The Equalizer 3, Sound of Freedom and The Expendables 4 show there’s still a market for the macho action man with a big gun – but is this a resurgence or a last hurrah for America’s shootiest genre?
When the MPAA – the US content rating system still in use today – replaced the puritanical Hayes Code which had previously restricted the content of American movies in 1968, Hollywood didn’t go quite as nuts as you might expect. They had, after all, been ignoring the code for years. In 1967, the fifth highest-grossing film in the USA, Bonnie & Clyde, ended with the titular duo torn apart in a bloody hail of lawmen’s bullets.
But since then, Hollywood hasn’t exactly been shy in its love of muscled action men with big guns. Eighties action staples Die Hard, Predator, First Blood and the like pinned down a formula global audiences seemed to love. Take a ludicrously large/bald man, give him a gun and a vest, and wait for the box office receipts to roll in.
This century, those same men have, by and large, been doing the same thing. Taken, Red, The Expendables, The Equalizer, John Wick – for much of the last 20 years studios have dutifully rolled out new versions of a familiar American story. Usually, it’s ‘old man comes out of retirement to blow a bunch of people up’ (sorry, Keanu, but you are pushing 60).
While the rise of the usually bloodless, often gun-less superhero genre has dampened the potential of these modern-day suburban Westerns to make as much of a splash, 2023 feels like a year determined to flip the conventional studio wisdom of the last decade. John Wick: Chapter 4, Sound of Freedom and, if this last weekend is anything to go by, The Equalizer 3 look set to be some of the most profitable films of the year when all’s said and done.
With The Expendables 4 set for release later this month, gun-toting genre fans still have plenty to look forward to. But with so many franchises approaching what seems to be their stars’ action expiration date and few primed to follow in their footsteps, is 2023 just one last job for Hollywood’s eponymous action man?
It’s true to say that tastes have moved on since Schwarzenegger, Stallone and co first picked up a machine gun. The masculine ideal of the action hero as a stoic breadwinner pushing down his troubles by shooting other men in the neck now feels a bit old hat. The only people who can convincingly carry off that sort of role now are the ones who remember when Ronald Reagan was in the White House. They’re too old to change, the camera says, as we watch Denzel Washington shoot a man through the eye socket.
Young men, as a rule, don’t use guns on the big screen. As gun ownership in the States only becomes more politicised, the appeal of the traditional gun-toting action hero seems increasingly split down demographic lines. Older generations can see themselves in the middle-aged dads taking down wrong ‘uns with a rifle. Younger generations, raised on a more positive vision of masculinity and a terrifying awareness of the destructive capability of firearms, can’t.
Qanon-adjacent thriller The Sound of Freedom illustrates that divide stateside perfectly. Championed by right-wing adherents to Trump’s vision of America, the story of a put-upon hero rescuing children from smuggling gangs is the sort of thing that might have come out of a major studio thirty years ago. Now it’s a plot on the fringe, with politics to match.
Here in the UK, the shifting interest in guns on screen is harder to identify. With a sensible (i.e., non-existent) gun culture, for the last 50 years or so guns have been the reserve of Americans and, occasionally, James Bond. With the US’s international reputation broadly declining since 2016, it’s possible that what once passed for mass market entertainment now leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth. Even Daniel Craig’s final three outings as our favourite gun-wielder make much of his status as a man out of time.
Instead, the heroes of most blockbusters in recent years are stopping men with guns, not using them. Whether it’s Henry Cavill’s Superman letting bullets ricochet off his rippling abdominal muscles or Tom Holland’s Spider-Man disabling his suit’s ‘kill mode’ before taking on gangs of armed bank robbers, the myth of the ‘good guy with a gun’ has, for the most part, been broken.
Even what I’ll lovingly refer to as the ‘so dumb it’s fun’ genre has moved away from the gun range in recent years. In 2023, films like Cocaine Bear, M3GAN and Meg 2: The Trench all fight giant animals/killer dolls with almost anything except a firearm.
With more serious action fare, though, the year so far has seemed to make more use of guns than we’re used to. With potential franchise-enders for John Wick and The Equalizer series, however, there’s little sign of the genre making a full-fledged comeback. America’s long, troubled relationship with guns on screen might be going strong today. But the signs are all there that that might not be the case for much longer.