Maybe it was the moment in The Last Stand when a guy exploded, or the scene when Arnold sawed someone in half with a Vickers machine gun, or maybe it was the 10th brain-splattering bullet to the head in Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head. But at some point it occurred to me that Hollywood may be out of touch with their audience. Who will pay to see this after what happened in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, or at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut?
Apparently, not many. Arnold's Last Stand bombed. So did Tom Cruise's Jack Reacher and Jason Statham's Parker, both of which featured killing and maiming. As for Bullet to the Head, the box-office returns aren't in as this is being written, though my gut feeling (intensified by a vicious stabbing scene early in the movie) tells me it won't do much better. And the same might be true of Bruce Willis's A Good Day To Die Hard, the fifth film in the resilient franchise that started in 1988, which opens on Valentine's Day.
Or maybe not. Not all graphic violence is box office poison. The number-one movie last week was Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which contains lots of messy slaughter, though admittedly mostly of the CGI variety. But Hansel & Gretel doesn't bother with subtlety in establishing what is good and evil. It's a fairy tale: there are heroes and villains, witches and witch hunters, period. And the same goes for Die Hard's John McClane, the Joe the Plumber of vigilantes. (True, there aren't many shades of gray in The Last Stand, but who still thinks of Arnold as a true-blue hero?)
But Jack Reacher, Parker, and Stallone's character in Bullet to the Head are not good guys. They're anti-heroes, nihilists with an esoteric code of honor like that of Clint's The Man with No Name or the varmints in The Wild Bunch. There isn't a lot of difference between them and the scumbags they kill. That bugs people, probably a lot more than all the blood and guns and gore .
It's kind of like the ongoing critical backlash to Zero Dark Thirty. True, the moral complexities of that film exceed those of action-hero fare like Bullet to the Head, and here's a case where the general public shows better judgment — it's done well at the box office — than the pundits who supposedly know better. But as with those fans uneasy with the amorality of the current crop of pulpy thrillers, this is a case where horrible behavior is not defined, and you're left on your own to figure it out. Perhaps it's not the guns that are killing the action-hero movies, but the uncertainty.