Look at the short-lived influx of “Red Scare” action thrillers in the 1980s, which were emblematic of American culture’s substantiated fear of a Russian attack at the tail-end of the Cold War. Films like Red Dawn and The Living Daylights feature an aggressive Russian militant or espionage assault with a unified response from the anti-communist opposition. Even the Rocky franchise got in on the fun, introducing Russian heavyweight champion Ivan Drago as Balboa’s greatest nemesis. Rocky’s round 15 KO of Drago is among the greatest moments in sports movie history, right behind Michael Jordan’s game-winner vs the Monstars and the entirety of the Air Bud canon.

The borderline propaganda fest that was late 1980s action films wore off after a few years. Since then, cinema continues to serve as an artistic projection of the issues that society faces. In 2021, we can point to a number of trends in the movie world. Themes of inclusivity, representation, and positive reinforcement continue to manifest across all platforms.

On the complete opposite end of the cinematic spectrum exists a subculture within the modern action genre. With protagonists fueled by rage as well as a lack of typical heroic qualities, “Anger Action” grows more popular every year.

Possibly launched by John Wick in 2014, “Anger Action” represents a broad group of movies that feature plot structures revolving almost entirely around revenge or some sort of wrongdoings against the lead character. These films tend to be highly stylized, emphasizing the violence and brutal nature of their events. John Wick is seen as the American pioneer to “gun fu”, a method of action movie choreography that blends classic Kung Fu tropes with modern-day weapons; founded in Hong Kong and quickly being adopted by Asian cinema.

The prioritization of showing the actual violence in question is no accident. The payoff of most “Anger Action” films is getting to see the brutality inflicted on those who crossed the protagonist. This level of ruthlessness in mainstream pop culture didn’t exist until recently. Films like Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Mandy delight in this newfound sadism and take full advantage of every opportunity to show it.

The stories and scenes of today’s action movies could not exist in years past. Take a moment to reflect on the plots of iconic action movies from the past:

  • The Terminator is a robot assassin who is sent back in time to kill the mother of a boy that will eventually become the leader of a human resistance movement against the machines (1984).
  • John McClane is forced to fight his way out of a building that’s been overtaken by terrorists in Die Hard (1988).
  • The last remaining humans fight for their life and freedom against alien machines who have taken over the world in The Matrix (1999).

Contrast with today’s films.

  • In Upgrade, a man recovers from being paralyzed through artificial body enhancements and he is mad.
  • In Nobody, a dad is unable to defend his family from a home invasion and he is mad.
  • In John Wick, some thugs kill a former hitman’s dog and he is mad.

Anger is the driving force behind every one of these films, and society is to blame for it. The 2020s as a whole have exhibited some of the highest levels of social and political unrest that the US has ever seen, and we’re only two years in. Art is starting to catch up.

Maybe the capacity for this unrest has been here all along, it just took a few dominoes to fall first before unleashing it. In 1993, Joel Schumacher directed Falling Down, an indirect precursor to the “Anger Action” genre to be born decades later. Falling Down stars Michael Douglas as a man who sees everything in his life crumble at the same time. The film follows his 24-hour odyssey through the streets of Los Angeles as he takes out his aggression on poor drivers, fast food employees, street gangs, and all else who stand in his way. The film is ahead of its time in many regards and may have incidentally inspired years of content through its humorously bleak depiction of American culture.

Falling Down and most other films in of the newly dubbed “Anger Action” experienced shocking commercial success upon release. These films have slowly dazzled and desensitized moviegoers to the point where the film is an outlet for rage can be a legitimate marketing point. Like it or not, they’re here to stay, potentially crossing the barrier between a trend and a subgenre.

Everyone hates, and everyone wants love. In some sick ironic fashion, people are learning to find love in the hate. The calling card of “Anger Action” is finding ways to enjoy the hatred that all of us have. If that’s not unifying, I don’t know what is.