is later revealed by the police department’s psychologist, Riggs has recently lost his wife of 11 years to a car accident and his grief has pushed him to the edge. According to the psychologist, Riggs is pulling dangerous stunts in the line of duty and is psychotic, suicidal, or – as his partner Murtaugh (Danny Glover) jokes later – a ‘lethal weapon.’

This juxtaposition of excessive violence and then excessive emotion marks Riggs as an exploration of divided and traumatised masculinity. His internalised grief stemming from his wife’s death is thus transferred into externalised physical action, and Riggs’ body becomes the site of the film’s deliberation of masculine crisis The physical action that his body performs and the injuries, cuts, and blood that are incurred through that performance of violence represent the internal battle Riggs fights between his emotional vulnerability and his tough manliness. The climax of this internal battle is symbolised in his final hand-to-hand fight with the villainous Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) whom Riggs has in custody and could simply arrest, cuff, and take away. Joshua represents Riggs’ doppelganger: they both served in special forces units in Vietnam and were involved in similar assassination missions; and they both found employment after the war in which they utilise the skills they honed in Vietnam, only on different sides of the law. Joshua represents what Riggs might have become if he had not chosen to harness his violent impulses and employ them for the good of society. However, through his defeat of Joshua, Riggs asserts his difference from the enemy, confirms his ability to be a good cop, and proves his masculinity to himself and the audience, thus, bringing a conclusion to his crisis. Riggs confirms the end of his internal struggle by offering Murtaugh his special bullet as a Christmas present.

The Die Hard Hero

Die HardSimilarly, in Die Hard (McTiernan 1988), John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York cop who comes to L.A. in an attempt to resolve his estrangement from his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and children. The resolution of this personal issue is interrupted by, and becomes entangled with, the more immediate threat of the German terrorists. Led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the terrorists hold Holly and her co-workers hostage, and, to win Holly’s love back, McClane must first prove his masculinity by defeating the villains that threaten Holly. McClane’s body is the site upon which his crisis is expressed through the exposure of his naked, well-muscled physique and then its incurrence of cuts, scars, and injuries as he battles the villains.

Nevertheless, the crisis worked through on his body is not just his own personal crisis but also a national one. The Nakatomi Corporation that employs Holly represents the globalisation and infiltration of Japanese big business into America, and Gruber and his associates represent the threat of terrorism and take-over by the Germans – both former enemies of the United States. McClane’s success or defeat as the action-hero must bear the weight of U.S. international interests and he must be distinguished as an American hero in the face of the foreign enemy. Thus, the film aligns McClane with other more traditional figures of American heroism. Gruber accuses McClane of having watched too many movies as he seems to think of himself as John Wayne or Rambo. McClane, not wishing to reveal his name over the radio to the L.A.P.D. in case the enemy hears it, identifies himself as ‘Roy Rogers’ and so Gruber calls him ‘Mr. Cowboy.’ Not only is McClane constructed as the lone cowboy and the action-hero, but he is also inscribed as a saviour. In one scene he walks into the room limping, wounded, half-naked, carrying a machine gun, and silhouetted against a backdrop of light; Holly identifies him – breathing the word ‘Jesus’ at the sight of him.

Despite the alignment of the cop action-hero with very manly and traditional figures of American heroism, McClane also exhibits child-like qualities. Rather than performing the role of the dutiful police officer, McClane treats his pursuit of the villains as a kind of game. After dispatching one of Gruber’s minions, McClane then sends the body to Gruber in the elevator, wearing a Santa’s hat and with the message ‘Now I have a machine gun – Ho-Ho-Ho’ written in blood on the victim’s shirt. The pleasure of the hunt for McClane is the pursuit of the enemy not killing them, which appears to be distasteful to him. Similarly, the pleasure for the audience is the game McClane plays and the witty commentary and wisecracks directed at the enemy that accompany it. Although McClane may be adolescent in terms of his behaviour, his body is hypermasculine. The employment of a masquerade of manliness, for example his ability to wisecrack in the face of death and his physique being hyper-masculine, mean that the crisis of masculinity that McClane faces – the loss of his wife through a failed marriage – is effectively disguised. Internalised emotion is displaced onto the exposed body of McClane in his performance of violence and heroism.

Bodies and Trauma

Die HardRiggs and McClane’s bodies thus become the canvas upon which their masculine trauma is inscribed. Rather than expressing his emotions, which would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, the action-hero channels his emotionality into violent retaliation. Thus, Riggs’ body literally becomes the lethal weapon of the film’s title and also the receiver of the majority of the enemies’ violence. This working out of masculine crisis at the level of spectacle means that the male body of the action-hero can be regarded as the triumphant assertion of male power or as the articulation of anxieties about the masculine identity they seem to embody (Tasker 9). The action-hero also performs a masquerade of hyper-masculinity on the surface of his body through action and violence while disguising his divided and troubled masculine identity. The white male body becomes the site of masculine masquerade and masculine trauma in the same instance – the moments of action are expressions of male emotionality transferred into violence and, at the same time, enact the performance of the masquerade. However, the body is not merely the site of masculine identity, it is also that of national identity. While Riggs relives Vietnam in his battle with Mr. Joshua and the other ex-servicemen, McClane fights America’s battle against foreign corporate globalisation (embodied by the Nakatomi Corporation’s building as much as by the German villains). America’s politics are transferred from the public level to the private, and it is the lone action-hero that defeats the threat to American society. Thus, the 1980s cop action film, with its meditation on masculinity and nationalism, transfers internal conflict into external expression on the body of its action-hero.

The Aftermath

Kindergarden CopHowever, the emphasis on action, explosions, violence, and body counts diminished in the 1990s as social opinion changed in regards to what qualities were considered positive for masculinity to embody. Although the hard-body heroes of the 1980s-Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Mel Gibson – continue to thrive on the big screen, then tend to do so in more sensitive-man roles. Since the mid-90s Bruce Willis has been playing more sensitive men in films likeMercury Rising (1998) and The Sixth Sense (1999), and when he does appear in an action film, for example Tears of the Sun (2003), he is a hero more concerned with saving lives than exacting violent retribution. Not only has muscleman Schwarzenegger played more family-oriented heroes in Kindergarten Cop (1991), Junior (Reitman 1994), and The 6th Day (2000), but also the macho masculinity that those 80s action heroes represented is now often killed off, quite literally, in favour of new smarter, smaller, more sensitive kinds of masculinity. For example, in Armageddon (1998) the brawny hero who thinks with his fists (Bruce Willis) dies so that the brighter and more sensitive young hero (Ben Affleck) can save the day and marry the love interest. Similarly, in Executive Decision (1996) the muscle man and expected hero (Steven Seagal) is killed off early in the film and the smarter, less physical man (Kurt Russell) takes over. Thus, the 1990s saw a shift from the admiration of ‘muscularity’ to intelligence in society, a shift that incited a corresponding movement in popular film from a working-class hero to a middle-class one, from a brawny hero to a brainy one, from a man of action to a man of emotion.

Copyright © 2004 Philippa Gates

Bibliography and Further Reading

Fuchs, Cynthia. ‘The Buddy Politic.’ Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema.

Eds Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark. London: Routledge, 1993. 194-210.

Inciardi, James A., and Juliet L. Dee. ‘From Keystone Cops to Miami Vice: Images of Policing in American Popular Culture.’ Journal of Popular Culture 21: 2 (1987): 84-102.

Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

King, Neal. Heroes in Hard Times: Cop Action Movies in the U.S. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

Pfeil, Fred. White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference. London: Verso, 1995.

Reiner, Robert. ‘Keystone to Kojak: The Hollywood Cop.’ Cinema, Politics, and Society in America. Eds

Philip Davies and Brian Neve. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985. 195-220.

_____. The Politics of the Police. Brighton, UK: Wheatsheaf Books, 1985.

Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993.

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