On April 19th, 1995 at 9:02 am, a truck bomb exploded in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City. Perpetrated by terrorist Timothy McVeigh, it is still the deadliest act of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil, killing 168 people. It feels sick to quantify and rank these, but it was also the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11. There is a documentary aptly titled Oklahoma City from Barak Goodman that I cannot recommend enough. I saw it at Sundance this year, and have watched it two more times since. Conveniently, it’s on Netflix right now. It documents how Timothy McVeigh was influenced by the white supremacist movement through the events of Ruby Ridge and Waco, and how white supremacist militias/groups capitalized on the anti-government sentiment that those events fueled. Oklahoma City was a wakeup call to the terrifying reality of domestic terrorism, it felt like the first time that we as a nation had to reckon with the prospect that the biggest threat to our national security wasn’t foreign, but right here at home.
The following year, Nicolas Cage embarked on one of the strangest runs of action hero filmmaking in history – rattling off The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off in succession. One of my favorite things about action films, and why I love writing about them, is that there is a definitive shift in the genre from decade to decade that provides a pretty intimate look at the state of our country – what kinds of action films were being made, what kind of characters/actors were our action heroes, and what kind of villains they fought – all gave us a close glimpse into the psyche of our nation. The 90s were the strangest time for action films, they seemed in a constant state of flux between the overkill and propaganda-style action films of the 1980s and the more grounded type of action films that were on the way in the 2000s. I’ve written before about how Nicolas Cage was the singular action star of the 90s off his run of The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off, and how Con Air was the singular action film of the 90s, but there’s still more to be discussed about all that.
Before we get going, here is my obligatory disclosure that my close friends and I rate every film on a scale of 1 to Con Air.
One of the things that made these three films especially relevant as 90s action films were their choice of villains. The 90s were a strange, uncertain time for an action hero villain. We were no longer in the cold war with Russia, so communists weren’t who our action heroes could fight anymore. There were all sorts of villains in action movies during the 90s, Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard had ushered in the gentleman villain, and there were multiple films that chose aliens as the villain, but Nicolas Cage’s action films all chose a similar villain – a domestic terrorist/anti-government driven villain. In The Rock, Ed Harris’s military general Frances X. Hummel is taking Alcatraz Island hostage in an anti-government driven plan, as he feels the government spurned the treatment of men who died serving under him. In Con Air, John Malkovich’s Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom is a racist, violent con who leads the takeover of the plane. In Face/Off, Cage’s Castor Troy is a domestic terrorist carrying out a bombing on US soil.
Now I’m not saying that a group of producers saw the news in Oklahoma City and said “Hey I’ve got an idea for a movie” but these three films captured a certain awareness – however absurd and silly the movies were – that the greatest threat to national security was domestic, not foreign. In their own bizarre ways, they captured the realization and fear of domestic terrorism on film better than films that were meant for serious audiences. And looking back at that time period, Cage’s action films were the only ones of their caliber with domestic threats as the villain.
The action film continued to evolve, as every genre of film does. In the 2000s, it went in a more grounded direction with the Bourne franchise and Casino Royale. That then shifted to where we are now, with a more meta approach to action filmmaking – all the tropes have already been done and created, it’s now how you acknowledge them and use them (The Expendables films, the John Wick films, The Raid films). One notable shift though, is I can’t really name many films since Cage’s run that had the sort of villains that he did. Now it’s not the only reason, but a significant reason is that we moved on and forgot about the threat in our country. Oklahoma City was a wake up call, but it seems it was one that we hit snooze on. Right now we have a president that openly defends the very same domestic terrorism that brought about the Oklahoma City bombing. We forgot who the real villain was, as did action films when they moved on from the 90s and evolved as they did. We need a hero, we need 90s action hero Nicolas Cage.