Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Action Icon Gauntlet: State of the Action

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.

Today, during the Gauntlet's only dark week, we'll consider the present and future of the action movie through the lens of 2013's releases.

Let's get bloody.

Today

Two nights ago at Congress’ annual applause-a-thon, President Obama spoke of a successful present and a brighter future. “Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.” He clearly wasn’t talking about the state of the modern American action movie (which raises the question, why would anyone care?). The current action landscape is buried under more proverbial rubble than the opening scene of Lethal Weapon 3.

About 6 years ago, the decision to make Live Free or Die Hard the first PG-13 entry in the series sent a clear message: the high-profile R-rated action movie wasn’t welcome in the modern marketplace of super-blockbusters expected to earn hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. There was a not insignificant amount of internet outrage and indignation. It wasn’t that the more family-friendly rating would sap Die Hard of its blood or bare breasts. The Die Hard movies have never been as naughty as their peers, and in terms of violence a new millennium PG-13 can easily hold its own against a 90s R.

Instead, the PG-13 would primarily restrict the language, in particular John McClane’s potty mouth. If we’re being alarmist about the whole thing, we could say that putting a muzzle on McClane’s sardonic wit rips out the heart of the franchise. But Die Hard and John McClane survived (doing perfectly acceptable business) and will return this week, with an R-rating and foul language intact.

That R-rating may be the most significant common trait among the first 4 movies in the Gauntlet (The Last Stand, Parker, Bullet to the Head, Good Day), which would have been surprising a few years ago. It’s business as usual for Statham, and Stallone and Schwarzenegger largely sat out the decade of neutered action movies (the success of the R-rated Expendables movies surely emboldened Fox to release an R-rated vehicle for an aging action star), but McClane getting to once again punctuate that “Yippee-ki-yay” with an unchecked “motherfucker” feels like a victory for action fans.

Too bad it won’t last.

The winter of 2013 was a chance for R-rated action to reclaim the multiplexes, but A Good Day to Die Hard is the last chance to make a positive impression. After that, the Expendables will go back to being a dream team anomaly, and the next time a studio butchers an action movie at the altar of the MPAA, there will be no one to blame except all the people who didn’t pay to go see The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head. Thanks for nothing, shut-ins!

Future royalty?

Tomorrow

There are two more installments of the Gauntlet to go: Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard this week and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in Snitch next week. I haven’t focused much on the Icon rankings because they’re just an arbitrary, silly excuse for me to write about action movies for 6 weeks straight. But that won’t stop me from busting out the Scenario Generator during this slow news week.

For reasons that will be discussed next week in the Die Hard installment, Willis belongs at the big boys’ table, but faces a real uphill battle when challenging Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Still, with those two seriously underperforming at the box office, and Willis bringing his most iconic character to the table, the door is open, if only slightly.

The three Die Hard sequels have each earned right around $40 million in their opening weekend when adjusting for inflation. And they’ve all been released in the summer. If Willis can eke that kind of performance out of a February release, and the movie doesn’t stink, I’ll have to consider putting him ahead of Stallone, and maybe even Schwarzenegger.

The Rock, on the other hand, does not belong at the big boys’ table. And for reasons I’ll get into in two weeks, he’s really only in the Gauntlet based on his potential, and Snitch’s release date. The former/current professional wrestler can’t touch Schwarzenegger, Stallone or even Willis. But with Parker flopping at the box office, the possibility exists for Johnson to snatch the Modern Icon crown from Statham. It’s incredibly unlikely, but if Snitch does big business, and somehow turns out to be an instant classic, there’s a chance.

Even I can't muster up excitement for this.

And Beyond

The movies have flopped, but it’s been a good winter for streamlined firefights and fisticuffs. Unfortunately, if your jones can only be sated by such prototypical action (R-rated or otherwise), no superheroes, no bombastic blockbusters, no teeny-boppers forced to kill each other, then it’s going to be a long 2013.

There are some promising hybrids. Like the crime action of 2 Guns and Pain & Gain, the thriller action of The Tomb and Getaway, the sci-fi action of Elysium and Riddick, the B-movie homage action of Machete Kills, the geriatric action of Red 2, and most importantly the high velocity action spectacle of Fast & Furious 6.

But if you want a straight-up action movie, it looks like you’ll have to settle for a pair of films that represent one of action cinema’s laziest subgenres. 2013, the year that kicked off with a string of action movies that could have revitalized the genre and a new entry in the Die Hard series, will finally give us not one, but two “Die Hard in the White House” projects. If old school action ever had a chance to return to prominence this year, surely the dual punch lines Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down will prevent it from happening.

Oh well, there's always next year.

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