Raise a glass, America. It’s the Fourth of July. Independence Day. Your special day. Why not celebrate with an over-the-top, ultra-violent action spectacular celebrating the can-explode spirit of the USA?
Patriotism means a lot of things to a lot of people, and these movies all try, bless ‘em, to exemplify shining American ideals… but with mixed results and some, uh, different ideas about what it means to love your country. They all do have at least one thing in common: explosions. Lots of ‘em. Wherever these films sit on the American political spectrum, they all pretty much agree that rugged individualism backed by heavy firepower is the way to go.
Given that it’s fireworks season anyway, we might just as well sit back and enjoy a movie that lights up the screen with love of the grand old U.S. of A… and also of things that explode real good (given that it is also wildfire season, probably best not to actually set anything alight). These are movies that don’t just say “America!” They say, “America? Fuck yeah!”
Independence Day (1996)
Stupid aliens. You’re really going to blow up the White House just a couple of days shy of the Fourth of July? Like we’re going to let that slide? The aliens certainly didn’t count on a cross-section of American rebels, including Marine pilot Will Smith, Gulf War vet President Bill Pullman, tech guy Jeff Goldblum, alcoholic crank Randy Quaid, and Star Trek’s Mr. Data standing up to defend our freedom to deliver cheesy one-liners. This thing was such a huge hit, it kicked off a major disaster movie resurgence in the mid 1990s (Armageddon, Volcano, Deep Impact, etc.), but none could top it for fun and sheer spectacle. (Including the Will Smith-less 20-years-later sequel.)
Air Force One (1997)
In the pantheon of cool movie presidents, Harrison Ford’s James Marshall stands tall. There’s a pretty solid setup here: No sooner has Marshall stated, publicly and unequivocally, that the U.S. government will not negotiate with terrorists than a group of terrorists takes control of Air Force One and threatens the resulting hostages, including the First Family. The baddies think the president been ejected from the craft, but he’s actually hiding in the cargo hold, and there’s only one thing for him to do: get them off his plane! Look, it’s no way to pick a president but, ff I’m being real, but I’d probably vote for him.
Under Siege (1992)
The USS Missouri (the third U.S. Navy ship with the name) had a long and illustrious career before being towed to Pearl Harbour and made into a memorial. It’s also held a prominent (if eclectic) place in pop culture: among other appearances, it was featured prominently in the 2012 film Battleship (more on that one shortly) and was also the setting for Cher’s slightly risqué video for “If I Could Turn Back Time.” But it probably got the most screen time in this 1992 Steven Seagal vehicle. Mirroring the ship’s real history, President George H.W. Bush decommissions the ship (true) just in time for terrorists led by Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey to seize it for nefarious purposes (less true). Only Seagal, playing the ship’s plucky cook, can stop them (very untrue).
Street Fighter (1994)
Yes, technically Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Guile works for the “Allied Nations” rather than the U.S. Air Force (as in the video games) and, yes, he goes through the movie with a borderline-impenetrable Belgian accent. Still, by the time the camera goes in for a close-up on his American flag-tatted bicep during the climactic fight with Raul Julia, it’s clear that Guile is 100% the real American hero.
(Incidentally, this movie has a weirdly impressive cast: JCVD, Julia, Ming-Na Wen… even Kylie Minogue. Street Fighter was a big deal in the 1990s, no question.)
You might not have imagined the relatively simple setup of the beloved Hasbro tabletop game would provide enough fodder for a movie. And you’d be absolutely right — they really had to start more or less from scratch in order to tease a alien-centric plot out of the alien-free strategy guessing game. While Taylor Kitsch is assigned to the USS John Paul Jones, and Alexander Skarsgård commands the Sampson, alien spacecraft from “Planet G” threaten the world, but specifically the water around Oahu. There’s a nod to the mechanics of the game when joint Japanese and American forces realise that they can track the invading warships using tsunami warning buoys, but mostly it’s all an excuse for some Transformers-esque naval action. It’s a nice sign of the times, though, that Japanese and American ships team up in the waters around Pearl Harbour.
Rambo III (1988)
Rocky and Rambo, two beloved Sylvester Stallone-fronted franchises, had similar trajectories: each begins on a relatively sensitive and thoughtful note, but, by the gung-ho Reagan mid-1980s, throws subtlety out the window. The entry point in what became the Rambo series, First Blood, nodded toward dealing Vietnam-era post-traumatic stress, while the second sent Rambo after forgotten POWs. Number three sends him off to Afghanistan to rescue an old friend, and in doing so takes a definite side in the long-running conflict between the Soviet Union and Afghan Mujahideen rebels, cutting a swath through Soviet forces with a machine gun and a rocket launcher and generating a record-breaking body count (literally! Guinness named it the most violent film ever made in 1990). This wasn’t just a fantasy — supporting Afghan militant groups was a centrepiece of U.S. anti-Soviet planning for over a decade; in a sense, this is Stallone bringing dry government policy to life for children who act out American imperialism via toys, comic books, and video games based on the movie.
And, yes, OK, many of those Afghan militants went on to form the core of what became the Taliban — so that element hasn’t aged very well. But the bit where Rambo blows up a helicopter with a bow and arrow is timeless, so it all evens out. Right?
Rocky IV (1985)
On a related note, the initial Rocky movies all work on different levels, but by the third, the formula was getting tired, and so the fourth took a gamble by going over the top (not to be confused with Over the Top) patriotic, and it paid off in a big way, earning the biggest box office of the series, before or since.
After boxer Ivan Drago (future movie He-Man Dolph Lundgren) literally kills Apollo Creed with the entire Soviet Union behind him, rugged individualist Rocky goes rogue, getting Drago to agree to an unsanctioned match in the USSR. It’s all laid out invia an all-time great, utterly memorable training montage: while Drago trains with a whole team, modern equipment, and the best steroids communism had on offer, Rocky does it the good old-fashioned way: by chopping down trees and pretending to be a doggie pulling Paulie around on a sled. Like a fuckin’ man.
Without giving too much away, the ending sees Rocky winning over the Soviet audience and earning the applause of Premier Mikhail Gorbachev himself. And that’s the story of the fall of communism.
Missing in Action (1984)
Developed at the same time Rambo: First Blood Part II, Missing in Action was probably the second most successful movie of the 1980s to explore concerns o POWs and MIAs potentially remaining in Southeast Asia (though these weren’t the only two). The premises are similar: here, Chuck Norris goes to Vietnam to investigate reports of U.S. soldiers remaining in captivity in Vietnam. He finds them, and then fights his way out. Resolving the fates of missing service-members was a major issue in the 1980s (and rightly so), but it’s unclear whether these popular action spectaculars helped raise awareness or just satisfied a thirst for retribution.
Three the Hard Way (1974)
Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly team up to save America in this violent, bullet-riddled blaxploitation classic from director Gordon Parks Jr., best known for Super Fly. A group of Neo-Nazis has come up with a scheme to poison the water in major cities with deadly toxin that only affects Black people. The three split up to save Chicago, Washington, and Detroit, the test cities for the poison. Fortunately, three beautiful dominatrixes are on hand to tease critical intel from the villains as needed. Because that’s America, too.
Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
Like any action franchise worth its mettle, the Die Hard movies get bigger, louder, and more preposterous as they go — and that’s certainly true for Live Free or Die Hard, in which ordinary ex-cop John McClane enters superhero territory… but it actually represents a fair balance between the earlier, (slightly) more grounded movies, and the way-over-the-top (and fairly terrible) fifth entry. In this one, America’s entire cyber-infrastructure is at risk from a vengeful Timothy Olyphant, and since the villain has control of the computers, McClane will have to stop him the old-fashioned way. With guns and such. This one gets a middling score on the “Rah Rah America!” scale, but a million extra points for the very excellent titular pun.
Pearl Harbour (2001)
Look, I’ve been to the Pearl Harbour Memorial — it’s an overwhelming emotional experience, one that doesn’t at all make you think wouldn’t this be better if the focus were on a campy, sitcom-level romantic triangle? But, hey! It’s a movie, not a history lesson!
Not even a little bit. It’s long and noisy, but certainly action-packed enough to make it a solid Independence Day time-killer. Or you could just watch From Here to Eternity.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Despite being incredibly on-the-nose as a metaphor for American military might, Captain America is pretty cool. Not quite as cool in the movies as the comic book version, who kicked off his career by socking Hitler square in the jaw, but there’s still enough Nazi-fighting action to cheer for.
Red Dawn (1984)
The apex of the “Communists are coming to get us!” action sub-genre, Red Dawn became such a cult classic that it even (somehow) scored a post-Soviet remake involving an invasion by China North Korea. The original became a cult classic for its relatively simple “Rambo, but with teenagers” setup — it’s the perfect suburban fantasy, both timeless and very 1980s. A foreign army has invaded, the government has collapsed, and only you and your friends can stop them! is a premise that works in any era. (But especially the ‘80s.) It’s all done with incredible self-seriousness, which only helps to sell the concept (and heighten the cheese factor).
Invasion U.S.A. (1985)
This Chuck Norris vehicle begins with a fake-out: a boatload of Cuban refugees (or “refugees”) is met by a welcoming American Coast Guard… except that it’s not the Coast Guard, it’s Latin American communists, who kill them for the coke that they were smuggling. Once on the mainland, the guerrillas team up with Soviet operatives and, together, plan attacks throughout America (because: reasons). Naturally, when they blow up Chuck Norris’ house, they learn they’ve picked on the wrong guy. Norris intended this as a message movie about a real and present threat, but I’m not convinced that the politics and social messages are ever the reasons to watch a Chuck Norris movie.
National Treasure (2004)
The hunt for Lincoln’s gold is on! Or… something like that. For generations, members of Benjamin Franklin Gates’ family have passed down a secret — apparently there’s a massive, secret treasure that the spendthrift businessmen who ran the country circa 1776 decided to sock away rather than spend, a fact revealed to an ancestor of (real life) founder Charles Carroll. (This accumulated wealth, we’re assured, was passed down from ancient empires and had absolutely nothing to do with the 1,000 or so enslaved people Carroll kept to do his work for him). Historian Ben, played by true national treasure Nicholas Cage, realises that there’s a treasure map of sorts print on the back of the Declaration of Independence! Which he’ll have to steal! It’s an action-packed tour through something that loosely resembles American history.
We love Spartans. Love ‘em. There’s even a name for it: laconophilia. So, even though Zach Snyder’s 300 (based on the Frank Miller/Lynn Varley graphic novel) is set over 2,000 years before the founding of the United States, it works as a distinctly American, pro-western fantasy of righteous battle to the last. There’s a reason it was made during the Bush II era: Delivered smack dab in the middle of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s hard not to see the movie’s east vs. west themes as allegorical. In real life (perhaps surprisingly), it was the Spartan constitution and blended government that most influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution, not the baby oiled pecs: that ancient nation generally had two kings, one to balance the power of the other; the kings ruled mostly in military matters, while a national assembly and two elected legislative bodies made all of the day-to-day decisions and generally could overrule one or both kings. Today, though, we mostly love how they’re in really good shape and won’t let anyone take their weapons. To broadly paraphrase the Athenian Pericles: our legacy isn’t set in stone; it’s what others make of it.
Top Gun (1986)
In real life and in the movies, the TOPGUN program for Navy pilots is for the best of the best, and, presumably those who feel the need for speed. Though highly, highly fictionalized, the film does pay tribute to naval aviators in its story of “Maverick” (Tom Cruise) going through training and making time with flight instructor Kelly McGillis. Not only a fun Fourth of July flick, but a chance to refresh your memory before the long gestating sequel comes out later this year.
In some ways, it’s hard not to look at this as an unofficial followup to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour, focusing, instead, on the pivotal Battle of Midway (though including its own take on the attack on Pearl Harbour) — Bay and this movie’s director, Roland Emmerich, share plenty of stylistic similarities. As noisy action spectaculars, they’re roughly on the same level, with Midway leaning even harder into video game-style digital set pieces. This one scores points for reaching for a level of historical authenticity the earlier movie did not, placing a much greater emphasis on realism. It’s not the best film about the Pacific Theatre, but it is among the more accurate.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
With tongue (at least partly) in cheek, Quentin Tarantino constructs a violent alternate history fantasy about competing plots to kill Hitler. Tarantino films come with a level of prestige (and star power) that the pictures he’s paying homage to can’t compete with, but there are still hints of exploitation classics that imagined righteous victories when the real-life circumstances were a bit more complex. Here, a Jewish team of American soldiers stalks the Führer, leading to a surprising climax. Tarantino would pull a similar trick with 2012’s Django Unchained.
One of the defining figures in 1980s American-style action was, weirdly, an Austrian bodybuilder. Yes, before he proved his AMerican bona fides by becoming the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger frequently portrayed superheroic American soldiers. And also Conan. Here, he plays a retired Special Forces Colonel whose daughter is kidnapped by a Latin American dictator played, improbably, by Dan Hedaya. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Hedaya’s President Arius will come to regret it.
The Patriot (2000)
Roland Emmerich’s career tends to veer between action spectaculars (Independence Day) and slightly more thoughtful movies (the Shakespeare drama Anonymous). The Patriot sort of splits the difference, taking an emotive action-movie approach to the Revolutionary War — Mel Gibson’s fictional Benjamin Martin is drawn into the fight against the British, forming a guerrilla unit to try to get back his captured son. The film rather gleefully dances around ugly historical realities, including in making egalitarians out of slaveholders, but no more than the typical American history textbook.