Explosive return of the all-action heroes

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are back in The Expendables, just one of a slew of macho, retro blockbusters this summer. Is it a response to the 'war on terror'? An antidote to the credit crunch? No, says Geoffrey Macnab – audiences just love an adrenalin rush

Eighties action hero movies were the Reagan era's answer to the cowboy films in old Hollywood, albeit often with a bit of martial arts Eastern mysticism thrown into the mix. The popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and their cohorts was regarded by many as evidence of a backlash against wimpy New Man politics of the 1970s.

This raises the question as to why action heroes are again now flourishing in the early days of the Obama era. The action movie is back, bigger than ever before. This summer, we'll see Stallone, Bruce Willis and Schwarzenegger together on screen in The Expendables. Remakes of Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja and even a big-screen version of TV's The A-Team are in the works. Meanwhile, Stallone has already successfully re-branded Rambo and Rocky.

So what is behind the revival of high-testosterone yarns about sweaty men with big muscles? Is it to do with compensating for the waning of US influence as a superpower? Is it a belated reaction to Bush's war on terror? Is this celebration of lawless individualism cinema's answer to the Tea Party protest movement? The answer is much simpler. Audiences are still looking for the same adrenalin-filled escapism that the best action movies have always provided.

One of the ironies about the return of the action-man movie is that the same stars are still being press-ganged into service. When the news filtered out last year that Stallone had broken his neck while filming The Expendables, sceptics couldn't help but think that Stallone had brought his misfortune on himself. After all, Sly is 63 going on 64. That is really not the age to be wrestling with a hulk like former WWF stalwart Stone Cold Steve Austin, as Stallone was when he hurt his neck.

Stallone's broken neck was presented to the media as the sort of everyday scrape that action stars suffer all the time. Stallone was keen to point out that The Expendables featured real, old-fashioned stunts and fighting – not the computer-generated mayhem that passes for action today – and the odd broken vertebrae simply came with the territory. In case anyone doubted the fact, the star posted X-rays of his injury on the internet.

You could be forgiven for thinking that The Expendables was a John Ford-style elegy for the action stars of the 1980s and 1990s: a last hurrah for a style of film-making that was at its peak in the straight-to-video era and Stallone's final chance to call together all his sad captains for one last testosterone-fuelled adventure. In fact, it's likely to be seen not so much as the movie that ended the Eighties-style action genre for good as the vehicle that helped revive it. Jean-Claude Van Damme turned the project down but Stallone has been able to enlist similarly gnarled and weatherbeaten figures such as Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts and Jet Li to join the cast alongside Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who put in special appearances, and Britain's own (rather younger) Jason Statham. Together, they look set to reinvoke the glory, glory days of monosyllabic actors with big muscles and a flair for martial arts.

There were both commercial and ideological reasons why action heroes flourished in the 1980s. One explanation for their popularity is that the US was still smarting from the indignities of the (lost) Vietnam war, Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis of the Carter era. Audiences wanted strong crusading, red-meat-eating heroes who could avenge (at least in symbolic fashion) the humiliations that the Americans had suffered in the 1970s. They were sick of all those earnest, liberal character-driven-movies like All the President's Men.

This was certainly the theory espoused by karate champion-turned-flag-waving movie star Chuck Norris, whose younger brother had been killed in the Vietnam war. "I think a lot of people are tired of depressing, boring films. I think they like to feel good at the end of a film," he told The New York Times in a 1985 interview. Norris was a big Reagan fan. "I want a strong leader and he is a strong leader. And ever since he has been in office, there has been a more positive, patriotic feeling in this country," the star explained.

Norris patented the undemonstrative acting style that Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and co would also adapt. On one hand, this was often a matter of necessity. English wasn't the first language for action stars like Lundgren, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme and they weren't steeped in classical or Method acting. On the other hand, as Norris had learned from Steve McQueen, less was often more. "Movies are visual and when you try to verbalise something, you're going to lose the audience,'" McQueen told him. The popularity of Clint Eastwood, whether as Dirty Harry or as the Man with No Name in Leone Westerns, underlined the truth in McQueen's observations.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Western genre itself had become increasingly complicated and self-referential. Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) was a magisterial film but one that shot holes through the simple-minded myths of the John Wayne era. It showed killing for what it was and mocked the vainglory of cowboys aspiring to gallantry. Lines between heroes and villains were blurred. In Eighties action movies, though, filmmakers could still get away with the simple minded good v evil morality that had sustained the Western in its earlier, less complicated days. Instead of a fast-shooter like Shane slaying the bad guys and riding off into the sunset, action movies offered heroes like Colonel John Matrix (Schwarzenegger), in Commando (1985) or Van Damme as the heroic everyman in John Woo's frenetic Hard Target (1993). These films may have been violent and explosive but they were also straightforward folk tales, unburdened by moral complexity.

At the same time Norris was in his pomp, making films like Missing in Action and The Delta Force, Stallone's career was also building momentum thanks to Rocky and Rambo. "With Rocky, I think Stallone did a big service to my career because he opened up a whole new type of movie where the body is accepted and people go to see the body. It's a youth audience at the cinema today and they want physical actors like me and Stallone," Austrian bodybuilder-turned-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger paid tribute to Stallone.

There was an economic imperative behind the action genre. In the video age, action movies were hugely lucrative, relatively inexpensive to make and easy to market. All you needed was a poster, a catchy title and a semi-familiar star with big biceps and a menacing stare. Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin likes to tell the story of how his career was launched in 1982 when he travelled from his native Finland to Los Angeles to attend the American Film Market. Harlin couldn't help but notice how easy it was to sell action movies. He and a friend decided to make one themselves. Back home in Finland, they wrote a screenplay, which they called "Wild Force", designed a poster and slapped the name "Chuck Norris" on it. At the American Film Market the following year, they were able to sell the movie all over the world... even though they hadn't actually made it. In the event, Chuck Norris didn't appear in the film, which was re-christened "Arctic Heat" and then finally made as Born American with Norris's son, Mike. It was a roaring success but the film-makers had made such bad deals that they made no money from it.

Enterprising producers were ready to cut corners to get their action movies made. Former Cannon boss Menahem Golan famously drew up a contract with Sylvester Stallone on a napkin for Stallone to play an arm-wrestling lorry driver in Over the Top. It was Golan who discovered Jean-Claude Van Damme... or Van Damme who discovered Golan. The Belgian gave an impromptu kick-boxing demonstration in an LA restaurant to Golan who – at least action-movie legend has it – promptly hired him to star in Kickboxer (1989.)

The action stars came from very different backgrounds. Van Damme's co-star in Universal Soldier, Dolph Lundgren, was a Swedish former Fulbright scholar who had briefly been enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Steven Seagal was son of a teacher and a nurse from Detroit who meandered into the movies after years of studying aikido. Norris was a six-times world middle-weight karate champion. What they all had in common was that, for a period, they were huge box-office earners.

Gradually, the wheel turned and action movies fell out of fashion. The collapse in the video market was an important factor in their loss of popularity. It didn't help, either, that there were few new stars who were able to match the movies warriors of the Eighties: Norris, Seagal, Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme.

You can tell that a genre is struggling when it resorts to self-parody and self-reflexiveness. Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD (2008) was widely praised by the critics, always a suspicious sign when it comes to action movies. In the film, Van Damme plays a version of... himself. He is a washed-up movie star in the midst of a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife. The film comes laden with references to other action films as well as ramblings about how much they cost and how much Van Damme thinks he should be paid.

After JCVD, it was a struggle to see how the action movie could reinvent itself. Stallone seemed to be swimming desperately against the tide by bringing back all his old action-movie mates to star in The Expendables.

Of course, in all the best action movies, the heroes find a way of winning. This is what Stallone and his team are now managing in real life too. This isn't just a case of Eighties nostalgia running rampant with middle-aged executives in Hollywood. The studios are convinced that there is still money to be made through a genre that, a few years ago, looked downright arthritic.

Gone are the days when – as Zygi Kamasa of Lionsgate, the UK distributor of The Expendables – puts it, all you needed for a successful action flick was "to stick a star in it, [have] a few explosions and a bit of action and they would sell really well." Films like The Expendables and Conan have production values way beyond those of action movies made in the Menahem Golan days. No longer can the action movies rely on the safety net of video sales. The new batch will be judged by how they perform in cinemas. This means that budgets have gone up, not down. The Expendables cost $80 million. Conan, which is being shot in 3D, is likewise a huge budget film.

"Stallone wanted to make an old-fashioned, all-out action movie," says Kamasa. "His pitch to us was that this was The Dirty Dozen meets The Magnificent Seven, non-CGI driven, a good old-fashioned action movie with real heroes."

For the revival of the action hero movie to last, some new recruits are badly needed. Van Damme, Stallone, Lundgren and co (and their Asian counterparts like Jet Li and Jackie Chan) are growing long in the tooth. It's time for a fresh generation of Austrian bodybuilders and Belgian kick boxers to step forward or for actors like Sam Worthington and Jason Statham to pick up Arnie and Jean-Claude's mantles. Otherwise, audiences' interest may soon begin to wander.

'The Expendables' is released on 20 August

For further reading: Action! the Action Movie A-Z by Marshall Julius (Indiana University Press)

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