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“If it bleeds, we can kill it,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch says in John McTiernan’s 1987 sci-fi action classic, Predator.
In a number of ways this has become, perhaps unintentionally, a mantra for the action franchises born of the ’80s. It’s not simply the oil-slicked brawn and high body counts that keep these franchises alive, but the idea that the next installment will be better than the last and these heroes, weaned on protein and gun barrels, are eternal. If something is popular, then, at least in terms of the mindset of major studios, it has the potential to be popular again. The once and future megahit, as it were. If it draws audiences, if the property can be exploited with sequels, TV shows, tie-in novels and video games, then in most cases it’s assumed that whatever that megahit was in its original form will be bled until it’s dead, or at least until resurrected as a reboot and ultimately sacrificed again in increasingly quick succession because it deosn’t belong in the here and now. Carried by commandos, cops and cyborgs, these ’80s action movies are relics. Yet we keep trying to dust them off.
Sure, money plays heavily in the continuation or reboot of potential of franchises like Predator, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Terminator and Rambo. But money is the least interesting aspect when it comes to the challenge in continuing franchises. Despite what percentage monetary gain may play into studios’ decisions to greenlight “Part IV,” “Returns,” “The Next,” “The Quickening” or any variation of sequel subtitles that are used to make an old idea seem brand new, there is something more to the willingness of producers, screenwriters and directors to return to once-popular and iconic franchises even in the face of diminishing returns.
Most popular ’80s action movies, born out of star power, machismo and the era of Ronald Reagan, are entrenched in their time period. Although many were never prestige pics to begin with, in each decade following the ’80s, we’ve seen attempts through sequels to recapture the zeitgeist of that era. Most of these sequels feel like an attempt to chase the magic of the original, despite the fact that its time has passed. In the unending quest for the great ’80s action movie sequel, how many have caught up or even surpassed the original?
Shane Black’s The Predator now hopes to capture the spirit of the original film. When it comes to the Predator franchise, its sequels have always been in an interesting place. The original is a B-movie hit that uses the bravado of Schwarzenegger at his height of popularity and takes a cue from the Spielberg book in that less is more when it comes to showing the monster. That first film ultimately made $98.3 million on a $15 million budget. The sequel, Predator 2 (1990) took the action from the jungle to the inner city. It gave audiences more Predator action, and while Schwarzenegger didn’t return, we did get Danny Glover, hot off of Lethal Weapon, which we’ll get to shortly. While Predator 2 has become something of a cult classic in recent years, the more expensive sequel ($35 million) made significantly less than the first ($57.1 million) and already 20th Century Fox was seeing audience enthusiasm for the nascent franchise decline. But then the bleeding began.
Alien vs. Predator comics, toys and video games kept the franchise alive even as its film prospects faded, eventually leading to 2004’s crossover film Alien v Predator, which gave the property a major boost and spawned a critically maligned sequel AvP: Requiem in 2007. One could argue whether it was really the film itself or the novelty of seeing the two properties interact that led to its success. AvP succeeded because the monsters themselves were the stars, a far cry from the first film’s selling point of seeing Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers team up — insert iconic gif of their arms coming together in the most powerful of arm wrestling grips. It’s worth noting that the poster for Predator features just Schwarzenegger, with the only hint of alien involvement being the poster’s clunky tagline “Nothing like it has ever been on Earth before. It came for the thrill of the hunt. It picked the wrong man to hunt.” For all intents and purposes in terms of marketing, Schwarzenegger was the Predator. Each subsequent entry in the franchise, right up to the latest installment, has made the alien itself the focal point of the poster.
The marketing for Black’s movie began not unlike the last entry in the Predator franchise, 2010’s Predators. That film used the appeal of seeing multiple monsters in the film as its main selling point. Sure, it had Oscar winner Adrien Brody and Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne, but no one was going to see Predator movies for Oscar-worthy performances. The first teaser for Black’s The Predator was mixed, focusing on the human characters rather than the monsters themselves, and highlighted awards-season favorites Jacob Tremblay, Trevante Rhodes and Sterling K. Brown, along with rising thespians like Boyd Holbrook and Alfie Allen. But what people wanted (at least surmising from social media reactions) was the kind of bravado born of the ’80s – big arms, big guns and big monsters. The most recent trailer finally delivered on that desire, and we’ll have to wait and see if there’s still life in this franchise, but if there is, there’s doubt that it’s because of man muscle.
The Predator franchise at least has the distinction of having aliens, which gives it a kind of eternal appeal and myriad possibilities that are at least going to grab a few more folks than if it were a straight action franchise. The same is true for the Terminator (1984) films, which, by way of T2: Judgement Day (1991) is arguably the only major action franchise that began in the ’80s to have a sequel that is universally considered to have exceeded the original.
Perhaps the central component of audiences’ willingness to forgive ’80s action sequels is determined by how in tune those films are with genre. Fans want superheroes, comic book-esque characters who struggle with world-ending events, and are often willing to wait, see and bet if those films will top one another. But what about the action movies that aren’t so dependent on those stakes and are anchored to returning central characters, unlike the Predator series? Continuing franchises that began with Lethal Weapon (1987), First Blood (1982) and Die Hard (1988) are not only chasing after a film rooted in the past but an audience that largely no longer exists to carry the weight of their budgets.
While there’s no doubt Schwarzenegger could get butts in seats if it was announced he was returning for another Predator installment, the return of Mel Gibson to Lethal Weapon or Bruce Willis to Die Hard is no longer a safe gamble. Lethal Weapon and Die Hard were born of the same ’80s mentality as Predator, though both of their initial entries are stronger films than Predator. Lethal Weapon and Die Hard didn’t begin as B-movies. They were and are some of the best examples of blockbuster filmmaking, and if not prestigious, then at least respectable. With their sequels, that case became less so. There’s no denying that both franchises reached a similar state of franchise exhaustion and featured narratives that weren’t so easy to transfer over into comics, video games and toy lines that would modernize them. Still, there’s a mentality that “the next one” will get it right.
No matter how good the next Lethal Weapon, the next Die Hard or the next Rambo is, it will never be able to catch on like the originals. Their stars are “too old for that shit,” the current currency of Hollywood is built on the names of characters rather than the names of actors, and Reagan’s cowboy mentality is no longer something to aspire to for onscreen action stars. Coupled with Gibson’s personal problems, Lethal Weapon 5 isn’t something that film fans would flock to see today, despite their love and respect for the original. The same goes for Rambo. We recognize war heroes and watch films that biograph their lives and bravery, but while also recognizing that war is not something to cheer for and not a conflict with clearly drawn lines of good and evil — something First Blood hit on but its sequels lost sight of.
This isn’t to say that we won’t go see the next installment of these franchises, or even hope for their comeback. Personally, I’d pay good money to see Stallone return for another Cobra (1986). But these films will always be looked at through the lens of the past, unable to gel seamlessly with our present-day concerns and notions of heroic justice.
If The Predator succeeds, it will be because Shane Black updated the concept and took it beyond the masculine ideals of hunting and soldiers — beyond Dutch. The film will succeed not if it asks how it can measure up to the original, but how the concept can work in the 21st century. Rambo V, currently in pre-production, and the Die Hard prequel, McClane, might be good, but a former soldier taking on Mexican cartels at the U.S. border and the origin story of a cop who was always supposed to be ordinary aren’t cut out for contemporary acclaim. Like the cowboys of great American Westerns, or the cowboy president of the ’80s, these characters are sunset heroes whose time has passed. We can look back on them fondly, even pull them back from their route from time to time, but they’re all gut-shot and heading for the horizon. Maybe it’s time we stopped chasing them and let them go, with an awareness that they served their purpose well once, but we’re in a new age of heroes.
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