Lost in the midst of everyone popping a boner for how awesome it is that Liam Neeson has turned himself into an action star (including me) is that no one has asked the question:
Wait, how the hell did a 60-year-old thespian who looks like my dad at my college graduation just become one of the biggest action stars in the world??? Can someone wake Sylvester Stallone up!!!
While Neeson’s story is cool for the AARP crowd, it belies the fact that Hollywood just isn’t churning out action stars like it used to. In the 80s and 90s, Stallone, Arnold Schwarzanagger and Bruce Willis owned the summer movie season, churning out box office hit after box office hit. They had some stinkers, but mostly, when those guys put out an action movie and you were a guy, you went to see it. You needed to see it.
Totally randomly, I clicked on the top box office movies of 1994. I didn’t know it was pretty much ground zero for my argument at the time, even though I should have. In the top 20 movies of the year, there were five strict action movies — which I consider to be any movie that contains at least four scenes of chases, shoot-’em-ups, explosions, whatever:
3. True Lies (Schwarzenegger)
7. Clear and Present Danger (Harrison Ford)
8. Speed (Keanu Reeves)
11. Maverick (Mel Gibson)
20. The Specialist (Stallone)
There isn’t a pitching staff in baseball that would want to face that murders’ row. That’s pretty much the apex for modern Hollywood’s name action stars.
Fast forward to 2000:
- Our favorite action stars like Tom Cruise (#2 Mission: Impossible 2) and Gibson (#19 The Patriot) still have some legs.
- We’re even able to generate some new ones in Russell Crowe (#4 Gladiator), and George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg (#6 The Perfect Storm).
- But overall, our stars of the 80s and 90s are showing their age. Gibson scored waaaayyyy better in What Women Want (#5) as he (correctly) decided it’s time to cultivate a new audience. Nic Cage couldn’t get into the top 20 with Gone in 60 Seconds. No one had a worse year than Schwarzenegger, as his $82 million-budgeted End of Days grossed only $34 million and finished the year in 73rd place. Two movies later, he went back to the Terminator franchise.
- Wait, no, someone did have a worse year! After a string of decently performing action movies (Broken Arrow, Face/Off, The General’s Daughter), John Travolta comes out with the stink bomb to end all stinkbombs, Battlefield Earth (#96). It’s tough to call it an action movie, or a movie at all. But one of my rules in life is that when you have the chance to make fun of Battlefield Earth, even as a reach, YOU TAKE IT!!!
- Some action star introductions failed. Vin Diesel’s Pitch Black became a cult hit on DVD, but at the box office, not so much (#63). Reindeer Games (#92) was so bad Ben Affleck got made fun of it in a movie where he played himself the next year.
- But the biggest threat to name action stars in 2000 came in the form of the #8 movie — X-Men. The advent of the Comic Book Movie Era was about to make big-name stars irrelevent. Audiences didn’t care if Willis was playing Cyclops or if Stallone was playing Wolverine — they just wanted to see Cyclops and Wolverine. Crowe tried to hold 20th Century Fox hostage financially to play Wolverine, but Fox just said ”Meh” and moved on to Hugh Jackman for probably a quarter of the price. We’re about to hit our
- – think anyone cares that Crowe didn’t get the gig? Other than Crowe?
Actors were about to be replaced by characters, and there was nothing they could do about it except join the party. Some tried, like Travolta in The Punisher (#83 in 2004). But for the most part, studios didn’t want (or more importantly, need) to meet Willis’s $25 million quote to play Green Goblin when it could pay Willem Dafoe $3 million and no one could tell the difference.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a market out there, somewhere, for action stars in today’s Hollywood. It just doesn’t seem like they’re being bred anymore.
Let’s look at the 2011 action box office:
2. Tranny 3 (sequel to a known brand)
5. Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (sequel to a known brand)
6. Fast Five (sequel to a one-time original idea)
7. Mission Impossible 4 (sequel to a known brand)
9. Sherlock Holmes 2 (sequel to a known brand)
10. Thor (comic book movie)
11. Planet of the Apes (reboot of a known brand)
12. Captain America (comic book movie)
17. X-Men: First Class (comic book movie)
24. Green Lantern (comic book movie)
30. Cowboys and Aliens (little-know comic, two major stars in Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, fail at the box office)
32. Green Hornet (known brand)
Now wait for it …
35. Reel Steel (ORIGINAL ACTION MOVIE IDEA WITH A NAME ACTION STAR, HUGH JACKMAN!!!)
This is where we are, friends. Whatever leverage the actors had in the 90s is gone, and it’s probably not coming back. You can’t blame the studios for this, it’s just good business. You know how Sony (actually, its parent company, Columbia) acquired the rights to Spider-Man? It traded off its plans to make a faux 007 series. That’s it. And out of this agreement has come a $3.26 billion (and counting) franchise that the studio doesn’t have to pay an extra dime for, and can pay low-end money for actors for because it doesn’t really matter who is in the title role.
Case in point: No one cares who’s playing Spider-Man. No one knew Tobey Maguire when he started, and no one knew Andrew Garfield this time around. People, obviously, just want to see Spider-Man. Disney did it even smarter, turning in its own property that it created as an amusement park ride into a $3 billion franchise. It had to hire known actor Johnny Depp to do it, but probably made up his salary in increased Disneyland traffic because of that stupid franchise.
But Die Hard 5 comes out in February. If Fox said, “You know, we really don’t need to pay Willis $20 million for this. Can’t we just pay the next 30-year-old dude (Ryan Gosling?) that walks in here $2 million to take the franchise over?” Would you go to see it? OF COURSE YOU WOULDN’T!!! Bruce Willis is Die Hard, at least until he passes it off himself. Arnold Schwarzenegger is The Terminator, just look at the Christian Bale version. Stallone is Rocky. You put anyone else in those roles, and those movies tank. In the 90s, the actors knew it, the studios knew it, and that’s how salaries got way out of control.
Now that game is changed. What actress could have been tapped to play Bella that would have made Twilight fans not go? Meryl Streep? Melissa McCarthy? They’ve obviously embraced the acting catastrophe that is Kristin Stewart. Properties are important — actors not so much. When actors do finally fit the action movie mold, they get gobbled up to the point of franchise saturation (looking at you, Jeremy Renner).
As per the usual, I’ll place at least part of the blame on George Lucas. In the worst bit of casting we may have ever seen, Lucas picked Jake Lloyd as young Anikan Skywalker in Phantom Menace. The poor kid is indescribably bad. There are no words for it. Could have had Haley Joel Osment, who went on to an Oscar nomination that year as an 11-year old, picked Jake Lloyd. Did anyone say, “Because of Jake Lloyd’s ineptitude as an actor in one of the most important roles in movie history, I won’t see this movie“? Nope. Instead they all brought wooden spoons to bite down on when they saw it for a third and fourth time in the theaters. Someone, somewhere, in some studio, had to see what was going on here and said, “Huh. Doris, you have Mel Gibson on the line waiting for me? Tell him I went to lunch and I’ll try him back next week.”
Hollywood hasn’t looked back yet — and probably never will. It’s unnecessary to get big-name action stars, it’s cheaper to just try out unknown ones and in the end, the property/franchise is what matters now, not the actor. Neeson might be the first old guy to become an action star late in his career, but he won’t be the last, as long as they keep working on the cheap.
So, you know, good news for Colin Firth.