Help the Aged
'The follies of mens' youth are, in retrospect, glorious, compared to the follies of their middle-age.' G.K. Chesterton (possibly)
Although, to be honest, 'middle-age' is pushing it a bit when you're talking about two men who are 65 and 66. Yes, it's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, both of whom have new movies out at the moment. Bearing in mind that Bruce Willis also has a new film imminent, one is inclined to wonder whether it has been officially declared Old Git Action Month.
That said, age shall not wither them (well, not much) and the duo seem to be as disgraceful as ever they were, turning up in the kind of unrepentant genre movie that has been the bedrock of both their careers. Arnie is in The Last Stand, directed by Kim Ji-woon, while Sly is in Bullet to the Head from the even-more-veteran director Walter 'Every film I've made has been a Western' Hill.
Where to start? Well, both stars are staying firmly in their respective comfort zones and reprising the type of character they're known for. Sly plays improbably-monickered New Orleans hitman Jimmy Bobo, who's strong on machismo and moral ambiguity, while Arnie essays the role of incorruptible small-town sheriff Ray Owens: no shades of grey here, but then you nearly always know where you stand with the big guy.
Anyway, let's take one plot at a time: when his partner is killed in the aftermath of a routine hit, Jimmy Bobo is as cross as two sticks. He teams up with a visiting detective (Sung Kang) and together they set out to find the villains who ordered the original hit and then sold Sly and his partner out. It really is terribly straightforward in its substance, if not on paper, although the climax abandons most of the established plot in order to give more screen time to featured baddie Jason Momoa, who at least has the heft to be a credible opponent for Stallone (obviously it would be more interesting for Momoa to take on Schwarzenegger, given they've both played a certain Cimmerian in the past, but that's not to be, alas).
Meanwhile, over in The Last Stand, Arnie is playing the sheriff of the small town of Sommerton Junction, where nothing much ever happens. However, troubling is heading their way and fast, as a drug baron from central casting has escaped from the FBI using a big magnet, a 200mph car, and the Dutch national football team, and Arnie's is the only town between him and the Mexican border. Arnie and his collection of comedy-useless deputies must cowboy up and take on the scoundrel and the collection of goons who've come to town to smooth the way. The drug dealer is played by Eduardo Noriega (no relation, one assumes), who is no doubt a good-looking man but a very forgettable screen presence.
Both of these films turn out to be brutally violent action thrillers, strong on cranial splatter and weak on coherent plotting. Bullet to the Head sets out its stall from the beginning: this is a blokey bloke’s film, make no mistake about it, with Stallone absolutely central to proceedings. It features two notable female characters, both of whom have a relatively lengthy nude scene (along with the majority of the female walk-ons), while Sung Kang is very much subordinate to Stallone. His treatment is arguably rather racist – he gets called Confucius, Oddjob, and Kato by Stallone at various points – and he’s just presented as a dorky wuss. This is a movie which knows its target audience and is gunning relentlessly for it.
The Last Stand, on the other hand, seems to have one eye on a more mainstream audience: the female characters are – to some extent – less objectified, and the really heavy violence doesn’t kick in until some way in. Prior to this is what I suspect is supposed to be character-based comedy stuff establishing the life-in-a-small-town side of the story. The problem is that there isn’t really enough of this kind of material for it to really work, and the end result is just a jarring contrast between it and the violence.
It’s still just as much Arnie’s movie as Bullet to the Head is Sly’s, though. Both the central performers acquit themselves very well in the circumstances, and bring their own personal styles. Stallone is in bafflingly good shape for a pensioner and gets more than one proper, full-on fight sequence with the half-his-age Momoa where he acquits himself well. Arnie gets his big climax, too, though his relies much more on his personal charisma: the villain has had the temerity to suggest Arnie is past it, tried to bribe him, and fought dirty in their little tussle, and having beaten him somewhat laboriously to a pulp Arnie simply says, quite gently, ‘My honour is not for sale.’ A lovely moment for a genuine icon.
As far as the actual acting is concerned, it’s business as usual. Arnie can still do Rage, Shock, Determination, and Concern, and his features shift between them rather in the manner of someone with a sticky clutch changing gear. Stallone’s face appears to have become locked in a permanent expression of wounded hangdog contempt. You would have expected that the presence in these films of actors like Forest Whitaker, Christian Slater, and Luis Guzman might suggest that the acting load was being spread around a bit, but no-one really distinguishes themselves with this kind of material.
One thing both films share is an awkward attitude when it comes to the age of their stars – they acknowledge the fact that both central characters are really knocking on a bit, but one senses this is only because credibility demands it. But the films don’t really engage with this idea, don’t explore it: they could both be twenty years younger and hardly any script changes would be necessary. One can’t help but remember an action star of an earlier generation, Clint Eastwood, who by the time he was in his sixties was making movies which actively played with his legend and screen persona. There’s nothing remotely like that happening in either of the new movies.
A final point of similarity, which I suspect no-one involved is particularly delighted about, is that neither of these movies has set the box office alight: admittedly, I saw both outside of peak time, but in their first week they were still pulling in fewer punters than Skyfall, three months after its release (I was the only audience member at the screening of Bullet to the Head). Have audiences finally tired of the two big musclemen? I’m not so sure – these are both quite modest productions, which may be a factor. Just as Bruce Willis’ return to the Die Hard franchise looks set to be a considerably bigger hit than either of these films, so I suspect a new Terminator or Conan from Arnie would attract a lot more interest. Stallone’s problem is that he has already revisited Rocky and Rambo to death and really has nowhere left to go, beyond the dubious charms of further episodes of The Expendables.
I’m really not sure I could honestly recommend either of these films to someone who wasn’t a fan of the leading men involved. Bullet to the Head is more consistent and focused, but quite likely to repel anyone outside its target audience. The Last Stand takes a more knockabout, scattershot approach, which gives it more chance of crossover appeal – plus, it has the novelty value of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first non-Terminator starring role since 2002. He remains a potent and likeable screen presence, and I enjoyed seeing him again, even if the film itself is hardly amongst his finest. The fact remains that these are two big men starring in two forgettable little movies.