With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
CGI was always going to happen. It was inevitable. Before the 1991 release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, computer-generated imagery had shown up, in one form or another, in a handful of movies: The space-battle scenes of The Last Starfighter, the primitive video game universe of Tron, the part of Willow where the sorceress turns into a bunch of different animals, the water tentacle in T2 director James Cameron’s own The Abyss. We can’t blame the dominance of CGI, which has held commercial cinema in an absolute death-grip for decades now, on T2. But T2 was the moment where that technology became truly exciting, where the general public caught onto its holy fuck, look at that capabilities.
The sequel to 1984’s low-budget classic The Terminator was the first movie to feature a leading character who could only really exist through CGI. The T-1000, the liquid-metal Terminator who served as the movie’s villain, was nothing anyone had seen before. In those moments where his human form failed and he reverted to what I guess you’d have to call his true self, the T-1000 was a gelatinous, shiny, unstable silhouette, something like Silver Surfer or Destro made out of metallic Jell-O. (Watching the movie with my wife last night, she kept calling him “the gooey guy,” which was awesome.) He was a chilling villain, in part, because his alien qualities rendered him unpredictable; the moment where his arm first becomes a long, gleaming sword—skewering John Connor’s slob of a foster father and his milk carton—is one of the movie’s great oh shit thrills. And based on how cool those effects were, it’s probably not exaggerating to say that T2 kicked the CGI revolution into high gear; soon enough, every big movie was trying to use that technology to show us something we hadn’t seen before.
But Cameron knew how to use that effect sparingly, for maximum impact. T2 has aged better than many of the effects-heavy movies that followed because those morphing effects are only onscreen for a few minutes and because they mostly highlight the uncanny strangeness of the movie’s villain. When the T-1000 emerges from a tile floor, its pattern still imprinted on him like something from a psychedelic poster of a bad dream, it doesn’t look especially real. But it’s a strange and vivid vision. It sticks with you.
And those effects don’t make up the whole of the character, which I’d put alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in the original Terminator as one of our great inhuman, single-minded villains. Terminator 2 had to pull off a difficult task. It has to be a Terminator movie that was also a Schwarzenegger movie. Schwarzenegger hadn’t just found his personal brand after that first Terminator movie. He’d developed that brand to the extent that he was now the world’s biggest movie star. A Schwarzenegger movie had to do certain things. It had to have expensive, fantastical action scenes. It had to have one-liners and catchphrases. And it had to feature Schwarzenegger as an unflappable, inhuman hero. The idea of Schwarzenegger playing the villain in his biggest-ever movie in 1991 would’ve been unthinkable. He wouldn’t play the villain again until his career started flagging and he put on the ridiculous Mr. Freeze getup in 1997’s Batman & Robin. In T2, he had to be the hero.
And so he was. In retrospect, Schwarzenegger’s entrance in T2 is a masterpiece of pop filmmaking. It takes this character—one who had been a terrifying and brutal killing machine in the last movie—and establishes him as the good guy even before he does anything that could be considered good. He marches ass-naked into a biker bar, walks right up to the biggest guy, and demands his clothing and motorcycle on the spot. And, of course, he beats up everyone in the room, in brutal and convincing fashion. But nobody watching the movie sympathizes with the bikers; they are, after all, bikers. And so that scene establishes Schwarzenegger as a badass. But then he walks out, in his head-to-toe black leather, and revs that motorcycle while George Thorogood’s weekend-warrior anthem “Bad To The Bone” blares on the soundtrack. And then, when the bartender threatens him with a shotgun, he grabs the shotgun and the poor guy’s sunglasses. So he’s a badass and a figure of fun. He’s a Schwarzenegger character—something the movie conveys with a few words and a couple of minutes of screen time.
He stays in that mode throughout the movie. In the original Terminator, he barely talked. In this one, he’s there to protect humans and to keep them company, so he has to let loose with long strings of exposition in between the breathless action scenes. That makes sense. It doesn’t make much sense that he’d become a catchphrase machine. But then, it never made much sense that Schwarzenegger’s characters would become catchphrase machines. It was awesome in those movies, where Schwarzenegger was at least ostensibly playing humans, and it’s awesome in T2, where he’s not.
In contrast, the T-1000 wastes no time and dispenses no catchphrases. Robert Patrick, who played the villain, had only done a tiny bit of screen acting before taking on the role, but he’s a perfect complement to the newly affable Schwarzenegger character. He’s compact and lean and graceful and handsome. When he runs, he does this eerie thing where he picks up speed while staring dead ahead at his target. And in retrospect, it was a stroke of subtle genius for the movie to put its villain in a Los Angeles cop’s uniform in the Rodney King era. L.A. cops had beaten up King on camera only four months before the movie came out, so it can’t have been planned, but maybe there was something in the air. And as an added bonus, Patrick even looked a bit like Mark Fuhrman, who would replace Daryl Gates as the human symbol for everything wrong with the LAPD a couple of years after the movie came out. Even when he’s not turning himself into a stabbing weapon, he’s an icy and efficient and detestable force for evil.
Still, the movie’s most striking character is probably the returning Sarah Connor, the hero of the first movie, who spent the time between movies transforming herself into a sinewy survivalist and getting institutionalized. Linda Hamilton gives the movie’s best performance; she’s a cold-blooded badass when she’s not being an embodiment of primal, feral motherhood. When she’s escaping her mental hospital, she moves with absolute confidence; the scene where she tucks a billy club under her arm and runs down the hallway leaves a deep impression. But later, when she tries to become a Terminator herself and murder computer developer Miles Dyson before he accidentally ends the world, she’s a hyperventilating mess. In her wild-eyed intensity, she conveys the movie’s stakes. It would be a giddy string of explosions without her.
Watching the movie now, Eddie Furlong, as the 10-year-old who will go on to lead humanity in our war against the robots, was easily the movie’s weak link. Furlong had never acted before, and that becomes pretty obvious when he’s forced to deliver exposition or attempt to teach the Terminator whatever Cameron’s idea of early-’90s teenage slang would’ve been. And it’s also pretty obvious that Cameron and his producers wanted a Bart Simpson type, a sarcastic little dipshit who the kids would love. (Furlong’s presence is proof that these big R-rated movies were made, at least in part, with kids in mind.) There’s a deep, cringe-worthy hokiness to many of his scenes. But if you happened to be about Furlong’s age when the movie came out, as I was, that didn’t matter; he was the coolest motherfucker alive. He was everything you wanted to be. To ride around Los Angeles in a dirt bike while wearing a Public Enemy shirt? To sneer and flip your hair at authorities? To magically produce $300 from an ATM and then blow it at an arcade? Forget it. This kid was living the dream.
Terminator 2 has its flaws, of which Furlong is the most visible. He’s not the only one. The goofy little jokes interrupt what would’ve otherwise been an unrelentingly tense death-ride. The time-travel circular reasoning gets convoluted enough to give you a headache. (David Foster Wallace once had a riff about how Terminator 2 was an indefensible perversion of the original’s stark simplicity. I don’t agree, but I get what he was saying.) Some moments of deep corniness are clearly there to set up later payoffs; if Schwarzenegger’s T-800 had detailed files on the human anatomy, for instance, why would he have to keep asking John Connor why he cries? Hamilton’s hard-boiled narration drops in and out without any real purpose. And we never find out how John’s friend, with the red mullet and the L.A. Guns shirt, gets home from the mall. Does he take the bus? Call his parents? What? I’ve always wanted to know.
But for all its flaws, Terminator 2 is spectacle filmmaking with very few peers. There’s something cosmically appropriate about the way the movie lined up with Use Your Illusion-era Guns N’ Roses, with the band on the soundtrack and Schwarzenegger showing up in character in the “You Could Be Mine” video. Like Guns N’ Roses, T2 was big and loud and flashy and crass and overlong and stupid and awesome and transcendent. It, like the band, was a cultural juggernaut. (The two combined to dominate just about every conversation I had in sixth grade.) T2 was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made, and it has bigger things in mind than the original movie’s crushing stress. Cameron shot most of the movie in bright, inviting Californian daytime, not in the chilly dark blues of the original. And even at two and a half hours, its plot is a beautiful machine, with every scene leading directly to the next and with no real narrative detours.
While the movie might’ve marked a watershed moment in the history of CGI, it’s important not to forget just how much of it was deeply, perilously real. When the T-1000’s truck goes crashing into a Los Angeles flood channel, someone really had to drive that truck. Someone had to jump a motorcycle into the channel, too. Someone had to fly a helicopter down a freeway right behind a police van. Linda Hamilton’s twin sister had to report to work for the scene where there were two Sarah Connors. And even in the moment when, in Sarah Connor’s dream, a nuclear blast rips through Los Angeles, someone had to painstakingly design a miniature model city and then blow it up. A few years later, directors would be using computers to put together all of this. Terminator 2 might’ve helped mark the end of the dangerous, organic stunt spectacular, but it’s also a great example of the genre. And in its vast global scope, it pointed the way forward to a decade when action movies would become approachable and friendly pieces of mass entertainment, when the gleeful nastiness of the ’80s action movie would be gone. It’s a beautiful piece of work that also served as a sort of generational crossroads. And I can understand why less imaginative directors turned to CGI immediately afterward. If you could maybe create something like T2, after all, wouldn’t you want to at least try?
Other notable 1991 action movies: Runner-up honors for 1991 go to Point Break, the one true action movie ever made by Kathryn Bigelow, the woman who happened to divorce James Cameron that very same year. The movie’s undercover-cop/surfer-gang dynamic would lead directly to many, may cop movies that would follow, the original The Fast And The Furious chief among them. The movie also depicted its bank-robbing surfer counterculture in a way that felt exploitative and honest, giving some real agency to the idea that its hero would turn his back on the FBI to hang out with them. And it would also serve as the first-ever action-hero performance from Keanu Reeves. Reeves, fresh off of playing Ted “Theodore” Logan, would go on to quietly amass one of the greatest action-movie filmographies of all time. He will show up in this column again, more than once.
Plenty of more traditional action stars also had great years. Bruce Willis gave his best-ever non-Die Hard action movie performance in Tony Scott’s Shane Black-written The Last Boy Scout, a relentlessly clever and bloody noir adventure in which Willis pulled the peerlessly badass stunt of promising to kill a henchman and then, seconds later, killing the guy with one punch. Meanwhile, Out For Justice, in which Steven Seagal attempted a Brooklyn accent to play a cop on the prowl for William Forsythe’s mad-dog crackhead mobster, stands as, I would argue, Seagal’s best movie. Its fight scenes are absolutely nasty, and its narrative structure is simple and direct. It’s a great cop movie, not just a great Seagal movie. And Jean-Claude Van Damme stayed busy, playing an underground fighting-circuit star in Lionheart and twin crimefighters in Double Impact.
In music-video director Russell Mulcahy’s Ricochet, Denzel Washington gave action-heroics a try, playing a prosecutor who has to take on a vengeance-mad ex-convict and leading a truly bizarre cast that included John Lithgow, Ice-T, and Kevin Pollak. (Washington would try out a few more action-hero roles over the years, but he wouldn’t take to it the way his Mo’ Better Blues co-star Wesley Snipes did a year later.) The entertaining-as-fuck Die Hard/Red Dawn rip Toy Soldiers somehow made an action hero out of Sean Astin, as the leader of a group of misbehaving rich kids who fight off the terrorists who have taken over their boarding school. In Showdown In Little Tokyo, Dolph Lundgren played a cop obsessed with Japanese culture and teamed up with Bruce Lee’s son Brandon, who was beginning an American film career that was cut off much too soon. The previously unknown Jeff Speakman got his own vehicle in The Perfect Weapon, in which he played a white martial arts master at war with the Korean mafia of Los Angeles. And in Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man, Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson were a bank-robbing biker/cowboy team.
Overseas, the big news was Jet Li playing the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung in Tsui Hark’s sweeping martial arts epic Once Upon A Time In China. The movie spawned a franchise, established Li as one of Hong Kong’s biggest and greatest stars, and set new standards in epic kung fu storytelling. That same year, Jackie Chan found eye-popping ways to fight Nazis in Armour Of God II: Operation Condor. Both movies are great, but both also pale in comparison to the stupendously strange dystopian kung-fu splatter-fest Riki-Oh: The Story Of Ricky. This is a movie where, within the first few minutes, a bad guy realizes he’s lost a prison-yard fight against the hero, and so he cuts open his stomach and uses his own entrails to choke the hero. Somehow, things only get stranger, more hallucinatory, and more disgusting from there. It’s so fucking awesome. If you haven’t seen it, you need to.
But if I were to recommend one relatively lesser-known 1991 action movie, even over Riki-Oh, I’d pick Craig Baxley’s Stone Cold, a movie that does not fuck around one tiny little bit. The movie serves as a vehicle for Brian Bosworth, the star bad-boy Seattle Seahawks linebacker who’d only just retired. In Stone Cold, he’s a gargantuan cop with a feathery mohawk who goes undercover in a homicidal biker gang that features the all-star B-movie villain team of Lance Henriksen and William Forsythe. In the very first scene, Bosworth foils a supermarket robbery by wandering into the store in a giant leather duster, calmly pushing his shopping cart through the aisles, stopping to sample cookies while he takes out the thieves one-by-one. And yes, he does say, “Clean up on aisle four” after it’s over. Something equally brainlessly awesome happens in every scene in the movie, up until the head-spinning ending, where a dazed Bosworth walks out of a Mississippi courthouse that’s essentially been reduced to rubble. If you enjoy a certain type of low-budget smash-up, you will find no better example.
Next time: A History Of Violence returns in January with thoughts on John Woo’s masterpiece, Hard Boiled, in which the Hong Kong director elevates the gunfight to dizzy new heights.