Is the current re-emergence of veteran action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger signaling the explosive return of the classic action genre that ruled the late ‘80s and ‘90s? Or is the trend an unfortunate reminder that classic action stars are a thing of the past?
Action cinema of late has been taken hostage by fantastical, CGI induced films that take inspiration from worlds imagined in the comic book, graphic novel, and fantasy genre. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the superhero genre and really enjoy the works of directors like Zack Snyder. But at times, don’t we all miss some over-the-top action, complete one man armies, cheesy one-liners, crazy shoot-outs and good old-fashioned bare-knuckeld brawls? Not to mention a complete lack of vulnerability to any and all explosions. These qualities are what make the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises, or films like Face/Off, Cobra and Terminator 2: Judgment Day so great. If this is your thing, and you want to see Schwarzenegger annihilate everything in sight, watch Commando. If you want to witness the manliest handshake in cinematic history, watch Predator. If you want to see the ultimate one-man army, watch First Blood. If you want to see Nicholas Cage threaten a man by telling him to “put the bunny back in the box,” escape explosions, and take on Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom, all while the greatest music to ever accompany an action film plays in the background, then you have to watch Con Air. (Seriously, bookmark this page, go get a copy of Con Air, and then come back.)
These guys didn’t have superpowers or fantastic abilities—no, all they needed was a badass attitude, a magic round of bullets (do you ever see them reload?), a right-hook, and some fantastic one-liners.
The comeback of the old school action hero began with 2010’s The Expendables, but was really kick started with its sequel, The Expendables 2. Both films brought our favourite classic heroes out of straight-to-DVD limbo, and brought veterans Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis together to form a holy trinity of ass-kickery. The Expendables reminded us how to make action films in the 21st century and ensured the current generation of movies fans knew just how entertaining and fun they could be.
Nobody has come to replace the old, in an attempt to be appointed the new action star; instead, we now have actors who aren’t necessarily known for action films, like Daniel Craig or Matt Damon taking on roles like James Bond or Jason Bourne respectively. Arguably, Jason Statham can be looked upon as a new breed of action hero, but their films, including the Transporter series, differ from the classics of yore in that they have adopted a new fast cutting, shaky, close up style of action. Live Free or Die Hard was closest thing to a throwback to the previous era—clearly demonstrating a bigger budget—and although the new John McClane took on almost superhero-like abilities, we can all agree it was still pretty awesome.
But the question still stands: does the recent release of The Last Stand, Bullet to the Head, the upcoming release of Expendables 3 , or the Escape Plan signal a return to the late ‘80s and ‘90s action genre? The success of The Expendables films alone says yes, but the not so hot box-office results of the The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head raise different conclusions. These stand-alone films attempted to bring former heroes back to the big screen for nostalgic viewers, but both performed poorly in the box-office.
There are a number of possible reasons for this: since action cinema is characterized by such visually stimulating, CGI created blockbusters (often showcasing out of this world powers and abilities), perhaps audiences don’t posses the same appreciation for real, choreographed stunt-work as they did before. Or maybe the actors’ lack of presence over the years have caused allegiances of fans to lose interest (we’re looking at you Arnold). Maybe many are simply awaiting the DVD release of these films instead. The success of The Expendables 1 and 2 certainly suggest that audiences aren’t interested in these action stars unless they are attached to a franchise or sequel.
So, maybe the classic action flick no longer exists, nor can it compete today in a genre that has evolved and grown so much over the years. But then again, this re-emergence is just beginning of the trend, and with the upcoming releases of the anticipated Expendables 3 and Escape Plan, I’m sure we’ll see that these classic heroes still have plenty of fight left in them.