AS PERFORMERS, they weren’t much better than porn stars – laughable in the dialogue department yet impressive when the time came to shrug off their shirts.
But when the 1980s action man ruled the cinemas, it was a simpler time; biceps were big, the guns bigger and an action hero fought alone, peppering evil-doers with lead and one-liners, without the help of anyone except a dog or a mouthy chick.
Now we’re in the era of puppy power – nerdy Spider-men, Harry Potters, hobbits and a Batman with daddy issues. Yet there are signs that the he-man is being buffed up again for action; this summer produced a veritable burger bar of new beefcake, including Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hulk and Thor in Avengers Assemble. Now it’s been announced that two icons of old school body-pumped action are to team up for The Tomb.
Of course, Sylvester Stallone, 66, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, 64, were on screen just a couple of months ago in The Expendables 2, but The Expendables films are nostalgia novelty items, an elephants’ graveyard of meaty icons such as Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Tomb, on the other hand, comes out of a conviction that there is an audience for old muscle-power. Schwarzenegger is also signed up to take on a gang of druggie punks in The Last Stand, released in January, and Stallone is back with action vet Walter Hill for the cop movie Bullet In The Head, in UK cinemas just a week later.
There were beefcake stars before Stallone and Schwarzenegger, of course, but stars like Burt Lancaster, a former circus acrobat, made movies like Trapeze or The Crimson Pirate for the fun and loot, and then moved quickly on to dramas from Inge, Williams, Rattigan, and even Visconti. “The body is a tool,” he said, “but it isn’t a career.” Stallone and Schwarzenegger, though, managed to parlay their Himalayan musculatures into million-dollar franchises. Stallone specialised in tortured machismo, Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilder who was barely plausible as a human being. It wasn’t until The Terminator that a filmmaker realised what could be done with Schwarzenegger, so Stallone got the first jump, with his indefatigable pugilist Rocky, followed by Rambo; a one-man army with God-like combat skills and the eyes of a lonely puppy.
For all their physical invulnerability in the 1980s, both came from puny backgrounds. Schwarzenegger was a scrawny kid who remembers the purchase of a refrigerator as a highlight of his childhood in Austria. Stallone’s distinctive mouth droop came from a botched forceps birth, and he made ends meet with a soft porn film just before he made Rocky. Both were shrewd enough to commodify their muscle. Schwarzenegger was brand aware before they even coined the phrase. He came across as humourless in early films like Conan The Barbarian but later joined in on jokes about Conan the Republican.
In one of Stallone’s last heyday hits, future cop Sandra Bullock tells him she has pulled some research files out of the “Schwarzenegger Presidential Library.” Back in 1993, it was a throwaway gag. Now Demolition Man looks as prescient a vision of West Coast-dystopia as I, Robot. Meanwhile Stallone went to great lengths to cultivate an image of intellectual action hero. He collected paintings, enthused about Gerhard Richter, became mates with Andy Warhol (who photographed him), and posed as Rodin’s Thinker for Vanity Fair.
But like dinosaurs hit by an asteroid, the 1990s sent the Big Guys reeling. The films that hit the sweet spot of underlining and undermining their physical menace started to splutter and choke. The heartfelt grit of Rocky and the smart playfulness of Total Recall gave way to bloated, mirthless cartoon violence. And let us never speak of the comic relief robot butler in Rocky V. Compared with self-aware hipsters like Quentin Tarantino, the old Mr Universe stars looked bombastic. Age and overexposure overtook them, while younger, more vibrant tough guys – and Keanu Reeves – tore up the screen.
So are a couple of over-the-hill gym rats like the mumbling Rambo relic and his mate the Governator likely to make us hustle for muscle all over again? Until recently the conventional wisdom held that action heroes don’t get audiences pumped after they hit 50, but Liam Neeson knocking ten bells out of Albanians in Taken changed that.
And of course, everybody loves a celebrity comeback. It makes the film-going public feel magnanimous. And what could be more fitting for a man famous for promising he’ll be back than a return to the big screen, especially now he’s been shuffled further out of a Tea Party-minded Republican mainstream? The stars have also absorbed the lesson that humility goes down well. Schwarzenegger has released a mea culpa autobiography, excoriating himself for fathering a child with his housekeeper during his marriage to Maria Shriver. Stallone makes a point of underlining that he needs his mates around him nowadays, rather than Stallone alone. “Back in the day, they would put Arnold or me or Dolph in a film, and it didn’t matter who the other cast was,” he says. “Today, it’s ensemble-controlled. Even The Avengers proved the strength in numbers compared to Iron Man alone or Thor alone.”
But perhaps together Stallone and Schwarzengger now articulate a certain empathy with beleaguered masculinity. The sexagenarians are at the point in their bone-crunching careers where osteoporosis is a consideration – but at least they’re going out with more than a few bangs, punches and roundhouse kicks. «
• The Last Stand is in cinemas from 25 January; Bullet To The Head on 1 February; The Tomb on 27 September