What’s in a name? For 80’s action film buffs, everything you need to know about the plot of a film is in a name. I was enjoying a particularly cheesy 80’s action flick, as is my wont, and I noticed a trend with the characters names. I spent the next three years locked in a bunker poring over scripts, plots, and every action flick I could get my grubby little hands on. I developed a theorem regarding our action heroes’ names, but let’s not rush into that yet.
Action films resonate so deeply with men because they represent the archetypal journey of a hero. I’ve talked before about the difference between archetypal and cliche. It’s the crucial difference that makes Rocky a timeless hero and Paul Blart a gregarious, unwatchable doofus. Sylvester Stallone, in particular, has a keen grasp of archetypal heroic journeys, and his films reflect as much.
My theorem, basically, is that there are two types of heroes in the best 80’s (and early 90’s) action flicks, one hero is The Extraordinary Everyman and the other is The American Badass (all due copyright respect to Kid Rock).
The Extraordinary Everyman is the hero who comes from unspectacular places and rises to the occasion to achieve the spectacular. The Extraordinary Everyman is typified by Stallone’s role in Cliffhanger, a regular Joe mountain rescue climber who rises to meet the challenge a sudden terrorist threat presents. The American Badass is the hero who is of the strongest stock, who must use all of his training and innate badassery to meet seemingly impossible odds. This role is typified by Rambo, the greatest Green Beret in modern military history taking on hordes of Chinamen.
My theorem, though, goes beyond identifying these archetypes. The type of hero in the film can be identified by merely knowing the name of the character. I posit that the Extraordinary Everyman names and the American Badass names are different and reflective of the hero they represent. The Extraordinary Everyman cannot be named “John Rambo”, for that name is awesome, and synonymous with kicking ass. At his core, The Extraordinary Everyman is an everyman, and his name must remind us of ourselves and those around us (assuming of course that “us” to you means a middle class, American, heterosexual, white male who if he is of immigrant blood, is at least two generations removed from immigration). Similarly, the American Badass cannot be named Barney Heimerdinger, because that name is just not very cool.
Let’s go through some of those names and see if my point is not made clearer.
*Some rules before we begin. Only action films will be considered. Only action films from the heyday of the 80’s and 90’s. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use only the films of Sylvester Stallone, but the theory can be applied to other action heroes.
Victory (1981) Captain Robert Hatch. A team of American POW’s play the German national team in a soccer game during WWII (don’t look at me, I didn’t write it). Classic everyman story. Classic American name. Robert. Hatch. Simple, familiar, not fancy, not particularly awesome.
Lock Up (1989) Frank Leone. A classic tale of an honorable inmate nearing the end of his sentence who must face off with a corrupt, vengeful warden. Frank. Leone. Simple, unadorned, vaguely ethnic last name offset by Apple Pie first name.
Tango & Cash (1989) Lt. Raymond Tango. This name is very close to being awesome, Tango is a very cool last name, however, the character in the film is a regular working cop framed and force to rise to the occasion to clear his and his partner’s names. So, how do you have a guy named Lt. Tango seem like an everyday joe? Name him Raymond. Raymond is an anchor strapped to your chest when you’re trying to swim to cool guy island. Name one cool guy named Raymond… Didn’t think so.
Daylight (1996) Kit Latura. Lowly cab driver Kit Latura is called upon to save a tunnel full of stranded citizens in this classic disaster film. Solid everyman name here… Kit Latura. Has a nice ring to it, but not an overwhelmingly cool name.
Cop Land (1997) Freddy Heflin. This is perhaps the best example of the everyman hero character with a name that matches. The name Freddy Heflin could belong only to an overweight, small town Sheriff’s deputy in his 40’s.
Let’s run through these a little quicker. These are the roles where Stallone is an immense badass, with training and street cred to back it up. And he has kick-ass name to fit the bill.
Rocky (and sequels) Rocky Balboa The first film, I realize, is very much the everyman story. But the name Rocky Balboa was destined for greatness. For the majority of the Rocky films, Rocky was a world champion and every third baby born in Philadelphia was named Rocky (estimated). A tremendous name befitting a tremendous man.
First Blood (and sequels) John Rambo A badass name that pairs well with an unstoppable Green Beret killing machine.
Cobra (1986) Lieutenant Marion “Cobra” Cobretti. Possibly my favorite Stallone role of all time. A hard ass, play by his own rules cop who takes on a anarchical cult.
Demolition Man (1993) John Spartan.
The Specialist (1994) Ray Quick. You can’t become the best in the demolition biz without a cool name.
Judge Dredd (1995) Judge Joseph Dredd. ‘Nuff said.
Assassins (1995) Robert Rath. An assassin named Wrath? Yes please.
Hopefully, the evidence is overwhelming at this point and you’ll see that you cannot have an awesome character without an awesome name. Similarly, you cannot have an underdog hero without an underdog name.