C'mon Hollywood: What happened to the "old school" action movie?
Seeped in machismo, one-liners, endless ammo, fireball explosions, shredded muscles, and usually ending with a knock-down, drag out finale, the old school action movie was a thing of beauty. We know these movies well, depending on our age and exposure. For many of us, it was an integral part of our upbringing. Our idols were Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Snipes, Seagal, Van Damme, and Gibson. Yet, as time marched on, so too did the stars of the genre. Schwarzenegger went into politics, Stallone went straight to video, Willis went to the independents, Van Damme went to rehab, Snipes went to jail, Seagal went to twinkies, etc.
So, the question is: What happened?
No one stepped up and took the mantle that these action stars left behind. Sure, many tried, but were all derailed, hit with the family-friendly zone or the curse of the PG-13. Vin Diesel teased us with PITCH BLACK and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, before venturing into obscurity. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pulled a similar move, even filming a proverbial “pass the torch” scene with Schwarzenegger in Peter Berg’s THE RUNDOWN, where Arnold advised Johnson to “have fun.” Instead, Johnson took that as an invitation to jump into a series of forgettable fare with the occasional R-rated action tease that ultimately went nowhere. Jason Statham is probably the best argument for someone who chased the trophy, but he’s slowly turned into the guy who does everything, and none of it good.
There are many stories like this, which have left the first decade of the 21st Century nearly devoid of the old school action movie. Instead, the “cerebral” action flick and, most recently, the comic book movie have taken the reigns. If you look back at the past decade you will find many a great film with a bevy of action; THE LOTR TRILOGY, GLADIATOR, SIN CITY, THE MATRIX, CASINO ROYALE, etc., etc. The action genre isn’t dead, but the genre that defined the 80’s and 90’s is certainly flailing.
When Matt Damon took on the BOURNE trilogy, it looked as if the actor may have the chops to take on an action star mantle. Alas, it was short lived, as Damon treated it as a temporary venture, moving on to his more “serious” and “diverse” roles. George Clooney even gave it a go with his first headlining feature, THE PEACEMAKER, a deeply flawed, but underappreciated start. He hasn’t done an action film since, instead opting for more “Oscar-caliber” work (and done quite well, I might add).
Four of my favorite films from 2011 all have a very striking similarity; each of them harkens back to the days of old school action flicks, injecting a balance of cheeky fun, rousing action, and some macho grandstanding. One of them, FAST FIVE, featured two of the actors who’ve had the most potential to replace the aging action stars of old; Diesel and The Rock. The other two, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL and WARRIOR, both feature nary an elf, cape, spaceship, robot, or alien invasion. These were all real-world people with real guns, real cars, and real gloves that stick to glass and help you climb the tallest building in the world.
And, let’s not forget DRIVE, which is the best Michael Mann movie he never made. Out of 384 films released in 2011, those four were the only ones to blip on my radar as contenders for the old school genre. In comparison, let’s look at 1991, where movies like (click title for trailers) TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, POINT BREAK, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, DOUBLE IMPACT, OUT FOR JUSTICE, RICHOCHET, STONE COLD, LIONHEART, and ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES arrived. You could argue that some of these cross genres, but that doesn’t change their “old school” action standing.
So, is the “old school” action genre as dead as the once reigning western genre? Or is it a matter of nobody stepping up to take the mantle, either because of wanting to “diversify” or pressure to deliver PG-13 fare? The candidates are many; the aforementioned Vin Diesel, The Rock, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Henry Caville, etc. But, do any of them have the CHARISMA that made those movies so great?
Another issue that affects these flicks is the filmmakers who lead them. Guys like John McTiernan (DIE HARD, PREDATOR), Tony Scott (CRIMSON TIDE, TOP GUN), Walter Hill, (48 HOURS, LAST MAN STANDING), Paul Verhoeven (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL) and James Cameron (duh.) have all moved on to either bigger things or complete obscurity. As much carnage as guys like Michael Bay, Jonathan Liebesman, Len Wiseman, and Antoine Fuqua, etc. give, they still haven’t been able to capture the “juice” of the old-school masters, with a few exceptions.
In 2013, we’ll have Willis, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger all returning to action hero roles that have defined them and it’s great to see (well, except for the fifth DIE HARD, anyway). But, they aren’t going to last forever, much as they’d love it. What we need is a duo of filmmakers/actors to put the shock pads on the genre and keep it alive, injecting new talent and new life into it. Otherwise, we’re going to be stuck with capes, superpowers, fairy tales, and children’s books for a really long time.
And as fun as those films can be, they sure as hell don’t replace the wham-bam, smash-‘em-up, F-bomb droppin’, big booby poppin’, lead sprinklin’, ass-kickin’, shit-talkin’, muscle-rippin’, bad ass, Yippie-Ki-Yay-I’ll-be-back, motherf*cker genre by a mile.
|Extra Tidbit:||Let's recast some remakes of classics, shall we? I'll start: Cobra starring Chris Hemsworth, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn Commando starring The Rock, directed by Nevaldine/Taylor Total Recall starring Colin Farrell, directed by Len Wiseman...oh...wait.|