Whither the successful action movie?

Just taking a look at the top movies for 2014 so far, there’s a bunch from well known action directors and/or high profile actors, which have either under-performed at the worldwide box-office or will at best break even. Films typically need to make twice as much as their production budget at the box office to recoup the studio investment, not accounting for marketing costs which can sometimes come close to the production cost. The first two months of the year have ended up being a graveyard of high profile action films and studios are starting to worry that young men are just not interested in going to theaters to watch action films any more, unless they are based on comic books.

Renny Harlin who was big for a few years in the early ’90s with hits like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, but never recovered from the box office failure of Cutthroat Island in 1995, released The Legend of Hercules starring Twilight alum Kellan Lutz. The movie has made a pathetic USD 18 mn in the US so far and another USD 25 mn elsewhere in the world; nowhere near recouping its production cost of USD 70 mn, let alone marketing costs. Dwayne Johnson may have more luck playing this character in Hercules, to be released later this year. The only problem is that the 2nd Hercules movie is directed by another ‘once hotshot, not anymore’ action movie director, Brett Ratner, who after his first two Rush Hour movies, managed to ruin an X-Men film and hasn’t been trusted by studios since.

Getting back to the present, British B-movie maestro Paul W.S. Anderson, famous for turning games like Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil into escapist action-horror fare, was entrusted with big budget tentpole Pompeii. The USD 100 mn production is another failure arriving DOA at the US box office and not faring much better in other global markets.

Australian Stuart Beattie who helped write the screen story for the first Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 and also directed the well regarded adaptation of the young adult novel Tomorrow, When the War Began has had a disastrous release with I, Frankenstein. This action vehicle for Aaron Eckhart, hoping to create an Underworld-type franchise is also far from recouping its USD 65 mn production budget.

American director McG made the commercially successful but critically panned Charlie’s Angels films in the early 2000’s and then ruined attempts to bring the Terminator franchise back to life with the forgettable Terminator Salvation in 2009. He has now been reduced to directing the low-budget action drama 3 Days to Kill featuring one-time silver screen heartthrob Kevin Costner. In this case, the film only cost USD 28 mn to produce (credit to producer Luc Besson) and has made that money back in the US already, so hopefully will break even once it releases in other international markets.

The usually reliable ‘thinking man’s action hero’ Liam Neeson has hit a speed bump (or should that be an air pocket) with his latest action flick Non-Stop. Produced for just USD 50 mn, this should have been an easy win, but so far the film has made just USD 78 mn, although with China yet to come there may be hope yet. Having said that, with the recent Malaysia Airlines incident featuring many Chinese passengers, studios may want to delay the release of the film in that market.

There are a couple of success stories, however.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise targeting a younger audience with Chris Pine and directed by the thinking man’s director, Kenneth Brannagh. This film cost a sensible USD 65 mn and seems to be on its way to profitability with a worldwide take of USD 133 mn so far.

Similarly, the RoboCop remake from Brazilian director Jose Padilha while under-performing in the US (only USD 55 mn) had international markets save the day with USD 165 mn for a global take of USD 220 mn and a jump into profitability.

Lastly, 300: Rise of An Empire has already made USD 147 mn globally in its first one week so it should be on its way to recovering its USD 110 mn production budget and substantial marketing costs. This movie is made by newbie director Noam Murro (but produced by Zack Snyder who shot to fame with the original 300 back in 2006.

I enjoyed both Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 300: Rise of An Empire; the first for its intelligent script and under-played but tense and realistic action sequences, the 2nd for exactly the opposite – its outlandish digital sets and over-the-top histrionics. I haven’t seen RoboCop yet, so cannot comment on the reasons for its success (I was not impressed with the trailer which indicated that all the black humor which made the first film an instant cult classic was missing).

But certainly, based on the scorecard so far, the ‘established’ action-movie veterans (both directors and actors) are finding it difficult to repeat their success formula from the past.




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