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Friday, May 15, 2015

The Rise & Fall of the Action Hero Part 3

We're now into the 1980s, the most important era of Action Hero iconography. The 80s Tough Guys drew inspiration from much of what came before them creating a monstrous package that reflected not only the elder statesmen, but the time period in which they were made. It was this decade that Action Heroes would not only be big box office attractions, but attracting new revenue through merchandising that hadn't been seen before or since. The 80s was both the crescendo and the collapse of the Action Hero.

Chuck Norris had his eye on success from an early age growing up in a small Oklahoma town. He got into martial arts during his time stationed in post war Korea, attaining a black belt in Tang Soo Do (later to become a Tae Kwon Do Master and found his own style). Returning to the states he amassed an amazing amount of trophies and public interest that led to the opening of a number of Karate studios. Movies weren't far behind. Of his early roles, the most famous is his fight with Bruce Lee in WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972). Norris next played the villain in a film he wasn't too fond of, SLAUGHTER IN SAN FRANCISCO (1974), a Golden Harvest production with Tae Kwon Do practitioner Don Wong Tao (making his debut). Critics started paying attention to Norris in the underrated GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (1978) and his career took off from there. Each new film was bigger than the last, and Chuck soon found himself as 'that karate guy'. Much like Chiba did in Japan, Norris carried American martial arts movies in the States even after he'd stopped doing them. Desiring something more as an actor, by 1983, he veered away from martial arts movies to action pictures that had martial arts in them. It didn't much matter as Norris's Karate heritage remained paramount no matter what type of film he did. In 1986 he had a cartoon mini-series called KARATE KOMMANDOS which he created, and did his own voice work. There was also a comic book and toy line. Norris patterned himself on the type of characters John Wayne played in his pictures. Concurrent with Wayne's stoicism, Norris would eventually turn into a seemingly indestructible force for good. This reached parody proportions in INVASION USA in 1985. Norris did find what he desired that same year with CODE OF SILENCE, and that was critical acceptance in what is considered his best movie.

In previous decades we had Tarzan and Hercules among the Action Hero cognoscenti. Arnold Schwarzenegger brought that physicality, that musclebound look that had been absent since the 1960s and multiplied it times a hundred. A fierce competitor in bodybuilding, some of his heroes (and colleagues) were in fact Hercules actors; the one Schwarzenegger idolized the most was the massive Reg Park famous from HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961). Arnold was hungry for stardom, and it came to him in 1982, fittingly, with CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). Here was a movie that played to his strengths... literally. Arnold's movies were sold on his muscles and his intimidating face. For  a lot of Tough Guys, you passed muster not just by your look, but your face (especially in the eyes). Some of these guys might not of been thespians, but charisma and intensity sold them to audiences; Sonny Chiba had it, William Smith had it, and Arnold Schwarzenegger had it. He also had a penchant for catch-phrases. THE TERMINATOR (1984) was an iconic milestone for the actor in that it was the debut of the now famous, "I'll be back" line. COMMANDO (1985) accelerated the over the top heroism the 80s became known for, and it brought the wisecracks which became a Tough Guy staple from here on out. Schwarzenegger could cinematically do no wrong from this point forward.

One of the more gifted Action Heroes of the 1980s was Sylvester Stallone. The man was a machine. Even Ivan Drago thought so in ROCKY 4 (1985). Stallone was akin to Jackie Chan in that he had a hands on approach to the films he was starring in; so it wasn't unusual to see his name listed as a writer and director in addition to the star. Already established for ROCKY, Stallone expanded his box office power as an action star with the release of FIRST BLOOD (1982), and even more so with the blockbuster RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985). John Rambo was far and away the most influential Action Hero of the entire decade. Rambo clones popped up all over the place. 70s Captain America, Reb Brown, made a career out of them; The Rambo-alikes weren't limited to American soil, but around the world. Rambo even affected the marketing of action pictures worldwide. In reality the actor in the clone films might not look like he just left the gym, but you'd never know by the advertising. By the dozens, various action-war pictures all looked interchangeable with one another. All you needed was a shirtless, enraged, muscled up guy with an M60 and explosions going off around him and your picture was sold.

Carl Weathers had already been in the movies by the time he was being groomed for Action Hero status in the 1980s. He was a hitman after Pam Grier in FRIDAY FOSTER (1975) and was one of Fred Williamson's buddies who turned against him in BUCKTOWN (1975) to name just two. FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE (1978), DEATH HUNT (1981), and PREDATOR (1987) were three of his bigger productions. ROCKY (1976) put him on the map giving a fantastic performance as Apollo Creed. Weathers became ACTION JACKSON in 1988; a success at the box office, the potential for a action franchise never materialized. Despite this, he did a couple action films that were more or less disguised sequels to ACTION JACKSON. Weathers did get his own TV series with FORTUNE DANE, but unfortunately it only lasted five episodes.

Like Weathers, Dolph Lundgren had all the right ingredients for Action Hero heights, but never quite reached the peak of his colleagues. He surprised many with his turn as Ivan Drago in the gigantic hit ROCKY 4 (1985). Weathers had more experience, but Lundgren's Tough Guy career lasted longer even if he never got a signature breakout role as a single. MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987) and RED SCORPION (1989) were his two big theatrical 80s lead roles. Lundgren would alternate between roles in big Hollywood pictures and limited release/direct to video movies. One of his best is ARMY OF ONE (JOSHUA TREE) from 1993. At this time everybody was doing John Woo style actioners, and it wasn't long till the Chang Cheh influenced director was in America directing movies here. For Lundgren, he ended up finding even greater success with a steady stream of DTV action films till his recent return to the big screen in THE EXPENDABLES franchise.

From Japan came Sho Kosugi. The Japanese Shotokan stylist virtually came out of nowhere, and was chiefly responsible for making the word 'ninja' a household name. Often casting his two sons in his films, Kosugi had a nice run as an Action Hero. Largely forgotten by the mainstream these days, the man was at one time comparable with the big names of the 80s. There wasn't a martial arts magazine Kosugi didn't grace the cover of, and he had his own merchandising line, fan club, and instructional video, and hosting duties on Trans World's Ninja Theatre line among other things. To see Kosugi at his best, check out REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983) and PRAY FOR DEATH (1985). Kosugi was then the biggest Asian star in American cinema since Bruce Lee. Some bad choices aided in the fizzling out of his career by the close of the decade, but he did get some nice buzz surrounding his return to the screen in NINJA ASSASSIN in 2009. 

Bruce Willis was the last of the big Action Heroes to emerge in the 1980s. His is one of the more surprising since he was known mostly for comedies. So in his case, the reverse applied. Here was an actor who'd never done action before, and went from comedy to starring in DIE HARD (1988), one of the greatest action films of all time. Willis's off duty cop, John McClane, was different from the likes of Norris, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger. The only trait he shared with those guys was a penchant for one-liners. Performing nearly the whole movie bare-footed, Willis's performance helped make him and DIE HARD an overnight sensation and pop culture phenomenon. From here on out, every Hollywood actioner was a DIE HARD.... Die Hard on a Bus, Die Hard on a Plane, Die Hard on a Ship, etc, etc, etc.

In the 60s and 70s, producers would parody popular genres that were growing stale. By the late 80s, Action Heroes began doing comedies; only this time it seemed more of a career move as opposed to an act of desperation. It was sort of Action Hero Capitalism. One guy offered an alternate product to the norm, and people bought it. If the audience liked it, then another guy in the same field decided to offer the same service to compete. Schwarzenegger did it, Norris did it, and Stallone did it. Arnold was the most successful of the Macho Trifecta in doing comedy; or mixing laughs with action.

Schwarzenegger got surprisingly good notices when he did TWINS in 1988. It was a choice he made and not one dictated by declining ticket sales. He was back in action after that, with a few other lighter films spread out like KINDERGARTEN COP (1990), the action hero parody THE LAST ACTION HERO (1993), and JUNIOR (1994). His line in KINDERGARTEN COP, "It's not a tumor!" became as memorable as "I'll be back." Schwarzenegger's career finally began losing steam by the new millennium. He was getting older, and the invincible hero of the 80s was long past its prime.

Stallone attempted comedy much earlier than his colleagues. He was never very good at it. The only time he seemed comfortable was when he was in a Tough Guy scenario. When he tried placing that archetype in a comedic framework, it never gelled well. For example, RHINESTONE (1983) was an epic disaster for a few reasons--Stallone sings and it simply wasn't funny. If at first you don't succeed doing comedy, try, try again; and so later attempts at funny business with OSCAR (1991) and STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT (1992) were all flops as well. Once Stallone returned to the Action Hero mold with CLIFFHANGER (1992), he was back in business.

Norris lightened up, although his first go at it remained within the action realm. FIREWALKER (1986) was a Cannon movie that paired him with Louis Gossett, Jr. in an Indiana Jones type adventure. After years of violent action pictures, two of which (MISSING IN ACTION 3, DELTA FORCE 2) cost the lives of crew members during each production, Norris switched gears in the 90s to do some family friendly fare with the KARATE KID oriented SIDEKICKS (1992) and TOP DOG (1995); the latter film was the third in the buddy cop-dog sub genre that included K-9 and TURNER AND HOOCH (both 1989). Norris's action movies often had humorous touches (like in LONE WOLF MCQUADE), so comedy didn't feel alien in his movies, even if it was predominantly low-key humor.

Once the Reagan Era was over, it was like something died in the Action Hero arena. The gung ho air of patriotism and jingoistic bravado would slowly whither away. In recent years, this sort of attitude, and the 80s period itself, has been turned into a negative stigma politically. But then the era we're in now is the polar opposite of the era at that time. In the 90s, a new crop of action stars emerged, but few stood out; but some found longevity in the viable direct-to-video market. Wesley Snipes seemed like he might be the next breakout star. An accomplished martial artist, he co-starred with Stallone in 1993s DEMOLITION MAN as the main villain. He never capitalized on Action Hero status like some of his contemporaries, but did a few films in that vein till a tax evasion scandal sidelined his career. 

Some of the more durable stars that were popular in the 90s, but didn't explode into the mainstream were Cynthia Rothrock, Mark Dacascos, Billy Blanks, and Don "The Dragon" Wilson. Dacascos and Blanks were probably the most successful in parlaying their films careers into other avenues (Dacascos with the IRON CHEF TV show and Blanks with his Tae Bo video series). During this time period, there were also lots of guys challenging other guys to fights; just like what you'd see in one of your finer kung fu movies.

Two of the most successful men who carried the Action Hero torch, Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, weren't of the same stock like Norris and Stallone. They came on the scene at the tail end of the 80s action craze. Ego got in the way, leading to lawsuits and oddball behavior that eventually relegated them to video store shelves instead of theatrical releases.

Steven Seagal is likely the most peculiar Action Hero of them all. He was a fight coordinator on films like THE CHALLENGE (1982) and made his debut in ABOVE THE LAW in 1988. His next three pictures (all with three words in the title) made more money than the last, and he became a household name by the time he did his version of DIE HARD with UNDER SIEGE (1992). It was around this time things began to go downhill even though Seagal had been ruffling feathers virtually right out of the gate. In the late 80s, Seagal had denigrating things to say about Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris that pissed off a number of martial artists including Bob Wall (you'll remember him from ENTER THE DRAGON). His injuring stunt men on movie sets stirred the ire of others like Richard Norton. Eventually, Seagal stated that he could beat anybody in the world, anytime, anyplace, and issued a challenge to anyone to fight him; to the death, no less. So Karate champion Bob Wall had enough of Seagal's arrogance and gathered 11 other martial artists (Bill Wallace, Benny Urquidez, Howard Jackson, Blinky Rodriguez, Roger Carpenter, Allen Steen, Richard Norton, Dennis Alexio, Pat Burleson, Jim Harrison, Billy Robertson), and called the group 'The Dirty Dozen'; twelve men who were eager to take Seagal on. Naturally, the big fight never took place. Seagal apologized and that was the end of it. But it wasn't the end of Seagal bizarre behavior amidst a flurry of dubious claims and sexual harassment charges too many to list here.

Jean Claude Van Damme is cut from the same cloth. Another guy who came to popularity rather quickly, and had an enormous ego to boot as well as questionable credentials. Van Damme was central to replacing the ninja craze with a flood of increasingly tiresome kickboxing movies. BLOODSPORT (1988) was his big debut. KICKBOXER (1989) followed. Both were moderate successes considering very little money was spent on them. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992) was his first big Hollywood style movie. While very limited in what he showed onscreen (he did the same three kicks over and over again), the women absolutely fell in love with the man; and he responded by showing as much skin as possible. Van Damme did a handful of interviews on the Arsenio Hall Show. In his first in 1991 he was asked if he'd ever hurt anyone on the set of a movie, to which he said never. He did say that what small accidents there were, it was the other guys fault. A few years earlier, Van Damme had been involved in an accident with Jackson Pinckney, a stunt guy on the set of CYBORG (1989). Much like Seagal, VD had a rep for not pulling his blows during fight scenes. During the bungled scene, Van Damme was supposed to slash Pinckney's chest, but stabbed him in the eye instead. The suit was filed three years later in 1991 and settled in Fayetteville, NC in 1993. Pinckney, who lost sight in his left eye, was awarded $487,500 in damages. Naturally there were conflicting testimony's, pro and con over the course of the trial, but Van Damme's actions can be summed up this way--when asked to comment, VD's response was, "I'm not a lawyer, I'm just here to make great movies. You will like my next film, HARD TARGET". Speaking of HARD TARGET, you could write an entire article about Van Damme's runaway ego on this picture alone.

It's interesting to note that, considering both their attitudes, Seagal and Van Damme had a long rivalry via a war of words that lasted throughout the 1990s. Both men were fond of issuing challenges, it seems, but it all came to nothing but a lot of talk. In the 90s, there were lots of this sort of thing going on between actors and martial artists. How much of it was actual machismo overload or publicity stunts is debatable.

Accomplished kickboxing champion Don "The Dragon" Wilson issued a similar challenge to Van Damme in 1989. Some thought it was just a stunt since Wilson's BLOODFIST (1989) was in competition with VD's KICKBOXER. At any rate, VD had made remarks about his martial arts past as a kickboxing champion, yet no record could be found substantiating his claims. So Roger Corman offered $100,000 for a winner take all fight between the two. Van Damme declined citing it would be stupid for him to fight for a paltry sum when he was making $6 million on his movie contract. What's funny about this is that Van Damme was supposedly willing to fight Steven Seagal for free! Wilson wasn't done with goading Van Damme, though. If you've seen his RED SUN RISING (1994), there's an in-joke poking fun of VD. During the finale, Wilson is fighting one guy after the other and this one guy jumps into frame that looks and acts like VD. He then kicks at Wilson who promptly grabs the leg and quickly disposes of the adversary all with a big grin on his face!

In is own right, Don Wilson is one of the most prolific action stars. Few of his films had theatrical play, but he seemed to star in a new one every other week. His BLOODFIST series is arguably his most popular work with eight films in the series. Wilson is still making action movies today.

By the time the new millennium rolled around, there were a few actors who tried to become the new breed of Action Hero. It didn't quite work out for them; at least not in the way of the bigger names discussed above. Guys like Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson were looked upon as the next big thing in action pictures. Diesel ran out of gas just when he was getting revved up, and Dwayne Johnson got more attention on wrestling for the WWE than he did on the Silver Screen. Diesel's arrogant Xander Cage in XXX (2002) wasn't too far removed from the actor with the inflated ego playing him. 

Johnson's sagging Action Hero status was a genuine surprise. His first star turn in THE SCORPION KING (2002) didn't exactly set the world on fire, but the build-up to his next star turn in THE RUNDOWN (2003) hyped him as the successor to Schwarzenegger and his cohorts. With no competition, THE RUNDOWN was a letdown in ticket sales. His star turn in the WALKING TALL (2004) remake was an unnecessary, utter misfire. Johnson wasn't even the main character in his next genre film, the SciFi-Action picture DOOM (2005).

Martial artist Jason Statham has shown the most promise, although he has yet to truly break out the way past big screen Tough Guys have. His films are moderate successes, but consistent; especially in that the man seems to have a movie coming out every month. Possessing a great look, boatloads of charisma, and uttering his dialog at barely a whisper, Jason Statham is the closest to the classic Tough Guy mold. A prolific actor, he's also a really good one, and a fine martial artist who can do the HK style very well. He's the closest to a Chuck Norris the genre has at the moment. Strictly an action guy, he's yet to headline a comedy; although some might say IN THE NAME OF THE KING (2008) would qualify, if unintentionally so.

Speaking of funny business, within a few years of their being in the spotlight, both Diesel and Johnson were doing comedies and kid pictures, and enjoying great success with them; which, by this point, was where you went when you couldn't attract an audience any other way. However, the two actors finally struck upon Action Hero style success in the recent FAST AND THE FURIOUS sequels; which were ensemble pieces as opposed to solo vehicles. Of the two, Johnson has the most potential, and the right attitude to be as big as any of the major Action Heroes to come before him.

Meanwhile, old schoolers of the Action Hero variety were doing ensembles of their own to show they still had it. The real test, though, was in if they could carry a picture by themselves like they used to do. 

THE EXPENDABLES series offered old school action fans an opportunity to see their favorite stars herded together in the same film. As movies, they're not very good, and little more than shells of the actors' former glories. Still, it was nice to see the old guard back in action. Ironically enough, THE EXPENDABLES movies were far more profitable overseas than domestically. With an $80 million budget, the first film made a little over $103 million US. By comparison, it made $171 million overseas. The sequel had a $100 million budget vs. $85 million domestic gross, but an impressive $220.4 million haul overseas. The third film (rated PG-13) has an unconfirmed budget between $90-$100 million, could only muster $39 million domestic, but cleaned up yet again overseas with $167 million.

With the success of this series, both Schwarzenegger and Stallone decided to go it solo and do some good old fashioned R rated actioners like in the old days. Audiences couldn't have been less interested, which is unfortunate since THE LAST STAND (2013), Arnold's first action movie lead in ten years, was a great throwback to better days. With a few back to back failures, Schwarzenegger and Stallone are still managing to get theatrical releases. Both THE LAST STAND with Arnold and Stallone's BULLET TO THE HEAD (2013) bombed worse than a Rambo raid on a VC stronghold. The two did ESCAPE PLAN (2014) together, which did a little better, but was another bomb. Curiously, that films original title was THE TOMB. It would seem likely they changed the title to avoid any critical barbs using it as a metaphor for their respective careers. Both men are starring in upcoming projects that are sequels to past triumphs, so it remains to be seen if they can replicate the same level of their past successes.

Possibly one attributable factor to the lack of any new, bankable action stars, or a thriving Action Hero genre in general is the changing of movie technology. The advent of CGI has rendered such films nearly obsolete. Instead of making a film centered around a single character, action pictures are sold instead on their special effects. Comic book superhero movies have become the new wave of action film, and yet few say how this actor or that actor stood out, as opposed to how good the SPX were. The current BATMAN trilogy is an exception to this rule, although it's the comic character people are going to see as opposed to Christian Bale. The CGI action has become the selling point and not necessarily the actor. Once audiences finally tire of these empty special effects driven productions, a new Bronson, or Norris, or Stallone may well emerge; or possibly Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson can make some single hits on the level of their group efforts in the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise. Johnson's recent HERCULES film is a sign that he can pull it off.

Regarding the glut of superhero movies, in the place of the standard Action Hero, we get guys in superhero outfits custom fitted with built in muscles. Chris Hemsworth in the THOR films is the closest, but then his build is more out of duty to the character than any desire on his part to be an action star. As specified in the previous articles, one thing these men, most of them, had in common is individualism, a desire to succeed at whatever they put their mind to. The look they brought to their roles was actually them--a reflection of their personality. Bronson's chiseled features and Chuck Norris's natural build is missing from the slate of current action stars who have been built by the movie studio as opposed to their own ambitions.

Another possible reason for the decline in Action Heroes is this effort by feminists (and, amazingly enough, some males) to castrate masculinity. The times when a man could be a man are now deemed offensive, and chivalry is apparently dead in the eyes of many. Moreover, Politics in America has taken on a dangerously radical position in recent years, and it's infected pop culture and the entertainment industry. Political correctness has laid the smack down on barrel-chested, oiled up, muscular men in the vein of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Bronson--emasculating the male action star to the point where it's like walking on eggshells to even suggest such a thing. You couldn't make an overly brawny movie nowadays without special interest groups taking issue with something, or throwing around words like 'chauvinistic', or 'sexist'. What passes for an action star today are comic book characters, or these teen heartthrobs fresh out of college. Even Conan (as played by Jason Momoa) has been sanitized, looking like he just got done surfing at a California beach.

Whatever the reason for the decline of Macho Action Heroes, their time may come again and enjoy the sort of success they did, particularly in the 1980s. If not, fans of Tough Guy cinema have a great many gems to relive over again, and dozens more left to discover.

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