As the Iron Mans, Star-Lords, and Thors of the universe have taken over our multiplexes with their family-friendly, PG-13 brand of extraordinary mayhem, a counter-movement has arisen, one that's reminiscent of the grungier, pre-CGI 1970s and '80s, when ultra-violent R-rated revenge tales thrived.
With Liam Neeson as their patron saint, these movies have flourished on the outskirts of the mainstream, delivering down-and-dirty action and stories that are straightforward, crude, and effectively manipulative. For all the talk of our superhero-saturated era, it's now become clear that we're also living in the golden age of what we'll call neo-exploitation, a sort of revival of the notorious wave of exploitation cinema decades ago.
If this trend has a tipping point, it would be 2008's Taken, Luc Besson's hit about a father (Neeson), who happens to be a retired government-agent badass, returning to his murderous ways to save his kidnapped young daughter (Maggie Grace) from shady Albanian scumbags intent on selling her into sexual slavery.
A stew of topical geopolitical fears, parental anxieties, and child-abuse horrors, all of it retrofitted for a classic save-the-innocent-girl narrative borrowed straight from John Ford and John Wayne's legendary The Searchers, Taken was familiar exploitation gussied up for a modern audience. And its success proved that there was a marketplace hunger for adult-oriented action that prized melodramatic storytelling and fierce combat over special-effects explosions and intertwined-franchise mythologies.
Taken spawned two admittedly inferior sequels, but the fact that it became a franchise at all proves audience appetite for simple, sadistic action. More telling still, it begat a host of likeminded films. Neeson's Unknown, The Grey, Non-Stop, A Walk Among The Tombstones, and most recently Run All Night all fit into this category.
So, too, does Keanu Reeves' comeback John Wick (released in the US last October, but with a 10 April date over here). Also Sean Penn's The Gunman, which came out last weekend. And just about anything starring Jason Statham (in particular, the Transporter and Crank series).
Even women have gotten in on the madness, as evidenced by Everly, in which Salma Hayek plays a woman who, after being kept as a sex slave for four years by a mysterious Japanese villain, strikes back against her captors with ferocious automatic gunfire, all while wearing a skimpy nightie and tight tank tops.
Though it's hardly the best of the bunch, Everly (released 1 May) is emblematic of neo-exploitation. It marries a basic setup with extreme violence, and then embellishes it all with a healthy dose of sexual titillation. "Salma Hayek Mows Down Men While Wearing Lingerie" conclusively sums up the film, and if its premise is simple, its execution is similarly unfussy. There's no subtly to Everly, no pretense of profundity, nor any subtext to prop up its plot – just the base pleasures of watching a gorgeous woman do horrifically cruel things in very little clothing.
It's not hard to see why these films all boast protagonists who are over the age of 30, since they often appeal to older audiences who crave the sort of action they grew up on, be it Death Wish, Foxy Brown, Rolling Thunder, Dirty Harry, I Spit on Your Grave, High Plains Drifter, or even the Schwarzenegger-Stallone hits of the '80s, which juiced up their stock tales of rescue and revenge with steroidal He-Man heroes.
Part of the fun of a Taken or John Wick is getting to watch an established star wreak havoc in a new light. In doing so, the films provide the double pleasure of reconnecting with old-school movie stars and with an old-school type of action.
That's part of the reason a film like John Wick became last year's finest genre film, and why the fandom surrounding it has been enough to propel talk of a sequel. Slipping into the tough, no-nonsense persona that marked his turns in Point Break, Speed, and The Matrix trilogy like he was putting on a comfortable suit, Keanu Reeves tapped into a nostalgic vein as a hitman driven to avenge the murder of his dog – which was a final gift from his dead wife! – in Chad Stahelski and David Leitch's glorified B-movie.
His rampage is ultimately no different from scores of other stories, and yet watching Reeves do his glowering-killer routine is a consistent blast, and bolstered by swift, stylish set-piece choreography that places an emphasis on handgun shots.
Ultimately, in their embrace of uncomplicated narratives for disreputable thrills, neo-exploitation films function as the back-to-basics alternative to The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Man of Steel, and the rest of their extravagant cape-and-cowl ilk.
Blunt, brutal, and brazenly politically incorrect, they're the adult antidote to superhero fatigue. Long may they reign in blood.
This article originally appeared on esquire.com