Weekly Top Five: Reagan-era actioners

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Chuck Norris in Invasion USA
  • Chuck Norris in Invasion USA
This past Wednesday, the remake of John Milius's classic kids-versus-commies action fest hit theaters just in time for Thanksgiving Black Friday, providing the perfect option for those thirsting for some Americanism during the holiday season—which, in case you weren't aware, is the optimal time to be an American. I reviewed the film for the Reader, a task I happily volunteered for given my fascination with the 1984 original.

As Asher Klein notes in this blog post, Milius's text is ripe for remake in this age of supposed big government. Ailing red staters still hurting from Obama's reelection will find much to like in this version, as its avowal of rugged individualism by way of militaristic heroism seems ripped straight out of the tea party playbook. But Red Dawn isn't the only film of its kind. The 80s are brimming with jingoistic action fare—in fact, most genre fans will attest to the Ronald Reagan years as the height of action cinema. The following films are notable by their illogical sentiments toward patriotism, their gleefully irreverent narrative strategies, and value for keeping television networks like TNT or TBS in business. In other words, what Michael Bay would deem "good, clean fun."

5. Extreme Prejudice (Walter Hill, 1987, USA) This film's oft-used premise—two lifelong friends (Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe) who grow up to become a Texas ranger and a drug kingpin—has been used in films as disparate as The Fox and the Hound and Point Break. Here, Hill uses it as a parable of self-governed righteousness that climaxes in blood and gunfire. A heavy-handed film, to be sure, but there are some real pleasures to be had. Hill directs with the mind of a cinephile, taking tasteful cues from Sam Peckinpah and classic Hollywood—in his original capsule review for the Reader, Pat Graham exquisitely describes Boothes as "a brooding John Ford apparition in white suit and Stetson." Fun fact: Milius has a screenwriting credit.

4. Invasion USA (Joseph Zito, 1985, USA) Remove a troupe of high school kids and throw in Chuck Norris, and you've got the basic idea behind this Reagan-era classic. Norris stars as some sort of ex-CIA operative who lives all by himself in the middle of the Florida everglades. When he learns of a nefarious Russian terrorist's plan to overtake America, he takes it upon himself to save the day by taking out said terrorist and his army of more than 100 soldiers. Zito's film is a testament to the heroic, hermetic crackpots all across this great land of ours who, when equipped with enough firearms to supply a small European country and the kind of zeal that would make George Washington proud, can achieve anything they set their mind to.

3. Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985, USA) Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger share an intriguingly similar professional biography: both earned a living as actors of marginal ability before being elected major political figures in charge of two of the most important economies on the planet. How both fared at the whole "political leader" thing isn't a question that's easily answered, but one thing's for sure: Reagan was never more famous than when he was POTUS—there was a point in time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest—if not the biggest—movie stars on the planet. Schwarzenegger is in rare form in Commando, a classic ode to militarism, fatherly duty, and, of course, the macho Zen attained by an ex-government employee who finds fulfillment when striking out on his own. Sidenote: Lester also directed Class of 1984, which is more or less than antithesis of this film.

2. Cobra (George P. Cosmatos, 1986, USA) Sylvester Stallone pulls deputy here, as he stars as a cartoonishly tough-on-crime street cop while also penning the screenplay. Few of these Reagan-era action flicks outwardly mock liberalism, but Cobra does. Stallone's meek superior, played like a doofus by Andrew Robinson, spends most of the film unconvincingly spouting lines about about excessive violence in the media, only to be undermined by Stallone and his penchant for punishing criminals with, well, extreme prejudice. The most famous tagline to accompany the film's poster was "Crime is a disease. Meet the cure," which could just as easily double as the catchphrase for Reagan's war on drugs—specifically in the way it purports a magically backward world in which two wrongs actually do make a right.

1. Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986, USA) The late director's most beguiling film: On the surface, it seems propagandistic (Dave Kehr calls it a "feature-length commercial for the navy's fighter pilots school," an obvious reference to Scott's background in advertising), but there's such indifference hanging over the action that one suspects a more subversive bite in the subtext. However, taken as it is, Top Gun represents the pinnacle of macho dudes who've mastered modern mechanical warfare, depicted so convincingly that military enlistment spiked significantly during the film's highly successful theatrical run. Reagan's normally veiled promotion of military adventurism was never more prominent.

Honorable mention: Hard not to think of War Games (1983) when concocting this list. The Right Stuff also came to mind, but it has a sardonic edge that makes it something of a parody. Almost went with Rocky IV, too, but one Stallone film is usually more than enough.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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