Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Best Summer Ever: No One Under 17 Admitted

In Best Summer Ever, Jeff ranks the last 31 seasons of summer movies using a complex mathematical equation largely biased toward his personal opinion. You can read about his methods here.

“Show me a middle school kid who hasn't seen Something About Mary, and I'll show you a kid that's not popular.” – A concerned father, from a 1999 Enquirer article about R-rated movies.

Let's get R-rated, mother fuckers!

With the notable exception of comedies, the last 10 years have been no laughing matter for R-rated summer movies. Action, violence, and people getting exploded are as prevalent today as they’ve ever been, but now studios (along with their sweethearts at the MPAA) go to great lengths to ensure their flicks are teen money friendly. That means bloodless deaths. That means brutal fight scenes without lasting repercussions (you think even a guy as tough as The Rock can go around spitting broken glass, as he does in Fast Five, without so much as a scratched lip?). And that means a quota on fucks – one per film if a noun, strictly above the waist and no nipples if a verb.

Counting only Top 20 films (kids on vacation aren’t sneaking into the art house, no matter how subversive the sex might be), there have been only 38 R-rated movies in the last 10 summers. Almost half of those are comedies. Those 38 films have accounted for a mere 13% of tickets sold during that time.

It wasn’t always like this.

In the late 90s, R-rated films typically accounted for one third of a summer’s box office. So why the massive drop-off? The super-hero craze of the last decade certainly played a part, as has the slippery slope that the hypocritical MPAA has been skidding down, allowing studios to get away with more “objectionable” material in PG-13 films.

However, those are really just adjustments made by an industry scrambling to respond to political pressure following 1999’s Columbine massacre. It’s no coincidence that the precipitous decline in R-rated summer films correlates almost exactly with then Vice Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman leaping to the defense of our nation’s dim-witted and objectionable children, arguing that the sale of an R-rated ticket to a minor should be a criminal offense. The witch-hunt was on and, in order to maintain profits, Hollywood reacted accordingly.

It isn’t so much that I love the content of R-rated movies - although I do - it’s that I miss the days when Hollywood viewed them as financially viable. Those were days when boisterous larger-than-life summer flicks with buckets of blood and pendulous tits weren’t seen as bad investments. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the waning years of the summertime R.

Icky.

(#10) 1997
Tickets Sold:   421.9 million (14 of 31)
#1 at the Box OfficeMen in Black – 250.7 million
Most Critically AcclaimedThe Full Monty (#18)
Biggest Opening: The Lost World: Jurassic Park (#2) – 72.1 million
R-Rated Movies: 9, 36% of tickets sold

(#9) 1998
Tickets Sold:   460.6 million (9 of 31)
#1 at the Box OfficeSaving Private Ryan – 216.5 million
Most Critically AcclaimedSaving Private Ryan
Biggest Opening: Godzilla (#6) - 44 million
R-Rated Movies: 7, 36% of tickets sold

Let’s jump back to last week’s discussion of Steven Spielberg for a moment. Here we find the Master of Summer at the height of his money-making abilities. In 1997, he produced the #1 movie of the summer, Men in Black, kick-starting yet another alien-themed franchise (even the decidedly terrestrial Spielberg properties, like Indiana Jones, end up on flying saucers eventually). Also that summer, despite vowing not to after Schindler’s List, Spielberg ended up directing the mostly serviceable if shamelessly cash-grabby Jurassic Park sequel, Lost World, which would score the summer’s second highest number.

After dominating summer ’97 with family-friendly fare, Spielberg returned in ’98 with one of the most gruesome war sequences ever put to film. If there’s an argument against Spielberg being a pandering sentimentalist, it is Saving Private Ryan. Yes, the film might be another one of Spielberg’s calculated risks that Crispin Glover argued are unworthy of praise – and for the cynical Private Ryan is certainly a flag-waving patriotic puff piece – but it deserves major kudos for such a brutally honest portrayal of war.

Compare Private Ryan with 2001’s Mickey Mouse approved Pearl Harbor. Both films are meant to make red-blooded patriotic Americans feel pride for their country, possibly snapping off lip-quivering salutes mid-screening to the wrinkled Greatest Generation-er snoozing in the aisle seat. But, unlike the sanitized PG-13 world of Pearl Harbor, Private Ryan’s combat sequences are unflinchingly honest and horrifying. It even goes beyond the shocking D-Day recreation that opens the film. I mean, where’s the glamour in quietly crying in a stairwell? Who would want to join the military after watching this shit?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuxpSSJBwW0

You could argue that Private Ryan is jingoistic (I wouldn’t), and it’s probably true that it inspired a wave of WW2 nostalgia that culminated in all the most annoying kids in my college dorm incessantly playing multiplayer Call of Duty. By the new millennium, the nostalgia fostered by Private Ryan might have morphed into a military recruiting tool, but that was far from Spielberg’s intention. Last week, I wondered if blockbusters should have a conscience. Saving Private Ryan certainly does.

Of course, the whole point of lamenting the decrease in R-ratings is that, back in the late 90s, not every film needed a conscience. Especially those starring Nic God Damn Cage.

Awesome threads!

97-98 was a renaissance for the unhinged action star. There’s Brian De Palma’s convoluted detective drama Snake Eyes (#19, 1998), which only has Cage’s ludicrously awesome suit going for it. It’s ’97 where the magic really happens, with Cage dropping two action classics in the space of two months.

First, Con Air (#8, 1997), where an A-list cast hams it up around the fulcrum of Cage’s ridiculous bayou accent. In truth, Con Air is pretty awful, the definition of a guilty pleasure movie. The film never gives its cartoonish convicts enough to do, the action scenes are sadly lacking, and it culminates in what is easily the most embarrassingly sentimental ending in action movie history.

The real standout for Cage – combining the baller threads of Snake Eyes with the scenery-chewing of Con Air – is the Jon Woo action masterpiece Face/Off (#5, 1997). This is exactly the kind of movie Joe Lieberman was trying to protect me from. I saw Face/Off in theaters with three other 14 year olds. I’m pretty sure we snuck in by buying tickets to Batman and Robin (#6, 1997). As I recall, it was something like a double date that ended up going nowhere, likely because I was too busy double finger-gunning imaginary FBI agents after the movie to make a move.

I guess my experience with Face/Off sort of makes Lieberman’s case. It corrupted me. For the rest of my young life, on into adulthood, I frequently day-dreamed of walking in slow motion with my coat whipping in the wind behind me, a convenient pack of doves taking flight in my wake. Senseless violence never looked so good.

Anybody want to know how long I could eat a peach for? I didn’t even know what that meant in 1997! Save me, Joe Lieberman!

The Jackie Robinson of bad superhero movies.

I mentioned that the superhero craze could have something to do with the extinction of R-rated summer films.  Looking at 97-98, you wouldn’t have seen that coming. Struggling to find a workable formula and new bankable properties now that the first Batman franchise had collapsed beneath a copious amount of neon-lighting and freeze-ray puns, studios found themselves experimenting with the genre to mediocre results.

So far Image Comics’ only foray into film, Spawn (#13, 1997) is a film I remember being woefully disappointed by as a teenager and have since not bothered to revisit. Based on material better suited to a dark R-rated flick, the PG-13 Spawn adaptation is worth mentioning only for its trivia value. Michael Jai White was the first African-American actor to play a major superhero (I guess Meteor Man isn’t considered “major”). And, the Spawn soundtrack, featuring artists like Korn and Incubus at the top of their game, went Gold, arguably out-performing the film. So there’s that.

Only a year later, we had a second black superhero with Wesley Snipes starring in Blade (#14, 1998). I like Blade as a guilty pleasure, mostly for Stephen Dorff’s awesomely named villain Deacon Frost. I’ve seen some writers try to inflate the importance of Blade, claiming its modest success gave Marvel the courage to develop their X-Men and Spider-Man franchises. I don’t buy that; the suits at Marvel would’ve been braindead not to have their most iconic properties tapped for the big screen treatment. Besides holding the title of Best R-rated comic adaptation until 2008’s Wanted, Blade’s only historical significance is taking future Batman Begins screenwriter David Goyer mainstream.

Regardless, it would only be a couple more years until Marvel hashed out the comic-franchise model that’s come to dominate so much of our summer screens.

Where are your capes?

Maybe it isn’t so much the decline of the R-rating that’s adversely affected summer cinema as it is the replacement of action heroes with superheroes. The late 90s still held onto some of that 80s action star drawing power – where a Schwarzenegger or even a Cage made movies with their personal brands at the center. We went to see Cage get his face transplanted or his plane crashed. It didn’t matter what character he was playing – he was Nic Cage. Now, we go to see movies where the character, usually spawned from a comic book, is at the center, and the actor doesn’t matter nearly as much. No one went to see Thor this summer because it was a Chris Hemworth movie.

Is that so bad? Maybe I’m romanticizing the R-rated days. For every Air Force One (#3, 1997), there’s a Breakdown (#15, 1997). For every Lethal Weapon 4, there’s, well, a Lethal Weapon 4 (#7, 1998). Has Hollywood truly sacrificed quality for the sake of reaching a broader audience?

So far this summer, there hasn’t been a single major non-comedy film that’s been rated R. The best chances we have to show ID at a movie theater this summer come from the August releases of Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night. Both of those films have yet to be rated, which suggest to me that they’re still trying to cut down to PG-13.

Both of those films are remakes. And both were originally rated R. Will they be better than the originals?

The List So Far:
(31) 2006
(19) 1988
(14) 1985
(13) 1993
(10) 1997
(9) 1998

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