Movie stars ride a wave of nostalgia to resurrect iconic characters from the past

The No.1 movie at the box office last weekend was Bad Boys for Life, bringing the cop team-up of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back to the big screen 25 years after Bad Boys paved the way to stardom for both actors and their director Michael Bay. In June, with Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise returns to his star-making role from 1986. In August, Keanu Reeves returns for a 3rd Bill and Ted film with co-star Alex Winter, after a gap of 29 years. And finally, in December we’ll get to see Eddie Murphy as King Akeem in Coming 2 America, 32 years after the original.

These are not isolated instances. In the past few years, several actors have returned to play characters that signposted the early stages of their careers. Studios and producers are leveraging the nostalgia factor, targeting the middle-aged movie-going generation that grew up in the 80s and 90s, and hopefully their kids who have heard of the original films or watched them on TV or DVD. For the actor, it’s not an easy decision to make and for those who have taken the plunge already, not all have been successful…

I first noticed this trend with two back-to-back releases at the end of 2015. In December of that year, we saw the long-awaited return of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford to their iconic Star Wars roles. These characters were back together for the first time since 1983. The movie had the perfect blend of nostalgia and freshness, and was a huge global box office hit, grossing in excess of $2 billion. Just a few weeks earlier, Sylvester Stallone played an ageing (and vulnerable) Rocky Balboa in Creed. This time the ex-champion was not fighting his battles in the ring, but in a health clinic, while also playing mentor to up-and-coming boxer Adonis Creed. In this case, Rocky was returning to the screen after a relatively short gap of 9 years, the previous installment being the well-received Rocky Balboa from 2006. In the hands of rising director Ryan Coogler, the film was technically dazzling as well as a fine character study. If there was a way to bring a beloved character back years later in an age-appropriate and graceful manner, this was how to do it.

The following year, in 2016, Jeff Goldblum came back to save the world again as MIT alumnus David Levinson, in Independence Day: Resurgence, 20 years after he used his brains to foil an extra-terrestrial invasion. The film was an unmitigated critical and commercial disaster. But Mr. Goldblum had another of his stock-in-trade quirky characters up his sleeve. In 2018, he brought back Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, to middling critical reaction, but gonzo box office receipts. So, the next movie in the franchise due out in 2021, will bring back the other 2 characters from the 1993 film – Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant and Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler.

Last year, Linda Hamilton came back to the big screen in yet another installment of the Terminator franchise, after a 28-year-long hiatus. Her kick-ass performance as Sarah Connor made her one of the few female action stars of the 80s. This character has been one of my biggest cinematic role models (male or female) over the years and not dissimilar in nature to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens (both films directed by James Cameron). Sadly, in spite of Cameron’s involvement as producer and being touted as a direct sequel to T2, the film sank at the box office and it’s unlikely that Linda Hamilton will be back for an encore.

Meanwhile, on the YouTube Premium streaming service, the comedy-drama series Cobra Kai brought back the rivals from The Karate Kid movies, played by Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, to unexpectedly positive reviews and a renewal into a second season in 2019.

No doubt, money is always a factor and one can be sure there is a hefty paycheck involved in the decision to come back and revisit a beloved character from the past, particularly when the actor also gets a producer credit and gets to ‘manage’ the way the character is portrayed. For stars who have faded away, it must surely be tempting to experience the heady rush of super-stardom again – the press junkets, interviews and talk shows. And because of the nostalgia factor, especially if there’s a big gap between appearances, the anticipation and buzz is huge.

More money and a return to fame is unlikely to be the primary motivation for the 4 actors I talked about at the beginning of this post – Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Keanu Reeves and Eddie Murphy. Unlike Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Linda Hamilton or Ralph Macchio, these 4 have never really gone away from the limelight and have continued to appear in big budget blockbusters regularly – albeit, some of those being of questionable quality and commercial potential.

Tom Cruise has kept the Ethan Hunt character ‘alive’ in 6 installments of Mission: Impossible films from 1996 to 2017, with the last one, Fallout, being one of the best reviewed entries in the series and also the most commercially successful. He is filming the 7th and 8th entries in the series back-to-back for release in 2021 and 22. So, Top Gun: Maverick is certainly not a last-gasp attempt to get another moment in the spotlight; it is hopefully being made because there is a story worth telling.

Will Smith on the other hand has had his fair share of duds in recent years, so he must be mightily relieved at the success of Bad Boys for Life (anyone else noticed that the best reviewed of the three Bad Boys films is this one which isn’t directed by Michael Bay?). He missed a chance a few years ago to reprise the role of Capt. Steven Hiller in the sequel to Independence Day, which certainly was a loss for the filmmakers (no way of knowing whether his presence could have made the film better, but director Roland Emmerich has admitted recently that he should have cancelled the project when he failed to get Will Smith signed on). Anyway, it appears a Bad Boy 4 is on the way, so these characters no longer belong to the nostalgia category!

Keanu Reeves certainly doesn’t need to revive old characters for the money, as his career is seemingly bulletproof. He is able to recover from mediocre or obscure films (and he’s had his share) and bounce back with a new blockbuster franchise every few years. His 3rd John Wick movie in 2019 was the biggest and best in the series and he also had a memorable voice role as Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4. The scriptwriters for Bill and Ted Face the Music are the same guys who wrote the first two movies, so hopefully they will bring back the old magic and it won’t feel dates. Ted Logan won’t be Keanu Reeves’ only classic character revival though. In May 2021, audiences will be able to see him back as Neo in Matrix 4.

Eddie Murphy has spent about a decade in the wilderness without a hit. And then unexpectedly, he generated rave reviews for his acting in last year’s Netflix biopic of 70s blaxploitation filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite is My Name. Incidentally, this movie’s director Craig Brewer is directing the Coming to America sequel as well, with pretty much the entire cast of the original film returning. Here too, the original film’s writers are doing the screenplay for the sequel.

Two big stars who haven’t felt the need to take a walk down memory lane are Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks. That could be because although both have played several memorable characters, they are not disproportionately equated with any single one.

And let’s raise a toast to Liam Neeson, who doesn’t need to bring back any beloved character because he essentially plays the same character in all his action films! Mr. Neeson gave hope to all ageing actors by kick-starting an action career at the age of 56 with Taken (2008) and since then has appeared in 10 films which are all essentially the same type of movie.

So, here’s hoping that Top Gun: Maverick, Bill and Ted Face the Music and Coming 2 America all enjoy the same level of success as Bad Boys for Life has, in this year of the big screen revivals.

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