The Death of Machismo?

When Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables received its terrestrial premiere on Channel 5 recently, it secured less than 10 per cent audience share in its time slot.

In today’s worrying world of excessive male grooming, man bags, and meggings*, OTB harks back to an era where men weren’t just men – they were supermen.

When Daniel Craig emerged from the Caribbean sea in a pair of tight-fitting trunks in 2006, women the world over gasped at the sight of his well-honed physique. But for men of a certain era, Craig was a puny runt. They came from a time when muscles spawned muscles and one flex of the latissimus dorsi could block out the sun and cast shadows over a small village. Yes, that time was the 1980s.

To trace the heritage of action movie stars of the 1980s, you actually have to go back to the late 1970s. Or to be specific, January 18, 1977, when Pumping Iron, an unheralded documentary about the subculture known as body-building, brought a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger to the attention of Hollywood producers. Despite his obvious Austrian accent, Schwarzenegger had charm, confidence and charisma by the bucket-load – as well as a body that most mortals would only ever have seen depicted in comic books.

It took another five years to hone his acting skills, but when the six-time Mr. Universe scored his first lead in 1982’s Conan The Barbarian, a box-office star was born. A string of hits followed throughout the remainder of the decade, including The Terminator, Predator and The Running Man, with Schwarzenegger almost always cast as an unstoppable physical force.

His rise coincided with the period in which America began moving away from the introspective soul-searching of the post-Vietnam era and once again looked to embrace unapologetic exceptionalism as its guiding philosophy. Former screen actor Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981 and began making the country’s might felt around the world, locking horns once again with old foe the USSR.

Both developments played heavily on the career arc of Sylvester Stallone, who had already captured audience hearts and critical acclaim in Rocky, repeating the feat with Rambo: First Blood in the same year that Schwarzenegger was swinging swords and lopping off heads as Conan. His first outing as Vietnam veteran John Rambo attempted to portray the psychological effects of war and ended on a downbeat note. But in 1985 Stallone brought the character back, the veins bulging from his biceps thanks to a body-building regime of his own, for First Blood Part II.

Like all of Schwarzenegger’s 80s characters, Rambo was now an ubermensch, lethal whether armed or unarmed, a veritable angel of death. This time he returned to Vietnam, single-handedly conducting guerilla warfare and rescuing American POWs from both the Vietnamese army and the dastardly Soviet troops who were training them. In November of the same year the newly pumped-up Stallone returned as Rocky Balboa to knock out remorseless Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, cementing his place as a cultural icon in Reagan’s America.

While Schwarzenegger and Stallone sat atop the tree, there were many others climbing the branches beneath them. Dolph Lundgren, who secured a bit part in A View To A Kill thanks to then girlfriend Grace Jones prior to tussling with Rocky as Ivan Drago, briefly hit top billing as He-Man in 1987’s Masters Of The Universe. Carl Weathers, who played Apollo Creed in the first four Rocky films, also upped the musclemen quotient alongside Schwarzenegger in Predator and even had a minor hit of his own in 1988’s Action Jackson. And as the decade ended, the Belgian bodybuilder and martial artist known either as Jean-Claude Van Damme or ‘The Muscles from Brussels’ began roundhouse-kicking his way to fame.

But by the mid-1990s the once mighty began to feel the strain. Schwarzenegger had hit the heights in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but 1997’s Batman And Robin saw a run of commercial disappointments that dogged him until he left acting to play the governor of California instead. It was another comic book adaptation, Judge Dread, that marked the decline of Stallone’s star power, and although he had another critical hit with 1997’s Copland, decisions like the one that saw him take Michael Caine’s role in the remake of Get Carter did nothing to recapture his former leading glory.

By then the likes of Lundgren and Van Damme were already confined to a life of straight to video hell, only ever seen adorning trashy-looking box covers in local rental stores. 2002 saw the release of The Bourne Identity, and the game was well and truly up. Audiences now wanted their heroes to show vulnerability, feel pain and think before they shoot. Even James Bond, the ultimate male fantasy, began to show his emotional side, as well as a buffed-up bod.

While The Expendables franchise may have given larger than life 80s action heroes a renaissance of sorts, it is sad to see their now puckered faces going through the same violent motions, even forced to rehash lines from past hits like former band mates on a reunion tour. On their own, their names are not the draw they once were, so instead they find strength in numbers and throw them all on the same movie poster. Arnie, Sly et al rumble on, but deep down all they know that all have left to offer is a repertoire of greatest hits, bangs and very big explosions.

*Male leggings. Yes, as in ‘leggings for men’.