Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why are R-rated action movies flopping?

Why are R-rated action movies flopping?

I have not yet seen The Last Stand, the film that has been marketed as Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to headlining action movies after a decade-long retirement from acting and a stint as the Governator of Kal-E-Fourn-Ya. Nor have I seen Bullet to the Head, the latest Sylvester Stallone action vehicle in which he stretches himself by playing a hitman out to avenge his partner-in-crime's death. However, I do understand that they hit like neutron bombs at the box office, with The Last Stand making only $7.2 million over the four-day MLK weekend on a budget of $30-45 million, and Bullet to the Head bowing to a pitiful $4.5 million over Super Bowl weekend with $55 million invested in it. Similarly, last year Dredd failed to recoup its $45 million budget despite excellent reviews and word-of-mouth.

More after the jump.

In Dredd's case, there were two things going against it in particular: perceived similarities to the acclaimed (and friggin' awesome if you ask me) Indonesian action/martial arts film The Raid: Redemption (which came out that year in limited release), and the lingering aftertaste of Stallone's ill-advised 1995 attempt to adapt Judge Dredd to the big screen. Likewise, The Last Stand came out under the cloud of both Schwarzenegger's adultery/baby mama scandal and the Sandy Hook shooting (a film that glamorized rural "gun nuts" like Johnny Knoxville's character was gonna be a tough sell in that climate), as well as the fact that it wasn't quite his big return to Hollywood like the trailers implied; audiences still remember The Expendables 2 several months ago, and how its marketing played up Schwarzenegger's expanded role. As for Bullet to the Head, it came out over a weekend where most of its target audience, middle-aged to older men, is watching the Game on Sunday, and by most accounts it was just a plain bad movie. And obviously, there's the fact that both movies star senior citizens trying to present themselves as still being just as badass at 65 as they were at 45.

However, looking at broader trends over the past several years, it's clear that modern audiences do not particularly care for the sort of machismo-driven action movies that characterized the '80s careers of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, etc. There was The Expendables and its sequel, yes, but those were major event movies, their marketing relying heavily (almost entirely, in fact) on their star power and on them being the films that brought all these screen legends to the same place to kick ass. Hollywood's attempts to find the next "great action hero" in the mold of the aforementioned icons -- Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Jason Statham -- have all failed to produce an A-lister like Ahnold or the Italian Stallion, most of their movies going direct-to-DVD or winding up in the winter and late summer "dump months".

I initially got the idea to write this article from this poll on the website Arrow in the Head, the horror/"genre" section of JoBlo's Movie Emporium (a great site, by the way), asking readers why they thought The Last Stand had flopped. The choices included (in somewhat more coarse terms): Schwarzenegger's sex scandal, poor marketing, Schwarzenegger's older fans waiting for the DVD, and this generation of moviegoers being too emasculated to enjoy violent, macho action. (EDIT: I would also like to provide a shout-out to Paul Shirey for writing this article over on the same website. His analysis restricts itself to just The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head, but some of what he says also shows up in what I'm about to say.) I held out on posting this until I saw how well Bullet to the Head did (badly, as it turned out), just in case The Last Stand's failure was a fluke. Here, I will answer what I think happened to the '80s action movie.

1. Die Hard and The Matrix happened.

Hardcore, machismo-fueled action flicks haven't been relevant since those two films changed the action game. They were very R-rated, yes, but they weren't like any Hollywood action films up to that point. Die Hard featured an everyman hero who felt like a vulnerable human being rather than an invincible killing machine, forced to take cover and lick his wounds after fights. Bruce Willis, believe it or not, wasn't seen as a "natural" action hero, lacking the ripped physique and martial arts/bodybuilding background of his contemporaries; at the time, he was best known as the star of the comedic detective series MoonlightingThe Matrix, conversely, was inspired more by highly choreographed, ultra-stylized, Hong Kong martial arts and "heroic bloodshed" films and took the already over-the-top action straight into crazyland. Both films were all the better for it and hugely successful at that. They were followed in the '00s with the Bourne films and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which stripped down, respectively, the James Bond-esque superspy and the superhero.

Filmmakers have realized that making heroes vulnerable and giving them credible villains to fight makes for more compelling cinema, since you can't automatically assume that they're going to win. Even in recent movies filled with epic bombast, like Transformers or The Avengers, the super-tough heroes are given even tougher, world-destroying threats to take them down. Giant robots are met with evil giant robots; a group of superhumans, billionaire techno-wizards, and badasses are met by a literal Norse god bringing an alien invasion with him. Nowadays, a macho man with a belt-fed machine gun and a hand-cannon blowing away a drug lord or a tinpot dictator and wave after wave of mooks is something that only works in B-movies and video games.

Speaking of...

#2: Video games have eaten the market for macho action.

In the '80s and early '90s, action games meant Contra, Metroid, and other titles that, due to the limitations of the hardware at the time, couldn't hope to match something like the latest Rambo movie in terms of special effects and production values no matter how silky-smooth the gameplay was. Movies had the action market all to themselves. Now, however, video games have grown able to depict that sort of action so well that they are now a chief target of media critics' ire. Why watch Jason Statham blowing away gangsters when you can place yourself in his shoes and experience the thrill yourself?

For better or worse, gaming has proven over the last decade that it is a phenomenal medium for depicting violent, visceral action. Until virtual reality follows tablet computers out of the domain of science fiction, there will be no better medium than gaming for experiencing that sort of pure, check-your-brain-at-the-door thrills. Action movies have had to step up their game accordingly, providing the sorts of set pieces that, so far, games have only been able to pull off through non-interactive cutscenes. A guy running around shooting everyone and dropping bombs on people's heads isn't going to cut it when your potential audience is not only doing precisely that in Modern Warfare multiplayer, but is competing for perks, kill-streak rewards, and new weapons and appearance mods while they're at it.

Hollywood must be dreading the thought of girls becoming gamers and, with it, B-grade romantic comedies getting cannibalized by gaming the same way B-grade action movies did.

#3: We don't live in the '80s anymore.

The stereotypical "'80s action movie" tended to have, almost as a rule (with a few exceptions like The Running Man or Robocop), some rather conservative politics. Many '80s action movie plots could be summed up as "a lone hero or two goes into a war zone (the mean streets of South Central, the jungles of Southeast Asia) to perform a mission (beating a drug lord, fighting communists) that the establishment can't do because it had its hands tied." These themes appealed to a very particular subset of the population, one that was large and in charge during the Reagan years. America had just been badly defeated in Vietnam, it was witnessing its cities turn into cesspools of crime, its manufacturing base was on the decline, Japan was looking to take America's place as the premier economic power, and people needed a release for all the pent-up emotion that this national humiliation was causing. Hollywood happily obliged over the course of the 1980s, cranking out movies where rugged American individuals were able to strike back at the problems afflicting society -- cleaning up the ghettoes, bringing home the POW-MIAs, and kicking commie ass, all at the point of a very large gun.

I will not pass judgment on these politics one way or the other, but what I can say is that the world today is not the same world that existed in the "golden age" of Arnie and Stallone. Instead of rampant crime, the main issue afflicting inner cities today is precisely the opposite -- the middle class and young professionals are moving back into city centers, reversing decades of suburbanization to the point where the fear is that it's getting too expensive to live in the inner cities. The defining image of New York nowadays is not the Blackout of '77 and the ensuing riots, but glamorous shows like Friends and Sex and the City. Furthermore, most people under the age of 25 know of the Soviet Union only from their history classes. The big "enemy" of the last ten years has been far more nebulous than a globe-spanning superpower with the world's largest nuclear arsenal and an army capable of reaching the Rhine in weeks. Rather, it's been terrorist groups capable of either blending into society or disappearing into the deserts and mountains, fighting an asymmetrical war that has caused the American armed forces no shortage of grief. Movies about generic "terrorists" kidnapping the President's daughter feel a lot different now given our experiences with real-life terrorists in the last twelve years.

Furthermore, these themes tend to be very limited in appeal. Even ignoring America, most countries, even those that struggled through economic problems in the '70s like we did, had different experiences than we did. France's Vietnam War was in the early '50s, almost ancient history for them; Australia never had white flight and urban decay on the scale that we did. This flows right into issue #4...

#4: The American market no longer commands Hollywood's undivided attention.

People like the late Andrew Breitbart have accused Hollywood of pushing a liberal agenda for making movies that they feel to be anti-American, and not indulging enough in their kind of patriotism. Even if Hollywood is not making gung-ho, flag-waving, John Wayne-style epics like they used to (and I can argue all day that Transformers and The Dark Knight disprove that argument), they would be missing the real cause of this "lack" of patriotism -- money. Specifically, Chinese, Russian, French, Japanese, German, Indian, and Brazilian money. The world beyond America's borders has grown at a rapid rate, but for the time being, Hollywood is still the chief purveyor of big-budget action blockbusters, with most native film industries restricting themselves to lower-budgeted dramas, comedies, and "genre" fare. "Big budget" films made overseas, like the Chinese historical epic(/propaganda film, but that goes with the territory in China) 1911 about the Xinhai Revolution, tend to have budgets and production values comparable to American miniseries -- nothing to sneeze at, but still on the modest end. (1911's budget was just $30 million, pocket change to a Hollywood studio -- and that's counting Jackie Chan's leading man salary.) When overseas audiences want the biggest explosions, the most stupendous action, they buy American.

A perfect recent example would be the action film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Its budget was about $50 million. Its American box office take as of February 3 was less than $35 million. A pretty shabby performance on paper, a certified box-office dud. However, take a closer look at that page, particularly the "foreign" section under "lifetime grosses", and you will see that the film made an additional $62+ million overseas, for a grand total that will likely well surpass $100 million before the week is up. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has already earned back its budget and then some, making it a clear hit for Paramount. Another example: when Paramount made G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra a few years ago, they gave foreign backgrounds to several characters, making the once all-American Joes into an international team. Breaker was a Moroccan, Heavy Duty became British, and Scarlett's birthplace was moved from Atlanta to Canada. Unpatriotic? Perhaps. A smart financial move? Given that the international box office helped make the film profitable enough to get a sequel this coming summer, certainly.

How do machismo-fueled, gung-ho action movies fit into this paradigm? Not all that well. Granted, the Expendables films both made mucho dinero overseas, but again, those were both summer blockbusters with all-star casts. Move lower down the budgetary totem pole, and you will see that local audiences tend to consume their own action movies. The French, for instance, have produced Luc Besson, best known here in America for La Femme Nikita, The ProfessionalThe Fifth Element, and Taken, while China, particularly Hong Kong, has decades of experience making high-octane action movies. Foreigners love patriotic, flag-waving action as much as any American, but they prefer the flag being waved to be their own rather than the Stars and Stripes, thank-you-very-much. When they do see movies like Rambo and Red Heat, it's chiefly for kitsch value; in fact, this was how Schwarzenegger became popular with a whole generation of Russian men in the '90s.

To conclude...

R-rated movies are hardly a tough sell to modern moviegoers. Raunchy comedies like The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, and nearly every film even tangentially associated with Judd Apatow have proven that you don't need to tone your films down to a PG-13 rating and appeal to teenagers in order to achieve box-office gold. Likewise, horror movies like the Saw series and the Dawn of the Dead remake, as well as the hit TV show The Walking Dead, show that modern audiences aren't at all squeamish about violence; if anything, mainstream horror films are more violent now than they've been since... well, since the '80s. But whereas that decade's violent, grimy horror movies saw a huge revival at the turn of the millennium, its balls-to-the-wall action movies haven't made a similar comeback, and have been largely absent from theaters for well over a decade, the stars of that era keeping their careers on life support in the straight-to-video netherrealm. Action movies have turned towards either realism, with choreographed fight scenes and heroes who are expected to have vulnerabilities, or towards the fantastic, with either overt sci-fi and fantasy inspirations to go with the unstoppable badasses, or a winking self-awareness of just how silly it all is (see: the A-Team adaptation, or Red).

The machismo-powered, '80s-style action flick is a dying breed, at least in the mainstream. The action genre has moved on, video games now do everything that they once did better than they ever could, and the values that they are associated with no longer resonate with either Americans or with an increasingly international film market. And you know what? I don't have a problem with that. These films were a product of a particular place and time, and to try and recapture that magic in a newer environment only offers unfavorable comparisons to the movies of old. And films like this are still being made, if you know where to look for them. For instance, last year's The Raid: Redemption was probably one of the most jaw-droppingly awesome films I've ever had the chance to witness in theaters. Sure, many of these films may not be American, and they may not even be in English, but let's not forget that, looking at the roster of the big action stars of the '80s, Europeans like Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austrian), Dolph Lundgren (Swedish), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Belgian), and Rutger Hauer (Dutch) outnumbered Americans like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, their thick accents often rendering their dialogue nearly incomprehensible.

So these kinds of movies aren't doing so well anymore. So what? There's a reason we all have DVD players. Whenever I bemoan the state of "horror movies today", I throw in something from the '70s or '80s out of my collection and my anger fades. And who knows, maybe one day, that kind of action will resonate with us again, and we'll all witness a second "golden age" for hardcore action movies.

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