Shoot to Kill: The Weaponized Gaze of the American Action Film

Creator's Statement

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.

According to its Creator’s Statement, “Shoot to Kill” is the videographic summation of a large, multi-year research project that interrogates the representational strategies and ideological commitments common to Hollywood’s military action films over the last four decades. Although the video essay alludes to this larger investigation through its title work and segmented organization, “Shoot to Kill” is less about advancing a singular thesis on cinematic conventions or cultural politics than it is an evocative montage of military entertainment’s (or “militainment’s”) viewing pleasures.

A third of the way through the video, we’re asked: “What do the eyes of the action hero see?” This is followed shortly thereafter by: “What do they want to see?” These questions are ostensibly answered by the montages that follow each of these queries. However, this isn’t exactly the case either. During the preceding “We imagine our enemies to death” segment, we witness waves of unnamed combatants being shot, burned, impaled, tortured, and exploded. At no point do we see our cinematic heroes—only their adversaries meeting their respective ends in spectacular fashion. “Shoot to Kill,” in effect, showed us what the “eyes of the action hero sees” and what “they want to see” before posing those on-screen prompts. Indeed, the ideological trick of militainment is that it transfers a spectatorial desire from the armed protagonist to the audience; it’s as much about what the viewer wants to see, or is made to want to see. But how does this happen? 

The video essayist discusses the value of Roger Stahl’s incisive work, Through the Crosshairs, to their larger study in their statement. I had a passing sense of what this hyper-mediated “crosshair vision” looks like in the video essay, but there aren’t too many of these specific shots. One can imagine perhaps a follow-up supercut to this video essay, where clips featuring crosshairs or gun reticules have been meticulously composed so that only the enemies change between film clips. This, too, would demonstrate the replaceable nature of villains to our unseen victors, be they drone operators piloting vehicles across continents, snipers peering through scopes from hidden perches, or video game-players aiming down the virtual sights in first-person shooters. Stahl’s work vitally connects an instrument of war—here, a weapon’s crosshairs—with a broader cultural logic that transforms state-sponsored violence into spectatorial satisfaction across mass media.   

But “Shoot to Kill” hints at something else beyond Stahl’s weaponized gaze. Perhaps unintentionally but no less effectively, this video essay gestures to another truth of Hollywood’s action/war fiction: that its often cartoonish and ham-handed. The first and final victims featured in the piece are the woefully under-prepared mercenaries in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985, dir. Mark L. Lester). Theirs are the decontextualized flipping and spasming bodies that are slowed and frozen in time. While we aren’t treated to Schwarzenegger’s trademark one-liners, the grotesque gyrations of the stuntmen performing their rag-doll-like physics point to the political and aesthetic ambivalences of Hollywood’s military fantasies. Commando is so fantastically over-the-top and self-aware that it’s fair to call it campy militainment (i.e., see also, Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 sci-fi shooter, Starship Troopers). (FYI: David Tetzlaff’s “Too Much Red Meat!” (2004) remains the definitive word on Commando’s hidden brilliance.)

Yet for all of its glorious excesses, Commando isn’t terribly different from all those overly-serious films featured in “Shoot to Kill.” As is noted by my fellow Reviewer, Sylvester Stallone’s line-reading at the end—“I used everything I had”—borders on the comically absurd. That Stallone’s Cobra (1986, dir. George Cosmatos) can reside so easily next to Commando or to more politically-earnest if conventional films like Top Gun (1986, dir. Tony Scott) and American Sniper (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood) points to militainment’s ability to utilize all-manner of rhetorical, narrative, and aesthetic devices in the service of making war fantasies safe for consumption. So safe, in fact, that they can be packaged for sale alongside Coke, Jell-O, and all the sugary cereals appearing in the video’s opening and closing moments. This is one of the project’s most powerful moments. In the final minute during the “The Crowd Cheering” segment, the video essay cycles between military fanfare for returning soldiers, shots of decimated enemies, and TV commercials. As the editing pace increases we’re led to feel that these things are more similar than dissimilar, and that “Shoot to Kill” is urging us to attend to those dissonant associations that link patriotism, bloodlust, and consumer culture. 

Finally, and with regard to the Creator’s Statement, I wanted to hear more about the essayist’s personal process of discovery. The author lists the steps undertaken to transform the prosaic argument into a video essay, yet I found myself wondering what was learned along the way. Was there anything from the research project that couldn’t find videographic expression? Conversely, did any realizations emerge from editing that demanded a reassessment of the initial project’s findings? One of the methodological gifts of the videographic process is its ability to make the familiar strange, including casting established beliefs in a new light and drawing attention to textual features that may have before now eluded our own analytical crosshairs.


Stahl, Roger. Through the Crosshairs: War, Visual Culture, and the Weaponized Gaze. Rutgers University Press, 2018.

Tetzlaff, David. “Too Much Red Meat.” New Hollywood Violence edited by Steven Jay Schneider. Manchester University Press, 2004: 269-285.

The author has changed the focus, and the title, of the videographic essay in the revised submission, concentrating less on the visual construction of the "enemy" in the Hollywood action film over a 30 plus year period, and more on Roger Stahl's idea of the "weaponized gaze" as a conduit of visual pleasure.   The author illustrates this idea by focusing on a genre -- the American action film -- that has long been associated with American national identity and with aggrandized spectacles of military power.  The videographic essay, "Shoot to Kill," seeks to underline the complicity of Hollywood with what Stahl elsewhere calls "militainment," and provides many examples of action film conventions of killing and destruction in exotic, foreign settings, always directed against an enemy "other."  Here, we are reminded that the action genre is at its core an unabashed celebration of violence, an example of what the literary theorist Sarah Cole calls "enchanted violence," as we witness a catalogue of mayhem ranging from everything from simple hand to hand struggle, to various machine gun attacks, to an explosive arrow that, fired by Sylvester Stallone, ignites a conflagration, to the "kill chain" of drone command and control.  Interspersed among the scenes of violence are older television ads for various American consumer items, featuring mainly children and young women. The essay is divided into several chapters, with chapter titles that serve to underline the different facets of the genre that the author wishes to emphasize. 

For me, the videographic essay is much better in this revised version, both in terms of flow and clarity.  However, it is still stronger in conception than in execution.  Section titles like "What does the action hero see?"  And "What does the action hero want to see?" provide perhaps the most direct way to connect the weaponized gaze of the genre with the scopic pleasure of the spectator, as it seems that what the action hero wants to see and what the spectator wants to see are the same.  However, this idea is never really brought home, and perhaps it would be difficult to do so.  Also, some of the pictured violence has an almost comic feel to it, as figures are flung into the air in a kind of slapstick performance -- scenes that are repeated in the essay twice.  Several times, the essay juxtaposes emotional tones in a way that is difficult to process, ranging from near comic acrobatics, to sinister threat, to the graphic ugliness of waterboarding, to a closing shot of Sylvester Stallone that seems almost like self-parody.  This range of stylistic tones may be part of the genre's language, and if so, the author has captured this well in the essay.  But the idea of the "weaponized gaze" tends to move into the background with these juxtapositions.

The theme the essay wishes to explore is interesting and solid, and the action genre is a good place to bring this critical paradigm into view.  The essay seems still to be a work in progress, however.  In my view, the essay could be made stronger by focusing more fully on the two questions that the author asks toward the beginning of the essay concerning what the action hero sees, and what the action hero wishes to see.  To my mind, this is the most successful segment of the essay.

I am happy to see the essay published in its current form, as I feel that the videographic essay along with the abstract the author has provided, including the critical analyses of the two reviewers, make this a worthwhile excavation of a genre that continues to exert a hold on the American popular imagination.