This video-essay presents in a fast-paced and emotionally engaging manner a summary of the research project ‘Faces of Evil: Enemy Image Construction in the American Action Film’. In this five-year spanning research project, enemy identities and geopolitical themes were coded out of 180 action films, over a 36-year time period (1981-2016). This was done to capture the genre’s cultural politics and representational strategies that underline the action cinema’s ideological projects. Originating in the cultural hotbed of Reaganite America (Jeffords, 1994) the action film has been often considered as exemplary of jingoist and xenophobic sentiments running through the American socio-political landscape (Tasker, 2015). Most commonly, the genre is linked with themes of American imperialism (Purse, 2011) since its fantasies of military triumph aligns with contemporary discourses on ‘otherness’ and conflict.
Central in this study was Roger Stahl’s notion of ‘the weaponized gaze’. In Through the Crosshairs: War, Visual Culture, and the Weaponized Gaze (2018), Stahl delivers a critical treatment of how Hollywood cinema has increasingly embedded spectator enjoyment into the destructive logic of military weaponry. The point of view of guns, missiles, surveillance cameras and predator drones has become an ubiquitous element within many genres. Particularly the action film seems to be embedded in this visual regime, as many of the genre’s spectacular thrills are grafted on the destructive potential of modern warfare and its technological developments (O’Brien, 2012). As the border between camera and weapon blurs, the perception of what lays in front of the weapon’s scope also changes. By perceiving the world through the lens of a crosshair, the spectator is implored to ‘search and destroy’ together with the action hero. In the process, these films construct a series of enemy images that demonize ethnic and national ‘others’ to the American national self. Moreover, the logic of the weapon helps to transform the imperialist violence of the action hero into a politically legitime and entertaining spectator experience.
By way of making a thematic collage of the different representational strategies that run throughout a large sample of action films, Shoot to Kill affectively communicate how the weaponize gaze of the action film imbues a sense of moral legitimacy and military might onto the national self. What does the action film see? And which type of action does this mode of perception demand? Firstly, I aim to deconstruct how action films glorify military might and strategies of surveillance. The genre’s infatuation with the enforcement of American imperialist power is put on display by focusing on moments in which the cogs of the American war machine are turning at full speed. Action films have a compulsion to record, map or exhibit, and in doing so outline a series of exotic others and evil enemies. Stereotypes and other cultural connotations evidently form a part of such regimes of representation, therefore the use of identities and place in the genre is put forward next. After this, I outline the action film’s array of methods to dehumanize enemy others by editing together several of these strategies. Audiovisual regimes, such as abstraction, are tackled by focusing on the role of masks, masses and other methods of deindividualization. Another such strategy lies in focusing on different ways in which the enemy is visualized. Through the use of color, composition, lighting, acting codes, camera angles, musical motifs, iconographic themes and other aspects of the film’s mise-en-scène, cinematography and sound design, the look of evil can be convincingly given shape. The essay ends by satirizing the scenes of celebration that often follow these films’ heroic violence.
By identifying the many villains that are placed in the visor of the hero’s brand of ‘righteous’ violence, some of the precariousness that was robbed from these enemies might be given back. Shoot to Kill asks its viewer in what precisely the action hero's status of herohood lies. Without the help of generic conventions, affective logics and different stylistic systems the rhetoric of the action film falls flat and its heroes are revealed as the very weapons of mass destruction they supposedly seek to destroy.
Jeffords, S. (1994). Hard bodies: Hollywood masculinity in the Reagan era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
O'Brien, H. (2012). Action movies: The cinema of striking back (Vol. 51). New York, NY: Columbia University Press
Purse, L. (2011). Contemporary action cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Stahl, R. (2018). Through the Crosshairs: War, Visual Culture, and the Weaponized Gaze. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Tasker, Y. (2015). The Hollywood action and adventure film. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Lennart Soberon is a post-doctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and artistic coordinator of non-profit arthouse KASKcinema, Ghent (BE). His prior research project focused on enemy image construction in the American action film. In this research he combined a longitudinal study of Hollywood screen villains since the 1980 with a neoformalist analysis on cinematic practices of vilification. Apart from working on themes of enemy making and ‘othering’, he has also published on themes of genre, emotion, masculinity, and spectacle. He is currently part of an ERC-funded project on the cinematic representation of European border regions.