The 1980s were a decade of unfettered capitalist excess in the United States. It was a time when Gordon Gecko’s mantra, “greed is good”, was the status quo. A former Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan, was the president. The failure in Vietnam and Jimmy Carter’s administration had many white conservative Americans wanting a conservative outsider for president. Actors like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme continued to appear on the silver screen with Rambo, The Terminator, Missing In Action, and Bloodsport. It was a time when Vietnam revisionist fantasies were popular like the aforementioned films Rambo and Missing in Action.
John Rambo was the hero of the Reagan 80s. “Reaganomics” destroyed many lives while the upper class padded their offshore accounts. His administration was tough on crime and drugs which disproportionately affected minority populations. The Religious Right’s emphasis on “family values” demonized the LGBTQ population and Women’s Rights for healthcare. The administration ignored AIDS crisis which led to the deaths of many, to quote David Wojnarowicz, “If I die of AIDS, forget burial, just drop my body on the steps of the FDA. ” As Susan Jeffords points out Reagan’s policies were to control the body rather than help the body. The Americans who supported Reagan believed that he was a the epitome of masculinity and strength while they believed Carter was a weak leader. The failed assassination attempt and the Grenada invasion helped with this image of masculinity. What better film genre than the action film depicts the Reagan 80s fantasies.
There are countless 80’s action films that could be dissected, two examples are George P. Cosmatos’ 1986 fascist vigilante cop action thriller Cobra starring Sylvester Stallone and Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 satirical sci-fi masterpiece Robocop which takes down the ideals of Reaganism in 80s action cinema. In 1986, came Cobra, a Dirty Harry style vigilante cop film, brought to audiences courtesy of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of The Cannon Group fame with a screenplay written by Sylvester Stallone and directed by George Cosmatos, though Stallone himself really directed the film. The film follows Stallone as Lt. Marion Cobretti as he goes on a one-man mission to take down a murderous cult led by “The Night Slasher”. The film was a critical failure but did very well in the box office. The vigilante cop going against commands narrative was indicative of the Reagan era action film. The film primarily went in the direction of Reagan’s policies on crime, using fear mongering. The opening narration of the film sounds like the kind of fear mongering Rudy Giuliani would say to garner support for his “Broken Windows” policies. “In America, there’s a burglary every 11 seconds, an armed robbery every 65 seconds, a violent crime every 25 seconds, a murder every 24 minutes, and 250 rapes a day. ” Cobra plays like fascist fantasy with no regard for Miranda Rights and a heaping pile of police brutality thrown in. The scene the audience is introduced to Cobretti shows him gunning down a man who has taken hostages in a grocery store. Coming off the heels of Rambo II, Stallone’s Cobretti is shown in the same vein as Rambo. Both Cobretti and Rambo are gleaming examples of the Reagan era ideals of masculinity. When Cobretti uses an uzi at the end of the film, none of the bullets miss (contrast this with the Stormtroopers in Star Wars). That same sequence as he is fighting off the cult, Cobretti is hardly injured, walks away like Rambo without a graze.
When Cobretti faces off against The Night Slasher in the end, Cobretti says, “This is where the law stops. And I start. Sucker. ” Like Clint Eastwood’s Harry in Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s Kersey in Death Wish, Cobretti has no time for the law or the rights of criminals. The cult themselves ignore the law and are violent, Cobretti is no different from the criminals he dispatches. With Robocop, Paul Verhoeven goes in a different direction and satirizes the Reagan one man army action heroes that Stallone portrays. In 1987, the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven directed his first Hollywood film Robocop. Robocop, being a special-effects heavy science fiction film, was a radical change from the films he made in The Netherlands. Verhoeven is known for graphic violence and explicit sexuality and Robocop was one of his most violent films. The film starred a number of great character actors including Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Ray Wise, Kurtwood Smith, and Miguel Ferrer. The film focuses on Officer Alex Murphy who is killed by a group of criminals then “brought back to life” by the corporation OCP (or Omni Consumer Products), which specializes in robotics, military, and consumer goods, as the cyborg cop known as Robocop. OCP owns the privatized police department. At first, Verhoeven did not want to make the film because he thought it was fascist. However, Verhoeven was able to make a film that was satirical of the Reagan 80s by masking the satire with over-the-top extreme violence. Authoritarianism, capitalism, privatization, and the influence of the media are the issues Verhoeven tackles with Robocop. OCP controls the government, the police, and every aspect of the lives of those living in Delta City.
The militarism and capitalist policies of the Reagan administration are satirized by the power of OCP. Alex Murphy’s “resurrection” as the crime-fighting cyborg comments on the masculinity of the era by getting rid of the male body and replacing it with, as Jeffords puts it, “a literal hard body”, one who will not serve and protect for nationalistic means but for the people. The news agency in the film predates the absurd propaganda of Fox News. The hyper-masculine action films of the 80s fizzled in the 90s and the 00s with action cinema led by women like Kill Bill and Tomb Raider.
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