Homefront, written by Sylvester Stallone, comes packaged as your Standard Statham: Undercover cop Phil Broker (Jason Statham) moves to the Louisiana countryside to get away from his work. But, while trying to put his life back together following a sting gone bad, Broker runs afoul of the family of local meth cook Gator (James Franco).
What unfolds is, on the surface, a run-of-the-mill actioner. Statham engages in a series of fights with local toughs that escalate in difficulty as the flick progresses: Statham fights one on one, then fights two on one, then fights three dudes at once (while his hands are tied behind his back; bonus points for degree of difficulty), and, finally, against five or six armed men. The ultimate outcome is never in doubt.
What sets the movie apart is the performance of Franco. His turn as Gator—a conflicted Bayou resident who wants to do right by his family and his town all while making a boatload selling meth—elevates the affair. Not to the level of high art, exactly, but high enough to turn an unremarkable B-flick into something worth watching. Franco’s pathos as he struggles with his dual roles as family man and would be drug kingpin lend a weightiness to his performance, and to the film writ large, that lesser actors would have been unable to pull off.
It is, in many ways, the Year of Franco. He has starred in four major releases in 2013, running the gamut from big budget tentpole (Oz the Great and Powerful) to meta-stoner-comedy (This Is the End) to low-budget art-house flick (Spring Breakers) to grindhouse action (Homefront). And this doesn’t even include his arc on Fox’s The Mindy Project or his turn as Hugh Hefner in Lovelace.
Franco’s ascent is undeniable. You can laugh at the nascent Oscar campaign surrounding his turn as Alien in Spring Breakers, but it was undoubtedly one of the five most memorable turns by a supporting actor on the big screen this year. His "look at my shit" soliloquy wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, but it was an entertaining and stinging indictment of the consumerist coarsening of American culture.
Audiences find Franco appealing due, at least in part, to his willingness to open himself up to mockery. He’s happy to play himself on 30 Rock as a man with an addiction to sex with a pillow shaped like an anime heroine. His performance in This Is the End deftly skewered Hollywood sensibilities—the narcissism, the obliviousness—without devolving into cynical self-congratulation.
I’m tempted to argue that each of these performances is glazed with ironic detachment. But I’m not sure that’s actually the case. James Franco might be the first post-irony movie star, the sort of guy who understands it’s absurd to do what he does while refusing to revel in said absurdity. He accepts roles that audiences expect him to play ironically or sneeringly and then delivers them with utter earnestness. His trick is to tackle every role with a sincere wink.
Meanwhile, as this post-irony star waxes, another star wanes. 2013 could have just as easily been the Year of Stallone. Following a pair of franchise capstones (Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008), Sly rebooted his career through the remarkably popular Expendables franchise, the first sequel of which (2012) grossed more than $300 million worldwide.
Yet 2013 has not been kind to Stallone. The impressively fun Bullet to the Head grossed an anemic $9.5 million. Escape Plan—which costarred Arnold Schwarzenegger, another oversized star in rapid decline—will struggle to crack $25 million. And while it won’t be released until Christmas Day, wags are already snickering over Grudge Match, a boxing film that pits Stallone (Rocky) against Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) for "a rivalry 30 years in the making" (if zero in the asking).
Stallone struggles while Franco flourishes. The age of the one-note action star is over. Long live the post-ironic polymaths!