Tuesday, February 24, 2015


The ridiculousness of 1980s American cinema is well documented. Rugged beefcakes with guns as big as their biceps mowing down commies, darkies, and other assorted scum while indulging in homoerotic subtext. The action films of the Reagan years all follow this sordid pattern, all reflective of the triumphant and sexually confused Republican epoch.

Yet there's very little on the action films of the waning 1970s, despite the seeds being very visible. Chuck Norris did his best work in this era, right about the time karate peaked in popularity and the vast Sullen Majority craved some alternative to the moral complexity of the New Hollywood productions. They got that with Chuck and his roundhouse kicks of justice, just as much as they did with Clint Eastwood's .44 and Charles Bronson's celebration of vigilantism.

Good Guys Wear Black is a prototype of the loudly fascist 80s Action Films to come. The title itself is a reference to Norris and his entirely black-clad black ops team, whose final mission in Vietnam goes awry because of meddlesome DC bureaucrats. It's a staple of American reactionary cinema that the failure in Vietnam was the fault of inadequate will on the part of the politicians and media - the Dog Ate My Bazooka defense - rather than the clear military superiority of the NVA and Viet Cong. Because the outside world is never real to provincial idiots, beyond its utility in presenting neat little moral lessons about Honor and Duty and whatever. This narcissistic fantasy has persisted right up to the present day, with both The Hurt Locker and American Sniper turning the black comedy of the Iraq War into just another sump for bathos over Our Poor Hometown Boys.

While it certainly follows this modern script, Good Guys Wear Black deviates somewhat in two important factors. First, it is much more a thriller than a balls-out action flick with Norris getting wind that his old team is being bumped off, necessitating a cross-country investigation to determine not just the who but the why. Though this does allow for thrilling ski chases and one-on-one roundhouse duels.

Second, and most striking, is the film's blatant anti-establishment sentiment. Following the failed Vietnam mission, the story jumps ahead several years to find Chuck working on his PhD in political science, teaching classes on how the Vietnam War was a horrible mistake. After Reagan took office, you'd only ever hear that statement in an action movie either uttered by a peacenik strawman or followed by "because we didn't nuke the shit out of 'em!" The villain, the very same bureaucrat who sold out the Black Clad Heroes, is not some sniveling weasel anomaly but so much the norm of America that he's about to be appointed secretary of state! Rather than the triumphal tone of Commando or Top Gun, Good Guys Wear Black feels both weary and frightened of the very nation and people Chuck Norris would later celebrate in his films.

However, these symptoms of the Bad Old 70s are still overshadowed by the visceral power fantasy on which 80s Action would very soon be based. Chuck, realizing he'll never get The System to punish his nemesis, resorts to straight up murder. Gleefully and without consequence. The assassin is revealed to be another of the titular Good Guys, the lone Asian one, and Norris kicks his head off before his motivations can be revealed as anything other than The Untrustworthy Yellow Race. And while Norris romances a woman who survives all the way to the end of the film, he reserves all his true affections for his male former comrades and the One Good Bureaucrat who serves as his accomplice at the end.

Good Guys Wear Black is a fascinating look at just how the typical action films from the Reagan years to today developed. And it's not half bad as far as 1970s thrillers go.

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