Is 80's Style Action Dead?
You may have noticed that Stallone’s new film BULLET TO THE HEAD was not #1 over the weekend (it came it at #6!)... and that An-nuld’s movie THE LAST STAND sunk like a stone last weekend (it opened at #10... and two weeks later was #27 behind the Oscar Nominated Short Films in limited release!). We have a new DIE HARD movie right around the corner, and there is lots of talk on various movie message boards that 80s style action movies are over. Maybe even action films are we know them are over. Do you think that’s true?
I hope it’s not true - since I have a book on how to write action movies (though it’s good for all genres).
Well, let’s take a look at 1980s action flicks. Both Ah-nuld and Stallone were the #1 stars of action films in that decade and they spilled over into the early 1990s. These guys were as big as Burt Reynolds was in the 70s! Hmm, maybe that wasn’t a good example...
After the 80s, Stallone continued acting, and his film career was kept alive mostly through ROCKY and RAMBO sequels, along with the recent 80s throwback EXPENDABLES films that are kind of like those 70s disaster movies that have a dozen has-been stars who combine to make one star.
After that 80s period, Ah-nuld quit films to become the Governator and ended up in EXPENDABLES 2: ELECTRIC BUGALOO, which was a hit! But LAST STAND was his big return to action movie stardom as the lead.
Other 80s action stars like Bruce Willis have stuck around, though aren’t as big as they used to be... and some like Jean Claude Van Damme and Seagal ended up working in B movies where they continued that thing they do, just at reduced budgets.
Are 80s action movies dead, or is it just the careers of those 80s stars (who are getting a little long in the tooth to be an action star)? Is it the stars or the genre?
One thing to consider is that a film is a popular film isn’t due to just one thing, but a combination of elements that include the star... plus dozens of other things. When they all come together you have a hit... but we can look at bot Stallone and Ah-nuld’s filmographies and find misses, even when they were as big as Burt Reynolds was in the 70s. People often like the cherry pick one particular element and say the film was successful because of that. Sure, Ah-nuld was a big star and people would often go see movies just because he was in them... but some of those films sucked, or didn’t have the other elements that audiences expected in an Ah-nuld film. Or, like RAW DEAL, the film had Ah-nuld and action... but the story was kind of bland, so the audience wasn’t as excited by it as they were by PREDATOR.
Often a film becomes a hit because of elements that might seem silly alone - I love BULLITT, but I think without both McQueen and that car chase, it would be just a standard cop film. It would still be on my DVD shelf, but probably not on almost everybody’s DVD shelf. I think RONIN is similar - take out the car chases and would anyone want to see this film a second time? But the car chases plus RONIN’s cast of great character actor types and a really hard edged attitude makes it a hit.
Studios and producers often cherry pick some element and decide *that* is what made the film a hit, which is why when some new take on a fairy tale does well... there are a half dozen more new takes on fairy tales, and some are HENSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. It’s never one element - it’s a combination. So just making a movie starring Ah-nuld doesn’t guarantee a hit... but Ah-nuld in the right combination of elements might. You have to look at *all* of the elements.
But shouldn’t Ah-nuld in a bad-ass action flick equal box office? Those are the two important elements, right? It’s not like Ah-nuld in a rom-com or something.
Well, let’s take a look at Ah-nuld’s big action hits from that 80s/90s period, starting with his biggest hit...
TERMINATOR 2 - robot from the future goes back in time to *protect* the boy who will someday lead humans to defeat the robot-ruled world in the future.
TRUE LIES - meek geeky husband is really James Bond like spy and must save the world (and his family) from terrorists after they steal a couple of nukes.
TOTAL RECALL - regular guy takes a vacation to Mars, where it ends up he’s a double agent who has been brainwashed to forget his action-packed past... and now is in danger!
END OF DAYS - Bodyguard has to save woman from becoming Satan’s girlfriend and having his kid... which will signal the End Of Days when Satan rules the earth.
PREDATOR - military team goes into the jungle to save politicians in a plane crash and come up against an alien hunter who sees them as prey.
RUNNING MAN - prisoners engage in a fight to the death on a game show that is rigged for ratings... and has some wild-ass contestants.
Okay, I’ve left out the comedies like TWINS and JUNIOR and KINDERGARTEN COP to focus on the action films. But compare the *type of action story* from Ah-nuld’s 80s/90s films to LAST STAND. Do you see any difference?
Okay, let’s look at Stallone’s action films (excluding the Rocky and Rambo films)...
CLIFF HANGER - Mountain rescue dude is sent to save a group of people after a plane crash... except it was a mid-air heist and now he’s battling mega-criminals on a mountainside!
DEMOLITION MAN - When the world’s top criminal is thawed out in a pacifist future, the authorities thaw out the world’s most violent cop to stop him from taking over the world.
JUDGE DREDD - I am the law! Cop in the future is framed, sentenced, and now must escape and prove his innocence... by finding another cop who shares elements of his DNA.
DAYLIGHT - Robbers with a truck full of explosives take out the Holland Tunnel at rush hour, and a rescue guy goes into the tunnel to help the survivors escape... and ends up tangling with the robbers.
TANGO & CASH - Two extreme cops (almost cartoonish) who hate each other are framed and thrown into prison together, and now must survive life behind bars, then escape and bring down the drug kingpin who framed them.
COBRA - When a massive cult of killers called “The New Order” descends on city and begins killing *lots* of innocent people, a cop must protect the only witness who can help convict them - an ultra hot model.
Okay, once again I’ve left out the comedies and series films, but compare the *type of stories* in Stallone 80s/90s films to BULLET TO THE HEAD. Do you see any difference?
It seems to me that the problems *isn’t* 80s/90s style action films, because BULLET TO THE HEAD (despite being directed by the great Walter Hill) and LAST STAND are completely unlike 80s/90s style action films. Both films are small and low key compared to the wild high concepts that were the norm in 80s/90s action films. There is no science fiction component nor any disaster movie component. Both of these two new films have *dull ideas* compared to the films from the 80s/90s. They are kind of bland... missing *key elements* of the films that made these two guys into stars. A cartel leader escaped and tries to cross the border? A cop partners with a hitman to take down a common enemy? Neither of these story ideas are all that interesting, leaving the only draw a couple of old movie stars playing roles much blander than they did when they were the world’s biggest stars... in stories that are much blander. One element does not make a movie!
I think the 80s/90s style action film is fine - if anyone ever makes one again! Ah-nuld and Stallone might have some problems re-entering action movie stardom, but the easy answer there is to do what Eastwood did when he got a little long in the tooth - partnered with a younger ***star*** like Charlie Sheen. Johnny Knoxville is *not* a movie star (unless he’s sticking fireworks up his butt), he’s a comic relief sidekick at best. The problem is, Stallone and Ah-nuld need to be the comic relief sidekick now. They need to be re-introduced as the second billed actor... and maybe they will someday be back as the #1 star, maybe not. Hey, actors need to act their age. The odd thing about an action star is that they are beefcake to a female star’s cheesecake. You don’t see actresses Ah-nuld or Stallone’s age doing sexpot roles... they’re playing moms and grandmothers. That’s okay! And it’s okay for Ah-nuld and Stallone to play their age - and *not* be the star. One of the things about the new DIE HARD movie is that Willis is playing *dad* to a kid in the big action role. They get to play buddy action (an 80s staple - usually with a top comedy star partnered with an action star) and the story seems *big* and exciting (not a small story like Stallone and Ah-nuld got stuck with). A few years ago I got called in to pitch stories for a Vin Diesel buddy action film with Stallone (whose career wasn’t so hot at that point). Though I’m not sure Diesel is the star to bring back Stallone right now - I can easily see how putting them together might be good for both of them. Someone get on that! Maybe The Rock and Ah-nuld can pair up? Or have Ah-nuld play Jake Gyllenhaal’s grandfather? (Both have difficult to spell last names.)
I also wonder if CGI stunts have created a focus on high concept stunts at the expense of high concept stories? If you look at the scenes in PREDATOR - they are great action scenes but *connected* to the high concept of the story itself. Now we have all of these wild CGI action scenes in stories that are kind of pedestrian - and because the action scenes are not connected to the concept, the concept may have to be more realistic to make up for the over-the-top action. They aren’t connected.
Another possible issue is *nostalgia* - why are we making 80s/90s style action flicks in the first place? Why aren’t we doing something new? Plus, these seem to be kind of the faulty memory version of what 80s/90s action flicks were like. Everyone complains about all of the remakes these days, and I usually jump in to point out that remakes have *always* been part of Hollywood movies. But the difference is - in the old days the remakes were *not* nostalgic - they were new spins on an old story. They would take a successful story and give it a modern twist. Now it seems they want to take an old story and make it seem like a film from the old days. Where’s the twist? Instead of longing for those action films from the good old days, we should be making the amazing new films that people will be fondly remembering a couple of decades from now.
By the way, if you wonder whether the action film is dead... did you see the trailer for FAST 6 on last night’s Superbowl broadcast? I’d say action is alive and well. Can’t wait to see it!