Pensioners in action
There's never been a better time to be an old bloke in action. If you're over 60 and can hold a gun, there is a job for you.
The boys are back in town, and by boys, I do mean old men.
The combined ages of the dozen leading male actors in The Expendables 3, which opened this week, total 621 years. The original seven – Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Jet Li – are now joined by Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and Kelsey Grammer. Huh, what’s he doing there? The rest have a name in action movies, although a couple of their names live in infamy too. Snipes is just out of the big house, where he did 28 months for tax evasion, and Gibson… Let’s just say that production meetings involving him and the producer, Avi Lerner, a former Israeli paratrooper and veteran of the Six Day War, must have been interesting.
The previous two movies have taken $US586 million, which buys a lot of star power, but the series has gone from the not-so-magnificent seven to the very dirty dozen… hang on, weren’t there more in the original lineup? What happened to Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke? Willis had small parts in the first two, but he wanted $4 million for four days work on the third. Cheeky boy got nothing.
There’s never been a better time to be an old bloke in action. If you’re over 60 and can hold a gun, there is a job for you. Since Liam Neeson showed the way in Taken in 2008, mature actors have returned in droves to the Big Loud Action Movie, a.k.a. the BLAM! The Expendables, which opened in 2010, was a deliberate attempt by Stallone to reboot the 1980s Reagan-era action movie, the kind that featured outsized men with huge guns and bad attitude and a hanky around the head. It seemed ludicrous in 2010 that such a dated idea might work, but you have to credit Stallone. The man has had more comebacks than Nellie Melba had farewells, and an eye for a gap in the market.
One of the reasons these pensioners-in-action movies work is that younger actors struggle in the realm of credible physical action. Most of them are occupied in superhero movies, wearing tights and funny masks, as part of the Marvel Universe. They are CGI-enhanced with computer six-packs, as in the 300 series. Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Statham offer a kind of corporeal reality that is missing from the younger stars. Melbourne’s own Chris Hemsworth is the obvious exception: he’s built like a Greek God, can act, and he’s beautiful, which makes him most likely to become the next fully-fledged action star, if he’s not already.
Some readers will remember that Schwarzenegger was artificially enhanced too, before he made it big. He admitted in 1977, after a successful career in bodybuilding, that he took loads of steroids before competitions. Sylvester Stallone, of course, was famously arrested in Australia in 2007 with 48 vials of Human Growth Hormone in his luggage. He pleaded guilty and received a $2500 fine, with costs awarded against him. He was 60 at the time.
So that ‘credible corporeal reality’ I’m talking about in these older stars is not quite as real as one might think. Not that it matters to the fans. When Stallone punches someone in The Expendables series, they stay punched. His enemies die in extraordinarily graphic ways, pulverised and beheaded and cleaved in two, processed into pink mist and ‘red sausage’, as Terry Crews memorably quipped in the first instalment.
These are 1980’s movies in the body count and the grandiose, Colosseum-style cruelty of the spectacle. Stallone sensed correctly that older men, baby-boomers, still loved to see the enemies of America sliced and diced. In fact, now more than ever, given the untidiness of the recent American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s so hard in real life to see who really won, but that was never a problem in Rocky, Rambo and Cobra, or Commando, Raw Deal and Predator.
In fact, it’s more complicated than that. When these movies reigned, they made most of their money at home. Foreign box office was just cream on the pie, but Hollywood now makes most of its money offshore, and the action market is very strong in Asia, and growing. That is part of what is driving The Expendables: the star recognition of people like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Statham with increasingly affluent Asian audiences.
It’s not quite new that older actors should dominate action movies. William Holden and most of cast of The Wild Bunch were in their 50s when Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch in 1969. Eastwood was 63 when he did In the Line of Fire, in 1993. Age was necessary in a western star, to add a sense of gravity, the scars of life. In a sense, Stallone and company are just restoring the balance, closer to where it once was. Bruce Willis skewed it younger when he broke though in Die Hard, aged 33. Studios kept it there when they went after teenage audiences in the post-Star Wars era. Boomers now want screen heroes who don’t expire at 65. In The Last Stand, from 2013, Schwarzenegger was a washed-up sherriff in a small Arizona town, goaded into action by Mexican drug dealers. The tagline was ‘Retirement is for Sissies’.
Watch out for the all-female version of the Expendables series, now in planning. It’s going to be called The Expendabelles. You think I’m joking, don’t you?