Action Cinema After 9/11

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is prompting much reflection in the media on both the events of that day and what has happened since. How Hollywood responded is also on people’s minds, as Peter Bradshaw’s overview piece in The Guardian today illustrates. It’s true to say, though, that Hollywood’s response has been the subject of media and academic attention for much of the intervening decade since 2001. In one of the earliest published books on the subject, Wheeler Winston Dixon offered a succinct summation of Hollywood’s immediate reaction:

In the days and weeks after 9/11, Hollywood momentarily abandoned the hyperviolent spectacles that dominated mainstream late 1990s cinema. Films were temporarily shelved, sequences featuring the World Trade Center were recut, and ‘family’ films were rushed into release or production . . . Predictably, however, this reversal of fortune did not last long, and soon Hollywood was back to work on a series of highly successful ‘crash and burn’ movies. (Dixon 2004: 3)

But it is in the very ‘crash and burn’, explosion filled action movies Dixon characterizes as a return to the norm that one finds a more complicated picture than one might expect of what Hollywood did next.

Here, as elsewhere in Hollywood output, allegorical explorations of the post-9/11 world emerged, such as the puppet satire Team America: World Police (2004), and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). But the much more prevalent trend was what David Holloway calls ‘modish’ references to 9/11, Iraq or Afghanistan, or associated locales and themes (2008: 75). This reminds me of something Michael Wood said about the passing references to World War II in early post-war Hollywood: that ‘the world of death and war and menace and disaster is really there, gets a mention, but then is rendered irrelevant by the story or the star or the music’ (1975: 17–18). For example, why open Transformers (2007) on a military base in Qatar, if the action quickly returns to US soil? Similarly Iron Man (2008)’s choice to begin in Afghanistan works to add a modish pertinence to Tony Starck (Robert Downey Jnr)’s arms dealing and the manner in which he learns the error of his ways (incarceration by terrorists); once Starck escapes the terrorists the action is focused once more on US soil. In both cases noisy spectacle replaces any thought about the locations and political implications of the films’ respective opening settings. Equally, some films could be argued as somewhere between allegory and modish reference – where to place Cloverfield (2008), for example, or attack-on-home-soil films such as Law Abiding Citizen (2009)?

I think a more easily discernible trend in post-9/11 action cinema is a developing unease about the viability of notions that are normally at the heart of the action film: heroism and a ‘just war’. Heroism as a cultural idea gained renewed currency in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, stories abounding about people who had risked their lives or died trying to rescue others. Here were acts of human sacrifice and bravery that could be heralded unproblematically as heroic, and which were duly eulogised. But the discourse of patriotic heroism was problematised by what happened next. The military interventions by the US and its allies after 9/11 were initiated in the face of anti-war demonstrations and debates about their legal mandate. In the years that followed growing collateral damage statistics and revelations about prisoner mistreatment at Guantànamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and about the rendition of terror suspects put pressure on any notion of a ‘just war’ and called into question the heroism of implicated military personnel, while the reduction of civil liberties flowing from the 2001 Patriot Act and the rising US and Allied troop casualties further muddied public opinion.

In Shooter (2007), Vantage Point (2008), the Bourne films (2002, 2004, 2007) and Salt (2010), amongst others, the ‘just war’ of maintaining national security turns out to be a dirty and corrupt business, with the hero forced to attack the very government forces he thought he was fighting with. Uncertainty about the true nature of the central protagonist’s supposed heroism returns as a pronounced trope in this period: for example, Bourne’s amnesia and Salt’s narrative of double and re-doubled agents repeatedly defer confirmation of the true allegiances of the ‘hero’; in Inception (2010)’s dream levels the subconscious mind of hero Cobb (Leonardo di Caprio) unleashes dark forces that threaten the lives of the rest of his team; and [*spoiler alert*] Source Code (2011)’s Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggles to carve out a space for heroic action in a parallel worlds narrative that refuses to resolve its central conflict, revealing Colter at the end as both a physically impaired, comatose veteran and the bright-eyed, healthy hero that saves the day (interested readers might like to check out Dan North’s piece on the film).

Some action films harbored ambitions to engage with the post-9/11 world more explicitly, placing their protagonists in relatively naturalistic Middle East settings and at the apex of conflict (in one way or another) in order to explore more explicitly the intricacies, tensions and pressures of the situation, films like The Kingdom (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008) and Green Zone (2010). Each of these demonstrates in its own way the risks inherent in this noble endeavour, the way in which the action film’s generic framework – its focus on individual endeavour rather than social context, its tendency to polarize characters into heroes and villains, its wish-fulfilment resolutions achieved through physical violence – risk a failure to express the complexity of the post-9/11 world. I discuss both The Kingdom and The Hurt Locker in Contemporary Action Cinema, but would like to make some brief observations about The Kingdom in the space available here to demonstrate what I mean [once again, here be *spoilers*].

Having emphatically linked its fictional world with the real post-9/11 context via a remarkable contextualizing opening montage, The Kingdom follows the endeavours of a team of FBI investigators hunting the bombers of a US compound in Saudi Arabia. The film is at its best communicating small moments of conflict and tension in the interactions between the US team and the Saudi police forced to chaperone them: both parties draw our sympathies and understanding. But genre conventions are already in sway that gradually blunt the nuanced treatment the opening promised. The set-up immediately establishes that this is a revenge narrative, the US team keen to avenge the killing of ‘one of our own’. Early images of their grief and anger at the death of a FBI colleague killed in the compound attack prepare us to cheer them on in the revenge mission, a mission which will, incidentally, quickly push them to disregard national border controls and political and cultural sensitivities. The film initially pays a kind of lip service to Saudi sovereignty, but the Saudis are quickly co-opted into the cause, as foot soldiers for the FBI team.

The film draws heavily on the buddy action formula to bring together its primary protagonists, FBI team leader Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his Saudi counterpart Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). Antagonism shifts to awkwardness and then to respect in the course of their joint detective work, until a striking declaration by Al Ghazi affirms his allegiance to the US team’s cause, and works to reiterate the primacy of the revenge narrative:

I find myself in a place where I no longer care about why we are attacked. I only care that one hundred people woke up a few mornings ago and had no idea it was their last. When we catch the man who murdered these people I don’t care to ask even one question. I want to kill him.

The phrases ‘I no longer care about why’ and ‘I don’t care to ask even one question’ betray a response to terrorism which is much more emphatically in line with the action film’s revenge trope than with the opening credit sequence’s evocation of complex causality. Thought and analysis have been rejected to be replaced by violent retribution as the only possible outcome. This moment is indicative of the way that generic conventions gradually upstage the film’s other ambitions. Al Ghazi’s words (echoing both the jingoistic language of the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ discourse and the desire to deliver some form of retribution that many have felt after 9/11 and other subsequent terrorist atrocities) prepare us for the action film’s conventional narrative resolution – a culminating violence – while pointing away from the real-world realities of anti-terrorist strategies, which must include intelligence gathering and analysis as well as more direct forms of action.

Thus aligned, Al Ghazi becomes Fleury’s action ‘buddy’ in a final extended shoot-out that gives all six of the investigators – the four Americans and the two Saudis – the opportunity to give vent to their desire for revenge, to express a violent heroism in place of more sedentary or reflective modes of investigative action. And in another long-standing convention in Hollywood action movies, the racial ‘Other’ – in this case (in a conflation of ethnic and national difference that Hollywood frequently falls into) the Saudi Al Ghazi – must be sacrificed for the US hero’s cause.

The Kingdom is in my view an underrated action movie, notable for its ambitions as much as for its failings (the terrorists are cyphers that draw on familiar racist stereotypes, while the Saudis and Americans can only bond over family ties and US popular culture, rather than on the basis of mutual cultural respect). The film’s tensions – genre and wish-fulfilment versus the realities of real-world geopolitics – are certainly indicative of the challenges action movies faced in the decade following 9/11. But given Hollywood’s reliance on wish-fulfilment and familiar genre reference points, these tensions may also tell us something about the negotiations Hollywood has generally had to make during the last ten years, as it shaped the relationship between its fictional universes and the real world beyond.


  1. Very interesting stuff, which makes me wonder about the movement to the other side, the success of a prominant lack of complexity, the space (time and money) given to action that sidesteps complexity by the license to further play out action of wish fulfillment post 9/11 – which you rightly point out is a balancing act in many an action film since then. Considering the strength of very right-wing opinion of the recent London riots (the sentiment of all of them should be deported, even from potentially liberal sources), whether the vehmence (particualrly in the way this is physicalised) and sense of innate ‘good’ of the hero/heroine within vengence-type narratives (whether those more directly related to US-Middle East conflict, or more generally) has been more marked?
    This probably exists on a wide spectrum, but also connects for me to recently re-watching The Brave One, and being surprised at the level of apparent ease (or maybe I’m wrong about that) with what the Jodie Foster character does during the film, and how this potentially relates to her status as white, middle class, otsensibly liberal woman – all the victims of her violence are non-white, poor (or at least socio-economically disadvantaged), with the exception of the gangster/wife-beater – but we’re not to be worried about that because she is a liberal woman (helped by a possibly self-sacrificing black male cop)? So a couple of thoughts in relation to this: Is it right to situate this discomfort as relating specifically to a post 9/11 action cinema? And does the rise of the superhero narrative (both in directly superhero movies and those which might bring in tonal elements of them – again I’m thinking of The Brave One, which (and I can’t remember if this was something that we discussed in sewing circle, so forgive me if it is!) contains elements of those kinds of narrative, particualrly in the way the ‘villains’ are so broadly drawn) relate to this too?

  2. Certainly the prevalence of action-fantasy, where the vengeance narrative hero/ine often seems divorced from any real-world resonance or any stakes or motivation that feel meaningful to us (Thor, Sucker Punch are leaping to mind but there are others) would support your notion of a ‘prominent lack of complexity’ Lucy. As I mentioned on Twitter it is easy to see why this might happen – industry chiefs and filmmakers alike ‘playing safe’ and directing attention away from real-world events (Geoff King has argued persuasively against seeing action-fantasy’s prevalence as a direct response to 9/11, but nevertheless the continued popularity of fantasy with audiences and studio insistence on this as blockbuster fare in the last ten years may well speak for itself).
    It is tempting to see the vehemence you describe – the shoot-em-up, blow-them-up sequences of various action movies (and the simplistic us/them opposition they imply) as increasing in this period, as if we are being asked to live our desires for vengeance vicariously through the violent culmination the films present in their fictional contexts, while being reassured about who is good and bad. Is this why we see The Expendables, Gamer, Battle: Los Angeles, 300? But it is difficult to say for sure that this would not have happened otherwise – Bordwell certainly would want to argue for an intensification that has a longer trajectory. We can be more sure about this where something in the thematic or narrative structures of the film signal a real-world correlation is a distinct possibility: Battle: Los Angeles is, in my view, all about the horrifying impossibility of mastering the theatre of war on the ground in recent military action. The Expendables is about a less specific desire to return to simple hero/villain terms: it can be argued as a product of the post-9/11 world, but not definitively.
    Your comments about The Brave One (a fascinating reference point) bring into sharper focus one of the defining features of action cinema after 9/11 – the occasionally crass and often convoluted negotiations over the hierarchy of racial representation in action movies when the ‘Arab terrorist’ caricature is no longer (!!) culturally acceptable (see The Siege, 1998 for comparison). The Brave One plays like ‘suffering affluent white woman becomes mystical avenger’, with all the racial and class overtones that implies – a pity that Jordan/Foster find themselves replicating what is a terribly familiar racial hierarchy in mainstream US cinema even now. In a sense I think the film is more divorced from its real-world context than it thinks it is.

  3. Yes – I think that’s right, that it’s very difficult to pinpoint that as an effect of 9/11. Though it’s very tempting to think a more reactionary stance has increased (and certainly plays into a ‘playing it safe’ industry – which I think is evident in other genres, particularly horror with the frequency of remakes that consistently seek to flatten out any prior complexity and explain everything to the nth degree) within that context, thinking back across other periods within action cinema probably undermines that argument. Interesting to know that others are countering it that strongly too.
    And I agree about The Brave One too – the gap between the film it thinks it is, and aesthetically presents itself as, and the actual characterisations and situations that it dramatises is startlingly wide, no more so in that relationship to real world context as you suggest.
    Do you think it would be fair to place Action Cinema as one of the more direct (both temporally and in terms of address) generic barometers of mainstream American cinema output in terms of attitudes to these kinds of context?

  4. I always feel action cinema is a barometer in a US context because its mythology is in some ways foundational – Slotkin’s redemption through violence, the frontier hero in his/her many manifestations, etc. It is true that any cinema that is trying to be – or succeeds in being – ‘popular’ either culturally or in terms of box office can in some way be read as an indicator of the cultural-political shifts we are discussing. But genre films (action, horror), with their familiar narrative, representational and even aesthetic conventions or tropes, can ‘throw into relief’ (as it were) those shifts more clearly – ‘the same, but different’ means that we are able to see the variations and interrogate what might drive them.

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