Filmmakers go back to '80s for inspiration
By Rachel Abramowitz
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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 homage 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" (today), "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" (opened last week), 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."
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 last 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."