Action and adventure cinema, closely linked to popular culture, has been long neglected by scholars, who have dismissed the films as »dumb movies for dumb people« (Tasker, 1993). Despite the interest aroused by other popular genres such as the Western or the Gangster Film in the late 1970s, it was not until almost the 1990s when academics started to show interest in action and adventure cinema. In this her last book, Yvonne Tasker presents a concise history of action and adventure criticism, gathering the most important scholarly work and pinpointing the challenges posed by both the study of this kind of cinema and the ways in which they have been approached.
In the 1970s, due to the influence of structuralism, scholars adopted an approach to the genre based on the study of repetitions and variations. However, because the delimitation and definition of the action and adventure genre is a certainly elusive task, scholars have diverted from the study of this kind of cinema, dealing preferably with others easier to spot and classify, such as Comedy or Horror.
Later on, Anthropology was also incorporated to genre criticism—regarded as a fertile terrain to explain popular film in terms of myth and ritual—picking up the thread of Bazin’s conceptualization of genre as myth. Tasker pinpoints the incorporation of the anthropological perspective as the moment when action and adventure cinema attracted greater critical interest, especially towards the ideology embedded in the narratives and representation of characters.
However, it was not until the 1990s when the number of studies dealing with action cinema soared. Tasker has been one of the most engaged authors on this topic. She conducts research on the politics of popular culture, focusing on action and adventure cinema. Two of her books, »Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Crime and the Action Cinema« (1993) and »Action and Adventure Cinema« (ed.) (2004), are central for the study of action and adventure film, exploring the representation of the body in action the latter and the main features of action cinema in the former. Both books make emphasis in the cultural politics and ideology embedded in action narratives. As the author herself acknowledges, this ideological approach has been one of the most commonly employed.
The terms ›action‹ and ›adventure‹ have been widely used in reviews and promotional materials. Action has also been deployed to describe certain elements of film narrative that appear in different films from different genres. This transversal nature of action’s main features, Tasker explains, has made it an umbrella term for all sequences which involve fast paced movement and different degrees of violence (hence a mode of filmmaking), and as a genre in the traditional sense, »a recognizable form of cinema that accrues depth of meaning through the repetition and variation of conventions« (20).
To solve this apparent complication, Tasker exposes the different elements that are related to the idea of action and adventure cinema, and reflects upon the points in which action and adventure form a unit and can even be interchanged, and those situations in which they are told apart and used to distinguish between »action sequences and adventure narratives« (12).
In this binomial, action refers to specific scenes characterized by spectacular events, meanwhile adventure denotes a story developing within a fantastic context. This differentiation is particularly useful, as Tasker points out, to pinpoint the formal elements which conform action as genre on its own right.
Another way in which scholars have approached the study of genre has been through its histories, from a cultural point of view, taking into account social changes which might affect film production, or in relation to the evolution of form or industry. For example, as Tasker relates, technology plays a central role in the evolution of the genre, limiting or making possible the enactment of spectacular scenes. The move towards the blockbuster to the detriment of other more modest productions has been spotted by many critics as a productive shift for the flowering of action and adventure cinema. The increase in invested capital served to develop technical aspects and afford the team required to implement them.
According to Tasker, all genre histories »attempt to make sense of the ways in which movie conventions develop over time« (9), how some of them gain familiarity through repetition, how some are later on modified and how some are finally left aside and forgotten. Tasker covers the evolution of these conventions since the era of silent cinema, commenting the production during the Studio Era, the War Movies of the Second World War, Post-War Action, and the New Hollywood action movies—which comprise the action cinema of the 60s and 70s— the muscular cinema of the 80s and subsequent action traditions until the present.
Furthermore, Tasker quotes Thomas Schatz, who considers the last phase of the evolution of the genres to be characterized by parody and self-reflexivity. For Tasker, this idea of ›self-reflexivity‹ suits particularly well the case of the action and adventure cinema, a genre that has long been reusing its own history and borrowing elements from other genres. This issue is dealt with in greater depth in chapter 7, where the author comments »Raiders of the Lost Ark« (1981) and »Pirates of the Caribbean« (2003) as examples of the recycling of themes and tropes present in action and adventure cinema, and also to show how these two movies make use of all the typical aesthetic elements of action plus the narrative elements of adventure.
Author theory has also been relevant to the development of genre criticism, acknowledging the capacity of film genres to provide authors »with a rich repertoire of images with which to work, allowing them to modify generic tropes and inflect familiar scenarios with subtle resonances« (7). However, given the fact that action and adventure cinema has not been strongly related to the idea of auteur, it has been rather absent in these debates. Only the Western has been considered in relation to auteur theory, although not as representative of action cinema but as a genre itself. Debates around ›auteurism‹ in action have appeared rather recently, as Tasker points out, and they have focused on the way action-oriented filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino, command the business, and the creative labour required by the production of an action blockbuster.
A whole chapter centers on summarising the main academic perspectives of analysis and theorizations of action and adventure cinema. Here Tasker returns to the differentiation between action and adventure offered in chapter one in order to present key aesthetic and narrative concepts related to each genre. In this sense, action cinema is much more related to aesthetic concerns than adventure, whose cinematic construction rests on the use of space and time. Issues pertaining the ideology and cultural politics of action and adventure cinema — one of the most common approaches amongst critics — are also addressed in this chapter.
Chapters four to eleven present case studies which serve to illustrate the history of action and adventure cinema in terms not only of repetition and variation, but also of industry, self-reflexivity and cultural recycling. Thus Tasker illustrates and further develops the theory presented in the previous chapters, and implements the theoretical approaches commented before, showing how they can be applied to concrete cases.
For instance, in relation to the ideology of action and adventure cinema, Tasker summarizes in chapter three the most important approaches to the study of action in terms of race and gender representation, devoting the last section of the chapter to the exposition of the role women play in action narratives. The fact that genres are often gendered by the industry, as Tasker explains, has an effect on the way genders are represented on screen. Hence, women »often feature in action and adventure as supporting characters, frequently offering the possibility of a romantic connection for the male hero who has previously lived either an isolated life or within a group of men« (65).
Tasker brings up this issue of the representation of women in all the case studies, commenting the romantic endings and exotic female stereotypes of adventure films of Silent Cinema, as in ›The Thief of Bagdad‹ (1924); the loving and supporting wives of the heroes in War Movies like ›Sands of Iwo Jima‹ (1949); and the woman as sidekick in adventure narratives of the New Hollywood — in ›Raiders of the Lost Arc‹ (1981) for instance—, whose agency is mostly limited however by her condition as price or object of dispute.
In the muscular cinema of the 1980s, the role of women is virtually irrelevant, as it is the case in ›Rambo: First Blood Part II‹ (1985), while it gains importance again — although within certain limits — with the emergence of global and postmodern action, like ›Kill Bill‹ (2000), and in the spy and superhero films such as ›Salt‹ (2010) or ›X-Men‹ (2000) respectively. This supports her thesis that women and their interests are indeed underrepresented in action and adventure films, and their agency is strongly limited by their stereotypical relationship with romance.
The bibliography is thorough but not too extensive, listing the main works related to the topic, giving priority to specific texts dealing with issues pertaining action and adventure cinema, and avoiding more general titles about cinema or genre criticism in general. However, it adheres to the Anglophone world, and few are the references to works from other linguistic traditions. Bazin, for instance, is quoted and referenced in English. As this book was conceived for the academic circles, it stands out as an omission the lack inclusion of quotations in their original languages alongside the corresponding translation into English.
With this book Yvonne Tasker fills in a gap in genre theory, bringing together all the different approaches to the analysis of action and adventure film and showing the benefits obtained from the application of the various points of view to the study. The book is especially useful for educational purposes, towards which the book series »New Approaches to Film Genre« is aimed. For those who are interested in dealing with Hollywood Action and Adventure Cinema from an academic point of view, this book is a great source of information and inspiration.
Even for readers familiarised with the previous work of Yvonne Tasker, this book brings a new look into her main area of study, as it presents not only issues pertaining the body and the representation of women in action and adventure, but also more general elements which help understand genre criticism as a whole and the action and adventure film in particular. Furthermore, and as a manual for students of Film Studies, the book fulfils its goal, as it combines the exposition of theory with clear examples, of both how the theory was previously applied and how it can be now employed to analyse the latest productions.
The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film
Oxford: Wiley Blackwell
[= New Approaches to Film Genre]
Cristina Alonso-Villa, M.A. is currently in her last year of her PhD dissertation, which deals with the depiction of women and gender roles in Hollywood Action Cinema and their perception by the audiences.