If you’ve ever seen a movie or a news program summarizing the idea of America in the 1980s via montage, odds are you’ve seen Ronald Reagan promising morning in America in close proximity to a bandana-clad, oiled-up Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) mowing down enemies in the jungles of Vietnam or the deserts of Afghanistan with a machine gun the size of a crocodile.
Turns out that image is more than symbolic: Sly was taking calls from the president himself on the set of Rambo III.
"One day I got quite angry," Rambo III director Peter Macdonald told The Last Action Heroes author Nick de Semlyen. "I said, ‘Where the fuck is Sly?’ They said, ‘He’s on the phone to the president.’ I thought it was the president of [production company] Carolco, so I said, ‘Well, tell him to put the fucking phone down and come here and talk. I didn’t realize he was talking to Reagan, not Andy Vajna or Mario Kassar.’"
Reagan and Stallone had much to discuss, given that the star had asked the president for Secret Service assistance when he became the target of protests—and death threats—in Europe as the face of a resurgent, newly confident America. It’s that optimism, that confidence, that had catapulted Stallone to stardom at the end of the 1970s as the working class mook made good, Rocky. The shocking success of Rocky, both critically and commercially, suggested America was tired of the downer cinema that had served as a hallmark of the decade prior, an age when flicks like Easy Rider, Papillon, and Nashville could be smashes. Great movies, yes, but they suggested a sense of, well, malaise.
Malaise and weakness were out; confidence and musculature were in. Stallone, jacked as he was, was dwarfed in the latter department by Austrian bodybuilder-cum-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who racked up huge box office bucks as Conan the Barbarian and as a Terminator and as a commando and as a running man and as the predator (killer). Commando in particular felt like a real turning point in the action movies of the 1980s, one that added a sort of self-aware humor, Arnold whipping out one-liners like Henny Youngman zinging random audience members.
"Watching him in Commando was like witnessing some kind of prehistoric beast unleashed," writes de Semlyen. "His acts of violence, free of any bothersome emotion or consequence, yielded a cathartic secondhand high." That contact high will be seconded by anyone reduced to giggling hysterics by Arnold’s Austrian intonation of "Let off some steam, Bennett" after impaling a villain with a length of pipe, or the deadpan delivery of "don’t disturb my friend, he’s dead tired" after having covered up a corpse with a blanket on an airplane.
Schwarzenegger and Stallone were indisputably the top dogs of the era, at least until Bruce Willis showed up with Die Hard toward the end of the 1980s, and their feuding was legendary; de Semlyen’s book opens with them bickering over who will be the last, and thus most important, to enter a blockbuster Cannes party thrown by Carolco in 1990. The two fought over roles (Schwarzenegger used this to his advantage, tricking Stallone into making the legendary bomb Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) and public acclaim, only coming together when there was money to be made in the form of Planet Hollywood (and, later, The Expendables).
As interesting as these heavenly bodies were the smaller satellites in orbit around them. Some, like Dolph Lundgren, became stars in their own right after starring opposite the bigger guns. Others, like Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal, found their way into action stardom by dint of their own martial arts prowess, becoming human special effects able to perform all manner of action on the big screen.
If I have a complaint about The Last Action Heroes, it’s that at 333 pages (288 pages before the index) it’s stretched too thin. There’s arguably a book to be written about each of these guys. Lundgren’s a literal genius, at least as measured by IQ; it took Chan the better part of a decade to break through in the United States; and Van Damme comes off as the most personable of all of them, in his own weird way, having lived on the streets of Los Angeles after abandoning his wife in Europe to live the American dream, eventually falling in with Norris and his camp.
The star who comes off the worst in the book is Seagal, a braggart who, famously (and possibly apocryphally), wasn’t able to back up his big talk when confronted by a stuntman tired of his yapping. Given what we know of the film and its disastrous reception now, you can’t help but smirk at Seagal’s clueless braggadocio at the premiere of On Deadly Ground: "I had many of the greatest directors on earth come to my premiere. … And I wasn’t really too nervous about it, what they’d think about it, because I was proud of my work." Michael Caine’s comment was pithier, in a backhanded sort of way: "I really didn’t think it would be anywhere near this good."
Norris, on the other hand, comes off the best: steadfastly decent and hardworking; willing to take a chance on a young man with talent like Van Damme; even turning the other cheek, Christlike, when confronted by a drunk in a bar who didn’t have any idea who Norris was when he picked a fight with Walker, Texas Ranger himself.
But it’s the big screen work that lives on, and here too Norris is a legend of sorts. In Romania. Where, according to screenwriter James Bruner, the movie Invasion USA was "an underground sensation." Bootleg copies of the film were passed around, samizdat-style, inspiring the rebels tired of Ceausescu to storm the palace and string him up.
"They use the poster, to this day, in Romania when they protest against the government," Bruner told de Semlyen. "Ultimately, action movies are about freedom. Overcoming evil, in whatever form it may be. To find out that was one of the inspirations for them to become free, it was really nice. Never in a million years would I have expected it."
One imagines Ronnie might have seen it coming.
The Last Action Heroes: The Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood’s Kings of Carnage
by Nick de Semlyen
Crown, 333 pp., $28.99