This summer, Arnold Schwarzenegger can be seen shooting bad guys in a Netflix series, FUBAR, and Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren can be seen shooting bad guys in a film, Expend4bles. Even in 2023, it seems, audiences still haven’t entirely got over their love affair with the terrifyingly muscled actors who punched, stabbed and machine-gunned their way to superstardom in the 1980s, usually with their shirts off.
It’s a love affair charted in Nick de Semlyen’s The Last Action Heroes. Having whisked through the CVs of Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Steve Martin and other comedy A-listers of the 1980s in his first book, Wild and Crazy Guys, he moves on to their gym-honed counterparts in its follow-up. The ‘triumphs’ of his book’s subtitle are The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Rambo: First Blood, Die Hard and numerous other gleefully violent films united by one simple philosophy: ‘never give up, never stop shooting, never lose.’ By the time Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election, says de Semlyen, American cinema-goers had had enough of the angst that had infested Hollywood cinema in the 1970s. They were ready for films which assured them that, given another chance, America would definitely win the Vietnam War. Hell! One patriotic guy with a bazooka and a washboard stomach could probably get the job done on his own. Missing in Action, starring Chuck Norris, even ‘rewrote the Vietnam War to give it a happy ending’, de Semlyen tells us. When Stallone visited the White House in 1985, Reagan asked that he bring a signed poster for Rambo: First Blood Part II.
De Semlyen concentrates on the stars he calls, with appropriate hyperbole, ‘those eight dudes [who] ruled the planet’. The most significant of these were Schwarzenegger and Stallone, two goliaths from very different worlds. Schwarzenegger grew up in the Austrian village of Thal and was a champion bodybuilder before he moved to America, whereas Stallone was a New Yorker who appeared in avant-garde, off-Broadway plays and dreamed of writing a biopic of Edgar Allan Poe. Both of them, though, grew up with abusive fathers who instilled in their sons a burning desire to bulk up and get out.
Two of the other eight dudes, Norris (‘the man with the bulletproof beard’) and the superhumanly acrobatic Jackie Chan, had similarly difficult childhoods. Norris was bullied at school for being part-Cherokee and his alcoholic father died in a car accident. Chan spent ten years from the age of seven at the brutal China Drama Academy, training eighteen hours a day. Making up the numbers are Steven Seagal, a pony-tailed mystery man (and recent Putin supporter) whose films tended to have such interchangeable titles as Hard to Kill and Marked for Death; Jean-Claude Van Damme, a Belgian joker who built a career out of being able to do the splits; Bruce Willis, a questionable inclusion considering that, in his heyday, his comedies and dramas outnumbered his action movies; and the aforementioned Lundgren, a Swedish chemical-engineer-turned-bodyguard whose oeuvre doesn’t really qualify him as a king of carnage or of anything else.
They were an unlikely bunch of big-screen icons, but that was part of their appeal. The Last Action Heroes is a rollicking, anecdote-packed tribute to the cavalier days when blockbusters weren’t all adapted from superhero comics or video games, when a martial artist like Van Damme could go to Hollywood and pester people until they put him in a film, and when stars were only too willing to slag each other off in the press. ‘I despise being compared with him in any way, shape or form,’ said Seagal of Norris.
As the 1980s went on, the guns, body counts, salaries and egos got bigger. The egos, especially. These womanising, cigar-chomping braggarts were wilder and crazier than the subjects of de Semlyen’s first book (its title notwithstanding), and as long as they were topping the box office charts, they could afford to be. But Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman, released in 1989, marked ‘the beginning of the end’, as Stallone said. When Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park stomped all over the competition in 1993, the party was almost over. Who needed bodybuilders when you had padded superhero costumes and digital dinosaurs? Jurassic Park made more than twice as much in the United States alone as Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero, released at the same time, made worldwide, despite the marketing drive for the latter, which saw ‘a seventy-five-foot balloon of Schwarzenegger holding dynamite inflated in Times Square and $500,000 spent on launching a NASA rocket with the film’s name on its side’.
The editor of Empire magazine, de Semlyen draws on a wealth of original interviews with stars, screenwriters, producers and directors, all of whom are willing to be more honest and self-deprecating than they were thirty or forty years ago. But The Last Action Heroes is more a compilation of jovial behind-the-scenes articles than it is a history with an overarching thesis. De Semlyen doesn’t devote more than a sentence or two to why things went well or to why they eventually went wrong. He ignores most of the action movies that were made before and after the 1980s, not to mention those that happened to star Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson rather than one of his chosen eight. Even some of that octet’s key films are dispensed with so hastily that you may feel you’re getting only half the story. It can be frustrating to read that a stuntman on Rambo: First Blood Part II ‘slipped from the top of a waterfall and died’ or that a Norris vehicle ‘help[ed] to fuel the 1989 uprising’ in Romania without any further details being supplied.
Perhaps there was just too much to fit in. Or perhaps de Semlyen is simply being true to the spirit of the brawns-over-brain entertainment he is celebrating. These films aren’t treasured for their geopolitical insights or emotional depth, after all. They are treasured for their explosions and one-liners. The Last Action Heroes has plenty of those.