Action movies are great, I love them. The funny thing about action movies is that most of them are U.S (and UK in the case of James Bond) propaganda. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t take away all their value as art, but I think that it’s an interesting phenomenon to look at.
We are all familiar with the evil Russian spy stereotype diabolically executing his evil plans before he is thwarted by an archetypal hero and/or James Bond. We are probably familiar with the evil terrorist from the Middle East who wants nothing but chaos, only to be defeated by a special op CIA agent going rogue to save the world. We all know the political activist who started from a genuine place but just went too far, taken down by a hero who says they are fighting for change but are really only pushing the status quo.
To investigate this phenomenon, I went through the 50 biggest action movies of all time, to see how common it really is.
Disclaimer: none of this is an endorsement of the villains described in the movies.
First, let me explain what each slice of the above pie chart means. “Fits in” means that the movie definitely fits into this trope: for example, a Bond film with a soviet spy for a villain. “Allegory” means movies that aren’t directly related to the topic but may have themes or allegories about it: for example, the Predator movies secretly being about the Vietnam war, or the empire in Star Wars being suspiciously similar to the Nazi regime. “Doesn’t fit in” just means the movie isn’t related at all.
Over 50% percent of the “greatest action movies of all time” have some sort of example of propaganda in their movies. Think about that for a second. Granted, this is a rather small sample size, but the results are still quite dramatic. It’s no wonder “Russian spy” is one of the most iconic villain archetypes.
To see some of the common techniques and tendencies movies like this employ, I also went through different movies and TV shows to examine some of the ways that this is portrayed in the media: I’ll be talking about Goldeneye, the first and second season of 24, and the first and second season of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan.
[spoiler warning for all of these movies and shows]
GoldenEye is a pretty textbook example of this trope: a spy thriller with Russian terrorists and a suave good guy spy to save the day. Everything that has been said about this trope has already been said, because it’s so common that it’s practically its own genre now. However, there are still a couple of things to be observed here. GoldenEye was made in 1995, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet it still features an evil Russian villain. This is pretty understandable, it was only four years after decades of cold warring, but it leads me to think about a more interesting phenomenon: the different levels of prevalence that enemies have on a global level. Typically, they only have an impact on movies for the short time that they are in the mainstream. Some countries can transcend these barriers, however: nations like the Soviet Union/Russia, Germany, and Middle Eastern terrorists have a massive influence on films during completely different eras.
24 is an interesting show. It comes in with an already difficult concept to execute, (episodes occur in real-time and each episode is an hour long, with 24 episode long seasons) and it has a lot of problems. Despite this, I still found it in myself to enjoy the first season: that is, until Jack Bower (the hero) defeats the secondary antagonist and the primary antagonist comes in. Victor Drazen, played by Denis Hopper, plays our Serbian terrorist. Not so coincidentally, the Yugoslav wars had just finished at the time of the show’s release, in which Serbia was a U.S enemy. As for the portrayal itself, a lot of attention is brought to the nationality of the villains, with Denis Hopper even doing the worst Serbian accent I’ve ever heard in my life (seriously, look it up, it’s hilarious.)
The funny thing about 24 is, the first season was released on November 6, 2001, meaning production all occurred before 9/11.
Season 2 time! Out of every single Arab character that is introduced in season two, all of them— every single one— is a villain. The interesting thing about 24 is that it comes in during a bit of a transitional period, a shift between eras. With it, we can see the dramatic rise in Middle Eastern villains that came after 9/11.
Jack Ryan is a more modern example of this phenomenon. Jack Ryan is a CIA agent going out on a mission. The first season has him taking down a Lebanese terrorist in a harrowing mission through the Middle East. This is all pretty typical stuff for an action show. The interesting part comes in during season two. In this season, Jack Ryan goes into Venezuela to take down the corrupt president. The reason this season is interesting is that this is the first piece of media we’ve looked at that directly attacks the government of a country, instead of secretly affiliated terrorists. Not only that, but the show also has the tendency to justify anything Jack does. In the end, Jack even storms the presidential palace, murders around 50 people, and almost kills the president with no consequences and not even a shred of doubt about his actions. This shines a light on how a common aspect of this trope is the total lack of questions thrown to the main character. All the atrocities and war crimes they may commit along the way are all considered fine in the name of the greater good.
With all this being said, I want to make a couple of things clear. This article is not an attack on these movies, or on people for liking them. The GoldenEye tank chase scene is one of my favorite scenes of all time, and I had more fun than ever watching 24 with my dad. I simply want to call attention to this phenomenon and make people think a little more when watching the new Bond movie (No Time to Die). Action movies are great, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about their tropes a little more when watching them.