Do you remember when movies were fun? In the 1980s, producing a Hollywood blockbuster was relatively simple: hire a former bodybuilder, give him a weapon, an objective, and a few basic lines of dialogue. An era when masculinity wasn’t toxic but something to be commended—when every possible problem could be solved by either kicking, punching, or blowing something up. Armed with enough firepower to destroy a small nation, these laconic one-man wrecking machines dominated the box office, influencing a generation of young adults. Forget Superman or Batman, 1980s action heroes didn’t need capes or grandiose titles; these guys created a brand so recognizable they needed only first names: Sly, Arnie and Bruce. Ostentatious, testosterone-fueled, and openly offensive, it was a different time and arguably better.
It’s an era Nick de Semlyen remembers with affection. In his new book, The Last Action Heroes, he chronicles the rise and fall of actors who helped shape what some call the golden age of action movies. As the current editor of Empire, de Semlyen has a wealth of anecdotes and stories at his disposal, as he interviewed many of these actors during his nearly two-decade writing career for the film magazine.
In the 1970s, the United States was mired in a cultural and economic recession. The country landed on the moon, but then, after defeat in the Vietnam War, national pride was shattered. America was hungry for a new hero, especially on the big screen. But they were in short supply. Dirty Harry and James Bond movies lost their appeal to audiences, derided as camp. But then heroes responded to the call for adventure. Specifically, eight of them: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal.
Stallone became a global star with the success of Rocky (1976) and its many sequels. The biographical portrait of a man who never gave up reflects his own tough life growing up in 1960s New York. Often bullied as a child due to his speech—an accident at birth when a doctor severed a facial nerve—Stallone’s stoic commitment to the film (he claims he stayed up for 84 hours writing the script) earned him the Best Motion Picture award at the 1977 Golden Globes. Instead of rejoicing in the glory, Stallone turned his attention to an actor who’d just won the Best New Talent award, throwing a vase at the man who would become his biggest rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As Stallone continued worldwide success with the Rambo trilogy (1982, 1985, and 1988), the Austrian bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe had his own dream. According to de Semlyen, the Austrian Oak wanted to cut off someone’s arm on screen and use it as a weapon. Which he wanted to do in 1985’s gun-em-down Commando, but will achieve later this year with the upcoming Kung Fury 2.
A significant portion of the book documents the longstanding rivalry between Hollywood’s biggest stars. Before patching things up with Planet Hollywood and then later with The Expendables franchise, the duo were very competitive. De Semlyen recalls an event at the Cannes Film Festival when they argued over who’d step in first at the illustrious after-show party.
There’s little room left for the six other protagonists in de Semlyen’s book. We do learn that Steven Seagal’s career appears to be built on lies; his audition, where he single-handedly knocks out four black-belt masters, was supposedly scripted. And even though he was at the bottom of the list to play John McClane (Frank Sinatra was allegedly asked first), Bruce Willis’ wise-cracking attitude made Die Hard an instant classic.
With Rambo, Stallone helped restore national pride in post-Vietnam America. But as the kill count increased—from one in part one to 132 in part three—it felt more like revenge porn than the story of a veteran soldier suffering from PTSD.
Aside from a few minor flaws, the book is rich in anecdotes. Did you know that Arnie only speaks 58 words in The Terminator? Or that Dolph Lundgren, Stallone’s nemesis from Rocky 4 has an IQ of 160 and was accepted on a Fulbright scholarship to study chemical engineering at MIT? Were you aware that Bloodsport is one of Donald Trump’s favorite movies?
The Last Action Heroes is a page-tuner. As for the rivalry between Arnie and Sly? Like everything about the 1980s, it went from sublime to ludicrous. In Rambo: First Blood Part 2, Stallone wields a nine-inch Bowie knife. As John Matrix In Commando, Arnie pulls out a knife that’s longer by half an inch. According to Commando director Mark Lester, “We’ve got to have a bigger dick than Rambo.”