Maybe in retrospect, the question shouldn't have been: “Why are we skeptical of any pure action movie that doesn't star Liam Neeson” but, "isn't it amazing we set that skepticism aside so often for Liam Neeson in the first place?"
This weekend Sean Penn’s action thriller “The Gunman” flopped at the box office, barely garnering $5 million despite a lack of much credible adult competition. It was the latest disappointment for a genre that stars actors of a certain age and has become known, affectionately, as the "geriatric action movie" (defined as old-school action from actors, now well into AARP territory, spending a lot of on-screen time running and shooting).
Such personalities did so to our great delight for a number of 21st-century years, as we turned out to see franchises such as “The Expendables” and “Taken.” Not so much lately. The most recent “Expendables” movie, in August, saw its U.S. total tumble to less than half of the previous movie (just $39 million) while the global numbers dropped by nearly 50%. John Travolta’s last few action efforts have made him seem as weak as a man Vincent Vega would pulverize. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most recent three starring vehicles totaled just $50 million in the U.S.
The one exception to this, of course, has been Liam Neeson. Neeson, at 62, has had a remarkable run of hit action movies, headlined by the “Taken” franchise. But even he’s starting to falter: his “A Walk Among the Tombstones” sputtered last fall, and his latest offering, “Run All Night,” has yet to hit even $20 million after two weeks in U.S. theaters.
The Penn failure is a bit sui generis. “The Gunman” is off-brand for the actor, who was never known for starring in the same kind of shoot-'em-ups as many of his generational counterparts. So it perhaps was a little unreasonable to expect big things from him here.
On the other hand, Penn was one of the genre’s great hopes for a comeback. Perhaps some of these recent failures were the result of overly familiar faces doing overly familiar things, some thought, and without a Brando-esque level of talent at that. Perhaps one of the greats coming from outside this realm could breathe new life into the form. As Betsy Sharkey noted in her otherwise largely negative review, Penn does bring an uncommon energy and intensity to the part.
But Penn couldn’t rescue the genre either, and there’s a feeling after this weekend that if a multiple Oscar winner can’t jump-start geriatric action movies, perhaps it’s time to bury them. (The fact that this movie failed despite being directed by Pierre Morel, as the original “Taken” director one of the genre's founding fathers, only further hurts the case.)
The appeal of the geriatric actioner has always been a multipronged affair. Some of it is simple nostalgia--we like seeing the movies we remember from decades ago being performed in by many of the actors who anchored them then.
But it’s also been a function of the competition, what these movies are coming in response to. After so many years of feeling like Hollywood was making movies with and for teenagers--and often with the special effects as the star to boot-- it was nice to see actual humans kick some butt, not to mention those who were more than a few years removed from adolescence.
Now the many adults who felt this way have perhaps come around and started seeing those adolescent movies--or, more likely, moved on to binge-watching series from Netflix and Amazon instead; they can seem a lot fresher than seeing a version of the same movie again and again. Either way, it leads to the same place for the geriatric actioner: Age, as it often does, is starting to catch up with it.