With Jason Momoa shirtless atop a pile of skulls the poster for 2011’s Conan the Barbarian harks back to the franchise’s cinematic roots of the 1980s. However, something appears to have changed in the 29 years that separate Arnie and Momoa’s outings in the loincloth. In 1982, Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian took $100million worldwide. The recent franchise reboot has so far taken a mere $21 million. Why such a vast discrepancy?
One answer is Frank Sinatra.
In 1968, Roger Thorp’s novel The Detective was adapted for the big screen. Frank Sinatra was cast in the lead and delivered one of his finer acting performances. When, in the 1980s, the idea of filming the sequel Nothing Lasts Forever was floated, the producers naturally approached Sinatra to reprise his role. He turned them down, altering the course of cinematic history. Maybe.
The film could no longer be pitched as a sequel so alterations were needed. The eponymous detective was now flying to L.A., and to see his wife rather than daughter. His name too had to be changed; from Detective Joe Leland to Detective John McClane. A role to be played by a young up-and-coming actor named Walter Bruce Willis. That’s right. Nothing Lasts Forever became Die Hard, one of 1988’s biggest hits. Through this film Director John McTiernan, composer Michael Kamen and second-choice actor Bruce Willis were to launch a new kind of action hero that would change cinema forever.
Superficially Die Hard conforms to all the hallmarks of the Arnie and Stallone films that had dominated the preceding decade; Man in VEST. With GUN. Background of FIRE. Suitably macho title written in RED. It is easy to see the audience they were pitching for. However, Die Hard is so much more than a two-dimensional cop thriller. McTiernan’s masterstroke is not to make McClain the film’s primary draw. Rather he reacts to the unexpected arrival of terrorist Hans Gruber, played with distinction by Alan Rickman. All of the best lines, suave gestures and stirring orchestral accompaniment go to Gruber. As a result, the audience may end up rooting for the baddie and McClain is resigned to a more unimpressive supporting role. Willis doesn’t even get to wear shoes for the majority of the film. This image is supported by Composer Michael Kamen’s bold decision to give our ‘hero’ no musical underscore at all. Silence only serves to highlight McClain’s paranoid babbling and sense of isolation. His fears, frailties and insecurities are laid bare before the audience in a way that distinguishes him from any Schwarzenegger or Stallone character. Mclain’s allies are tubby, twinky-buying cop Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) and an inept branch of the FBI, not the muscle bound commandos of Predator or the fleet-footed Apollo Creed. Yet, against all the odds, John McClane saves the day.
How though, is this late 80s film relevant to 2011 and Conan’s recent crushing at the box-office? Well, Die Hard was a highly successful and influential film. It took $140 million dollars worldwide and many subsequent films were described as ‘Die Hard on a …’. Insert ‘Bus’ for Speed, ‘Island’ for The Rock, a ‘Ship’ for Under Siege or even ‘House’ for Home Alone. This became such a prevalent school of thought that Empire Magazine even ran a feature in the 90s discussing whether various films had ‘done a Die Hard’. McClain became the new model for the action hero and acted as a precursor to many of the most popular characters in cinema today.
Much like the plot of a movie, the lesser leading man has risen to triumph over the herculean heroes of the 1980s. Action movies were first to tumble. Unlikely protagonists such as computer hacker Thomas A. Anderson, aka Neo, from 1999’s The Matrix were now saving the world and in 1994accountant Andy Dufresne was breaking out of Shawshank prison. During the Noughties Willis’ heirs have become more numerous and appear in a wider variety of films. Shaun of the Dead, The Constant Gardener and Casino Royale all have human, fallible leading men. The inept Captain Jack Sparrow, Po the Panda and Jonny English are all examples of how far this model has been pushed. Even brand new sub-genres such as the women-centric comedy have adopted the Beta male. In this summer’s top comedy Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s character chooses The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd over Mad Men’s own John Hamm; you can just hear GQ smarting.
In a post-McClain paradigm having a monosyllabic macho man at the centre of your movie seems an unwise decision. The era for actors such as Momoa appears to be over unless they convert, a la Arnie/Dwayne Johnson/Vin Diesel, to roles which involve laughing at themselves. If a new direction for the franchise can be found, as with the new Bond movies, then this doesn’t have to be curtains for Conan. But for the immediate future things are looking less rosy. Since his conception in 1930 he has survived the birth of comics, the advent of television and the dawn of internet, but Conan finally seems to have met his destroyer; and his name is Frank Sinatra, the man whose absence placed cinema’s focus on the underdog.
– Sam Poppleton