Are the ’80s over… again?

Are the ’80s over… again? February 4, 2013

Two weeks ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger scored one of the worst opening weekends of his career, as The Last Stand — the first film to star him in the lead since he became Governor of California a decade ago — opened to a mere $6.3 million. It was the lowest opening for any of his films since 1986, when Raw Deal opened to $5.4 million on a bit more than half the screens that The Last Stand had.

Then, this past weekend, Sylvester Stallone scored one of the worst opening weekends of his career, as Bullet to the Head opened to a mere $4.5 million. With the exception of a few films that played in only a handful of theatres, it was the lowest opening for any of his films since 1981, when Nighthawks and Victory opened to $2.5 million or possibly even less.

None of this necessarily reflects badly on the new films themselves. I have not yet seen Bullet to the Head, but Richard Brody’s review for the New Yorker has convinced me that I should. I did, however, see The Last Stand, and I kind of liked it, especially the more comic bits among the supporting actors. The movie sets up quite nicely the leisurely-paced small-town vibe in which these people live, and it cuts back and forth between that small-town vibe and the fast-paced sequences in which the villain escapes from the authorities as only movie villains can… and then, of course, the two threads come together in the third act, and they don’t mesh quite as well as they should. But still, this isn’t the worst Arnold film out there by any stretch.

In any case, regardless of whether either of these films has its merits, the basic point here is that neither Stallone nor Schwarzenegger is anywhere close to being the box-office draw that both of them once were. They did have a couple of big hits together with The Expendables and its sequel (2010-2012), both of which were packed to the gills with action-movie stars of one sort or another (many of them past their prime), but it seems that, while audiences might enjoy the odd nostalgic ’80s action-movie revival, no one wants to see these actors when they go solo.

It will be interesting, then, to see how A Good Day to Die Hard does when it comes out next week. The original Die Hard (1988) — which came out at a time when its star, Bruce Willis, was best-known as a comedy actor — was widely seen at the time as a sort of everyman rebuke to the Stallone-Schwarzenegger actionfests of the ’80s. Since then, however, Willis has come to be associated quite strongly with the action genre, to the point where his cameo in the first Expendables was given the same weight as Schwarzenegger’s. (And then, in the second film, which gave both actors more to do, Willis and Schwarzenegger borrowed each other’s catchphrases.)

Of course, on one level, you can’t really compare the new Willis to the new Stallone or Schwarzenegger, for the simple reason that it’s a sequel and the other films aren’t; the new Willis has a certain built-in brand-name recognition that the new Stallone and Schwarzenegger don’t. Then again, Stallone did have modest success a few years ago with the last Rocky and Rambo movies, both of which came out years after those franchises had supposedly run out of steam, and it was around that time that Willis starred in the fourth Die Hard after a similar gap in that franchise. So it may be telling, in and of itself, that Willis’s years-after-the-fact sequel warranted yet another sequel, whereas Stallone’s years-after-the-fact sequels, so far, have not.

(As for Schwarzenegger, his last sequel was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which came out a decade ago — just before he put his career on hold to become the Governator. And while Schwarzenegger is talking right now about making another Terminator movie, I have a really, really hard time believing it could possibly work. Given that the existing films have been cranked out at a rate of nearly one per decade, it’s hard enough as it is to believe that the three robots he played in the first three films all came off the assembly line together. Adding a fourth robot after he has aged another dozen years or so would stretch credulity to the breaking point.)

As it happens, Stallone and Schwarzenegger have another team-up in the works — a film called The Tomb, due in September of this year — and it will be interesting to see how that film fares, when it’s got just the two former action-movie rivals in its cast and none of their Expendables castmates. We shall see.

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