Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Arnold's been terminated by nerds!
Posted by Chris Santucci
There was a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed immortal. For a decade-and-a-half, the gap-toothed, semi-intelligible, former body-builder dominated the cinematic landscape. Then came the mid-90s.
Arnold started getting sidelined after some movie mishaps ("Freeze in hell, Batman!!!"). He jettisoned showbiz completely to become a governor. He left a hole that was filled by a new brand of action entertainment. It began when Neo bent a spoon with his mind, not his brawn. A nerd culture spread like wildfire. It cemented its dominance when both Spider-Man and Batman garnered more box office than anything the clairvoyant Terminator could have foreseen. Times were changing in Hollywood.
Recently, Lionsgate Studios assembled a bevy of the old-school headliners to return to form in The Expendables. Its surprising $100 million gross reinvigorated testosterone junkies who hoped this would stem the rebirth of a seemingly antiquated cinematic hero: the "man's man"; those who exemplified masculinity. It was the kind of star who spat one-liners, unloaded machine gun bullets, and didn't dare show any emotion that involved any heavy doses of crying. This action hero merely punched the man who slept with his wife. Can you ever imagine John Wayne crying in a pillow? (I'm looking right at you, Peter Parker.)
But the B-movie "renaissance" now feels premature. The Expendables 2 failed to match its predecessor in attendance, despite adding even more 80s action icons like Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van Damne to the mix. Even Arnold himself was more heavily promoted, exchanging quips with Bruce Willis while driving a smart car with one hand and unloading machine gun ammo with the other.
This weekend, the resurgence seems even more dire. Arnold's singular comeback vehicle, The Last Stand, amassed only $6 million in the its opening weekend. If The Expendables 2 was a hint, then this was a resounding thud. The Comic-Con crowd has spoken.
Yes, I'm fully aware of the irony that both The Expendables 1 and 2 were showcased within earshot of the Twilight and Hobbit panels at Comic-Con. There is an audience built on comic book heroes and as well as Predator. There's a slew of Generation Xers still starstruck by Sly and Arnold. But they've clearly moved on to various new avenues of entertainment.
The original Expendables' initial success was a temporary retread into nostalgia--not a unabated re branding to the 21st century action genre. The signal was plane after Vin Diesel was scored greater success with The Pacifier rather than Babylon A.D. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson raked in more dough for The Game Plan and even (egads!) The Tooth Fairy. In order to retain the defining action niche, both hulking action stars branded themselves with hugely established franchises like The Fast and the Furious series--where the car chases was as big of a draw as their budging biceps.
In the early days of film, action films were typically made by hard-driven males such as the legendary Howard Hawks, John Ford, John Sturges, Sam Peckinpah: most of whom were notorious drinkers, hardened by a principle that they did their job and went home to close the day with a long gulp of Jack Daniels. This generation's action marionettes include a bevy of bona fide film nerds: Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, Ridley and Tony Scott, Michael Bay, Tarantino, Sam Raimi--guys who usually got beat up by folks like Sturges and Ford on the playground.
The generation cemented their own brand on the genre. Let's consider Spielberg, who has done more to change action films than any other director in the past 35 years. His first major success, Jaws, involved three archetypal figures: Brody, the mild-mannered sheriff whose demeanor was more akin to Andy Taylor than John Wayne; Hooper, the nerdy science guy; and Quint, the half-crazed, steely-eyed vengeful fisherman. Before Jaws, the nerd would be the first to perish. Instead, not only is Quint the first, he's the only one--allowing the two "weaker" figures to survive and inevitably thwart the foe.
Between Hooper and Jones was Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Richard Dreyfuss plays the "hero", who is merely a child, a curious soul looking to the stars and getting picked by the aliens to explore the cosmos. Not really chivalrous, but Spielberg's first choice for the pivotal role was none other than Steve McQueen, who met with the newly minted celebrity director in a bar to discuss the part. Spielberg barely made it through his second beer while McQueen was nurturing his fifth: an obvious deviation between generations and their defining qualities if there ever was one. McQueen inevitably passed, conceding that he couldn't properly cry at the film's end. The ultimate rejection by a macho Hollywood brand. Spielberg kept the emotional resonance and made the audience accept it.
Obviously, the 1980s welcomes many new faces that followed the paths laid by Wayne, Eastwood and Cagney. I would mention names, but you can just read them on the IMDB cast for The Expendables. There was room for Stallone, Van Damne and Norris along with the Swayze and Reeves. The pure litmus test to verify which category each action hero belongs to is based on whether you could physically beat them up. For example, I'm fairly confident I could (and should) defeat Robert Pattinson mano a mano. Vin Diesel? Notsomuch.
There is the occasion mix of both qualities. The nerds are forbidden from bearing a physic akin to their genuine Comic-Con brethren. Even Tobey Macquire packed on the training and protein to instill a toned, masculine physic within the tight spandex Spider-Man costume. But inevitably, he was a dork. Even the heroes who possess a confidence and masculine underbelly originate from literature and pop culture more akin to the geeks than the jocks. However the jocks have settled--or even gracefully accepted--the new lore of the action icon. With exceptions to Bond and Bourne, there are more heroes in fantasy, science fiction and even video game adaptation than movies with heroes in war helmets and cowboy hats--and even they occasionally are engaged in a homosexual relationship or are firing their pistols at alien invaders.
The only passable explanation for Arnold's failures could very well be Arnold himself. It's like watching Michael Jordan put on the gym shorts one more time. We don't expect a man out of his prime to deliver. Another theory may have more to do with our expectations from the action film. Arnold is older and feels like a relic of a bygone era. Even his last Terminator film (in 2003!) showed that the big guy's gears were beginning to squeak.
"I'll be back?" Sorry, we don't care.