In the 1980s and ‘90s, action movies, and action comedies, were the hot genre. They were what audiences wanted to see, and so everybody was making them—every studio, and every actor. Hell, even Whoopi Goldberg made three action comedies—Jumping Jack Flash, Burglar, and Fatal Beauty.
Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to probably the greatest action movie hero that you’ve never heard of. The man who was responsible for a huge number of action movie hits in the 1980s and 1990s, and several solid action movies you might not have heard of.
His name is Andrew Davis.
If you’re scratching your head, trying to figure out what movie he might have starred in, you’ll be disappointed. He’s not an actor, he’s a director. But his movies have a signature style and look, and through his career got bigger and more successful. A native of Chicago, he featured that city in most of his movies, as he did a lot of local actors, and you’ll see a lot of the same names in the supporting cast of many of his films. Let’s cover the pertinent titles:
Code of Silence (1985)
Above the Law (1988)
The Package (1989)
Under Siege (1992)
The Fugitive (1993)
Chain Reaction (1996)
Code of Silence is, in my opinion, the best action movie Chuck Norris ever made. I don’t know if it’s my favorite (I’ve got a soft spot for Lone Wolf McQuade) but objectively it is the best. It has the most realistic plot of any of Chuck’s movies (which means it is only occasionally ridiculous) and the best acting. It was advertised as Norris’ “most dramatic role”. Henry Silva plays the bad guy, and heavies don’t get much better than Silva. If you’ve never seen it, go watch Sharky’s Machine (1981, Burt Reynolds).
And on that realistic plot/dramatic note—that’s what separates Davis’ action movies from many others. Entertaining, engaging, realistic (as much as possible with the subject matter) plots.
Above the Law. If there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t seen Above the Law, shame on you. Steven Seagal’s first starring role, and arguably his best (although Under Siege is the far more popular movie). While he has since proven himself to be nuts even by Hollywood standards, this is an excellent action movie with great gun handling, excellent hand-to-hand, and solid acting. He has a good supporting cast, including Pam Grier and Sharon Stone. And look who plays the bad guy—Henry Silva.
The Package is one of those overlooked movies you might not have heard of, even though it stars two big names—Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones. There is also a great supporting cast—Joanna Cassidy, John Heard, Dennis Franz, and Pam Grier. Hackman is in the military and gets embroiled in a conspiracy to assassinate someone. It has a good plot and good pacing. The only thing that handicaps this movie is the lack of a military/gun technical advisor.
At this point you’re going to start recognizing a lot of faces, including local Chicago actors with unfamiliar names who either play bad guys or cops—Juan Ramirez (Above the Law, The Package, The Fugitive, Chain Reaction), Miguel Nino (in the same four movies as Ramirez), Joseph F. Kosala (in every one of the above six Davis movies but The Package), and Ron Dean (a veteran actor who has appeared in many Chicago-based movies including five of the six above-listed Davis-helmed films, plus Risky Business, Nothing In Common, and The Breakfast Club).
Under Siege—Steven Seagal’s most successful movie, best described as Die Hard on a Boat. It has a solid plot (which separates the original Die Hard from many imitators), great action including gun fights and knife fights, fun acting from Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey, and Erika Eleniak, both clothed and otherwise in one of the most famous topless scenes in the history of Hollywood.
The Fugitive—the success of Under Siege got Andrew Davis the cred and respect to helm his biggest film, Harrison Ford’s turn as The Fugitive. It is set in Chicago (of course), and the city plays a big part in the film, including the St. Patrick’s Day parade. This is one of those movies that is so well plotted and acted that I can watch it over and over again. Once again Tommy Lee Jones makes an appearance, and the supporting cast is a who’s who of Hollywood character/supporting actors, including Joe Pantoliano, Julianne Moore, Nick Searcy, Bill and Dick Cusack (Chicagoan John Cusack’s brother and father, respectively), and Jane Lynch. No gunfights, no karate, just great writing and great acting—an adult thriller made for adults.
Chain Reaction is one of those movies that nobody has heard of, and when you watch it, it is far better than you were expecting. Starring Keanu Reeves (two years after Speed, three years before The Matrix) this is a solid thriller about two alternate energy researchers (Reeves and Rachel Weisz) who get on the wrong side of government agents with one of their discoveries. For a “throwaway” action movie, this film does a good job of illuminating how the government and its intelligence agencies get a lot of things done using subcontractors and shell companies.
Davis didn’t quit directing after Chain Reaction, but the above six movies highlight his rise to glory and time at the top. Since then he’s directed Collateral Damage (2002, a forgettable Schwarzenegger actioner), Holes (2003, a great movie for teens that is watchable over and over), and The Guardian (2006, an action movie about Coast Guard rescue swimmers starring Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Costner).
He is currently in pre-production for My French Muse, a romantic thriller set in WWI France, based on Gene Wilder’s novel (yes, that Gene Wilder). Which doesn’t sound like my kind of movie at all, but with Davis directing, it will definitely be on my to-see list.