Don’t make me remind you that ‘Grown Ups 2’ brought ‘Pacific Rim’ to its knees.
Ten years ago today, the world saw the debut of a movie that would go on to have a significant impact on a number of well-respected actors’ careers and change the lives of movie-lovers everywhere. That movie, of course, is Walt Becker’s Wild Hogs. Despite resoundingly negative reviews (besides that of our lovely and forgiving editor-in-chief), the comedy about four anthropomorphic Home Depot paunches riding motorcycles earned the third-highest grossing March opening on record at the time, lagging only behind the Ice Age movies.
John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, and William H. Macy brought the dads to the cinema in full force, following in the footsteps of Vin Diesel and Steve Martin in distributor Buena Vista’s similarly-timed and -pitched The Pacifier and Bringing Down the House.
It wasn’t just that the film had a Super Bowl commercial aimed squarely at its brew-addled target audience, it’s that it was up against Zodiac. Despite negative reviews against wholeheartedly positive ones, the Hogs grossed $39.7 million on their opening weekend, almost tripling Zodiac’s debut. The sprawling drama was a high-brow crime study, slowly paced and meticulously realized – something hard to market anytime, but especially in the Super Bowl.
That kind of commercial just isn’t realistic for anything more nuanced than, well, biker dads. So yes, Wild Hogs was the movie that brought Zodiac to its knees thanks to a marketing and filmgoing climate that didn’t know (and possibly still doesn’t know) how to make its older male audience want to think. But what in the world was going on in early 2007 that a small biker renaissance took over the box office for the three weeks reigned by Ghost Rider and Wild Hogs? And what was the development cycle (no pun intended) for all these leatherbound dude flicks prepping for 2007’s hyper-masculine springtime? Wild Hogs dropped to second place the next weekend thanks to the only movie that could possibly bring more ludicrous testosterone: 300.
Written by a My Name Is Earl and Arrested Development alum (Brad Copeland) and directed by, well, the Van Wilder guy, the film found itself square in a tumultuous American political climate. The Democrats took over Congress, President George W. Bush faced criticism about Katrina and Iraq, and compromise was at its shaky start. So what better way to smooth out an unsteady nation than with something old-fashioned? And nothing’s more old-fashioned than being afraid of gay people. It also obviously wasn’t a high point for American cinema at that time of the year, considering Ghost Rider’s box office dominance.
So does the film’s onenote, gay panicky comedy hold up? Let’s take a look.
The film’s segmented opening, visiting each of the Hogs in succession to prove how utterly mediocre and emasculated each is, gives us a nagging wife, a foul-mouthed porn granny, a spray-tanned child angry at John Travolta’s business demands, and Tim Allen having his fatherly bonding kid-cucked away by a local dad that “can dunk.” Macy’s segment (the aforementioned granny incident) occurs after a misheard voice command with what is meant to be a fancy laptop program. Though, taken now, if someone was talking into Siri at conversational volume, headphoneless, in a coffeeshop, they’d be a pariah even if their search returns didn’t include elderly fetish sites.
Travolta gets mad at Macy for smelling his neck, seriously angry at anyone endangering his sexuality. In fact, taking Scientology’s angry totalitarianism into account, his character may very well have been a warning to Travolta the actor. Allen, finally breaking under the dehumanizing pseudo-effeminacy of his day-to-day life, goes on a rant that sounds like it was taken verbatim from (President Trump informational advisor) Alex Jones. Compare these clips.
They share the same desperation to prove some sort of conservative, primal ideal of masculinity and, well, they’re funny despite themselves. The character motivations have the skeletons of those stereotypes made more famous by 2009’s The Hangover, instigating the character interactions with the same kind of lightly anarchic charm. This was years before studios discovered they could just give Adam Sandler and his various pilot fish hangers-on a few million dollars to fail upwards, so these seasoned comedy vets actually seem to care.
That they care about material like a gay cop (John C. McGinley) “daddy”-ing Macy or some skinny dipping that inevitably results in textbook cases of “no homo,” is regrettable. It also does that thing where there’s one Asian guy and he’s a crazy, blathering martial art master. But more than anything it’s boring, even when a bar blows up.
Very little goes on of note besides poorly edited driving tunes over a little riding and a lot of parking. If the legacy of Wild Hogs lives on, it’ll be as a monument of classic rock radio hits from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and today. It also includes a performance of Ginuwine’s “My Pony” long before Magic Mike.
And though the material is tired and regressive, the four’s careers soldiered on. None got as big a live-action feature-length role since (though Allen continued voicing Buzz Lightyear), but all continued or gained constantly productive TV gigs. Shameless, Last Man Standing, Partners, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story all resituated these men in their post-old-man-comedy lives as actors that we should still like and more importantly, actors that are still marketable.
The film’s production troubles and eventual franchise death are far more interesting than the film itself, so for old times’ sake (and because nobody else will be doing retrospectives on this movie in the future), let’s examine the beginnings and repercussions of Wild Hogs.
Disney announced the film in 2005 with the logline “A group of middle-aged wannabe bikers look for adventure out on the open road, where they soon encounter a chapter of the Hell’s Angels.” The script contained a climactic confrontation with the Angels and the casting announcements and ancillary marketing for the film mentioned the motorcycle club by name (Yes, MC. Motorcycle Club. I watched Sons of Anarchy, ok?) over and over. So, after lawsuits against a skateboard manufacturer and an action sportswear line for similar appropriations, the Angels sued Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group for its potential (and unlicensed) portrayal of their club.
It also turns out, later in the lawsuit, that 20th Century Fox owns the exclusive rights to use the Hell’s Angels name and logos in movies, contingent that the film is based on a specific biography. Why Disney thought they could still go through with it is likely based on their assumed degree of the Hell’s Angels’ litigiousness. But those bikers have very protective lawyers. According to the L.A. Times, that suit was voluntarily dismissed…and the biker gang in Wild Hogs became “the Del Fuegos,” led by one Ray Liotta.
Because of the movie’s strong box office performance, it’s not surprising that in 2009 Disney announced that a sequel titled Wild Hogs 2: Bachelor Ride directed by Becker and with the same cast and screenwriter. So why did we never get another raunchy, formulaic hog slog?
Thanks to some analysis by Christopher McKittrick, it seems that Disney got spooked thanks to another dads-as-animals gamble, Old Dogs. The Disney film shared star Travolta and director Becker while featuring Robin Williams and the final acting role of Bernie Mac. It got even worse reviews than the Hogs (5% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes compared to 14%) and made less than half its opening weekend take. It still made a healthy sum eventually, but its financial stutter was enough for Disney to wonder if maybe they should quit resurrecting middle-aged actors in retrograde, conservative comedies while they were ahead. In fact, this hesitancy infiltrated Disney’s execs so deeply that they also cancelled an unrelated comedy called Wedding Banned which would’ve also starred Williams.
So yes, the impact of the film was mostly financially-oriented, but hey, so was the film itself. The critical appraisal of the film on its debut was spot-on (except for maybe that of our fearless leader, who actually rated the film higher than Zodiac), but its impact for studio comedies – what could be successful depending on marketing pushing groups of half-assing celebrities – continues to be felt. Even ignoring our ensemble comedies, Wild Hogs proved that the continuation of old man comedies, those clinging to the last vestiges of a lost manly ideal while sullying a genre that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau made reputable, were easy money. Now we have Morgan Freeman robbing banks for laughs while Robert De Niro all but wets a diaper on camera while clapping cymbals together. Wild Hogs may only be memorable for proving to studios that exploiting its actors’ aging processes can continue to be a profitably raunchy tactic.