In the summer of 2002, an action film was released that declared itself a new kind of spy movie. It said goodbye to the archaic days of Pierce Brosnan’s tired, nostalgia-mining James Bond in favor of something more 21st century. And in 2002, that meant a lot of nu-metal and X-Games stunts. That film was the absurd xXx, which turned out to be a minor hit before Vin Diesel’s action star career went into near-permanent stall mode for the better part of that decade.
However, it was a much less arrogant film that ended up changing the spy genre. Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity made Matt Damon into the unlikeliest of action heroes. He proved that American action stars didn’t need to look and talk like professional wrestlers. Damon’s lean, agile, reserved, and intelligent character didn’t require obvious quips, unquestioning jingoism, or a money shot of him walking away from a sea of explosions to be a threatening bad ass. As the first three Bourne films were released to an exponentially bigger cult of admirers, the brute action stars of old faded into obsolescence. Arnold was a politician, Sly was nowhere to be seen, and a post-Shyamalan Bruce Willis took seemingly every part he could get his hands on, good or bad, only briefly returning to his action movie roots with a PG-13 muzzle.
Then, at the end of the decade, with the release of The Expendables, the brute action hero nostalgia machine kicked into high gear. And promptly went nowhere.
Like Sly’s attempt to reinvigorate the Rocky franchise in 2006 (which turned out modestly well) and the Rambo franchise in 2008 (which turned out not-so-well), The Expendables represented the once prolifically creative writer/director/actor’s return to the well yet again, this time emerging with an epic wet dream of the 80s action movie fan, only a couple of decades too late. Sure, The Expendables did fine, but with stunt casting this transparently reaching, how could it not? Sly, Statham, Li, Lundgren, and Willis and Ahnuld (in cameos) weren’t so much characters as they were extended winks directed at audiences as if to say, “How much they you have loved this idea is this movie was made in, say, 1992?”
There was never a sense that any of these people existed outside of the movie itself; they were simply remnants of existing star images, albeit considerably older. So, despite an uninvolving story, unspectacular action scenes, and Sly’s surprisingly choppy direction, The Expendables was a blunt statement that the 80s and early 90s were back (for a little while at least).
After a considerably more coherent sequel with more stars but fewer returns, it seems that the Expendables machine has spawned outward, as if these two films were attempting the reverse economic model of Marvel’s Avengers project. In a span of just a few weeks, four Expendables stars released standalone films: Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand, Stallone in the imaginatively titled Bullet to the Head, Statham in Parker, and Willis, of course, in a 5th Die Hard film.
While an underperforming but low-risk Statham movie is nothing new, it’s striking that the early weeks of 2013 were crowded with attempted comebacks of stars who dominated screens during the Reagan and Bush 1 era. Ahnuld’s return was the most significant. It’s one thing for the Governator to have a cheeky extended cameo alongside his violence-prone buddies in an Expendables film, but it’s another thing entirely for him to declare a full-fledged return to his abandoned movie stardom. He has at least two more films in the works, but with The Last Stand, audiences didn’t seem interested in going back to the Commando well. Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head performed even worse.
A Good Day to Die Hard, unsurprisingly, made a more definitive connection, if only because of the title alone. But despite their varying box office performances, there are a few compelling similarities between these three films. There’s a distinct acknowledgment of age in the casting of these wrinkling action stars, if for no other reason than the fact that each of them has a considerably younger sidekick in a “mentee” role: Johnny Knoxville’s Lewis Dinkum in The Last Stand, Sung Kang‘s Detective Taylor in Bullet to the Head, and John McClane’s son in Die Hard 5.
Only the latter possibly signals a franchise baton-pass (considering the fact that the cardboard Jai Cortney makes Sam Worthington look like Captain Charisma, hopefully not), but all these films do something that The Expendables doesn’t by overtly acknowledging age through difference: the old are collaborating with the young, whether that be hapless (Stand), modern (Bullet), or simply a watered-down version of the old (Five Hard). These films are operating less from an assumed appeal of nostalgia as in Expendables. Instead, they explore the obsolescence of their stars. This seems an admission that, to an extent, Arnie and Sly can never be in another action film without their stronger careers of yesteryear staring at them in the mirror.
The new Die Hard seems strangely positioned in all this, erasing its own history as it positions John McClane within the meat-headed paradigm of Willis’s action hero predecessors. The first Die Hard (still a brilliant film) was, in several ways, a reaction to the Commando and Rambo-brand action film that preceded it throughout the 80s. Willis, the comedic star on Moonlighting, was an unlikely choice for an action hero at the time; McClane, while capable of some superhuman stunt work, wasn’t the invulnerable superman that Schwarzenegger and Stallone could be. Die Hard didn’t open with McClane carrying a tree, but attempting to save his marriage. The scene where he picks glass from his feet made McClane a vulnerable action hero rarely seen in this brand of cinema.
Die Hard is a surprisingly self-aware action film. References to Hollywood’s institution of past action heroes are made explicit through the villains’ sardonic comparison of McClane to John Wayne. McClane famously quipped in return, “I always thought of myself more like Roy Rogers.” The joke works, in part, because McClane’s gritty, triumphant individualism and solo defeat of unwanted outsiders has much more in common with Wayne’s persona than the squeaky clean Rogers. But the anachronisms of Roy Rogers’s famous TV show, which featured western heroes inexplicably interacting within a contemporary landscape, are, unfortunately, an accurate reflection of how out-of-place McClane has become.
With the studio-polished, watered-down Die Hard 4 and the utterly incoherent Die Hard 5, McClane as envisioned through memory is not a more-complex-than-average anti-meathead, but is resurrected as if his persona fell right in line with the Slys and Ahnulds of the Age of Falco. The new McClane exhibits superhero capabilities, is able to surmount any impossible degree of danger without even the slightest notion of risk to himself, and has lost most of his sardonic edge in the process. In attempting to capitalize on nostalgia, the Die Hard franchise ends up mis-remembering its own past.
Hollywood action movies have been experiencing various crises in masculinity since (at least!) Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films. But crises in masculinity have typically made for some pretty solid action movies. Now we have a crisis in the basic formula of action movies.
Now that the 80s nostalgia machine seems to have puttered out as soon as it started, and Universal’s attempt to re-brand the Bourne franchise was arguably DOA, what is to come of the Hollywood action film? Will Hollywood continue in the vein of brawn and brute (and old) action heroes, or will studios search for the next adept, intriguing, cunning protagonist? The answer seems to be headed in two directions.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will star in a grand total of four films before the calendar year is halfway done, including Snitch (which opens tomorrow), GI Joe 2, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (which seems to be a self-conscious jab at meat-headedness), and the 6th Fast and the Furious film. While the quality of some of these upcoming films may be suspect, I’ve found The Rock to have a fascinating onscreen persona. He’s charismatic, funny, and somehow human despite his gargantuan stature (it’s hard to say the same for Schwarzenegger, who was always robotic even when he didn’t play one). He has the patriotic credentials of the conservative action star of old, yet, unlike his predecessors, he still seems adept enough for a 21st century mentality. He’ll beat up a bad guy, but he won’t make a homophobic joke while doing so. And I have a theory that he’s largely the reason that Fast Five was the first good film in that franchise.
But on the other hand, perhaps the uber-masculine model for the action star is outmoded in of itself. After all, the biggest badasses of this past year in cinema have been women, whether it be Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss in Hunger Games, Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, and for the kids, Merida in Brave. Female action heroes might not only move mainstream film culture onward from the increasingly stagnant crisis in masculinity, but they might just save our action movies as well.