After all the months of anticipation, rumors, and debates over the merits of accelerator suits, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra finally storms into theaters this weekend, ready to rescue us from the late-summer movie doldrums. We don’t know about you, but your pals at RT certainly appreciate the effort, and in honor of these real American heroes, we’ve decided to dedicate this week’s Total Recall to our favorite Hollywood action teams, and all they’ve done to save us from decades of nefarious bad guys intent on stealing our crops, hijacking our planes, and just generally giving us a hard time.
The action team reached its arguable high point in the ’80s, but it’s actually been a fixture in the cinema for decades, and we’ve sorted through a cross section of the best examples to bring you a list that includes classics from the ’50s and ’60s (Seven Samurai, The Dirty Dozen) as well as definitive entries from the more recent past (Delta Force, Kill Bill). Whether it’s shadowy assassins or flag-waving members of the U.S. military that send you running for the popcorn, we’ve got something that’ll get your testosterone pumping. There’s no time to waste — let’s go Total Recall!
Released in 1990, as the military action craze of the 1980s faded away — much like the box office mojo of its star (as Rob Vaux of the Flipside Movie Emporium wrote, this was “the film where we began to suspect that Charlie Sheen might not be as cool as we thought”) — Navy SEALs melded armed forces-boosting thrills, a dense, Clancy-worthy plot, and a soundtrack boasting the combined might of Bon Jovi, Lou Gramm, and Lisa Hartman. If it had been released a few years earlier, it might have been a sizeable hit; as it was, however, critics had no use for these SEALs‘ skills (eFilmCritic’s Oz moaned, “Ohmigod. Bad” repeatedly), and audiences were too busy lining up for Ghost and Die Hard 2 to pay any attention to the exploits of Sheen, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, and the rest of their terrorist-defeating buddies. But it wasn’t Charlie’s fault — heck, Delta Force 2: Operation Stranglehold couldn’t even beat The Witches at the box office later that year, and it starred Chuck freakin’ Norris. Sometimes, it seems, people just aren’t in the mood to watch a crew of clean-cut heroes overcome the odds and save the day.
It takes a special sort of gravitas to pull off a name like “Hondo,” but if anyone can do it, it’s Samuel L. Jackson. Here, Jackson plays the leader of the titular LAPD squad, sent in to shake things up after a renegade crew member (Jeremy Renner) wounds a hostage and leaves the force in a snit. (Who’s the shadowy bad guy behind the events of the film? Three guesses, and the first two don’t count!) Like any self-respecting cinematic commando unit, the Clark Johnson-directed S.W.A.T. is a volatile mixture of disparate personalities, including former SEAL Jim Street (Colin Farrell), single mom Chris Sánchez (Michelle Rodriguez), and the shady T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles) — all of which are wrangled into action against the sinister Alex Montel (Olivier Martinez), a French drug kingpin who promises $100 million to whoever springs him from prison. Though critics were sort of lukewarm to S.W.A.T.‘s TV-inspired big-screen adventures, a not-inconsiderable number of scribes were charmed, including New York Magazine’s Peter Rainier, who wrote, “there is something sneakily gratifying about all this.”
In the great military action sweepstakes of early 1986, Iron Eagle may have had Louis Gossett, Jr. and a soundtrack featuring Queen and Twisted Sister, but Delta Force — released one month later — boasted the incomparable terrorist-busting duo of Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin, not to mention supporting turns from Robert Vaughn, George Kennedy, and Joey Bishop. Continuing the grand ’80s tradition of settling real-life scores on the big screen, Delta Force offered a thinly fictionalized version of the TWA Flight 847 hijacking — only instead of the heroic efforts of a real-life flight attendant, Force‘s conflict is settled with some good old-fashioned Hollywood head-bustin’. The only movie ever to feature both Robert Forster as an Arab terrorist and a final act that features freed hostages singing an anthem to the U.S.A., Delta Force was 1986’s undisputed champion of cinematic jingoism… at least until Top Gun came along in May.
As with most lists culled from action films, this week’s Total Recall is a male-dominated affair — but despite Hollywood’s tendency to forget it, girls are just as capable of kicking butt as the hairier sex, a fact proven by the easy-on-the-eyes trio that lent its name to 2000’s Charlie’s Angels. Equally comfortable punching someone’s lights out as they were jiggling in slow motion, the Angels may have followed the orders of an unseen dude (the titular Charlie), but in every other respect, they were more than capable of holding their own against any adversary — even the creepy Thin Man (played in truly thin and creepy fashion by Crispin Glover). Despite often questionable taste in men (Tom Green?) and a largely unfortunate sequel (2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), the Angels’ original cinematic exploits were so much fun that, as ReelViews’ James Berardinelli wrote, “You’d have to be a hopeless curmudgeon not to be entertained on some juvenile level by this motion picture.”
“Kill one person, maybe save a thousand.” Sounds sort of noble, doesn’t it? And when you get to do it with bullets that can curve around obstacles (or strike from miles away), so much the better. On the other hand, when you’re taking your orders from a mysterious loom — and following the command of a team leader as cagey as the duplicitous Sloan (Morgan Freeman), things are bound to get a little hairy after awhile, as was discovered by Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) after the Fraternity tricked him into (spoiler alert!) killing his own father. The aftermath of this little misunderstanding left most of the group (another spoiler alert!) deceased, but based on the developments of Wanted‘s final act — as well as the fact that there’s a sequel in the works — we suspect we haven’t seen the last of the Fraternity and its magic loom. Watch your back!
A team of killers so awesome it didn’t even matter that they weren’t all named after vipers, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad carried out the murderous bidding of the mysterious Bill Shichz, whose gift for homicide was exceeded only by his way with the ladies — or his inability to handle rejection from said ladies. That last critical weakness ended up bringing down the Squad when Bill, responding to a surprise cuckolding, commissioned the apparent demise of ex-girlfriend/fellow Viper Beatrix “Black Mamba” Kiddo, thus setting into motion the events of Kill Bill — but before all the nastiness went down, the Vipers were as effective as they were super cool. And with Black Mamba on the loose with her daughter, who knows? Maybe we’ll get a new team of Deadly Vipers someday.
Yes, they followed squarely in the footsteps of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. But what the Magnificent Seven’s adventures lacked in originality, they more than made up for in good old-fashioned Western goodness; plus, with a roster boasting such titans of cool as Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Yul Brynner, it’s awfully hard to complain. Though the Magnificent Seven film franchise went on to become a sequel factory that subbed in actors like Joe Don Baker and George Kennedy, the original — which, similar to Seven Samurai, follows a team of gunslingers as they defend a farming town from violent bandits — is a certified classic of the genre. As Larry Carroll of Counting Down wrote, “If it’s not the greatest Western ever made, it’s certainly in the top three. This is the movie that made Steve McQueen a star.”
We’ve got some truly tough customers on this list, but how many of them could fight their way from Pelham Bay Park to Coney Island with a city full of enraged gang members on their tails? Only the Warriors. The nine toughs at the center of Walter Hill’s 1979 action classic don’t emerge from their trials and tribulations unscathed (poor Fox!), but they do, at least, manage to clear their names after being framed for the murder of the leader of a rival gang — and although The Warriors‘ ending is a moralistic, Seven Samurai-style downer, it’s hard to feel too bad for a group of ruffians that gets to call Coney Island home. The movie is, as Rob Thomas of Madison’s Capital Times wrote, “a campy treat for anyone who wants to “‘come out and play-ay!'”
If you’ve ever enjoyed watching the exploits of a group of squabbling social misfits as they insult one another, clash with their superiors, and ultimately save the world, you’ve got the Dirty Dozen to thank. This unconventional World War II Army unit, made up of soldier convicts who were either on the chain gang or headed for execution, set new standards for both misanthropic heroism (Telly Savalas’ character, Archer Maggott, isn’t someone you’d want to trust your life with) and shocking violence (Roger Ebert, commenting on The Dirty Dozen‘s R rating, quipped, “It’s not obscene as long as they burn to death with their clothes on”). It also raised the bar for action teams’ cool quotients to absurd levels, combining the talents of Savalas, Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, and Jim Brown, just to name a few. Such was the film’s impact that Marvin, Savalas, and Ernest Borgnine ended up starring in a trio of Dirty Dozen TV movies in the ’80s. Many of its main ingredients may seem like old hat now, but The Dirty Dozen remains, in the words of Fulvue Drive-In’s Chuck O’Leary, “A macho male fantasy that still plays to the inner rebel in all viewers who harbor such a streak.”
We have plenty of heavyweight teams on our list, but these guys take the cake — their exploits, chronicled in the 1954 Kurosawa classic that took their name, have gone on to influence everything from The Magnificent Seven and Ocean’s Eleven to Star Wars and A Bug’s Life. And for good reason: what Kurosawa knew — and the rest of us would soon discover — is that taking a disparate group of heroes (and/or anti-heroes) and squaring them off against an insurmountable foe makes, more often than not, for really entertaining cinema. Teaming up here to defend a rural village against a pack of bandits, the Samurai managed to deliver both a sobering treatise on the costs of violence and a thrilling action flick — one which ended up breaking Japanese box office records and further cemented Kurosawa’s reputation as a singularly brilliant director. It is, in the words of the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, “The greatest action movie ever made.”