LOS ANGELES — Actor-writer-director Jorma Taccone remembers with loving fondness the gear montage from almost every ‘80s action flick of his youth — Rambo movies and “Die Hard” and the “entire canon” of Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s people putting the big Bowie knife into the sheath, the shell belts over the chest, click-clacking the gun. It was a quintessential awesome moment. It has permeated the minds of people who grew up in that era. There are entire Web sites dedicated to the gear-up montage.”
Of course, Taccone has included several choice gear-up moments in his new film “MacGruber,” based on the “Saturday Night Live” skits and starring Will Forte and Kristen Wiig. Opening May 21, “MacGruber” pays hommage to the action films of the Reagan years. But Taccone is far from the only filmmaker discovering his mojo in the high-concept, garish boom-boom fare of that long-ago decade.
If you go to the cineplex any time in the next year or so, you can catch new, big-screen versions of “Clash of the Titans” (April 2), “The Karate Kid” (June 11), “The A-Team” (June 11), “Red Dawn” (Nov. 24) and “The Thing” (2011), as well as the sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (Sept. 24) and “Hot Tub Time Machine” (just opened), which is not a remake or sequel, just the tale of a pack of middle-age guys (including ‘80s fixture John Cusack) who return to their youthful heyday in a time-bending Jacuzzi amid a zillion references to touchstones like “Back to the Future,” the rock group Poison and girls in leg warmers. And still more are brewing. There’s the big-screen version of “21 Jump Street” (co-written by Jonah Hill), a new version of “Poltergeist,” “Ghostbusters III” and “The Smurfs” movie with Neil Patrick Harris (or, in ‘80s parlance, Doogie Howser) about those lovable blue creatures best known from the Hanna-Barbera animated series.
Call it the nostalgia of the fortysomething studio head, producer or writer for the films of their youth and the wonder they once engendered. Or call it a sign of the creative exhaustion plaguing Hollywood.
Having plundered comic books and ‘70s genre staples such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” nervous producers are vigorously hunting for brands with built-in audience awareness, not just here but in foreign markets, where American TV seems to play in an endless loop.
The marketing theory, as espoused by more than a few participants, is that the new editions (usually endowed with the latest in filmmaking magic and playing off some new cultural elements) will appeal to both nostalgic parents and their progeny. Of course, for every “Charlie’s Angels” hit, there’s a “Land of the Lost”-size flop.
“Moviegoing habits in general are more multigenerational” than in the past, says Doug Belgrad, co-president of Sony’s Columbia Pictures. “In certain demographics, it’s even grandparents, parents and kids going to movies together. If it’s something that the head of the family remembers fondly and thinks his kids might enjoy seeing the update — that’s marketable. ... There also has to be something fresh for the audience, but that’s still consistent with the brand or property.”
Belgrad’s studio, Sony, is backing not only “The Karate Kid” and the new “Smurfs” film, but is also trying to bring back “Ghostbusters,” the sci-fi action-comedy about three university parapsychologists catching stray spirits in New York City. Who you going to call? Apparently, the original trio — Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd — who are on board for the sequel.
The audience, buffeted by bad economic times, appears to be largely in the mood for cinematic junk food, says Jonathan Taplin, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “Maybe it fills some weird nostalgic trap. The audience clearly doesn’t want to be disturbed,” he says, and Hollywood is happy by and large to offer up recycled genre fare. It’s not like anybody’s trying to remake “Blue Velvet” or “Raging Bull.”
Referring to the work of his colleague Henry Jenkins, Taplin adds, “maybe we’re moving out of narrative culture into experiential culture. It’s the thrill ride that matters. It’s not the story.”
The idea of returning literally to childhood passions is certainly proving appealing to many filmmakers. Producer Basil Iwanyk came up with the idea of a “Clash of the Titans” remake as he was mulling over “the movies that I loved in the ‘80s when I was growing up. The movies that I wanted to wait in line for. One of them was ‘Clash of the Titans.’ At the time, I was just 11 and I was in the middle of learning about the Greek myths. To see that stuff dramatized on the screen — that was the equivalent of watching ‘Avatar.’ “
Once Iwanyk realized Warners owned the material, “I was so panicked that someone else would have the idea, I couldn’t get to the phone fast enough to beg and plead the studio for it.”
By contrast, director Joe Carnahan did not grow up as a rabid fan of “The A-Team,” the campy Mr. T juggernaut about a team of ex-special-forces commandos. “I was a ‘Miami Vice’ kid. But I appreciate the time, pre-basic cable, when you had 47 million viewers tune in to watch the TV show.”
Carnahan’s previous project, an adaptation of James Ellroy’s crime novel “White Jazz,” had just collapsed, and the prospect of making grown-up movies was growing dimmer in the current risk-averse environment. “You have to take the temperature of the industry you work in. There wasn’t the kind of traction on the things I was trying to make,” says Carnahan, adding that “The A-Team” was a film that Fox already wanted to shoot.
He turned in a four-page outline in January 2009, and by June the studio had gone into production on a new, adrenaline-pumped big-screen version, starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper and former Ultimate Fighting Championship light-heavyweight champ Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the role Mr. T made famous.
Inspired by the recent “Batman” reboot, Carnahan wanted the new “A-Team” to be “a much more nourishing, reality-based endeavor. Not to say we don’t have flights of fancy, but we try to keep both feet firmly on the ground.”
Indeed, part of the appeal of taking hoary, if beloved, artifacts of the ‘80s is to update them with the latest technology and current ideas floating through the zeitgeist.
Not only is the new “Clash of the Titans” in 3-D, but the heroes no longer wear fluffy white togas. They battle Gods and monsters in a dark, gritty world like that of the recent sword-and-sandals hit “300.” In the new “Red Dawn,” the remake of the 1984 John Milius film about a bunch of teenagers battling a Soviet takeover, the invaders are now Chinese. Alternately, a more benign vision of China’s dynamism is apparent in the new “Karate Kid,” which was filmed there and invariably designed to appeal to a billion potential Chinese moviegoers.
Original “Karate Kid” producer Jerry Weintraub says he was skeptical when Will Smith and his producing partner James Lassiter first pitched him the idea of a remake starring Smith’s son Jaden, the actor’s costar in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” “I thought it was a bad idea. It could hurt my movie, which is iconic. It’s a big part of my legacy,’” Weintraub recalls.
But Smith and Lassiter told him they wanted to do an hommage to the original. Instead of a kid moving from New Jersey to California and facing down bullies, the new version features 11-year-old Jaden as a Rust Belt native whose mom goes to work in China. Jackie Chan plays the new martial arts mentor.
While Weintraub sounds pleased with the new film, original screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen is not yet convinced. Before, the teenager played by Ralph Macchio had a romance with a cheerleader (Elisabeth Shue). “The kid was 17. There was this sexual tension. The first shot of the girl is her walking away in a bathing suit that doesn’t cover her butt,” says Kamen. “In this one, it’s a flat-chested Chinese girl, and Jaden who’s a pipsqueak. What’s going to happen to the 18-to-34-year-old crowd, which was a lot of the ‘Karate Kid’ audience the first time around?”
Kamen was totally cut out of the remake (though he gets a story credit). By contrast, the new edition of “Ghostbusters” is predicated on the return of the original stars, who will in turn train a new set of recruits. Aykroyd has been trying to relaunch the franchise for much of the past decade, but the task has always been made more difficult by the original talent deals that reportedly give director Ivan Reitman, Aykroyd, Ramis and Murray the right to single-handedly squash any “Ghostbusters” project.
“We reached out to everyone, but we didn’t want to do it with the deals in place. That would be cumbersome. That gives everyone a great deal of power,” says Belgrad, who explains that “we’ve invited everyone into the tent, and said, ‘Let’s do it all together.’” Fortuitously, the actors also apparently enjoyed themselves when they reunited to make the recent “Ghostbusters” video game. Adds Belgrad, “That got the ball rolling.”
Of course, all the films have to be adjusted to the cinematic climate of today, in which the action tends to be more realistic and social values less freewheeling.
“There was a lot of stuff you could get away with in the movies of the ‘80s,” says Taccone. “So many movies about kids growing up — there was tons of cocaine use or nudity — all the stuff you knew you shouldn’t be seeing. ... There’s the ultra violence of Rambo or ‘Robocop.’”
In “MacGruber,” which played gangbusters at its premiere at the South by Southwest film festival this month, Taccone purposely steered away from the visceral, maniacally cut action so popular in the later editions of the Jason Bourne franchise, in which the viewer seems to literally experience the kinetic thrills alongside the hero.
Instead, the director went old-school, pumping every scene with the ubiquitous smoke so popular in the ‘80s and showing the actors full frame kicking butt. “We tried to be aware of keeping the camera wider and steadier for some of the violent scenes. We just wanted it to feel like it did for us, in the ‘80s.”