You might have noticed that Hollywood’s superhero well is running a little dry. If a comic book legend hasn’t made it to the multiplex, he’s found a home on the small screen (see The CW’s Arrow), and high-flying favorites who only just resurfaced are getting pushed back through the sausage factory (see The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel). Box-office returns are surely holding steady, as The Avengers’ $600 million-plus is history’s third-biggest domestic haul, but this party can’t last forever, and Tinseltown knows it. As usual, the dwindling resources have left industry bigwigs scrambling for the next bankable formula, and in a rare twist, one such formula involves ditching fresh faces for weathered ones. Thanks to the success of the Expendables franchise, which Sylvester Stallone fashioned into a frat party of over-the-hill meatheads, yesterday’s action stars are back in vogue in a big way, as proven by all the over-50 fare that’s followed Stallone’s guns-and-grunts series. The world needs new heroes. Will its old ones suffice? What can be learned from their resurgence?
To get a taste of the Expendables influence, one need only pop in on any movie trailer website, where the selection of clips is amply populated by the Centrum Silver crowd, like Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis. All three Expendables veterans have new action projects coming at you, undoubtedly greenlit to draw in the mobs who helped their fully-loaded collabo make a killing. In January, Schwarzenegger is back (naturally) in The Last Stand, a dusty actioner about a one-horse town and a handful of fugitives, directed by South Korea’s Kim Jee-woon. The ex-governor plays Sheriff Ray Owens, an old-guard badass wielding a pistol and a scowl. In the trailer, the camera regards Ah-nuld with awestruck respect, and sees him playing a glorified extension of himself—a burly star who’s past his prime, but who’s still got it, goddammit. As per the unofficial criteria of this senior-friendly genre, which we’ll affectionately call geri-action, the idolization is paired with a dose of self-deprecation, such as when Owens crashes through a storefront window and lands at the feet of his townsfolk. “How are you, sheriff?” one man asks in the preview’s requisite comic break. “Old,” Owens growls while climbing to his feet.
If Schwarzenegger’s film looks to give you a little nudge in the ribs, Stallone’s Bullet to the Head (coming in February) seems poised to cock its elbow and crush your ribcage altogether, unveiling a nyuk-filled trailer for a vengeance flick that, shockingly, doesn’t seem to be going for camp. Stallone may be the ring leader of this new action surge, expressly targeting older viewers and the nostalgic fans who love them, but Bullet, which sees him play hitman Jimmy Bobo, seems tough to accept as anyone’s cup of tea, unless you like seeing the 66-year-old’s veins bulge like body-snatcher tentacles, or dig quaint, retirement-age banter, like, “I take out the trash [and] remove the hard-to-get-at stains.” For all the knowing cracks intended to sell his comfort with hitting his golden years (“They don’t make records anymore,” Jimmy’s partner says to his “broken record” remark), Stallone exhibits a desperate fear of the easy-chair life, a fear one could say has been evident since 2006, when the director/star began revisiting his Rocky and Rambo franchises. To that extent, the rush of films that ostensibly raise the viability of older audiences have their own form of indirect ageism. After all, there’s little in Stallone’s recent work that finds any joy or wisdom in the aging process. It’s all about reliving the past, pissing on the sands of time, emulating the younger studs who rule the industry, and, along the way, dropping transparent, pass-the-Ensure punchlines like grenades.
Of course, there are some veteran heroes who’ve matured a bit more gracefully, and haven’t had to comparably strain themselves to stay relevant. Bruce Willis may keep his head clean-shaven to fend off pesky grays, but thanks to his acting chops and a better-enduring brand, he’s only tangentially linked to the whole age-conscious, post-Expendables wave. His latest Die Hard installment, A Good Day to Die Hard (also dropping in February), was in the works before the first outing of Stallone’s Uzi-toting posse, and the actor’s coolness has helped keep New York cop John McClane fresh. But just as Warner Bros. and Lionsgate are respectively surging ahead with the latest from Stallone and Schwarzenegger, 20th Century Fox surely felt a boost of confidence pushing Die Hard in the current film landscape, where musclebound ’80s icons are giving many folks déjà vu. And it should be noted that the core theme of John McClane’s yippee-ki-yay jaunts concerns the very Dylan-Thomas notion of not fading away quietly, and shunning, if not outright fearing, the approach of brittle bones and 4:00 dinners.
To survey the full spread of geri-action, viewers can look well beyond these three seasoned gents, as just this month, fellow Expendables alums Dolph Lundgren, 55, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, 52, return in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, a B-movie getting a wide release thanks to its stars’ restored clout. And the trend is steadily spilling into action-comedy too. In January, look out for Fisher Stevens’s Stand Up Guys, which sees Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Christopher Walken play old criminal buddies, and next December, prepare for Jon Turtletaub’s Last Vegas, a Sin City romp with Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and Kevin Kline. For fans of this wide array of once-virile leading men, few of whom are getting bombarded with offers these days, the trend of placing them front and center again is one of great rewards. And for older adventure buffs who aren’t so keen on Channing Tatum, it does indeed allow for a certain bygone era’s revival. But just as teenage bloodsuckers have seen their big-budget vehicles succumb to creaky gears, this onslaught of silver-fox action seems destined for a brief shelf life, and that’s by no means a nod to the actors’ own expiration dates. Cinema’s age of superheroes may be inching toward its end, but the summoning of wizened reinforcements is more Band-Aid than antidote. It’s a gimmick that tries to make novelties of antiques.