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by Gabriel Chong | 18 August 2010

Had Sylvester Stallone been born 30 years later and made “First Blood” today, it would almost certainly have one of two fates- a big-screen box-office flop or a direct to video (DTV) release. Yes, Hollywood and its audience has changed a lot over the past decades and nowhere is this more evident than in “The Expendables”, Stallone’s ‘80s-style testosterone fest action movie that unites some of the biggest action stars in the ‘80s and the ‘90s.

Back in those days, stars like Sly, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis were sure-fire box office draws. Through films like Rambo, Commando, Conan, Predator and Die Hard, they etched their names in history as the big-screen personification of the macho action hero. And alongside Sly, Schwarzenegger and Willis were other brawny stars like Dolph Lundgren, Jean Claude Van-Damme and Steven Seagal muscling in on the action- only one of which is in “The Expendables”.

Their popularity was a product of the times: post-Vietnam War, President Ronald Reagan was trying to restore U.S. dominance in a world increasingly doubtful of it. Characters like Sly’s John Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s Dutch in Predator became symbols of superiority of the American soldier and immediately spoke to a generation yearning for the battlefield glory in their movies. Others like Willis’ John McClane proved that even the Average Joe could transform into a hero and audiences then promptly embraced him with open arms.

By the mid-90s however, there was an unmistakable whiff of change in the air. George H.Bush’s Operation Desert Storm finally put to rest doubts about the American might and Sly, Schwarzenegger, Willis and other similar action stars began to find their stock characters losing their appeal. Worse still, because audiences began to find these characters and their movies foolish and embarrassing, they decided to try their hand at comedy, parodying the type of characters they so embodied in the past.

It didn’t work- Sly’s “Oscar” and “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!” and Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Action Hero”, “Junior” and “Jingle All The Way” only further confirmed that their stars were fast fading and even their apparent brainy attempts at salvaging their careers and their famous on-screen personas through self-mocking parody were not working. Others who didn’t even try- like Lundgren, Van Damme and Seagal- soon found their way to DTV territory, churning out undifferentiated made-on-the-fly action flicks that were only seen by their most loyal fans.

Then in 2006, Stallone made a risky decision- he decided to revisit his Rocky Balboa character for one final hurrah. But even before the sixth Rocky movie in the franchise- “Rocky Balboa”- was born, critics and perhaps even audiences alike were largely skeptical. After all, it was widely regarded that the Rocky movies got progressively worse with each subsequent entry. Was Stallone’s return just a desperate attempt at getting audiences back into their seats after a string of box-office disappointments like “Get Carter”, “Driven” and “Shade”?

The Italian stallion however managed to surprise critics and audiences alike with an entertaining and poignant closing chapter to one of the greatest underdog stories of our time. “Rocky Balboa” received a better than expected welcome in the U.S. and an even better reception overseas. The triumph was even sweeter considering that Sly was also the writer and the director of the movie, his first time back in the directorial seat after Rocky IV in 1985.

The success of “Rocky Balboa” no doubt emboldened him to revisit another of his iconic characters- John Rambo- for another last hurrah in “Rambo IV”. It was a big loud return to the kind of macho action flicks that Stallone was known for, but audience reception wasn’t as warm as “Rocky Balboa”. Still, those who saw it loved it, and Stallone’s career renaissance continued on track.

But Sly wasn’t the only one returning to past glories in recent years- Willis reprised his iconic John McClane character in “Live Free or Die Hard” in 2007, the fourth instalment in the Die Hard franchise which ended up grossing a muscular US$383mil worldwide. It was Bruce Willis’ biggest hit in years- though his subsequent movies “Surrogates” and “Cop Out” again underperformed.

Still the success of “Rocky Balboa”, “Rambo IV” and “Live Free and Die Hard” is telling- audiences knew what they loved about stars like Sly and Willis and were ready to see them reprise their signature characters onscreen. Of course, critics were also kind enough to lavish modest praise on these action stars who needed desperately to prove that they were more than has-beens. The question was- once that nostalgic goodwill wore off, would these action stars still enjoy the love they used to from audiences and critics alike?

The answer lies, as Sly well knows, in the reception that “The Expendables” receives. This is his first new project that doesn’t have the brand name recognition of Rocky and Rambo done in the style of his old-school action flicks. So far, it has opened to boffo business in the U.S., becoming the highest-grossing debut of his career. Critics however were less enthusiastic, but it seems audiences are coming back to see Sly and his band of supposed has-beens return to the big screen.

Its significance is even more so considering how it is co-star Dolph Lundgren’s first movie to be released on the big screen in over a decade (last year’s Universal Soldier Regeneration doesn’t count since it was released DTV in the U.S. and many other major territories) and could have been Van Damme’s big screen return as well. Stallone has already announced plans for a sequel, and could mean a second chance for Van Damme who declined Stallone’s offer to appear in “The Expendables”.

The ramifications are considerable- if audiences are keen, it could mean a career restart for other similar stars like Willis, Lundgren, Van Damme and Seagal. Otherwise, the title of Sly’s movie could prove a permanent reality for these stars. What’s clear is this- male macho actors like Sly, Schwarzenegger and Stallone are a dying breed in Hollywood these days, and whether this type of actor is indeed expendable is a question you and I will decide with our ticket and our seat in the cinema. .

Continue to Part Two Of Expendable?

The Expendables (2010)

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando (1985)

Dolph Lundgren in Showdown In Little Tokyo (1991)

Steven Seagal in Pistol Whipped DVD (2008)

Van Damme in The Shepard: Border Control DVD (2008)

Rocky Balboa (2007)

Die Hard: Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)

Rambo 4 (2008)

Universal Soldiers: A New Beginning (2009)

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