The other weekend, a movie starring Sylvester Stallone called Bullet to the Head died at the box office. It made $4 million against a reported budget of $55 million. It was preceded in death by a picture starring Arnold Schwarzenegger called The Last Stand, which made about $6 million against a budget of $30 million. These twin disasters have cast in doubt the future of a weird mini-genre that came out of nowhere a few years ago: the Activia action picture, starring 1980s movie stars banding together to shoot some guns and beat up much younger men.
The mini-genre burst into prominence following two freakish worldwide successes: The Expendables, with Stallone and a bunch of B-list guys like Dolph Lundgren; and Red, with Bruce Willis. These wildly popular flicks seemed to suggest that today’s moviegoers, like today’s rock-concert attendees, really enjoy seeing the old guys come together to perform their greatest hits one more time.
But the failures of Bullet to the Head and The Last Stand are calling the notion into question—and pity the poor studio chief who ponied up $70 million for a new action picture called The Tomb to be released later this year costarring Stallone and Schwarzenegger. He must be sweating bullets.
I missed the Arnold movie, but I did catch Bullet to the Head, the story of a cop and an assassin who team up against a corrupt machine in New Orleans. Despite the fact that Stallone looks like a Madame Tussaud’s version of himself, and that the plot is exceedingly dumb, the movie as a whole is dark, sleazy, jumpy, ruthless, and really quite compelling.
Bullet to the Head was directed by the amazingly stylish Walter Hill, who made The Warriors, 48 Hrs., and the criminally overlooked Geronimo, among many other memorable films. Even after a decadelong absence from the big screen, Hill is simply incapable of delivering a stiff. You can tell you’re in a pro’s hands the minute the picture begins, and it ends just as well, with Stallone and a man-mountain named Jason Momoa going at each other with fireman’s axes in the best-staged fight scene in memory.
No matter; I was one of only two people to see Bullet to the Head in an auditorium that can seat 700. Now the only man who can save the day for the Activia action picture is Bruce Willis, who’s a decade younger but still a little long in the tooth to be cavorting with a rocket launcher. He has two films about to premiere: a fourth sequel to Die Hard, set in Moscow, and something called G. I. Joe: Retaliation, in which he evidently plays the original G. I. Joe.
The action-movie gods are fickle creatures. One year, you slip Taken into theaters around Super Bowl Sunday just to get rid of it, and it turns around and makes $150 million. Another year, you release a Stallone picture, a Schwarzenegger picture, and Parker (which I reviewed last week) to take advantage of the audience that came out for Taken, and that audience acts as though the multiplexes have been sprayed with man-repellent.
Might this audience have been so discomfited by the post-Sandy Hook “national conversation” about guns that it has decided to opt out of one of its guilty pleasures? It is unquestionably the case that these movies make fetishistic use of automatic weapons; the guns are photographed more slowly, more lovingly, more lasciviously than the naked women. Indeed, the love affair between man and rifle is a key selling point, as the 20 minutes of trailers before Bullet to the Head made clear: In every one, there are four or five shots of a lead character firing off round after round in glamorous closeup.
Action pictures are the very definition of mindless escapism: They offer their viewers a way out of the real world. If the images used to sell these movies happen to summon up unpleasant news stories that make potential audience members uncomfortable and unhappy, those people might just avoid such movies precisely because they don’t want to think about the unpleasantness. They don’t want to think about anything, really. Bullet to the Head certainly doesn’t want them to think, but with a title like that, how can they help it?
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD'S movie critic.