Aug 18, 2011

The Three Best Movie Themes of the 80's

My brother and I are often in the garage working on one of our many car projects.  While we are working, we are usually pitching each other ideas of movie plots or recounting some of our favorite movies of the past.  Lately, our discussions have centered around the many familiar plot lines and stories that dominated action movies and television in the 80's.  These are the movies that we all know and love.  The lines and characters are familiar and predictable.  They usually involved a strong quiet leading man who carried with him a long list of flaws and baggage.  But when the chips were down, you wouldn't want anybody else. In an era of unending comic book movies and seven part mega franchise blockbusters, why can't we turn back to some of the movies that I would call, "the best."  We narrowed it down to three main plot schemes that I will outline here.

Number One: The Reluctant Hero

One of the most popular and common themes of the great movies of the 80's is "The Reluctant Hero."  These movies usually begin with some sort of national security disaster, serial killer on the loose, or hostage situation in an unstable foreign country.  As the movie opens, we are briefed on the current situation with a great emphasis on how dire the circumstances really are.  The guys in charge, whether it be CIA, government, or law enforcement, discusses their desperation.  Then, there is a conversation regarding the only person who can save us all.  It usually goes something like this:

Man 1: "What are we going to do.  We can't send in troops.  We can't have another national security fiasco like the last time."

Man 2:  " I have an idea.  It's a longshot, but it may be the only shot we have." 

(The two men share a knowing look.)

Man 1:  "He'll never do it."

Man 2: "We have to try."

The next scene will take place in the mountains or somewhere in an isolated part of Southeast Asia.  An "old friend" tracks down our hero only to find him building a church or working a farm.  The conversation goes like this:

Old Friend: "It's been a long time.  I never thought I'd see you working the land."

Hero:  "It's as far away as I could get.  You must be in deep shit if your here talking to me."

Old Friend: "It's the Russians this time.  They've left us no choice.  I need you."

Hero:  "Never again."

They usually go back and forth for a minute and the old friend tells the hero that he is "the best" and he needs him.  After a final refusal, our hero is usually left to ponder his past and flash back to his old life.  We are usually let in to the secret that drove him away from his old life.  Most commonly, we see the death of a young woman.

Eventually, our hero will get involved.  He is pulled in when his old friend is captured or killed.  Sometimes, a parallel is drawn to the mistakes of his past and he sees a chance to correct them. No matter how he is drawn back in, this is when we get one of the greatest components of all 80's movies: the montage.  We are shown a minute long training and equipping montage with some fantastic music behind it.  We are sometimes lucky enough to hear Kenny Loggins.  And finally, the killing ensues.  In the killing process, our hero will often save several innocent victims or an oppressed community and probably save a beautiful young woman who reminds him of his lost love.  The movie usually ends with a triumphant victory over the kidnapper/oppressor.  What kind of man is our hero? It can be best explained by his old friend.  The following scene from First Blood (1982) tells us exactly who we are dealing with.

Number Two:  Hotshot Cop Who Plays by His Own Rules

We all know and love this guy.  He doesn't drive a cop car, he drives his own car.  It is usually some sort of classic car that has seen better days.
"Jack Cates" 48 Hours  (1982)

"Dooley" K-9 (1989)
He is known for his shoot first and ask questions later attitude.  His movies often open with a high speed chase or the foiling of an armed robbery.  The opening scene is rarely related to the overall plot of the movie.  The next scene is almost always the return to the police station.  My favorite scene in most of these movies is now coming up.  What is it? The verbal tongue lashing our hero receives from his police captain.  It usually sounds like this,

Captain: "God damnitt Cahill!  You've done it this time!  I've got the mayor crawling up my ass after this last stunt! I should have your badge for this."

The tirade continues until another detective comes in and tells us all that "there has been another killing." The captain looks at our hero and the exchange goes like this:

Captain: "We'll finish this conversation later.   I should bust you back to traffic for this stunt, but your the best I've got.  And, Cahill, no more shenanigans!"

Hero:  "I'm not making any promises."

The movie will undoubtedly progress through a series of familiar plot turns.  It will definitely become a personal vendetta between our hero and the main villain in the movie.  The villains in these movies are usually played by the same couple of guys.  It seems like Kevin Tighe played the role at least a few times.

Kevin Tighe

One of my favorite plot twists is when the villain frames our hero and the result is the second great scene between the hero and the police captian.

Captain: "That's it Cahill I did my best to protect you.  I stuck my neck out for you.  You've done it this time.  There is nothing I can do.  I need your gun and your badge.  And so help me Cahill, if you keep working on this case, I will arrest you myself."

Inevitably, out hero disregards the order not to work on the case. He goes after the villain and, undoubtedly, a messy gun fight results in the death of the villain.    In his quest for justice, many will die.  The cost to the city will be huge.  Why does he get away with it?  Because, he gets results.

Number Three: The Wrongly accused Hero

Possibly, the most complex of the three, is the wrongly accused hero.  This guy always has a complex back story that involves getting "kicked off the force."  This guy was a detective who was obsessed with the job.  So obsessed, that his wife left him long ago.  She couldn't compete with his work. Just before she left she told him that she should have known he was already married, married to the job.  He was kicked off the force when one of two things happened.  He was either set up and framed by the city's number one crime boss or he shot an innocent victim in a night time raid.

These movies and TV crime dramas usually involve an arch nemesis crime boss.  Our hero had been working for years to take him down.  He was just about to make the case when he was framed for murdering one of the bosses henchman.  Since everybody knew our hero had been after the boss for years, it was an easy frame.  He is acquitted of criminal wrong doing, but he had to give up his shield.

The other career ending event is the accidental shooting of an innocent victim.  During a night time raid, he shot an innocent victim.  He always thought the crime boss had set it up, but wasn't sure.  Internal affairs was sure he had been drinking that night, but couldn't prove it.  Nevertheless, he lost his shield.  Sargent Al Powell (Die Hard 1988) describes his experience,

"I shot a kid. He was 13 years old. Ohhh, it was dark, I couldn't see him. He had a ray gun, looked real enough. You know, when you're a rookie, they can teach you everything about bein' a cop except how to live with a mistake."

This guy is usually flirting with full blown alcoholism.  He is able to control it just enough to get the job done.  He is gritty, streetwise, and not afraid of anyone.  He is fueled by the anger of his past mistakes and the wrongs done to him.  He openly displays his disdain for the "system" and even the "force" he once loved so much.  He maintains contact with his ex-partner who reluctantly does him favors on just about every case he works.  In some movies, it may eventually turn out that this same ex-partner was involved in setting him up. 

I love the scenes that demonstrate the tension between our hero and the detectives who now work the job he left behind.  There is always a near fight scene when the younger replacement detective says something like, "Why don't you leave this to a professional.  You old drunk."  I also love that this type of hero's closest companion is usually his hand gun.  Often a 1911 or some variant, he is never without it.  If you don't recognize a 1911, it looks like this. 

Colt 1911

The best of these characters showed up on TV.  Guys like Mike Hammer and Spenser were the perfect private investigators.  These shows were great because they were ongoing.  We were able to see the characters develop and we learned more about the relationships they had.  Spenser had "Hawk" and Mike Hammer had "Betsy."    It is easy to believe that at any moment, someone could revive these characters.  Legal issues and copyright law aside, these characters could be brought back to life.  You know that Spenser is sitting in his 1965 Mustang Fastback with his Baretta 92.  He is waiting for his next case. 

Mike Hammer Boxed SetSpenser For Hire - the Movie Collection

With the recycling of movie and TV ideas happening at an exponential rate, why don't we go back to "the best of the best?"  How many comic book movies and reality shows do we have to endure before we can revive these legendary movie and TV story lines.    How about a movie where the main character doesn't follow anybody else's rules.  He is the best, he gets results, he is a loose cannon, and the bottom line is, we all love him.  I suggest that we send a couple of guys into the mountains of Wyoming to find our hero.  We'll find him in his hand-built cabin living off of the land.  He may be reluctant to come back, but we can appeal to his sense of justice.  We'll tell him that we need him.  There are a lot of innocent lives at risk, this time.  He is the only one that can accomplish this job.  And, this is his last chance at vindication. 

1 comment:

  1. Very succinct and complete summation of the best characters Hollywood has created. I did feel you may have been a little light on die hard and the last boyscout , the latter illustrating almost all three character types perfectly