Last Action Heroes? Has the Macho, Action Genre Hit a Low Point?

Last Action Heroes? Has the Macho, Action Genre Hit a Low Point?
Photo: Warner Bros. / Open Road / Lionsgate

I didn't quite know how to describe the genre I'm referring to with this post (BoxOfficeMojo doesn't even have a category for it), but suffice to say I'm particularly targeting the films made popular by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone back in the '80s and more recently it seems Jason Statham had a lock down on things. Now, however, it only seems Liam Neeson can really generate any box-office juice with his cinematic fisticuffs, otherwise it has to be an ensemble or nothing.

I ask because ever since Schwarzenegger made his way back to movies after playing Governor for eight years, he's seen The Last Stand, Escape Plan and this past weekend's Sabotage tank at the box office.

Similarly, Stallone has seen Bullet to the Head, Escape Plan and Grudge Match bomb at the box office and Statham has seen a string of non-starters including Killer Elite, The Mechanic, Safe, Parker, Redemption and Homefront. Between the three men only The Expendables and The Expendables 2 has shown any kind of real profit in the past three years or so while Neeson has dominated with the Taken franchise, The Grey, Unknown and Non-Stop. What gives?

Granted, Escape Plan did dominate overseas (making over $112 million), but perhaps this once again shows evidence neither Stallone or Schwarzenegger can open a film on their own.

Have audiences seen enough of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Statham? What is it Neeson provides those three don't? Is it the fact he's simply a better actor? Why does it take the teaming of the Three S's in Expendables to really generate any box office juice?

Stallone's biggest success outside of Expendables was his returns to Rocky and Rambo, while Schwarzenegger will likely find love with Terminator: Genesis, but that's simply returning to old territory rather than finding something new. Speaking of which, will that Legend of Conan film actually get made? What about that Twins sequel we've heard might be on the way? Is anyone interested?

Of the films mentioned above, I enjoyed Escape Plan and Homefront, but perhaps these small gold flecks in a pile of dull stones just don't interest audiences enough to go panning through the mud to find them until they hit DVD and Blu-ray. What do you think? Am I overlooking anything?

  • andyluvsfilms

    I suggest people go back and watch those old 80's action movies rather than the newer ones, they're certainly more entertaining. I barely made it through The Last Stand and Bullet To The Head and gave up on Escape Plan halfway through, in all three cases i thought the script was the biggest letdown, not the actors.

    • Brad Brevet

      Homefront, I think, is the closest we've come in a long time to matching the films from the '80s.

      • andyluvsfilms

        I think momentum also plays a part, an audience can be more forgiving when an actors star is in ascendance.

  • Roger

    Personally I don't think this is a case of the action hero movie hitting a low point, but more of people not wanting to pay full price in theaters and rather watch them at home.

    Last Stand, Escape Plan, Homefront etc... these movies may have not seen big financial success but they were still fun to watch on a Saturday night at home.

  • Justin Golding

    I don't know if you listen to the b s report with bill Simmons but him and Wesley Morris actually talked about this over the weekend. Their thoughts were that the old eighties action movies were made by American film makers who had something to say about the future of the world and "the track America was on."

    It was a fascinating discussion.

  • BradyD

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Brad. These guys can't find box office success anymore unless they make an ensemble or retread old material. I think it has more to do with people thinking these movies would be better to watch within the comfort of their own homes. I saw Sabotage yesterday and I actually liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Arnold's performance was the best I've seen from him in a long time.

    • BradyD

      The Expendables 3 trailer is expected to hit this Thursday btw.

  • Adu

    I'm probably in the minority, but I never felt that all those action movies from the 80s hold up at all, and in many cases have the same crappy elements found in the ones being produced now.
    I enjoyed those 80s ones growing up, but upon revisiting them now that I have had more exposure to movies, there is nothing substantial I see in them that makes them better than what we currently see. Less CGI is the only plus I could force myself to give out to those oldies.

  • Baca

    I have always had the theory that audiences always liked the idea of these characters more than the actual characters, and studios have constantly looked this over. Perfect example is Indiana Jones. The studios think that the reason people love the original trilogy is because of Harrison Ford donning the hat and whip, but in reality it's the idea of the strapping young teacher who moonlights as a hero. This is one of the many reasons I feel Crystal Skull did not catch on; people just don't care about seeing a 60 year old do the things they did in their 30's. Neeson avoids this conundrum as he was always a drama guy who found the badass old guy action niche later in his career.

    P.S. This is also the reason I am skeptical about new Star Wars. Don't want to see old Han Solo and such. No nostalgia, don't care. Give me a new story with new characters, not Leanord Nimoy hiding in an ice cave.

  • Ron Oneal Fresh

    Action heroes have their expiration date, at first I thought it was age of the action star that people didn't want to see in theaters but I remembered the Liam Neesons movies doing well. Perhaps and maybe ironically the audiences want something smart or at least attempting to be from their action movies but I remembered the Liam Neesons movies. What does Neeson has that Arnold and Sly characters don't, for some reason or another you care about what he's doing.

    Action heroes are usually very one-dimensional, so the tagline for the film has to be a lot more inventive than a sheriff chasing a bad guy or someone escaping prison. Doesn't seem like a must-see theater movie to a general audience who can pay $10 to watch superhuman people with their superpowers saving the world if not the galaxy.

    Action heroes can't really raise the stakes to those levels.

  • Captain Omniscient

    One can only suspend disbelief so much. Geriatric 60+ year olds as action stars is just a terrible concept to begin with. Add that to the fact that the schticks of these guys is way past tired, and the fact that the movies aren't actually any good, and you have the recipe for flopping at the box office.

  • Winchester

    ''Does no one care about Sly, Arnie and Stath anymore?''

    That's easy to answer when I never cared in the first place about two out of those three guys. And Arnie only some of the time (basically any Cameron collaboration along with 'Kindergarten Cop', 'Total Recall' and 'Predator' is pretty much it really), although I'd watch one of his oldies before a Sly one.

    I reckon certain types of 80's and 90s action films were a product of a time that was different enough from today and like a lot of things, their day passed. It could tap partially into the politics of the time, the mindset of the time and how that has changed over the years as the world changed to boot but while I don't remotely believe the 80s didn't have it's fair share of crap (for every 'Commando' there's a 'Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous', for every 'Rambo' or 'First Blood' there's a 'Lone Wolf McQuade') or better scripts most of the time I think that specific type of action film simply peaked at that point in time (like Westerns did in the late 50s, 60s and early/mid 70s) and it's been a downward trend since. Maybe it's the fact that a 'One Man Army' stereotype seems out of date as well ('White House Down' and 'Olympus Has Fallen' tried to tap into that vibe with not a lot of success) and more suited to direct to video. But even at that, taking Neeson just now, it's not as if his reinvention films are any less throwaway.

    Those types of films have been replaced in the multiplex by Superhero's, comic books and those genres will eventually peak and pass and be replaced by something new or old in due course.

  • parapa

    I think it's a combination of Hollywood completely forgetting how to make competent traditional action movies, and audience tastes gradually shifting towards bigger and bigger scale action - which inevitably led to superhero stories.

    I think it's worth pointing out that in terms of quality, none of the recent Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Statham movies have been remotely as good or ambitious as their 80s classics. I'm talking just in terms of pure production value, their post-2000s action movies often feel cheap and almost DTV level at times.

    If you look at a movie like Predator or Total Recall, it's on a completely different scale of craftsmanship to the stuff they've been starring in now. Those classic 80s hits FELT like big-screen movies that you wanted to see in the theater, and the new ones don't. You look at something like Olympus Has Fallen and it feels like a cheap pale imitation of those kinds of movies, not even close to the real thing.

    So I wouldn't impune the genre as a whole. If you were to make a movie on the scale and quality of Predator or Die Hard today, I would bet audiences would come out and see it (it might even be a breath of fresh air at this point in this superhero climate).

    In terms of Boxoffice, you're probably right though, the 80s action movie went the way of the Western, and will probably exist in the same kind of space. They largely won't exist anymore, but every couple of years, a good one might come out (True Grit was a big hit a few years back) to remind us that it was a good genre once upon a time.

    • Esteban J. Hernandez

      About 'Olympus Has Fallen' and 'White House Down,' these became as on a list of copycat films, hence they are as released in a same year, as while as we are looking at 'Die Hard' clones.

      George P. Cosmatos' 'Tombstone,' featuring Kurt Russell ('The Thing') as Wyatt Earp, and Val Kilmer ('Top Gun,' 'The Doors,' 'Heat') as Doc Holliday was as re-leased in December 25, 1993. Ho, ho, ho. And, as soon as Lawrence Kasdan's 'Wyatt Earp,' featuring Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp, Gene Hackman as Earp's father and Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday was as re-leased in June 24, 1994, more people cite it as a "rip-off" of 'Tombstone.' More "early" films are as accused as rip-offs as when as re-leased as after any other film.

      And as with 'White Down Down' as a box-office flop, sore no-NC-17-loving losers are pointing at the PG-13 rating, indicating it financially killed it. It's as stupid. 'The Raid: Redemption,' the film as "inspired" by McTiernan's 'Die Hard' as also, carried an R rating, it's as about fellow officers fighting their way as through evil men who trapped them in a building. And as about 'Dredd,' the reboot of Danny Cannon's film, it carried the same R rating and the similar story, but as what as it did not carry the same earning of financial success as thanks to a lack of smart marketing publicity.

      Accusing the PG-13 rating as of financially killing WHD is as the same as saying it as an explanation of 'Wyatt Earp''s earning of financial failure. As much as it would have tend being as MUCH tamer in this present as when as filmmakers choose it, unless appealing it to a PG-13 in some way without more edits.

  • Steven P

    I still watch them. Loved Escape Plan, Safe, and Sabotage.

  • ClassicWingers

    Interesting discussion here. Lots of great posts.

    Maybe we've come to expect more from our action stars and hence Liam Neeson is the head of the pack. I also wonder if the current super-hero is now the new action hero.

    I've always thought people liked Schwarzenegger ironically. I've enjoyed his movies, but I've never taken him seriously as an actor. Has he ever tried to do an American accent?

  • GregDinskisk

    Come on, Brad! Get off your high horse! All these movies are GREAT and these stars are GREAT and everything is GREAT!!!

    • Corbin

      You mean his... War Horse!

      • GregDinskisk

        As far as I'm concerned, War Horse is the ONLY horse.

  • Good Grief

    I think there's a formula to what makes big, nostalgic action films work. For example, the last "Rambo" film is fantastic because it's basically ultra- violence from start to finish. It's silly in how over the top it is. It's the same with "The Expendables." Those 80's films now have a sense of cheese about them. They're all one liners and people getting shot in half. That's the key.
    Liam Neeson's action films don't have he same feel to them. They lean more towards thriller than action for the most part. Granted, everyone tittered at the premise of Neeson fighting wolves with broken bottle knuckledusters but in the film that moment was actually quite serious.
    Statham's films have been fodder and sometimes entertaining fodder but they've never quite hit that mark. Look at his films that have the biggest cult followings - "The Transporter" and even "Crank." Why? Because, once again, they're silly. They capture the essence of the 80's and early 90's.
    Action is changing. With films like "The Raid" and "Dredd" becoming popular, it seems there's a need for grittier (there's that word), more intimate action rather than big ol' CGI-fests.
    There's no middle ground. There's violent, well shot serious action films and then there's the tongue-in-cheek, silly, "Remember the 80's?" films.

  • Paul Hennen

    Homefront did pretty well between overseas and US numbers, didn't it? But as far as Statham goes, I believe it is a market overflow situation. I would not blame bad quality movies (ok some are definitely not anything more than entertaining, but there are also some that are different or done very well) that he's in, just too many. There is usually one of Statham's filsm that go direct to dvd every year as well.

  • yrabadi

    These films can still be fun... I think it comes down to better scripts and the right kind of marketing.

  • Jimmy Diamies

    I enjoy the movies from those guys for the nostalgia factor. Most people I know my age, do not like Schwarzenegger. They think he is a terrible actor and I disagree. His accent throws people off and it is understandable, but I have always thought his line delivery and the emotion behind it was pretty good. Neeson is definitely riding Takens success. That was a great movie because it had a good and mostly plausible script imo. It is the realistic, take no bullshit, that people want to see in action movies not starring a superhero. Example, Neeson shooting that french cops wife in Taken and executing people.

  • Jake

    In the past fifteen years super-heroes and movies based on young adult dystopian societies have taken over the action market. There are at least twenty of those movies coming out this year, and most will be bankable.

    So, where have the action heroes gone? Over to different genres -- fantasy and science fiction. Just a partial list includes Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey, Jr., Christian Bale, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Andrew Garfield ... and the ladies are kicking butt, too, with Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson, and now Shailene Woodley.

    Films like The Avengers and X-Men: Days of Future Past each field more action stars than all of the traditional action movies combined.