Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Action Icon Gauntlet: Stallone

Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Statham, The Rock. January and February will see new releases from these titans of action cinema on a near-weekly basis. In The Action Icon Gauntlet, Jeremiah will evaluate their performances and rank their icon standing based on box office take, critical reception and personal bias.

Not the last thing you want to see before you die.

The Self-Made Icon

Sylvester Stallone is the second greatest action icon of all time behind Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's been a fixture at theaters for nearly 4 decades. He plays two of the most famous tough guys in cinematic history (Rocky Balboa, John Rambo). His movies have earned $1.8 billion at the box office (Schwarzenegger has $1.7 billion with significantly fewer films). On top of the action movies that have dominated his career, he's also done sports movies, comedy, drama, voiceover work and even a kids movie.

The most interesting, and unusual, thing about Sly, however, is that he has put his own personal stamp on many of his most well-known films before the cameras even started rolling. Stallone launching himself to stardom by banging out the script for Rocky and then holding out until someone let him play the lead is a well known rags-to-riches story. But he has also received screenwriting credits in every phase of his career. From the early roles that made him a household name (Rocky, Rambo - credits on all of both franchises) to oft-derided mid-career schlock (Cobra, Over the Top) to his modern resurgence (both Expendables). Even Renny Harlin movies (Cliffhanger, Driven)! The only action movies that are positive parts of Stallone's legacy that he can't take any credit for writing are Tango & Cash and Demolition Man.

Finding out how much Stallone actually had to do with the scripts for all these other movies would require more research than I'm willing to do (for example, he rewrote an existing script of First Blood to stop Rambo from killing a bunch of police officers). The point isn't that he's a good screenwriter (for all I know he made the scripts worse). It's that he's played a role in building his own legend that we're unlikely to ever see again in a Hollywood action star. And that's without even mentioning his directing work, which includes all of the Rocky movies except the first one.

If I can be a bit reductive: James Cameron made Arnold Schwarzenegger a superstar, Sylvester Stallone made himself one.

The Expendables 3: Box Office Massacre

6 months ago, The Expendables 2 starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone raked in $28.5 million in its opening weekend. In the last 3 weeks, solo efforts from those 3 stars have posted a total of just $17.7 million in their opening weekends. These are dark days for the icons of action cinema. They should adhere to the buddy system.

Stallone's Bullet to the Head set the new standard for futility with a measly $4.5 million, or $1,892 for each of its 2,404 screens. That’s easily the lowest per screen average of the year, beating out Schwarzenegger’s Last Stand ($2,156). But the year is young, right? Well, out of last year’s 148 wide releases, that would have been good for a pathetic 137th (ahead of the 3D re-release of Monsters, Inc., behind Playing for Keeps).

Much like Schwarzenegger, this is Stallone’s worst opening ever when you adjust for inflation. Unsurprisingly, it’s just a fraction of what Stallone has done in recent years with his famous friends (Expendables - $34 million, Expendables 2 - $28 million) and his oldest, most popular characters (Rocky Balboa - $12 million, Rambo - $18 million). What’s really discouraging is how it compares to Driven. 12 years ago, Stallone opened a Renny Harlin movie about Formula 1 racing with $12 million. In 2013, a dream pairing of Stallone and old-school action director Walter Hill can only muster slightly more than a third of that.

I'll Be the Judge of That

The misleading, dishonest marketing for the original Expendables pushed it as a return to the 80s and 90s heyday of action. It was a lie, but 2 and a half years later Stallone finally delivers a proper throwback with Bullet to the Head. The action is engaging if forgettable and the banter is amusing if unimaginative. If it were released in the era it so lovingly recalls, this would be a middle of the road affair. In 2013, it’s a must-see for fans of prototypical action movies. The rest of the world can feel comfortable continuing to ignore it.

Bullet to the Head employs an odd couple pairing that will be awfully familiar to fans of Hill's 48 Hrs. One is a cop, one is a criminal. One is old, one is young. One is Italian-American, one is Korean-American. One finds violence distasteful, the other is cool with it. Every one of these areas is touched on, but Hill knows that Bullet to the Head is a lean action movie first and foremost, not a friendship movie.

The plot quickly throws Stallone and costar Sung Kang together. They never get too comfortable working with each other, but their discord is limited to bickering as they jointly hurtle from one bloody encounter to the next. The violence, and the barely civil relationship between the leads, gives Bullet to the Head an edge that is missing from most modern buddy action. This is the anti-Rush Hour.

It's also the first pure action movie of 2013. Last Stand works better as an overall movie, but that’s also the reason I can see it having broader appeal. It looks at the plot from multiple perspectives. It’s got comic relief. It packs most of the action into the final reel. It’s got competent female characters. Stallone and Kang are the only characters who matter in Bullet to the Head. They tell the jokes. They spend the whole movie killing bad guys. And the only female character is just a pair of breasts that eventually need to be saved. For better or worse, Bullet to the Head is like hopping in a cinematic time machine.

The Next Icon?

No, it’s not Sung Kang.

I left Jason Momoa’s career for dead after Conan the Barbarian tanked ($21 million domestic box office on a $90 million budget) and Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled up and was all “Let me get that broadsword” even though Momoa was already writing future installments in his head (just like Sly would have!). But Walter Hill may have just pulled him off the Tree of Woe and dragged him to the Wizard of the Mounds for resuscitation.

Momoa’s cool confidence and laid-back sadism elevate his bland mercenary character. It’s a welcome development when he takes over as the Big Bad from a misused Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje late in the game. I'd love to see Momoa play the good guy in a similarly retro setting. He resurrected the wrong property when he starred in Conan, he should have gone with Cobra. Regardless, he proves he can still get medieval in the awesome axe fight with Stallone.

Yep, it's fantastic.

***

Statistics

Opening weekend: $4.5 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 47/47

Best Line: "Touch her and I'll kill you with a fucking rock!" This was a really tough call, but Bullet to the Head is at its most clever when it's not trying to be witty. Also, SPOILER ALERT, he totally doesn't kill this dude with a rock.

Best Kill: A bullet to the head, multiple occasions. There's plenty of good action, but the fatalities themselves are as straightforward as the movie's title.

***

Rankings

1. Schwarzenegger

2. Stallone

3. Statham

Analysis: I'd hate to have to choose between Last Stand and Bullet to the Head. I love them both. Luckily, I don't have to because this decision was made for me. Stallone was behind Schwarzenegger coming into 2013 and nothing changes here with Bullet doing worse than Last Stand with critics and at the box office.

***

Next Up: In two weeks, the Die Hard franchise stubbornly refuses to die much like its main protagonist when Bruce Willis returns in A Good Day to Die Hard. Next week I'll do a more broad piece about action movies in 2013 and what's at stake in the last two weeks of the Gauntlet.

The only action hero man enough to go bald right in front of our eyes.

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