Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Decline of the R-Rated Action Movie

The dominance of the effects-powered science fiction and fantasy spectacle, and with it, the "summer tentpole," is typically traced back to the mid-1970s, and films like Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) and Richard Donner's Superman (1978), since which time films of the type have typically topped the box office.

Yet, their dominance of the marketplace has never been so complete as it is now. Going back over the lists of releases as recently as the 1980s, one struggled to find a handful of such films in any given year. Now in a typical summer, most weeks see a new release of the type (or even two), while a good many other such films are sprinkled around the rest of the calendar, giving the impression that it's summer all year long.

In the process they have crowded out other types of films, among them other styles of action film which had managed to flourish even in the post-Star Wars age, like the paramilitary action movie, and with it, the R-rated action movie in general (in contrast with the typically PG/PG-13-rated Spielberg-Lucas-superhero spectacles).1 During the '80s, and even much of the '90s, various Schwarzenegger and Stallone vehicles (like 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1993's Cliffhanger, and 1994's True Lies), the first three films of both the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises (1987-1995), and assorted Die Hard imitators (1994's Speed, 1996's The Rock, 1997's Air Force One), as well as a slew of science fiction films made in similar style (like 1986's Aliens, 1990's Total Recall and 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day), were all among their year's top ten hits.2

The annual top twenty during these years also included such hits as 1982's First Blood, 1986's Cobra, 1987's Predator and Robocop, 1988's Rambo III, 1989's Tango & Cash, 1992's Under Siege and Patriot Games, 1993's Demolition Man, 1994's The Specialist, 1996's Broken Arrow and Eraser, 1997's Con Air and 1998's Lethal Weapon 4. Two other Schwarzenegger films widely seen as prime examples of the '80s action movie, 1984's Terminator and 1985's Commando, also came very close (making the twenty-first and twenty-fifth spots in their years, respectively).

The preponderance of these kinds of films would seem even more overwhelming if one also counted in related films like Eddie Murphy's '80s-era action-comedies (1982's 48 Hrs., and the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies in 1984 and 1987, all of which were top ten hits, with the original BHC the top earner of '84), or the period cop film The Untouchables (the sixth highest grosser of 1987).2

In fact, it could be argued that where the action genre was concerned, they were predominant, big-screen action almost synonymous with the words "People under 17 years may only be admitted if accompanied by a parent or guardian." Still, even before the end of the '80s the relationship shifted into reverse, as the shoot 'em ups characteristic of the decade became creatively exhausted and decreasingly relevant, while improving CGI and the superhero boom boosted the science fiction and fantasy epics. In succeeding years the blazing machine guns gave way to wire work and computer-based superheroic feats, and the mayhem became at once larger in scale and edited in quicker-cutting fashion, leaving less opportunity or reason to linger on gory details, while the subject matter (so often drawn from the pages of DC and Marvel) made a lighter tone appear more appropriate. The result was action that was at once more spectacular and nearly antiseptic.3 Meanwhile, film in general, the action movie included, became prone to downplay that other major reason to exclude the under-17 crowd, sexuality (such that one writer recently remarked the sexless lives of superheroes). Under such circumstances, the shift away from the "rougher stuff" was natural enough, and encouraged by the risk attendant on swelling budgets.

In hindsight, The Matrix (1999) seems particularly representative of the transition, in its blend of withering machine gun fire and superheroics (Neo even flies), and its launch of the last R-rated action franchise to meet with really massive commercial success. After its debut fifteen years ago, new R-rated action movies tended simply to continue older franchises (like Bad Boys and Terminator in 2003, Rambo in 2008), often sold on nostalgia even when that was not the case (like 2010's The Expendables), and tended to be comparatively marginal within the marketplace.4 The highest-grossing such film last year, Olympus Has Fallen, fell short of the $100 million mark to wind up only the thirty-sixth highest-earning film of its year--a long way down from the prominence of comparable movies a quarter of a century ago. Unsurprisingly, even traditionally R-rated franchises have tended to sanitize their content in pursuit of a more lucrative PG-13 rating (as Alien, Die Hard and Terminator did in the 2000s, as has been the case with the Total Recall and Robocop remakes, and now even the third installment of The Expendables).5

In short, like the sex and nudity once a regular feature of such movies, bloody violence, when not presented as part of Serious Drama (like the based-on-a-true-story terrorism-themed films in which Navy SEALs are now apt to make appearances), tends to be left to lower-budgeted fare, and one supposes, to premium cable drama like Game of Thrones, which along with the rest of the post-'90s explosion of means for accessing entertainment, saves fans a trip to the theater.

1. One might include under the heading of Spielberg-space-superheroes such things as the Star Trek franchise (first-class hits through the fourth film) and the succession of Indiana Jones imitations seen during the decade (the biggest success among which was 1984's Romancing the Stone).
2. Indeed, four of the top twenty movies of 1987 were police-centered action movies (The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon) or action-comedies (Beverly Hills Cop II, Stakeout)--even without including the science fiction film Robocop, which also made the year's top twenty.
3. Excepting the Blade franchise (1998, 2002, 2004), launched in a time when comic book movies were often lower-budgeted and less commercially ambitious, R-rated superhero movies have tended to perform modestly at best. The most successful of these, 2008's Wanted, is only #34 on BoxOfficeMojo's list of superhero films.
4. One area that has been something of an exception is the battle-heavy historical epic, the R-rated Gladiator (the #4 hit of 2000), Troy (#13 in 2004) and 300 (#10 in 2007) all doing good business, but this remains a small and fickle part of the market, especially in the United States. Another, more modest area of success is action-horror, the Resident Evil (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012) and Underworld (2003, 2006, 2009, 2012) films getting by on smaller budgets and lower grosses.

The '80s Action Movie

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