Scott: It’s early in the week as I’m writing this, and none of us have seen Escape Plan yet, though the screening is coming up in our near future. So let’s divide this Conversation into pre-game and post-game segments, because I think it’s worth talking about the viability of action titans like Schwarzenegger and Stallone even before we see the most anticipated movie of 1986.
Back on January 12—at the start of studio dumping season, when Hollywood’s unwanted movies are put out to pasture—The Last Stand, Schwarzenegger’s glorious return to the silver screen after a long sojourn in politics, opened in ninth place with a box-office of a little over $6 million, and left theaters just as quickly as it arrived. Your feelings on it may vary from mine—I think Keith liked it more than Matt, our resident Schwarzenegger-ologist—but I consider it one of the year’s most underappreciated movies, a throwback to shit-kicking 1980s action by way of a classic, Rio Bravo-style Western scenario. (It also marked the English-language debut of Kim Jee-woon, the gifted Korean genre stylist behind movies like I Saw The Devil and The Good, The Bad, The Weird.) It isn’t just that audiences didn’t feel likewise—they simply didn’t show up at all.
“Everyone always talks about wanting to age like fine wine. But as these guys prove, cheese often gets better with age, too.”
Which leads to this thought: Is there room for Schwarzenegger and Stallone—or their equivalent in 1980s musclehead action heroes—in today’s effects-crazy world? Has the world changed so much during Schwarzenegger’s time in political office that it’s passed him by completely? The modest success of Stallone’s Expendables franchise mitigates that concern a little, but even it got diminishing returns from trotting out all the old fossils for sub-Missing In Action missions. While I’m not going to let nostalgia color an era of action filmmaking that wasn’t always (or often) great, movies like The Last Stand—or even the best parts of the Stallone/Walter Hill team-up Bullet To The Head—had me pining for a time where pyrotechnics and blood squibs ruled the day, and the physicality of action heroes were put on full, visceral display. If Escape Plan tanks, is it lights out for these guys and this era? Or is there a hunger for this type of filmmaking that I’m not seeing?
Keith: Let me redirect the conversation just slightly with a concern: I’m not sure the sort of action film you describe rests on Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s well-muscled (and frequently well-oiled) shoulders anymore. I’d be happy to see either make a proper comeback—though Stallone never really went away, so much as he downscaled his projects—but any comeback is going to be a little… different. I very much enjoyed The Last Stand, but it would be hard to argue that Schwarzenegger contributed the same powerful physical presence he did in the Reagan era. He still has the charisma, and he still takes up a lot of space onscreen, but—how to put this kindly? No one expects a prima ballerina to dance Swan Lake deep into her career, and he’s definitely lost a step or two over the years. He’s still an action star, he’s just not the one doing the most action-ing. (Escape Plan might change my mind. Who knows?) If there’s to be a comeback of the pre-digital action film, it will probably be courtesy of someone who grew up wanting to be Schwarzenegger and Stallone, not the men themselves.
Matt: Very quietly, there’s already a bit of a pre-digital comeback going on in the disreputable world of direct-to-video. These no-frills, quick-and-dirty exploitation films have a reputation for low production values and lower quality, but if you’re a fan of that no-CGI, no-wires style of action, that’s where the best modern work is being done. These films simply can’t afford high-end effects, so they compensate for their lack of financing with a surplus of athleticism and intensity—in other words, exactly the qualities that distinguished the best 1980s action.
For example, I really enjoyed 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning, which effectively pairs a younger talent, martial artist Scott Adkins, with a couple of aging action stars, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. The 37-year-old Adkins performs the lion’s share of the stunts (the big finale, where a series of intricately choreographed long takes are chained together, is six kinds of awesome), while his older co-stars chew the scenery and enhance the movie’s air of rotted masculinity. Rather than pretending can carry the load themselves, the way Stallone and Schwarzenegger still do, Van Damme and Lundgren acquit themselves admirably as the sizzle, rather than the beefcake.
Keith’s comparison to a ballet dancer is a good one, but I’m a baseball fan, so I’ll put it this way: Stallone and Schwarzenegger circa 2013 are like former flamethrowers who’ve lost their fastball. They’re still imposing physical presences, but now they need to learn to beat guys with their brains instead of just pure, physical talent. Throwbacks like Bullet To The Head and The Last Stand can be fun, but when they don’t work, they can also reek of desperation, like a guy who buys a Maserati after he gets divorced. It’s particularly hard for these guys, given their area of expertise, but it might be time to start acting their age(ish).
Scott: Matt, I’ve been meaning to catch up with the direct-to-video Universal Soldier movies—Day Of Reckoning especially—given their reputation for going places a plain ol’ studio action film won’t go. But maybe we should be making a distinction between your Van Damme types, who are active in the deadly arts (or “balletic,” to address Keith’s Swan Lake metaphor), and guys like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, who were always big slabs of beef—even in their peak years, when Stallone was punching a big slab of beef. Stallone’s slowness of movement (and wit) were built into the Rocky movies, and Schwarzenegger’s leaden line-readings, a seeming liability, became maybe his greatest, most charming asset. We’ve never expected these guys to do the impossible; we liked them as human wrecking balls. And even though both are in their mid-60s, they can still deliver a punch or stand behind a machine gun, and their well-established screen personas take care of the rest.
With that in mind, let’s finally start talking about Escape Plan, which we’ve now seen. Whatever problems you might have with the film—the bellicose running time, the substandard dialogue and production values, the comical implausibility of it all—I think it largely understands its stars’ strengths and age-related limitations, and works around them well. While it isn’t exactly Heat, the coming together of Stallone and Schwarzenegger is powerful enough that the film doesn’t ask much of them, at least in the early going, when they’re in the plotting stage. Their characters are locked into familiar types—Stallone as gruff and determined; Schwarzenegger as a two-fisted goofball—and I think there’s a specific pleasure in watching them pull off the escape that wouldn’t have been possible with any other actors in those roles. If another star shouldered a machine gun and started popping off a small army of assailants in the open air, he’d be laughed off the screen; all it took was Schwarzenegger touching it, and the crowd we saw it with went ballistic. That’s star power.
And yet there’s a distinct second-rateness to Escape Plan: A second-rate director in Mikael Håfström, whose previous work includes Derailed (i.e. the Jennifer Aniston rape movie) and the forgettable Stephen King adaptation 1408; a second-rate studio in Summit, which has struggled to find anything that makes money after the Twilight franchise; and a general, pervasive frugality to the whole enterprise. These are big-movie guys doing medium-sized movies, and I’m not sure how long they can survive that.
Keith: I liked Escape Plan a little more than you, Scott, but my enjoyment is tied almost entirely to the stars. Maybe just the presence of the stars. It’s a kick seeing them on the screen together, though I wonder how much of that kick is generational. If you didn’t grow up watching Stallone and Schwarzenegger kick ass, is there much to seeing them do it now, a little more slowly? I forget who wrote that they would be saddened by the day they realized they were older than the oldest active professional athlete, but there’s a little bit of that to Escape Plan’s appeal, too: As long as Stallone and Schwarzenegger are on the screen, there’s a little bit of 1986 left alive, and the people we were then aren’t dead.
That said, I’d love to see them team again in a movie that, as you suggest, makes acting their age a central point. Imagine it: those guys as lions in winter making one desperate last mission as the darkness closes in. It could be The Wild Bunch for a generation weaned on the finest output of Cannon Films and Dino De Laurentiis.
“If you didn’t grow up watching Stallone and Schwarzenegger kick ass, is there much to seeing them do it now, a little more slowly?”
Matt: A Stallone/Schwarzenegger Wild Bunch sounds fantastic (not a remake—that sounds horrifying—but something in that spirit). In the meantime, though, I think Escape Plan works pretty well. Calling it medium-sized may be generous; this is way smaller than anything either Stallone or Schwarzenegger would have been caught dead in even 15 years ago, with a majestically stupid premise and a director who brings absolutely nothing to its staging or pacing. The movie is too long by at least 15 minutes, and very little of the action pops off the screen in a memorable way.
But despite their decrepitude, and despite very little help from Håfström, Stallone and Schwarzenegger really click together. They spent so much of their careers in direct competition (and a big portion of that time sniping at each other in the press, not always good-naturedly), but they’re great as an onscreen team. Their skills prove complementary: Stallone, grumbling through a throat full of gravel, provides the requisite machismo; Schwarzenegger, cracking wise every chance he gets, is ideal comic relief. Their chemistry is so fun, I regretted they waited so long to partner up. If they’d put ego aside and done this 20 years ago, their film careers might never have bottomed out.
In some ways, Escape Plan’s smallness is a strength. The claustrophobic setting keeps Sly and Arnold from having to do too much running, and the reduced emphasis on stunts and setpieces gives the stars more time to play off each other. I’m curious who you guys thought fared better overall, and who you think has a brighter future in front of the camera at this point.
Scott: It’s hard for me to think of either Stallone or Schwarzenegger’s future as “bright,” especially in light of the smallness of Escape Plan, which is a dimmer-switch of a movie if I ever saw one. Schwarzenegger’s prospects seem ever-so-slightly brighter because he’s worked with A-list directors like James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven in the past, and it’s possible that he can attach himself to them once more. His sense of humor is also an asset that isn’t affected by age, and may, in fact, be enhanced by his Hollywood-icon status. On the other hand, his final term as governor of California, and the tumult in his personal life, have scraped away a lot of goodwill, and Stallone, like Rocky Balboa, has a way of picking himself off the canvas when he’s down. The Expendables franchise is a savvy piece of career rehabilitation, and perhaps he can write his way back into the picture. Personally, I don’t have much invested in either actor’s career at this point—they’ve given us enough, if not too much—but I do want to see their style of hard-hitting, stunt-and-pyrotechnics-driven action survive them.
Keith: For some reason, my reserve of goodwill for Schwarzenegger is bottomless. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s such an unlikely movie star—from his physical presence to those thickly accented, weirdly emphasized line readings. I just appreciate having him around. I hope he ends up making another Conan movie, preferably with John Milius, though it seems unlikely a studio will hand Milius the keys to such a big project these days. Robert E. Howard wrote a number of stories about an older Conan set after he became a king. Schwarzenegger has had his own experience running a government, which could give the project an extra layer of resonance. I suspect Stallone will continue to work in smaller-scale, Stallone-instigated projects for the rest of his career. Although, who knows? He’s got that boxing comedy with Robert De Niro coming up. Rocky takes on The Raging Bull! Everyone’s excited about that one, right? (Right?)
Matt: Yeah, even I have a hard time mustering enthusiasm for that one. But Escape Plan does give me a little hope that these guys have one last good run left in them. Certainly their physical gifts have deteriorated over time, but Sly and Arnold still have that charisma that made them two of the biggest movie stars in the world. When Schwarzenegger yanks an enormous machine gun off the side of a helicopter and starts mowing down bad guys (a move he’s cribbing from Stallone, who did it way back in 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II), I can’t help but chuckle and cheer simultaneously. Everyone always talks about wanting to age like fine wine. But as these guys prove, cheese often gets better with age, too.