The Battle Cry: Are Old School Action Movies Dead?

I was really hoping something would change in the last few weeks so I could avoid having to write this piece, but something seems to be happening right now where a once tried and true genre has been stumbling at the box office, while at the same time the return of some of the biggest and most popular action stars from yesteryear isn’t creating any sort of interest, not even nostalgia, among the fans of said genre. Of course, we’re talking about two of the biggest bombs of the year so far, the new movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, which failed to find even close to the success of the last two “Expendables” movies.

Mind you, I’ve never been a huge fan of ’80s and ’90s action movies, but I do believe that the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis have a place in our pantheon of movie heroes and that old school action movies–the kind that rely on real car chases, shoot ’em ups and hand-to-hand combat–can still be entertaining fun and a good reason to go to the movie theaters.

And yet, over the last three weeks we’ve seen three movies fail to find an audience, starting with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand, which opened with just $6.2 million over a four-day holiday. It was followed a week later with Jason Statham’s new movie Parker, which only made $7 million its opening weekend. The real stumper though came this past weekend when Sylvester Stallone, one of the guys responsible for bringing back many of the action heroes of the ’80s and ’90s with The Expendables, teamed with 48 Hours director Walter Hill for action movie Bullet to the Head, which tanked with just $4.5 million over three days.

I’ve seen all three movies and I actually had a lot more fun with The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head than I was expecting. They may not be great movies but they’re better than many of Stallone’s other recent films as well as some of the movies Schwarzenegger made before he retired for politics. Even with the Super Bowl on Sunday, it’s surprising that so few of the people who rushed out to see The Expendables and its sequel would give Stallone a chance to entertain them with his new movie.

Of course, we could blame these bombs on their marketing, but however you slice it, it’s been translated down to just one story being written, one that’s quite persuasive, which is that Schwarzenegger and Stallone can no longer bring in audiences. There have been just as many speculations that Sly and Arnold’s movies didn’t do so well because they weren’t franchise movies like “Rambo,” “Rocky,” “The Terminator” etc. but seriously, is that really so important to moviegoers these days? Any year when there is more than two or three sequels, everyone starts complaining about it, so here we have three movies that are trying to give nostalgic moviegoers something they used to enjoy, a fun movie experience, with an original story, and they’re completely ignored.

The sad truth is that moviegoers seem to have become quite jaded and desensitized to what’s involved with doing real on-camera stuntwork. That’s because movies like The Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” movies have made it so that action fans really need to see something absolutely enormous and fantastical, mixing on-set stunts with expensive CG effects. These movies often cost $150 to 200 million to create the optimum big screen experience, though realistically, if all action movies cost this much we’d be seeing even more and bigger bombs on a yearly basis.

We’re less than a week away from the return of Bruce Willis as Sgt. John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard and some may already be wondering whether movie fans will care enough about that franchise to flock to theaters to see it as they did with the previous installment, Live Free or Die Hard. The “Die Hard” series is about as a throwback to old school action movies as you can get and while it will clearly have a bigger budget than those other movies, we have to think that moviegoers have spoken and they no longer care for nostalgia.

One big difference between Willis and Schwarzenegger/Stallone is that Willis has remained pertinent over the past twenty years and didn’t disappear into politics or straight-to-DVD movies, so he theoretically still has a fanbase. That said, he’s also had his share of bombs in recent years. Did anyone see The Cold Light of Day last year for instance?

The showings for The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head must be somewhat worrisome for Summit Entertainment who are releasing the Schwarzenegger/Stallone prison movie The Tomb later this year. Could they dump it ala “Cold Light of Day”? Otherwise, Willis has generally been able to bring in $18 to 20 million and up opening weekend for a non-“Die Hard” movie with 2010’s RED doing well enough to warrant a sequel later this summer.

If A Good Day to Die Hard disappoints–and anything less than a $30 million four-day opening would be a disappointment–the only saving grace for the action genre this month may come in the form of the Dwayne Johnson’s Snitch, which isn’t a retro action-thriller per se, but it’s more of a modern drama featuring some cool action scenes. It’s a relatively low budget movie, but if it’s able to find an audience at least it will prove that moviegoers aren’t completely opposed to lower budget action movies.

It will be interesting to see how the movie does, being Johnson’s first of four consecutive movies over the next four months while he also defends the WWE title he won just last week. Snitch is followed by bigger over-the-top modern action movies like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Fast & Furious 6 with Michael Bay’s “smaller movie” Pain & Gain nestled in between, but none of them really follow the “old school action” principle with two of them being the type of big budget CG-laden action movies that have become more regular.

It may even be even more interesting to see if the inevitable The Expendables 3 will be able to bring back the audiences that flocked to the previous two movies, because that would confirm that moviegoers need to have a known franchise or a number in the title to give a movie by Schwarzenegger and Stallone a chance.

Even so, if moviegoers continue to ignore the studios’ attempts at making smaller action movies at lower budgets, ones that aren’t necessarily sequels or franchises, they’re just going to stop making those movies completely. If that happens, then moviegoers can’t really complain about there being too many sequels or the fact that there are so many action movies that rely on bad CG (like the recent hit Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters). Because let’s face it, if you don’t vote with your moviegoing dollars and instead choose to wait until the movies are on DVD, then studios are going to be less apt to release movies like these in theaters, which is a shame since they’re almost more fun to see with other people.

So now it’s your time to chime in. If you saw any of the movies above, did you like them? If not, why not? If you didn’t bother to go see them, we’d also love to know why and if you are any more interested in them after reading this or are fine just waiting until they’re on DVD, Blu-ray or digital download.


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