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.
“Was that racist, or did it just seem racist?” That was the basic idea of the conversation that my friends and I had as we left the movie theater in the spring of 2007. We had just borne witness to 300, Zack Snyder’s gruesome orgy of CGI blood-spurts and thunderous group-grunts. The movie had been a sensory experience, every frame made to look like a Frank Frazetta painting or a funeral doom album cover. And we were buzzing from it, having fun recounting all the oh-shit decapitations and inexplicable mutant attackers and portentous catchphrases. But as soon as the buzz wore off—and it wore off pretty quickly—we had to ask ourselves if this was all supposed to be some sort of sly Starship Troopers-esque comment on totalitarianism or whether it really was as fucked up as it appeared. And it probably was that fucked up.
Snyder famously did whatever he could to make the movie echo its source material, a 1998 comic from Frank Miller, as closely as possible. Individual shots are precise recreations of comic-book panels. Grotesque, distended character sketches are rendered in loving detail. Snyder shot the whole thing on a green-screen set because real, actual mountains and cliffs wouldn’t jut and loom the way they’d done in the books. This wasn’t the first time someone so slavishly recreated one of Miller’s comics; Robert Rodriguez had done the same thing with Sin City in 2005, even giving Miller a co-directing credit. But 300 was even more striking in its fealty, partly because it’s a more sweeping, immersive cinematic vision and partly because it more closely mirrors Miller’s worldview. And Frank Miller happens to be fucking crazy.
Miller was a comics hero, the guy who’d turned Daredevil into a noir fever dream and helped inaugurate a new era of grimly sophisticated storytelling with 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns. Once upon a time, the darkness and misanthropy of his work made him a fascinating, transformative figure. These days, every time he writes a bitterly disgusted blog post about Occupy Wall Street or whatever, it becomes increasingly obvious that the darkness isn’t a put-on. He really lives it: He really is a paranoid reactionary with an active imagination. That helped produce some great art, and it also led him to tell the nakedly fascistic story he told in 300, a story that became all the more jarring when Snyder rendered it as blockbuster entertainment.
300 tells a real story, illustrating the Battle Of Thermopylae, in which a small band of Spartans and other Greek fighters unsuccessfully defended a coastal pass from a huge number of Persian invaders, holding them for a week before all dying in close combat. For Miller—and, by extension, for Snyder—the Spartans were unambiguous heroes, death-gargling ultimate warriors who held off the forces of darkness through the sheer strength of their martial will. In Snyder’s hands, the Spartan king Leonidas and his comrades make constant speeches about freedom and self-determination. Snyder’s movie never mentions the fact that Sparta was a society built on slavery and institutional pedophilia. Instead, the Spartan way of life represents a sort of ur-macho way of being, an elevated warrior mind-state. It’s a whole nation of Rambos.
300 opens on a scene that literally glorifies fascism. The first thing we see is a chasm full of baby skulls, the remains of the infants who were deemed unfit. Leonidas has no visible disabilities, so he gets to live. Then, as a kid, he’s indoctrinated into the warrior society, taught to fight or die, then sent off to survive on his own. He goes into the snow and kills an enormous CGI wolf; a real trained wolf, apparently, would not have looked badass enough. Snyder presents all this as badass shit. And later, he implies that the Spartans were right to kill off all their disabled children, since it’s a hunchbacked troll escapee who ultimately betrays Leonidas.
“Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans,” someone intones later on. And the movie’s visualization of hard and strong is genuinely weird. The Spartans are all near-naked fitness models. They wear briefs and capes, and only Leonidas even has a helmet. (The real Spartans wore heavy metal armor, which gave them a tactical advantage against the Persian fighters.) Nobody has a stitch of body hair. And nobody has any personality, perhaps because they were too busy getting hard and strong to develop one.
The characters get some great badass catchphrases, all apparently spoken by the real people in real life (“come and get them,” “we will fight in the shade”). But in the movie, they usually yell them at the top of their lungs rather than half-whispering them the way past movie badasses might’ve done. As Leonidas, Gerard Butler, in his breakout role, amounts to little more than a slab of glowering beef, and most of his warriors, including a pre-breakout Michael Fassbender, are pretty much the same. Lena Headey, four years before Game Of Thrones, mostly just makes strong-jawed tough-lady speeches about committing to war. (She actually says, “Freedom isn’t free,” a few years after Team America: World Police had made an entire joke song out of the exact same phrase.)
The Persian side, on the other hand, looks like a lot more fun; the orgy pit, which we’re apparently supposed to see as some sort of appalling gender-fluid hell, looks like a more pleasant place than anywhere in Sparta. We see the emperor Xerxes as a 9-foot dandy with a seductive foghorn for a voice and a face full of jangling piercings. And the way Miller and Snyder depict them is just fascinatingly weird. A couple of early messengers are inky in their exaggerated blackness, and the Immortals, Xerxes’ regiment of elite fighters, are mutant ninjas who, when they get their masks knocked off, look like Jabba The Hutt’s palace guards. There’s also an executioner with crab-claw blades for arms and a massive warty ogre who looks like Sloth from The Goonies and who was played by the former WWF giant Kurrgan (Robert Maillet). The bad guys are so othered that they don’t even seem human.
The thing about 300 is that it works, at least on an animal-brain level. Snyder had come from directing commercials and helming a 2004 Dawn Of The Dead remake that retained none of the subversive punch of George Romero’s original but had plenty of intense thrills of its own. 300 was where he got to reveal the full scale of his visual ambition, and no movie had really looked like it before. It was elemental Conan The Barbarian blood-and-thunder shit, but rendered in ecstatic video-game graphics, with gore for days. Its score is all choral wails and fuck-shit-up metal riffs, and it comes from the guy who, I swear to god, is Marilyn Manson’s current guitarist. It’s a primal, guttural roar of a movie, and its battle scenes, in particular, were something new.
Snyder put real care into his fight scenes, rendering them in loving slo-mo and making sure you could see each deathblow in vivid detail. After years of Michael Bay’s flashy explosiveness and the jarring quick-cut whiplash of the post-Bourne era, Snyder was showing us another sort of visual idea of how American action movies might look. And that look would prove to be hugely influential, especially in the superhero movies where Snyder currently works. (Snyder’s widely derided 2009 adaptation of the canonical graphic novel Watchmen gets rightly criticized for missing the nuances of the book, but it doesn’t get enough credit for its fight scenes, which are really something.) Snyder’s desaturated colors, his CGI landscapes, and his hordes of interchangeable bad guys became hallmarks of big-budget movies for years.
But 300 is also an influential movie in another, more insidious way. There’s a great recent episode of the Chapo Trap House podcast in which the hosts discuss 300 as “the ur-text of the alt-right,” as “Hamilton for neo-fascists.” It’s a compelling argument. This is a movie that makes a grand, mythic spectacle out of the whole defending-the-white-homeland trope, and if you look at the YouTube comments on any of the scenes above, you will witness some serious human ugliness. It would be a pretty big stretch to blame 300 for Donald Trump or whatever, but the movie really did lionize the heroic white warriors fighting to repel the endless dark-skinned hordes—to, in the gravelly narrator’s words, “rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny.” (Oh no! Mysticism!) This sort of bullshit did help establish a world where Donald Trump could be elected president, and it deserves to be remembered for that. It’s an influential movie in all the wrong possible ways. It’s our Birth Of A Nation.
Other notable 2007 action movies: The year’s runner-up—and the movie that I planned on writing about before remembering that 300 did not actually come out in 2006—is another impressive movie that’s worth hating for its politics. José Padilha’s Brazilian vigilante-cops epic Elite Squad is tense, visceral filmmaking, and it broke box-office records in Brazil. It plays like a sort of militarized Dirty Harry, with its tactical police force invading favelas and brutalizing gang members without facing consequences. The movie’s own moral sensibility is a bit muddy, but that’s not how it was received at home. Like 300, it’s an expertly made movie that was probably bad for the world. But it’s more complicated than 300, and its even-more-popular 2010 sequel Elite Squad: The Enemy Within introduced a crew of corrupt, villainous cops to make things even more ambiguous. (Padilha and star Wagner Moura would go onto make the Netflix series Narcos, with Moura learning Spanish to play Pablo Escobar.)
Beyond Elite Squad, 2007 was another year that most of the best action movies came from places other than Hollywood. Hong Kong’s Flash Point was another collaboration from Donnie Yen and his Kill Zone director Wilson Yip, and its fight scenes might have been even more dazzling. (Hong Kong also had Triangle, a gimmicky romp in which the iconic action directors Johnnie To, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark teamed up to direct different parts of a single crime story.) Japan’s Black Belt was a brutal and minimal karate fable, with actual martial arts masters in all the important roles and fights that were visceral in their simplicity. And Chile’s Mirageman was a low-budget, violent martial-arts superhero flick about a masked warrior taking on a child-porn ring.
American movies could still sort of keep up sometimes. The Bourne Ultimatum cranked up its predecessors’ frantic editing to a dizzy blur, but almost despite itself, it remained nearly as intense and exciting as ever. Death Sentence was a nasty piece of pulp in which Kevin Bacon attempted to take out the cartoonish gang toughs who killed his son. And Live Free Or Die Hard, while being an ill-advised attempt to take a beloved old action franchise into a PG-13 era, turned out to be more fun than anyone could’ve predicted.
And there was other stuff that, while dumb, was at least sincere. Shooter was a decent post-Bourne movie with Mark Wahlberg as an elite sniper drawn out of retirement by corrupt government officials who killed his dog. The Condemned was basically Battle Royale with grown-ups, except shitty, and it gave “Stone Cold” Steve Austin his first starring role. (Austin, arguably the greatest professional wrestler of all time, would go on to a pretty good second career as a straight-to-DVD action star before becoming a full-time reality-show host and podcaster.) And the video-game adaptation Hitman probably counts as an action movie, even if it’s mostly just notable for managing to make Timothy Olyphant look stupid.
But Hollywood action movies had grown self-aware, and they seemed to be more interested in making fun of themselves than in telling serious stories. Shoot ’Em Up was a way over-the-top half-CGI gun opera, its tone set by the scene where Clive Owen takes out a team of assassins while still fucking Monica Bellucci. Rush Hour 3 continued with the series’ old-school action-comedy antics while somehow being less serious than its predecessors. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, released together as Grindhouse, paid homage to the action and horror movies of the ’70s, right down to the fake film-scratches that were always on the screen. It was a fun experiment, but it was also something like the movie equivalent of an Urban Outfitters fake-vintage T-shirt. The best of these movies was almost certainly Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, an affectionate send-up of Hollywood action movies that was still way more comedy than action.
Still, I’ve got a soft spot for another mostly-not-serious movie, the twist-happy Jason Statham/Jet Li gang-war melodrama War, a collection of absolutely nonsensical plot twists and music-video visuals that nevertheless turns out to be way more enjoyable than The Warlords, the self-serious Chinese war epic that Jet Li made that same year. That was a rare example of a Hollywood movie understanding its star’s appeal more than the movie from the star’s native land. That made it a rare exception in a time when other countries were running rings around us.
Next time: Taken reintroduces Liam Neeson as a grizzled Steven Seagal-esque badass and rings in a new era of aging A-list actors becoming B-movie ass-kickers.