Author Topic: The slow and slightly creaky rise of the old-man action movie  (Read 991 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Op-ed: The slow and slightly creaky rise of the old-man action movie

One of the biggest laughs of Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscars monologue on Sunday came with this line: “I’m not saying that movies are the most important thing in the world, because we all know that the most important thing in the world is youth.” The audience roared, possibly as much out of recognition as amusement. The movie industry is almost entirely driven by—and aimed at— youth. Its target market are young teenagers, and its executives, managers, and agents are always searching for the next big talent. You only needed to look to the amount of plastic surgery on display on the Dolby stage last Sunday to know that DeGeneres was simultaneously teasing and telling the truth.

But a glance at last weekend’s box office chart reveals a curious phenomenon: youth, it seems, has some competition. The number one movie in the country was Non-Stop, starring 61-year-old Liam Neeson. The number four film was 3 Days To Kill, starring 59-year-old Kevin Costner. Later this month, 66-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to theaters with Sabotage, a Ten Little Indians-style cop thriller. That comes five months after Schwarzenegger’s Escape Plan—co-starring his 67-year-old former rival Sylvester Stallone—made over $137 million worldwide.

Stallone made two other films last year, Bullet To The Head and Grudge Match, and while neither earned nearly as much as Escape Plan, he’s sure to rebound this summer with The Expendables 3, the latest installment of the hugely popular franchise about the greatest and oldest stars of ‘80s action, including Bruce Willis (58), Dolph Lundgren (56), Jean-Claude Van Damme (53), and Chuck Norris (73). The first two Expendables films have grossed over $575 million worldwide. The next sequel adds stars like Mel Gibson (58), Harrison Ford (71), and Jackie Chan (59)—whose Police Story 2013 is currently in theatrical release in Asia, some thirty years after the first film in the franchise.

We seem to be witnessing the birth of a new sub-genre; not just action movies but old-man action movies. Its rise is particularly baffling given the requirements of the action film: Excitement, movement, and constant, grueling physical exertion, things for which 50- and 60-year old dudes aren’t exactly built. If the most important thing in Hollywood is youth why are all of these men—who are less elder statesmen than elderly ones—experiencing such late-career comebacks?

It’s a cliché at this point to say “50 is the new 40” or “age is only a number,” but in the action genre, it really is true. Advancements in nutrition, exercise, and surgery are keeping actors healthier longer. John Wayne kept playing cowboys and cops well into his 60s, even after he’d lost one of his lungs to cancer—and he did it without the benefit of personal training and high-tech supplements. Meanwhile, fitness nut Sylvester Stallone is in better shape at 67 than I am or ever will be at half his age. He might have lost a step or two, but that’s what stunt doubles are for. One look at the guy without his shirt on proves he’s still a credible action hero.

Not all of Stallone’s contemporaries are as believable as iron-fisted badasses these days, but that’s okay too; in some ways, their appeal onscreen is actually enhanced by their encroaching mortality. Many of the action heroes of the 1980s were defined by their invulnerability: their rock-hard muscles and even-more-inflexible onscreen personas reflected their identities as figurative or literal killing machines. They were useful protagonists for the decade’s macho excesses, but they weren’t exactly relatable characters that audiences could empathize with or root for. A few of the action heroes of the ’80s used to joke that they were “getting too old for this sh*t.” Now those jokes carry the same hint of truth as DeGeneres' gag at the Oscars: these guys really are getting too old for it. That faint air of fatigue has finally given these men what they always lacked onscreen: humanity.

Consider the scene in The Last Stand where Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the run from drug-dealing baddies, leaps through the door of a diner. As he staggers to his feet, the man behind the counter asks him “How are you, Sheriff?” His weary, one-word response: “Old.” The Schwarzenegger of the 1980s once crashed a car through the front wall of a police station and then single-handedly murdered every cop inside. Now the roles are almost completely reversed: He’s the one trying to escape remorseless assassins. The old-man action hero—the Übermensch turned underdog—is more fun to root for, because there’s actually a chance he might lose.

Still, the most important aspect of the rise of old-man action movies is the sub-genre’s connection to the only other force in Hollywood more bankable and lucrative than youth: nostalgia. A look back at that most recent box office chart reveals that most of the movies that aren’t tied to fogies murdering people draw on my generation’s fond memories of childhood. We played with Lego, and pretended we were RoboCop, and sang along with Disney movies our parents taped for us off of television. Most of 2014’s biggest films are shameless appeals to nostalgia, from Muppets Most Wanted to Transformers: Age Of Extinction to Godzilla to Maleficent to 22 Jump Street to Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes to every single movie from Marvel and DC Comics.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger and the rest of the old man action coterie key into that same reflective impulse. One of the best moviegoing experiences of my childhood was seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the first R-rated movie I ever saw in a movie theater. My dad took me and my best friend; I still remember where we sat in the theater, and the cheers at “Hasta la vista, baby.” If I had a son that age now, I’d take him to see Escape Plan—which is exactly why Hollywood makes these kinds of movies. They cross generational lines and appeal to multiple demographics.

Realistically, there’s only so long this old man action trend can last. Even these cinematic superman will physically decline to the point where they stretch suspension of disbelief too far, and drive audiences away. But until then you can expect to see Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the rest huffing and puffing their way through these thrillers, because ultimately it’s money, not youth, that is the most important thing in this world.


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Re: The slow and slightly creaky rise of the old-man action movie
« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2014, 06:58:10 pm »
The forgot Bruce Willis' Die Hards!