By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 5, 2013 at 2:33PM
The listings for the multilpex at the moment kind of feels like a timewarp into the early 1990s. A couple weeks ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger made his return to starring roles after a decade spent bankrupting California as the state's governor, in "The Last Stand." On Friday, Sylvester Stallone starred in "Bullet to the Head," a throwback actioner directed by the long-absent Walter Hill. And there's plenty more where they came from. Arnie & Sly will reteam in September for "The Tomb," while the latter returns two months later opposite Robert De Niro in "Grudge Match." And in 2014, the Governator will lead David Ayer's "Ten," alongside Sam Worthington.
But for all the hype over the return of these action stars, the films have failed to convert at the box office. "The Last Stand" debuted on close to 3000 screens on Martin Luther King Day weekend, and yet made only $7 million across 4 days, only just cracking the top 10. And this past weekend, "Bullet to the Head" did even worse, with only $4 million over 3 days. So what happened? Why are these films, from what used to be some of the biggest, most reliable stars in the industry, tanking? Especially when their combined team-ups in "The Expendables" series have done so well? (Over half a billion dollars between them). Well, this flurry of recent activity essentially springs from the same well that saw stuff like "Battleship," "The A-Team" and "Dark Shadows" get made -- nostalgia.
Unlike the more modern leading man (Michael Fassbender or Ryan Gosling, for example), Schwarzenegger and Stallone were closer to brands than actors. If you went to one of their movies, you knew what to expect: machine guns, one-liners, minimal acting, not too much brainpower. There were good examples ("Predator," "First Blood"), there were bad ("Eraser," "Assassins'). But however they turned out, you knew what you were getting, just like you did with John Wayne back in the day.
And that's what studios were hoping to capture with this recent run of comeback movies: selling films on the Schwarzenegger or Stallone brands, and hoping audiences would turn up to relive those good old-school action memories. And with "The Expendables," it worked because it was sold on the novelty of being the ultimate, once-in-a-lifetime team-up of a generation of action stars. Even if Schwarzenegger's appearances in the films were glorified cameos, there was still Jet Li, Jason Statham et al to carry things too. Whether seeing it earnestly or ironically, people showed up.
But it seems like movie executives overestimated the appeal of Schwarznegger and Stallone on their own, particularly as right when the 21st century began, their box-office appeal started to wane anyway. Aside from franchise movies "Batman & Robin" and "Terminator 3," nothing Schwarzenegger made between 1996 and his move to politics made more than $70 million domestically, with "The 6th Day" the lowest grosser, at $34 million. And Stallone was in even direr straits -- since 1993's "Cliffhanger," none of his films had cleared $60 million, most averaging out at about $30 million. And then the pair essentially went away; Schwarzenegger became governor of California, taking no movie roles, while Stallone regrouped, not leading a movie between 2002's delayed, barely released "Eye See You" and "Rocky Balboa" (though he did play a villain in "Spy Kids 3D").
Stallone has been more visible in recent years, thanks to franchise revivals "Rocky Balboa" and "Rambo," but even then, he only got mixed results. The former took $70 million, less than all but "Rocky V" from earlier in the series, while the latter is by some distance the lowest grossing film of its series. Essentially their absence let their brand, which was already fading, virtually disappear altogether, as the hearts and minds of the key audience demographics were won instead by CGI superheroes. Meanwhile, Liam Neeson stepped in as a more credible kind of older tough-guy action hero and Dwayne Johnson finally looks to finally be fulfilling his promise as an action star too. As with "Battleship" and "The A-Team," studios may have overestimated moviegoers' nostalgia for seeing the Austrian Oak and Sly kick ass on screen.
All that said, there were other problems with these movies. "The Last Stand" (a one-time Neeson project, in fact) never quite worked out how to sell itself and faced direct competition from the expansion of "Zero Dark Thirty." Meanwhile, "Bullet In The Head" was marketed like an early '00s Joel Silver actioner like "Romeo Must Die" or "Exit Wounds," but without the appeal to urban audiences, and got mostly poor notices, having already been shunted around the release schedule (it was meant to come out almost a year earlier). Both films had generic titles, a lack of co-stars with any real appeal, muddy, seen-it-all-before concepts and release dates in the January doldrums.
So this is all to say that both actors could still be built up again. It'll be interesting to see how the pair fare with "The Tomb" -- if it's film's a hit, proving our two-for-the-price-of-one hypothesis, expect them to become a sort of action equivalent to Hope & Crosby. More diversity in their picks, like fellow action star/Planet Hollywood partner Bruce Willis wouldn't hurt (although it's worth noting that for every "Die Hard" sequel, "Red" or "Looper," Willis has a movie co-starring 50 Cent that goes straight-to-VOD). Working with new filmmakers could even be interesting; it's not impossible to imagine the two playing villains in "Sin City" or playing a Tarantino-type bad guy.
Going back to their old franchises might be the tempting route, but it's not necessarily the smart answer. Arnie's contemplating a new "Conan" and "Terminator," but would either really do that well, given the performance of both the franchise reboot, and his most recent solo flick? And surely diminishing returns would face another "Rocky" or "Rambo" (though "Grudge Match" is a "Rocky" sequel in all but name). What the last few weeks have made clear is that if Stallone and Schwarzenegger want to be back on top again, they can't just churn out lesser versions of the same kind of stuff that they made their name on.