30 April 2014

The Death of Geriaction


Ah, the 1980s. The muscles were big, the body counts were high and, most importantly, the cash registers were clanging. For many, the 80s (we’ll include the early 90s hangover in this) is considered the high watermark for action cinema, giving rise to stars like Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone. Generations both new and old still religiously (and probably correctly) cite Die Hard as the best American action picture of all time, and characters like John Rambo and The Terminator have entered so affectionately into the pop cultural lexicon that they’re effectively pastiche.

However, sometime in the late 90s the production of these features eased up. Some of its stars decided to opt for alternate careers (as a Governor of California, for example), others began to oscillate more comfortably between genres (Willis) and the world simply stopped caring about the rest. But with the success of  2010’s The Expendables and the relinquishing of a specific governmental position, Hollywood recently decided it was time to reinstall these now geriatric meatheads as the kings offilmic carnage. The results haven’t been unanimously successful. Whilst Willis has continued to showcase his lustre with a pair of lucrative (albeit poorly regarded) Die Hardsequels, the rest of these quipping gym rats have found audience approval harder to win, with the latest victim, Schwarzenegger’s Sabotage, opening to a paltry $5 million Stateside. Is there really still room in Hollywood for these oversized titans and their undersized plots? Or is it time to finally hang up the dumbbells and find a cosy retirement home?

I must insist this article isn’t written out of disdain for the past works of these legitimate legends. I love Die Hard as much as the next bloke, and earnestly consider PredatorThe Terminator and Total Recall to be science-fiction juggernauts. I’m the first to admit Bruce Willis is not only a star but also an undervalued actor, and Schwarzenegger’s participation in anything piques my curiosity. However, this newfound trend of placing them front and centre in Hollywood action vehicles seems regressive and I’m clearly not the only person who feels that way. Leaving aside the preposterous amounts garnered by The Expendables flicks (which stirs all these heroes into one almighty beefcake stew), this new wave of geriatric actioners has failed to ignite much interest. Despite mild critical enthusiasm and the presence of an auteur director, Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand could only manage a meagre $48 million worldwide, but even that dwarfs Stallone’s Bullet to the Head, which couldn’t even crawl past the $10 million mark domestically. Even together the duo elicited shrugs last year with Escape Plan, cooking up $25 million in the States (although that movie admittedly fared better overseas). These numbers aren’t those of rejuvenated titans; instead they feel like the final feeble whimpers of a dying bear.

Times have fundamentally changed. The action star and vehicle he inhabits have transitioned, with onus placed on charisma, lean athleticism and a more grounded aesthetic. This isn’t always to the benefit of cinema: I’d take the vibrant presence of Schwarzenegger over the banal wailing of Gerard Butler any day of the week, but audiences are constantly expressing a preference for pictures in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and protagonists who cut a shape closer to the frame of Ryan Gosling. Maybe it’s the very affection that Stallone and Schwarzenegger embody that has proved their undoing, their irreplaceable personas having become firmly ingrained with the idea of outdated and amusingly ripe nostalgia, a cute by-product of a sillier generation. After all, an action hero needs to be taken seriously.
Yet even that explanation doesn’t hold much weight. Sabotage reportedly courts streaks of grungy ├╝ber-violence and boasts a less overtly “Arnie” performance from the exgovernor, and yet the film has been ignored, and slated by the few who’ve seen it. It seems that even if these icons leave their goofy pasts in the rear-view, audiences still aren’t buying what they’re pushing.

The Expendables 3 opens this summer and will no doubt post solid numbers, but otherwise the future looks a little bleak for these once unstoppable behemoths. No matter what tonality they embrace, audiences seem intent on ignoring them, abandoning the kitschy charm of an Arnie one-liner in favour of dour monologues courtesy of a Bale or Wahlberg. Maybe in these darker times audiences are pining for a hero who they feel might viably save them, a tough-guy next door as opposed to a cartoony superman who spends six hours a day beside a squat rack. Either way the age of these screen icons appears to be at a close, the shadow of their mozzarella-tinged legacies fading as Hollywood continues to adopt an increasingly sober mood. In a way it’s necessary, and clinging to the past is neither healthy nor artistically fulfilling. Still, the day that “I’ll be back” becomes a defunct and empty promise is one coloured by profuse melancholy.
Daniel Kelly
Originally published by The Boar , 2013

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