The dependable mid-budget, R-rated action movies that Hollywood once relied on are now anything but dependable.
Hollywood has had a series of tent-pole and more modestly budgeted movies that have collapsed at the box office this winter. Revenue and attendance are both down 15 percent from the same period last year, reports the Hollywood Reporter. The industry got some surprise relief this weekend from Oz the Great and Powerful despite middling reviews. It’s also one of the few big new movies of 2013 so far clearly marketed toward kids. If you were to look at the state of the box office in the past few months, you might come away with two impressions: One, the dependable mid-budget, R-rated action movies that Hollywood once relied on are now anything but dependable. And two, Hollywood is basically just for kids.
January through March used to be the season of the embarrassing, though possibly lovable, B-movie. If December is the most respectable version Hollywood presents of itself, the start of the year is when Hollywood lets itself become disrespectable. There are movies released solely for kids (Disney’s Teacher’s Pet) and scuzzier movies released only for adults, usually a mix of comedy (Eurotrip) and action/horror (Safe House) that make up for any lack of nuance with a higher-than-usual quotient of breasts, bloodletting, beer-guzzling, and/or explosions.
The big studios followed a conventional path this winter by recasting ’90s action heroes (Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a series of movies meant to reignite their careers. All three failed at the box office beyond even cynical expectations. One of the movies, The Last Stand, was very good, the kind of straight-faced tough-guy picture you rarely see anymore, but all three seemed to be marketed in same ironic vein as the Expendables franchise (Willis’s onscreen son calling him “old school,” Schwarzenegger’s character saying he’s getting too old for this), as if nudging self-deprecation might somehow make the stars leading men again. The other thing all three movies — along with this weekend’s Colin Farrell dud, Dead Man Down — shared, perhaps more disastrously, was an “R” rating.
Where do we go to watch our by-the-numbers “R” cinema these days? Is it even at the movies? AMC’s phenomenally popular The Walking Dead, a grotesque horror series, returned to the air last month to record ratings of 12.3 million viewers. There’s enough blood and guts on the show to make George A. Romero blush, and I can assure you, it’s not the dialogue that keeps people coming back. Once upon a time, Walking Dead was the kind of franchise you might launch in movie theaters around March (that was when the Dawn of the Dead remake came out in 2004). Now it’s Sunday on the couch.
Maybe the problem is not the action movies, so much, but Hollywood’s insecurity about how to sell them. The Walking Dead and American Horror Story and, for that matter, Breaking Bad don’t pretend to be for-the-whole-family entertainment. During the early episodes of Boardwalk Empire, I was pretty sure HBO was mutilating characters just to keep viewers glued to the set. Hollywood has gone in the exact opposite direction. “Serious,” explicit R-rated material occupies an under-promoted ghetto producers are embarrassed to be a part of and fans don’t really hear about. Gangster Squad was reshot and delayed after the horrific Dark Knight Rises theater massacre last year, then quickly and quietly unloaded earlier this year. Meanwhile, the first episode of a new Comedy Central series, The Ben Show, is about its host going to buy a gun. TV is championed for being “unafraid,” while Hollywood, sensitive to criticisms about violence and ever more reliant on the revenue brought in by kid-friendly superhero franchises, is more afraid than ever. When director Bryan Singer tried to give a more serious, violent treatment to the “Jack and the Beanstalk” fairy tale, the studio pushed back with a name change and posters that made the movie look like the next Gulliver’s Travels. The result was that no one saw it. Even the title of A Good Day to Die Hard was a tease. It looked like there would be more aerial stunts set to operatic music than actual deaths happening in Willis’s latest. Anyway, fans know by now that if you’re going to die hard, it’s probably going to be on premium cable.