Thursday, March 8, 2018

Top Ten Trope Thursdays: Action Hero


*Warning: spoilers lie ahead.*

So last Thursday we talked about my favorite of the hero triangle, the Guile Hero. You can check that out here. This week, I'm going to go from the most sort of obscure of the three to the one that I think just about everyone understands: the Action Hero.

This is one of the biggest examples of What it Says on the Tin that I can possibly imagine. It's a hero (Or heroine) who is primarily about physical action. These are your John Rambos, John McClanes, John Connors, John Spartans, John Matrixes…plus some other people not named John, occasionally.

But only very rarely.

Now, it's surprisingly difficult to narrow down something as broad and open as this trope. Action Hero is what is called a Super Trope in TV Tropes vernacular. But I'm determined to do what I set out to do: my top ten Action Heroes. To find out why, the descriptions/breakdowns are going to be even more important.

But if you're not looking for the in-depth stuff, then you can just skim across the subheadings. I won't be offended, promise.

10: Conan of Cimmeria (Conan the Barbarian et al)
Depending on who you are, you probably either love or can't stand Conan. Whether it's from the Schwarzenegger portrayal or the original Howard stories, Conan definitely makes an impression. I grew up watching those movies when I was clearly too young to be watching them, and as such I can't help but love them.

What makes Conan really, truly worthy of the number ten spot, though? For me, it's because he makes a blank Action Hero slate. I would argue that Conan of Cimmeria is the most quintessential action hero. Even more than the first examples that come to mind, like Rambo, and even more than the base, mythological "Action Heroes" like Theseus. Conan is a big dude with a sword who swings it and wins. That is the action hero template.

But then why so low? Because he is blank. Books, and especially the movies, portray Conan as basically just the big dude with the sword. The world he's in is considerably more interesting than the man himself. Conan is a plot device with basic, basic motivations, but I just can't write this list without including him…so he's number ten.

9: James Bond (The James Bond Franchise)
Okay, I know that it's a codename, it's multiple characters, yadda yadda yadda. But every single James Bond we've seen is very similar. Suave, good with a gun, has lots of gadgets, reliant on M for a bunch of wat helps him survive…

Oh, is that blasphemous? Tough, because it's true. Now look, James Bond is a bit of a Guile Hero, it's true. He has to rely on wits just a touch, but we all know what the appeal of James Bond is. He has a gun, he shoots the bad guys, he saves the world and gets the girl. That's a very basic action hero.

By the shifting, semi-anonymous nature of James Bond, he doesn't tend to have a lot of external influence. He doesn't give you much in the way of character because he can't. He's just 007.

8: John Rambo (Rambo)
God, I'm apparently just here to kill sacred cows. Hear me out: this is where the "my list" aspect comes in. Rambo is a god damn amazing character…once. First Blood is an action movie masterpiece, and hand to God, Sylvester Stallone is one of the most undervalued American actors out there.

John Rambo just wasn't used well after First Blood. But that very initial hit of Rambo? It's heroin. You want it again and again after you see him. He's a veteran, he's messed up, and he knows how to kill you way better than you know how to kill him. Put him up against an oppressive police force and really, really try to pay respect to what those veterans have to deal with now? That's John Rambo. That's First Blood.

And if they'd stopped there and let it sit as a masterpiece, then he would be near the top of this list.

7: Unohana Retsu (Bleach)
Okay, maybe it's a little weird. I know in the Guile Hero article, I said we never, ever talk about Bleach after the timeskip, but I make some exceptions for character information.

Unohana from the beginning is portrayed with very little information, but the information we have is very interesting: we know that she's the second oldest captain of the 13 Court Guard Squads, and in shonen anime "old" tends to mean "powerful." Not to mention we've established age as power with Head Captain Yamamoto. We know she's the Captain of Squad Four, which is the healing division. She's very good at healing. And one other thing we know is that Squad Eleven are terrified of her. Squad Eleven is basically all action heroes, all the time, and they quiver before her.

We don't find out why until after the timeskip. It's true that she's not super interesting as a person, but I have to give her this spot just because it's so…god damn terrifying and cool and badass. Post timeskip, we find out she's one of the deadliest fighters in the Soul Society. She was only bested by one person, and that's Zaraki Kenpachi, the current leader of Squad Eleven, which used to be her squad.

That's not the crazy part, though: the only reason she learned to heal was so she could fight longer. She needed to be able to immediately recover and kill more people. Not to help anyone, nothing so noble as that: she liked fighting and killing and wanted to be better at it. Full stop.

6: Neytiri (Avatar)
This is the movie that put Zoe Saldana on the map, although she'd been in the industry for quite a while before that, and for good reason. Not only is Avatar technologically and visually stunning, but it has great characters. Neytiri is one of them. Simultaneously, she fits several tropes. Not all of them are good, and there are some actual problems with this movie, even if people want to turn their heads away from that. It's a rehashed plot, and a problematic one at that. Seeing the white military man come in and save the poor natives is tiresome and offensive.

But I still enjoy the film, and a huge part of that is Neytiri. She's an Action Hero, riding in on a panther lizard thing and taking out powered armor suits. She's still undeniably female, taking part in her culture's norms of femininity, but she'll kill you. She's fun, she's tragic, and she does her best.

And did I mention she'll kill you? Because she will. Neytiri is an incredibly deadly, capable warrior, potentially even more than Jake Sully. I mean, who would you put your money on to win that fight?

(Of note: Zoe Saldana can do very little wrong, especially in action roles. Check out Colombiana when you get the chance.)

5: Fox (Wanted)
I have a soft spot for Angelina Jolie, it's true. But this is where I think personality starts to really kick in for action heroes on this list. They aren't quite cookie cutter images.

Now it's very possible you haven't seen Wanted. It's not a beloved action flick, but it's one of my absolute favorites. Wesley, the main character, is a good, solid character. He's the one the plot needed. But Jolie's Fox is the one who made the biggest impact as a character for me.

The premise here is that certain people have a mutation of sorts that gives them hyper reflexes and a few other superhuman skills. The mythos of the world is a little cloudy, I admit. But Fox is one of these people: an assassin who follows the orders of fate. Or at least one who believes she does. She can curve bullets out of the barrel of a gun. She's a hardened badass, but she also has a reason for being here, which I think is something we see so rarely in action heroes, and is one of the things that makes them so good when they're good.

As a girl, Fox's father was murdered by a man who was supposed to be assassinated. An assassin from this group before she ever joined didn't kill the mark, and because of that her father was burned alive in front of her, and he was branded. It's powerful motivation for her to follow blindly along and kill who she needs to. "Kill one, save a thousand."

And because of that, she's set for a beautiful fall. When it turns out that the orders are being manipulated, aren't just being handed down by fate, things change for her. Not to mention, her and everyone else in that group of assassins had legitimately come up as orders.

So she kills them. With one curving bullet, she takes out all of them and herself, because her conviction to those fated assassinations is simply that strong. And damn it if that's not a beautiful death scene, even if the headshots are just a little too clean for realism.

4: Leeloo (The Fifth Element)
I swear I'm not trying to put all the female entries together. There are just characters I couldn't put lower than Leeloo.

That said, Leeloo is a personal favorite. Hell, The Fifth Element is arguably my favorite movie of all time. It's genius, gorgeous sci-fi at a time when nothing like that dared to exist in cinema. A huge part of the appeal is the casting of Leeloo. I don't think anyone other than Milla Jovovich could have pulled it off.

Why? Because Leeloo is a character who shouldn't work. Like, at all. She's awesome at basically everything she tries, nearly all powerful…I mean, come on, they literally describe her as the perfect being. And she shoots lasers out of her mouth. She's basically the Death Star, but also young, limber, and scantily clad. Nothing about her should make her so amazing.

But she is. She's soft in the right places. Her lack of knowledge about the world isn't just there to make a young, innocent female character who's still clearly of age to have sex (Which is a problem we need to talk about, America. Stop it, it's weird. We can't simultaneously infantilize and sexualize women. I mean we can, but we god damn shouldn't.). It's there because she lets us see things from a fresh perspective.

While Leeloo has a lot of great action scenes (The Diva Dance scene. Come on, you know you love it.), my absolute favorite scene of hers is when she learns about war. This ultimate defense system against evil sees a rapid fire shot of all war that humans have engaged in, and you just watch her break. It's powerful for her, pivotal for the plot, and really shows the audience something about the world.

The Fifth Element stands as a masterpiece, and Leeloo is an integral part of that.

3: Suzaku Kururugi (Code Geass)
You had to know Code Geass would make this list right? And who better than the white knight himself, Suzaku. Rarely bested in all out battle, Suzaku masterfully pilots the Lancelot. And he's a core of the series. His past relationships with Lelouch and Nunally, the murder of his own father, his split allegiance between Japan and the Britannian Empire. He's fascinating.

But more than anything, what makes him work the best for me is what Lelouch does to him. Lelouch gives him a standing order, one that literally can't ignore: live. No matter what, Suzaku has to survive. No matter the cost, no matter what he wants, he's going to make it. That's up to and including functionally breaking the laws of the universe to do it.

Suzaku can't die, and that alone should make him the ultimate action hero…but what's better is that he hates it. He hates being unable to sacrifice himself. He hates the things running does to him and the people around him. But there's no help for it: he has to do it. He has to watch himself betray his fellow soldiers by running from battle. I just…god damn it, I love Suzaku.

2: Machete (Machete)
No Action Hero list could be complete without at least one Danny Trejo role, and for the most quintessential is Machete. I'm a huge Robert Rodriguez fan, even when he's off his game (Yeah, I even like Sharkboy and Lavagirl.), and Machete is just a fascinating movie with a fascinating title character. Plus I feel it's very applicable to our modern day.

Machete is, I suppose, the exception that makes the rule. He doesn't have deep character motivation like Fox, or that breaking moment like Leeloo, or anything that I felt was really lacking in James Bond or Conan. In every aspect, Machete is a classic, generic Action Hero.

But god damn it, he's so good at it. The combination of Robert Rodriguez's imagination with Danny Trejo's face and acting chops, plus the freedom of an R rating…Machete is one of the bloodiest, most wonderful, engaging Action Heroes to watch.

Would you believe anyone but Danny Trejo rappelling down a hospital with a man's intestine's as his rope? Of course not, that's ridiculous. But Machete does it.

Machete Kills, unfortunately, isn't as good, but Machete himself is wonderful and consistent in the movie, and I hold out hope for Machete Kills Again…in Space.

1: Corben Dallas (The Fifth Element)
I knew from the outset he would top out my list. I mean, young Bruce Willis in an orange tank top living alone with his cat. Entry done.

Okay, not really. The appeal of Bruce Willis's muscles not withstanding, Corben Dallas is at once the epitome of the Action Hero trope while also breaking free from it. On paper, he's an amazing choice. A loner military veteran who outlived his entire team and has to save the world.

But let's write another paper. Angry New York City cabbie with an overbearing mother and a recent divorce who's trying to quit smoking when a beautiful woman literally falls into his life.

Both of those accurately describe Corben Dallas, and the complexity is what makes him work so well and helps make The Fifth Element so remarkable as a film. Corben can shoot, he can quip, and he's still totally devoted to Leeloo and their relationship. Compassionate and pragmatic…I can't really say enough about Corben Dallas. If somehow you haven't seen The Fifth Element, I highly recommend you go watch it.

Now.

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