Menahem Golan, the colorful Israeli filmmaker and onetime Cannon Films chief who died Friday at age 85, produced more than 200 movies over the course of his career. His prolific output as a writer, director, producer or some combination thereof included such diverse works as the action flick "The Delta Force," the musical "Mack the Knife," the dance movie "Breakin'" and the Jean-Luc Godard adaptation of "King Lear." Underlying many of them, however, was an unabashedly crowd-pleasing sensibility (well, except maybe for the Godard "Lear").
While his movies have often been relegated to the dustbin of history or live on mainly as punch lines ("Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," anyone?), Golan's influence lives on in a Hollywood dominated by action-driven tent-pole movies, endless sequels (and prequels and reboots) and faddish pop confections.
The weekend of Golan's death, the No. 1 movie in the U.S. was "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a wacky action-comedy about four humanoid reptiles who eat pizza and fight crime; the film grossed $65 million through Sunday. Seen through that lens, one might gain a newfound appreciation for the audacity, if not the artistry, of films like Golan's "American Ninja" (1985), "Bloodsport" (1988) or even "Detective School Dropouts" (1986).
The new "Turtles" movie is, of course, the latest installment of a lucrative franchise that rose to popularity in the 1980s via action figures and a cartoon series. Golan knew something about that too: In 1987, three years before "TMNT" jumped to the big screen, he produced the live-action science-fantasy "Masters of the Universe," based on the mythos of the buff hero He-Man (played by Dolph Lundgren) and his nemesis, Skeletor (Frank Langella). Alas, unlike "TMNT," "MOTU" was a box-office disappointment.
"Turtles" is far from the only Golanesque movie in recent memory. Last weekend, Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" — a space opera based on an obscure comic book — topped the box office with $94 million.
"Guardians" marks the latest in a wave of contemporary comic-book movies, a genre in which Golan was well ahead of his time. He produced "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" in 1987 and "Captain America" in 1990 (both disasters, granted), and for years he tried to make a "Spider-Man" movie. Long before it was fashionable, he saw big business in yesterday's camp.
This Friday will see the release of Lionsgate's "The Expendables 3," the third installment of an action franchise that might never had existed without Golan. The "Expendables" movies are powered by nostalgia for '80s action movies and their stars — many of whom Golan helped put on the map.
Franchise leading man (and occasional director/co-writer) Sylvester Stallone starred in Golan's "Cobra" and "Over the Top," and costar Lundgren was in the aforementioned "Masters of the Universe." ("The Expendables 2" featured Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, both of whom Golan also worked with.)
Aging stars notwithstanding, the "Expendables" series is showing no signs of slowing down. The first two installments combined to gross nearly $580 million at the worldwide box office, and a female-themed fourth movie — code name: "The Expendabelles" — is already in the works.
Golan would be proud.