Action movies are just as American as motherhood, apple pie, and capitalism. Movies like Unforgiven, Gladiator, Rooster Cogburn, Conan, Dirty Harry, Die Hard, The Dark Knight, High Noon, Man on Fire, Red Dawn, Tombstone, and True Grit speak to men in a primal language that transcends the story line on the screen. Men like these films because they capture qualities we’d like to think we have ourselves. We like the idea of being billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and fighting crime in our spare time, pointing a gun at a punk and asking him if he feels lucky, or responding to the question, “What is best in life?” with “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!“ While there are dozens of deserving action movies, there are seven that are particularly good at revealing parts of the male psyche.
1) First Blood
John Rambo is a damaged character. His fighting in Vietnam left him with mental problems, made him ill-equipped to fit into society, and led to him ultimately having a difficult and lonely existence. However, there are two things about him that make the character click with men. The first is this:
Teasle: Are you telling me that 200 men against your boy is a no-win situation for us?
Trautman: You send that many, don’t forget one thing.
Trautman: A good supply of body bags.
Rambo doesn’t pick the fight, but when he is backed up against a wall, he is a one-man army. This theme is repeated over and over in action movies because it’s something men aspire to all the way down in their souls.
The other, more subtle thing that makes Rambo appealing is that he shares a grievance that most men have on some level or another: his sacrifices are largely unappreciated. He went through hell to do what had to be done, paid a terrible price for it, saw his suffering shrugged off by men unfit to say his name, and was left holding the bag. There are millions of men who feel the exact same way. They’ve provided, they’ve struggled, they’ve done things they didn’t want to do for other people, and, ultimately, they found that it wasn’t valued. That makes it easy to relate to a character like Rambo, even if you’re not planning to shoot at anybody with a machine gun.
Most men wouldn’t have Spider-Man on this list, but it’s a unique movie in some ways. Here you have an ordinary guy who gains great power and learns the hard way that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker is a good, decent man who cracks jokes while he risks his life to help people who will never know his name. In the interim, he pines to get the girl, struggles to make ends meet, and worries about his family. In other words, Peter Parker is the ordinary man who is a superhero in his spare time, as compared to someone like Superman, who’s more a superhero whose ordinary existence is just a cover for being Superman. Additionally, Peter Parker cuts to the core of what life should be for men: doing what you can to help people and reach your full potential, while still trying to keep from drowning in the flood of day-to-day worries that are always coming at you.
Retired CIA agent Bryan Mills is highly trained, clever, decisive, and extremely lethal. Mills still pines for his ex-wife, who shoved him to the side for a man who could buy and sell him a dozen times over. Even though his wife’s new husband is extremely wealthy and seems like a nice, helpful guy, you always feel like Mills is just the better man. The center of Mills’ life is his daughter, and when his ex-wife and her new husband laugh off his concern about letting their teenage daughter roam around Europe without adult supervision, “daddy” is the one who is willing and able to get his daughter back. It isn’t just a great action flick; it is a movie about a long suffering father being proven right, proven capable, and proven to be the better man.
This one starts out with a common theme in action movies, “a revenge-based love story.” In these cases, the man’s love interest usually dies, he goes on a killing spree in revenge, and, ideally, reluctantly has sex with other hot women to soothe the pain. Ultimately what makes this such a great movie isn’t so much that Wallace gets revenge on his enemies, is a skilled fighter, or is an inspirational leader of men — although all those things help — it is that he ends up fighting for a worthy principle bigger than himself. He doesn’t become an outlaw to get rich or risk his life to impress women; he ultimately lives, fights, and dies to bring freedom to his people. That desire to be an important part of something bigger than yourself lies somewhere in the heart of every man, even if he’s been so beaten down by life that it seems dormant.
5) Fight Club
This is a weird film about a terroristic cult full of strange characters with mental disorders, but it resonates. If you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably heard at least part of the rules.
1st RULE: You do not talk about FIGHT CLUB.
2nd RULE: You DO NOT talk about FIGHT CLUB.
3rd RULE: If someone says “stop” or goes limp, taps out the fight is over.
4th RULE: Only two guys to a fight.
5th RULE: One fight at a time.
6th RULE: No shirts, no shoes.
7th RULE: Fights will go on as long as they have to.
8th RULE: If this is your first night at FIGHT CLUB, you HAVE to fight.
Why does this movie stick with men? Because aggression in males is every bit as intrinsic as wanting to look pretty is to women, and this movie lets ordinary guys fantasize about how they could spar. As someone who has sparred, I can tell you that once you get over the fear of getting hit, sex is the only thing that feels better than having your fist crash into another man’s face. In that moment, you’re fully alive and asserting your power in a dominant fashion, and it is glorious. Unfortunately, if you start getting into street fights, you can get seriously injured, hurt someone else, end up in jail or be sued. So, as a practical matter, you really can’t do it. But fantasizing about a Fight Club-style clash has a powerful appeal.
6) Rocky Balboa
Life is such a difficult, competitive business that, on some level, even most successful people tend to feel like underdogs fighting a nearly impossible battle against the odds. That’s why an underdog like Rocky who always won against the odds with superior training, will, and heart had such appeal. In the sixth movie in the series, Rocky has retired. His wife has passed on and his relationship with his son is strained, but he has a decent life. He has money, he runs a restaurant, and he has a good heart. But he starts to realize it’s not enough for him just to live in the past when he thinks, he hopes, he dreams that there’s a little bit of what made him special still inside of him. That’s what the movie is really all about: Rocky making sure he doesn’t turn into the embodiment of that Abraham Maslow quote, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”
The movie is beautiful, has magnificent action, and has a compelling story that features a few manly Spartans against a limitless army of Persian slaves and their effeminate “God-king.” The excellent back story of Leonidas’ wife trying to save him from a sleazy politician, the fight for freedom, and the sheer coolness of chest-kicking a mouthy Persian messenger into a pit because he forgets he is talking to the world’s most badass warrior people are epic as well. But what really makes the movie sing are three little words.
Glory. Duty. Honor.
You don’t hear those words said very often these days, but they have a deep and abiding meaning to men. Men crave the fame that comes from glory, the self-respect that comes from duty, and the pride that comes from being honorable. Some men have given up on living with honor, fulfilling their duties, or seeking glory because it’s too difficult or too hard to live by in the modern world, but those words will always have a great power with men.