Machismo Action Films Here and Gone and Back Again
I remember lying on the living room floor as a child, watching movies with my stepfather such as: Conan, Rocky, Rambo, Die Hard, and Kickboxer. These were what my mother would call mindless macho movies or the machismo action film as defined by me later on. This was the era during the 80’s and 90’s where action films introduced stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. In the 80’s and 90’s most action films were filled with sword fights, brutal punches, huge explosions, and martial arts. These actors have many blockbuster hits that total in the billions of dollars, but also come with the price of box-office failures.
Eventually, the action stars began to move into politics, obscurity, and straight to DVD releases. Some of them remained moderately successful in a movie every once in a while. During this time, it gave rise to the new era of action stars such as Jason Statham, Jet Li, and Dwayne Johnson. These newer films may have some similarities to the era previously, but they were not as big or as outrageous. The new action films have begun to be bogged down with CGI effects that take away that sense of realism on screen, even as extreme the action may have been the era previously.
So as the new action stars took their places in their respective blockbuster hits such as Crank, The Rundown, Clash of the Titans, or Inception. The nostalgia of the past slowly began to rear its head with sequels to previous hits of the 80’s and began having success once again in movie theaters.
This is in no way taking anything away from the current era of action films. This is just the realization that action films of our past become something we miss and wish to see again. The idea is this; in order to remain relevant, the action stars of the past must learn to adapt and I will discuss the rise, fall, and possible return of the machismo action film.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was an Austrian body builder and Olympiad prior to coming to America and achieving success as an action star. His first film was a 1969 film called Hercules in New York. His accent was still so bad that they had to dub his voice with another actor. His first blockbuster success came in 1982 though with the film, Conan the Barbarian, in which he plays the titular role of Conan from a series of pulp comics created by Robert E. Howard. Once he finished this film, he moved onto the sequel of Conan the Destroyer along with the indie film, The Terminator.
In this film, he plays a machine sent in time to kill a woman named Sarah Conner because her unborn child will lead humanity to a rebellion against the machines. Arnold would then move onto making several other huge blockbusters like the sequel to The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Total Recall, and True Lies. In total, Arnold’s films worldwide have earned over $3.6 billion.
Sylvester Stallone’s success came after he wrote and starred in the 1976 film Rocky. The film is about a Philadelphia Southpaw boxer who has the chance to fight against the world heavyweight-boxing champion, Apollo Creed. The film garnered Stallone three Academy Award nominations, and the film itself had a total of ten nominations and won three. Stallone ended up following up the success of Rocky with its sequel, this time he not only wrote the script, he took directing duties as well. The film was not a critical success, but it was a blockbuster once again.
Stallone then moved on to another critical and box-office hit with First Blood. Stallone stars as a post-Vietnam war veteran John Rambo, who is harassed by a small town sheriff and ends up hunting the sheriff. With the success of two separate series, Sylvester Stallone would capitalize on these series by starring in several sequels for both Rocky and Rambo. Each of the sequels were less critical but still made large amounts of money in theaters. Over the years, he had other very successful hits with films such as Lock-Up, Tango and Cash, and Demolition Man. Sylvester Stallones films have a combined worldwide total of $1.8 billion.
Bruce Willis was an actor who at first, no one knew how big an action star he would become. While starring in a sitcom with Cybil Shepherd named Moonlighting, he was cast in Die Hard, as John McClane, a cop from New York, visiting his estranged wife in L.A as terrorists attacks where she works. The film shot Willis into blockbuster and action hero stardom. He had additional sequels in the Die Hard series, which were all successful as well. Willis became more of a diverse actor, straying a bit more away from action films than some of the other action heroes, but he did play action roles every once in a while. Some roles he starred in like 12 Monkeys with Brad Pitt, or a Psychologist in The Sixth Sense.
His additional action success was as the character Harry Stamper, in the film Armageddon, where he plays a deep-sea oil driller who is asked to save the world from an asteroid heading straight for Earth. At the time, it was the largest grossing film of 1998. Bruce Willis had more ups and downs than most, but he also took more diverse roles than other stars prior to him. His films have a worldwide earning of $2.9 billion.
The Muscle from Brussels, otherwise known as Jean-Claude Van Damme, came out of nowhere, just like his jumping roundhouse kick. He had starred in bit parts before his starring role in Bloodsport. In Bloodsport, Van Damme plays the title role of the fictional yet somewhat true story of Frank Dux. Dux fights in a tournament in which martial artists are secretly invited to every five years.
It was a moderate success, but it was the martial arts skill of Van Damme that helped project him to stardom. Jean-Claude had many hits directly after his first starring role like Cyborg, Kickboxer, Double Impact, Universal Soldier, and Timecop to name a few. He has stayed more cautiously close to the roles he started as that made him a success. He has earned $1.7 billion in the box-office.
Even though there is billions of dollars earned from each of these actors, there are still times when the films they starred in became box-office blunders. Making a choice to try and diversify yourself can help you, or hinder you. On the other side, staying to close to what you know can affect the outcome as well. It’s difficult to understand if it was because of the times changing, poor choices of films, or personal issues. It is all of these things, just not all at once.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stardom began to wane a bit in the mid 90’s after starring in Last Action Hero. The films production was cut so close to the release date that no additional cuts were made to the film prior to its release. The film was also slotted to go up against Jurassic Park on the following weekend of its release. Other films that slouched in the box office were Eraser, Jingle All the Way, and Batman & Robin. It was after this point that his box office earning became less than spectacular. He made several additional films after wards including a sequel to Terminator 2. After Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines he was nominated as the Govenor of California.
Sylvester Stallones career had its ups and down. He made the sequel Rocky V, which was a disappointment along with comedies such as Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Other films that became a failure were The Specialist, Assassins, and Daylight. His films were not much of a success for the star as they once were and he had become more of a secondary character or villain in other films. His like was becoming one of obscurity for a time.
Bruce Willis had always had taken chances with his roles and he had a few disappointments as well with some films like The Whole Nine Yards, its sequel, The Whole Ten Yards, The Jackal, Mercury Rising. He had begun taking on guest appearances on Friends and doing other docu-parodies or mockumentaries.
Jean-Claude Van Dammes weakness became his need for illegal substances. He had an addiction to cocaine which led to many fallouts with his now ex-wife and other production problems on films. He starred in the 1994 film Street Fighter as the character Guile, which goes on the hunt for M. Bison, played by the late Raul Julia. The film was failing in the box office, along with some of his other releases like Sudden Death, The Quest, Maximum Risk, Double Team, Knock Off, and the sequel to Universal Soldier. All further film releases of Van Dammes were direct to video.
In the late 90’s, some new types of action stars began showing up, they were more visceral and in your face, utilizing computer generated, or smarter action stories. Jason Statham is one star that began his rise after starring in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. His role as the character name Bacon, showed him to the public and he moved on quickly into other roles, including action martial arts films. He starred in the film called The One along side rising martial artist and actor Jet Li, as a man on the chase for a parallel universe version of Jet Li’s character. He then moved on to films and series such as Transporter, Crank, The Bank Job.
Speaking of Jet Li, he had been on the Hong Kong martial arts action film scene for many years before being discovered and cast in the fourth sequel to the Lethal Weapon series. He has had great success since then with other American action films like Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon, and Unleashed.
Dwayne Johnson is another more current action star, more in the vein of muscle bound characters like Schwarzenegger, but trying to diversify himself like Bruce Willis does. He was cast in the sequel to The Mummy after many years being an actor in the wrestling ring. He then has moved on to making other action films like the spin-off film The Scorpion King. He has had success in both comedic and action roles for several years now which does not look like he is slowing down.
New action films seem to keep coming out in a large abundances and nostalgia sometimes creeps up behind us as we find ourselves wondering where did our stars of the past go. With that idea, Sylvester Stallone took a chance in trying to revitalize his own career with a sequel to not only Rocky, but Rambo as well. With the release of Rocky Balboa, it presented a softer and older Rocky, dealing with his life as it slows down from all the hysterics of his past. The film was made with a modest budget and became a decent success. The same became of the Rambo sequel. Except this time, it was the opposite. Rambo was trying to hide from the world and was pulled in to help out people who could not save themselves.
These films helped jumpstart the idea of a return to the machismo action films. Which for actors like Bruce Willis, allowed him to find a place and success again in the Die Hard franchise, along with the beginning of a new series of films named Red, where he plays a retired FBI agent that has been blacklisted and people are sent to kill him. He has also recently starred opposite a younger actor by the name of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the film named Looper. The film is the story of an assassin who kills people from the future for a living but has a contract end date coming up.
With the success of Stallone and Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger were bound to have their own comeback as well. Van Damme starred in a Belgian funded film titled JCVD. A fictional story about himself where he is in need of money to help provide for his daughter and is caught up in a bank robbery and is being blamed for it as a hostage situation is going on.
Schwarzenegger served his term as the governor of California and towards the end of his term; he did a cameo in the film The Expendables that starred not only Sylvester Stallone, but also Jason Statham, and Jet Li. It also has a small cameo by Bruce Willis as well. In the sequel, both Schwarzenegger and Willis were members of the cast, along side the Muscle from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Everything tends to come full circle one way or another. People make remakes, sequels, or tell the same story, but in a different setting. We desire these things, some less or more than others, but we do try and have them. Our movie stars are no exception. Yes, they are only getting older, but if you could see someone run one more time, have one more homerun, one last bite of an amazing meal, wouldn’t you want that? If done properly, utilizing both the old and new and bring them both together, this is how we can share the action film genre with both an older generation, and newer ones.