the healing power of action

bad action films as medicine

Top Gun is the first film that got me sent to bed with no dinner. It was 1987 or ‘88 and we were watching the film on TV at my grandparent’s house one night. My parents weren’t much for keeping me from watching anything, and I imprinted on the word “Fuck” during the first viewing, while falling deeply in love with the idea of F-14s. The thrill of the naval action mated right up to the shock of punishment for repeating a “cool” word. I played with a toy F-14 as I lay there, savoring the taste of cursing.

I think this was when I first felt a weird emotional attachment to shitty action films. From there, I spent many weekends on the couch with my mom or dad, watching Die Hard, Clear and Present Danger or a random Bond film on TBS. The comfort of family was inexorably linked with the taste of a frozen dinner and a VHS tape in the player. We didn’t have much money, but these were the days of cable TV and Blockbuster video, and Friday or Saturday we could get Terminator 2 or The Fugitive for a couple bucks and cuddle-up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn as we watched. At some point in middle school, my dad even subscribed to a Kung-Fu movie club that sent HK action VHS tapes to us every month via mail. This is how I learned about John Wu and Jet Li.

We never had meals at a table unless we were with the extended family. Every meal, instead, was eaten in front of the TV—a habit I find nearly impossible to break. If food is around, a TV is on. Even with my grandma, the family would gather around her (big for the time) rear-projection 30" TV in the living room to see the thrills of Days of Thunder. Of course I have a kitchen table, because I need a place for my keys to sit, and friend dinners, but as soon as we’re done eating, I always move the fun to the living room.

The stars

Tom Cruise was and is an absolute weirdo action movie master. Mission Impossible came out when I was 12, and I saw it in theaters and my dad immediately bought it on VHS when it came out. There was something about the mix of his obsession with pleasing the viewer, and the level of commitment to the bit of being Tom Cruise that made every one of his films a masterpiece of action silliness.

Now that I’m an adult, I return to Tom Cruise movies especially when I’m feeling sad or sick. The comfort of knowing that he’s going to save the day, and not get particularly emotionally involved is powerful. Even when he falls in love in a film, you can tell he loves action more than any person, and that guarantee is comforting. Tom Cruise can’t lose, can’t die, and always has an impish grin on his face despite the circumstance. This makes him a perfect healing drought for what ails. Of course his beliefs, divorces, and personal life stuff is a bummer, but as an avatar for action, He’s great.

Harrison Ford films have a similar effect for me, but with an added layer of father feelings. Tom Cruise could never be a dad even though he’s literally a father. Harrison Ford’s characters, on the other hand know how to sacrifice for a kid or a wife—how to protest his innocence when his family falls apart. He’s never shooting many guns, or running on the top of a train or parachuting from a giant plane for fun. Ford usually does any of these things out of a begrudging sense of duty. His two most iconic characters, Han Solo, and Indiana Jones, are both somewhat disengaged from heroism, and are just frustrated to be included in the action. Danny Glover comes to mind as part of this “too old for this shit” archetype as well—Predator 2 and Lethal Weapon in particular.

As a fan of the Die Hard series old enough to have watched a lot of Moonlighting, it crushes my heart to see so many horrible Bruce Willis films drop at the end of his career in some sort of chilling cash grab by his family. As a kid, even before he became a bald action king, Willis captivated me by being the everyman. Where Cruise was a young puppy of sprightly action, and Ford was the father, Willis was the divorced neighbor who might build a fence for you for a sixer. He smoked, he was dirty, and he survived. There was always something scrappy in every Bruce Willis performance—even when he was a father in Armageddon, it was the sort of parenting that meant he was definitely too drunk to pick up Liv Taylor from soccer practice. Bruce Willis was my kind of dad. Smoking, drinking, and sarcastic to a fault, he kept us laughing as he saved the day. Don’t listen to his album though, it’s bad.

Denzel Washington films are the final piece of my emotional soothing process. No matter the role, he plays it as an expert. There’s a satisfaction in watching him in Training Day, The Equalizer, or Man on Fire that any challenge will be beaten. He’s tired, but he’s ready for revenge; he will die, but on his terms. Denzel’s characters respond to the evil in the world by sacrificing themselves “one last time” to right wrongs and leave a trail of dead “bad guys” in his wake. Sure, he was a young actor once, but what sticks with me are his later roles, the Unstoppables, Pelham 123, or Deja Vus, where he’s both “too old for this shit,” and also immensely capable. I love watching Denzel tear up the silver screen. Lately, in the Wick films, Keanu Reeves is growing into the same sort of role, and somehow his greying hair erases the surfer ’tude of his youth. I hope to add him to the pantheon in the future.


The crux of comfort with these films is their familiarity. A re-watch of a favorite film lets my brain enjoy the beats without surprise or disappointment. These movies were never “great” in the critical sense, but the consistency of a 3 or 3.5 star film is a sense of fun without a lot of effort. These are the Cheetos or spam sandwich of a movie: delicious and filling but neither artful or nutritious. Break-up? Action film. Bad week? Action film. Illness or hangover? Action film. The confidence of the lead, and the certainty of victory against the “bad guy” is sure to bring me back from whatever ailed me.

In a way, these bread and butter films keep my brain prepared to be truly amazed. Just like I can’t appreciate a Michelin starred meal if I only eat Michelin star meals, I need a Man on Fire to lay the baseline groundwork for a Triangle of Sadness to hit. Unlike the truly terrible movies that are mostly enjoyable in an arch way, these are just fun, solid pictures. This is the second year of me doing a Criterion Challenge, and there’s no way I’ll get through it without an ample supply of old favorites. Salt isn’t the most exciting flavor, but it makes everything else taste much better.

The list

Here’s a list of films if you want to dive into this world of comfort and fun.