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Women and Children first: Has Hollywood forgotten about us?

by @JOEdotie
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With Stallone’s uncompromising The Expendables hitting screens, JOE ponders whether it is the last of a dying breed – action fare aimed solely at adult males.

By Emmet Purcell

Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables has long been described as a retro-toned return to the macho, brainless action movies of the 1980s. Many also considered Stallone’s approach a refreshingly manly ‘last hurrah’ in opposition to an increasingly infantalised summer market.

Yet despite The Expendable’s hype and promise, the movie itself only received a ‘15A’ rating – not quite the blood-drenched return to form many were expecting. So is this supposed return of male-dominated action entertainment a false dawn, or should Stallone be saluted in attempting to shift the boundaries of typical Hollywood summer fare?

Over a pint or two during the week, we at JOE discussed some of our favourite high-concept cartoons of our childhood, which were universally action-packed, subtlety-free zones, such as 80s classics Transfomers or G.I. Joe.

During the same time period, Hollywood was enraptured by Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s latest gore-soaked installments. Sure, some were awfully derivative (Stallone’s Cobra, Arnie’s Red Sonja) but there were plenty of instant classics produced under the helm of able, intelligent directors (Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, James Cameron’s The Terminator). At the turn of the decade new action stars were also being created with critically lauded, adult-minded blockbusters, such as Lethal Weapon (1987) or Die Hard (1988).

Thinking back, it’s difficult to consider why Arnold Schwarzenegger, arguably the biggest movie star of the 1980s, would star in an 18-rated schlock-fest like Commando, where he dispatches 73 people in one scene. Or secondly, that when the similarly potent Terminator 2 was released in 1991, it had the-then highest production budget of all time ($102m).

Hollywood action movie: 1985

In today’s sanitised global market, producers would never greenlight such projects unless it they had a family-friendly rating, a built-in audience from another entertainment medium, or were based on a superhero property at the very least. Consider that of the twenty highest-grossing movies of 2009 in the US market, only two (Taken and The Hangover) received higher than a ‘12A’ rating in Ireland – with both movies considered ‘sleeper’ or surprise hits. These days the memo is clear – anything above a 12A rating is commercial suicide, and any success above that very rating is luck at best.

As we reminisced over our favourite 80s cartoons I realised that young boys have no comparable male-orientated, action-packed cartoons to digest on a daily basis. So where do boys in 2010 get their action fix? From big-budget Hollywood remakes of the very shows we grew up on, as the worldwide success of the Michael Bay’s Transformers and Stephen Sommer’s G.I Joe: Rise of Cobra have proven.

In fact, one could argue that the surprising box office success of this summer’s Inception may be proof that men are trying to fight back against the infantalisation endemic in Hollywood’s big-budget output.

Christopher Nolan’s maze-like epic succeeded because it was a complete anomaly to Hollywood in 2010 – Inception had a completely original idea not based on a superhero or 80s TV franchise, had a clever script and treated its audience like adults by presenting a complex plot and asking them to keep up. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Inception would never have been made (or at least given a $150m production budget) had Christopher Nolan already not made Warner Bros over $1bn for The Dark Knight.

These days, if Hollywood isn’t presenting its audience with kid-friendly action flicks, your multiplex choices typically reside between watching sullen heart-throb vampires or Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies. This ‘women and children first’ policy has, strangely enough, not yet provoked a strong backlash thus yet, as many men are just happy enough to see their childhood favourites (Optimus Prime, Spider-Man) on the big-screen. What does provoke a reaction, however, is when Hollywood decides to bring back a much-loved 80s action franchise, yet dial down the franchise’s previous age rating.

Hollywood action movie: 2010

Consider the 2007 release Die Hard 4.0, which was the only installment in Bruce Willis’ franchise to receive a ‘12A’ rating. Worse still, Willis’ John McClane was sidelined with a hip sidekick (Justin Long) to encourage a younger fanbase.

20th Century Fox knew they still had one big obstacle in re-invigorating their franchise towards a youthful audience, considering the series’ most famous catchphrase remains ‘Yippie-Kay-Ay Motherfucker’. The solution? Have Willis utter his famous line, but ensure that the second half of the phrase is punctuated by a loud gunshot to signify the death of the main villain (whose death is shown off-screen, naturally).

Fans were upset at the creative stifling of their beloved John McClane character yet Die Hard 4.0’s approach hasn’t stopped Hollywood from chasing another buck – Eddie Murphy is apparently keen to give his Axel Foley character another run-around in Beverly Hills Cop 4, while even Mel Gibson was circling a fifth Lethal Weapon until his latest foul-mouthed episode nixed any such possibility.

The most uncompromising action star return of the previous decade was undoubtedly Sylvester Stallone’s 2008 Rambo, which received a stern ‘18’ rating, no doubt attributed to the fact protagonist John Rambo killed more villains in the fourth installment than the previous trilogy put together.

Although his 2008 Rambo feature was commended for being a ‘retro’ approach to action, as the star and director told the Sunday Times last weekend, ‘“People say that I’m doing a homage. No, I am not. I just don’t know any better.”

Whether The Expendables succeeds or fails (commercially at least, its initial US take suggests the former), Sylvester Stallone should be applauded for pushing back at Hollywood convention and trying to reclaim the movie industries’ collective balls.

Let’s hope Stallone single-minded vision, or conversely the respect with which this summer’s Inception treated its audience, can provoke a sea change in Hollywood’s thinking. After all, the thrill of watching an action blockbuster long past your bedtime should never skip a generation.

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