Four “Fuckin A!” Moments in Action Movie Music

| Matthew Tchepikova-Treon |

A fire-filled background with human silhouettes flying through the air. The middle of the image holds "'80s Action Extravaganza" in red bold letters.

’80s Action Extravaganza plays at the Trylon Cinema from Saturday, May 18th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.


Beyond the hardbody brass hits, kettle drums, soaring guitars, and motoric basslines (that nowadays punctuate every last over-edited theatrical trailer to death), action movie music comes in many forms. In the 1970s, performers like J.J. Johnson (Across 110th Street), Johnny Pate (Super Fly, with Curtis Mayifeld), and Willie Hutch (The Mack) began perfecting a new style of chase music. In the 1980s, John Williams turned Abbey Road’s Studio One into a factory for the artform. At the same time, producers and singers paired up for chart-topping theme songs and music videos, including Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop), Giorgio Moroder and Kenny Loggins (Top Gun), and Tina Turner (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). Of course, the 80s also produced endless training/gearing-up montages, from Rocky IV to Best of the Best (the poor man’s Rocky IV montage), all parodied into oblivion by this point. The 1990s brought hip-hop artists, techno stars, and DJs into the fold, especially when cyberpunk transformed into cybergoth (Exhibit A: the blood rave in Blade). And by the Y2K turn, most Hollywood fare had become Zimmerfied, for better and worse. Inspired by the programming for the inaugural 1980’s Action Extravaganza, what follows here is an ode to this spectacular genre and a few moments that, by sheer musical force, can compel moviegoers to comment aloud, “Fuckin A!

No spoilers! Maybe some hints? Definitely a few red herrings…

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)  |  Guns N’ Roses  |  “You Could Be Mine”

A preadolescence act of petty crime: Terminator 2 was the first movie I ever dubbed onto a blank VHS tape from a video store rental. FBI warning be damned. It was in the spirit of the young ATM-hacking John Connor (aka Peak Edward Furlong). I would’ve been eight, maybe nine years old at the time. Tri-Star’s huge cardboard stand with Schwarzenegger on the motorcycle, a wave of crimson-gold flames behind him, filled the entire front window of my neighborhood Blockbuster; posters lined the entryway into the Vista Ridge mall with its twelve-screen cineplex; the T2 trailer played endlessly on television. But the impetus for my analog-purloining was my obsession with MTV. More specifically, it was the music video for “You Could Be Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. In T2 itself, “You Could Be Mine” plays a relatively small (but key) role. Not including the final credits, we only hear it twice, for little more than a few seconds, when John Connor rides a dirt bike to the mall with his skuzz-punk friend on the back holding a small boombox and Use Your Illusion II rolling in the tape deck. Otherwise, music by action movie composer Brad Fiedel is the star of the soundtrack. But on MTV, GN’R stole the show.

In 1991, big-budget music videos were just entering an all-time era. Amidst the swirl of videos from hip-hop groups (esp. TLC, Public Enemy, Onyx) and rock bands (esp. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction), which all made the “adult world” seem so cool and strangely alluring, my older sister and I were endlessly mystified by GN’R’s videos. The settings, the quasi-storylines, Axl’s outfits (esp. the iconic kilt + baseball umpire’s chest protector combo), and Slash’s everything–all of it larger than life in the eyes of two kids logging hours of MTV a day during hot Texas summers. The first music video I can remember containing footage from a movie I loved was Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory,” from Young Guns II (1990), with the lone singer at an abandoned drive-in high in the canyonlands of Moab. Not to be outdone, the following year, James Cameron commissioned a video for “You Could Be Mine” where the T-800 actually goes to a GN’R concert programmed to assassinate the band and makes his way through the crowd, sawed-off in hand. All of it intercut with scenes of Sarah Connor working out, the T-1000 stalking L.A., and Skynet labs exploding. I sat mesmerized everytime it came on. Though I never could’ve articulated it at that age, the interlacing of music, movies, and MTV revealed something about the malleability of each medium. Brought them to life for me in a new way. I didn’t know what a tentpole franchise was, nor what saturation booking meant, and hadn’t yet cultivated a cynical view of synergy and paratextual commodity streams. All I knew was that the video for “You Could Be Mine” was cool as hell, and all I wanted was to ride my imaginary dirt bike to the mall blasting my Use Your Illusion cassettes on a C-battery-powered boombox.

2. The Transformers: The Movie (1986)  |  Stan Bush  |  “The Touch”

Though I must’ve heard this song as a kid, I can’t say for sure. I was too young to have seen The Transformers when it first came out, and my slit-scan memory from childhood blurs the movie and TV show together, as well as all the drawings in my sketchbooks. But when I revisited the movie years later with my little brother, there it was, “The Touch,” by Eddie Adams From Torrance (aka Dirk Diggler). Of course, it’s not Mark Wahlberg, but rather Stan Bush, whose music accompanies numerous martial arts films from the 1980s and 90s. In The Transformers, after Megatron has laid waste to Autobot City, “The Touch” plays as Optimus Prime trucks-up and gets to work taking out a few Decepticon. The scene is cool enough that I almost wish I could retcon my own memory, because it makes Diggler’s performance in Boogie Nights that much funnier. Though somewhat anachronistic (the scene in BN is set a few years before Bush records “The Touch”), I love imagining his character–a consummate actor otherwise severely stunted as a young adult–watching The Transformers as his career falls apart, thinking, “Hell yeah, that’s cool,” and then trying to record his own version with Reed Rothchild on guitar.

3. Speed (1994) |  Mark Mancina |  “Jack Jumps Onto the Bus”  

The film that moved Keanu to the A-list sports a quintessential action score by Mark Mancina. A prolific composer who apprenticed in Hans Zimmer’s film scoring company, Remote Control Productions (back when it was originally called Media Ventures Entertainment Group), Mancina’s music helped shape Hollywood’s action movie soundscape from the 1980s through the 2000s. Much like the movie itself, his thematic motifs in Speed repeat and build, rapidly developing layers of complexity as the bus drives on. His “Jack Jumps Onto the Bus” cue in particular is a great example of why–more than making protagonists look cool, more than keying in on the love interest, and more than amping up stylish credit sequences–action music’s primary job is to make visual movement feel real, to provide our bodies with the actual force of kinetic energy on screen. At the 67th Academy Awards, Speed took home two Oscars, Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing, and while this scene clearly demonstrates how the best action scores are part and parcel of a film’s full soundtrack, still, nary a nomination for Mancina’s music (ironically, Zimmer won Best Original Score for The Lion King that year), because, with few exceptions, the AMPAS has always had a hard time slumming it in adult genre-land, where technicians should never be confused with artists.

4. Face/Off (1997)  |  George Frideric Handel |  Messiah (Part II), “Hallelujah” 

If we’re sketching out a list of the best action villain entrances, I’m penciling in Castor Troy in Face/Off. But if we’re making a list of the weirdest, I’m writing his name with a Sharpie. Nearly all of the film’s 140 minutes are propelled by composer John Powell’s electro-orchestral score. But for 40 beautiful seconds, Nicholas Cage saunters into a massive convention center, explosives in tow, briefly headbanging to the sounds of a choir singing Handel’s “Hallelujah.” At one point, he whispers to a young soprano, “You know I never really enjoyed the Messiah. In fact, I think it’s fucking boring.” Not being the biggest fan of German-British oratorios, I’m inclined to agree. Though, I imagine a large-scale choral fugue set to texts from the Book of Revelation was probably pretty metal in the 18th century. And John Woo’s use of it in this scene is inspired. Also, between the music, Troy wearing a priest’s cassock and clerical collar, and Handel’s source text, it’s also a brief example of the late-’90s fascination with what I like to call “Hot Topic Noir,” e.g., Event Horizon (1997), Stigmata (1999), and End of Days (1999).

Bonus Track: Deep Blue Sea  |  LL Cool J  |  “Deepest Bluest”

This one’s just for the love of the game. I could go on for hours… Fortunately, this weekend, we get a full workday’s worth of Fuckin A!-level action music.


Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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