Monday, October 15, 2012

Why is Liam Neeson: Action Star more popular than Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme? Turns out, he's not.

One of threads of my Taken 2 review the other day was that I was shocked by how small-scale the action sequences were.  Rather than resembling a big-budget action sequel, it felt like a straight-to-video knockoff, the sort that 90s action icons Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal are currently pumping out.  So what is it that makes a Jean-Claude Van Damme action film go straight to DVD and a Liam Neeson action sequel open with $49 million over its opening weekend?  Well, I was curious about whether or not Neeson really was more popular than the action stars of 'old'.  The answer, using Box Office Mojo's inflation-related calculations, surprised the heck out of me, and hopefully it will prove interesting for you too.  To my surprise, the original Taken was not so much a runaway smash hit on its opening weekend but merely a lucky recipient of inflation and ever-rising ticket prices.  A hit is still a hit, but a comparison of the numbers shows that Liam Neeson really is the Steven Seagal of his day.  

Everyone likes to use the old 'adjusted for inflation' gimmick to ask how much an older movie might theoretically open with if it were released today, but what about doing the opposite?  If Liam Neeson's Taken were in fact released in 1992-1994, presuming Brandon Grey's math is relatively accurate, then the thriller would have debuted with between $13-15 million and ended its domestic run with between $83 million and $87 million.  That's an almost identical figure to Steven Seagal's peak box office performance, the original Under Siege, which opened with $15 million in September 1992 and ended with $83 million.  Playing the 'what if it opened now?' game, Andrew Davis's action thriller opens in 2009 with $28 million and ends with $151 million, or pretty damn close to the first Taken's $24 million debut and $145 million finish.  Obviously the industry was very different in 1992 compared to 2009, and a million various variables would affect the opening weekend and final gross of a given film.  But if we attempt to compare apples to apples, the similarity is striking.

What about Van Damme?  The 'Muscles From Brussels' never had a true breakout hit, finding himself in arguably the same place Jason Statham is today, stuck in the B-movie zone without a true A-level breakout on the horizon.  But for the moment let's compare Taken with Timecop, arguably Van Damme's biggest and most celebrated action picture, and the closest he came to 'breaking out'.  The film opened with a fine $12 million back in September 1994 ending with $44 million.  If said high-concept action film debuted in 2009, it would have opened with $21 million and ended its domestic run with $80 million.  No Taken to be sure, but certainly well-above something like The Grey which opened early this year with $20 million and ended with $51 million and right on par with the $25 million debut and $77 million finish of The A-Team back in 2010.

Even going way back to the 1980s yields some interesting results.  Chuck Norris certainly never had an out-of-the-park smash hit.  His most memorable films (Code of Silence, The Delta Force, Missing In Action, etc.) all registered opening weekends of around $6 million.  But take those mid-80s figures and put the same relative tickets-sold into 2009 or even 2012, and you have a halfway decent $11 million debut with a $40 million finish.  So yes, Liam Neeson is a bigger action star than Chuck Norris.  The math works for Sylvester Stallone as well, in two very specific ways.  First of all, the aforementioned $15 million mid-90s debut of Taken is right in Stallone's comfort zone during the Cliffhanger-Copland "comeback" run.  Films like The Specialist ($14 million), Cliffhanger ($16 million), and Demolition Man ($14 million) were arguably the high-end action spectacles of their day outside the Batman pictures and the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon franchises (James Bond returned with GoldenEye just as Stallone was winding down and Die Hard was taking a long sabbatical).  Yet their respective opening weekend/final domestic cumes are actually pretty much in line with the domestic total of the first Taken when you factor estimated tickets sold and what-not.

So how about Taken 2?  Well, here's the rub.  Back in the 1990s, action stars (and comedic stars, natch) were far less likely to make sequels to much as wholly original vehicles.  Steven Seagal made Under Siege 2: Dark Territory while Arnold Schwarzenegger made Terminator 2: Judgment Day (which arguably was sold as 'the biggest action movie you've ever seen which happens to be a sequel to some cult movie you might have seen on HBO').  Stallone had one action franchise, and the comparison of Taken 2 to Rambo: First Blood part II is striking.  Rambo II opened with $20 million in 1985 and ended up with $150 million, which makes it Stallone's highest grossing film even 27 years later.  Adjusted for 2012 inflation, that gets you a $45 million opening weekend (keep in mind that Rambo 2 made $32 million over its whole holiday Memorial Day six-day debut) and a stunning $339 million domestic.

What's the point of all of this?  Well, aside from the obvious enjoyment I get playing with the numbers, it seems that Liam Neeson is less 'the biggest action star' than 'a 90s-era action star with twenty-years of increased ticket prices'.  That's no small irony considering how much of the first Taken's appeal was rooted in the 'they don't make 'em like this anymore' factor.  Still, as I always say, films in 2012 get paid in money from 2012 and the countless new sources of distraction over the last decade or so (DVD, the Internet, video games, etc.) makes the 'tickets sold' stat a suspicious one.  But it shows that Taken is indeed the A-level franchise that Stallone had with Rambo and Seagal had with Under Siege (even if Seagal never replicated its success again) and yes Bruce Willis had with Die Hard (none of Willis's action vehicles approached the numbers put up by his John McClane adventures).  But at the same time Neeson has with this franchise what Jason Statham couldn't achieve with The Transporter and what Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris could never catch.

The 'Liam Neeson: Action Hero' idea is certainly one that harkens back to the 1990s and its success is at least partially about mere ticket-price inflation since the days of Sudden Death and Out For Justice.  Liam Neeson, in his first at-bat, snagged the golden ticket that has eluded Jason Statham and Jean Claude Van-Damme for decades.  The question becomes would we have been less impressed by a film like Taken back in 1994 when it was merely one of many?  Would Jason Statham have eventually found his A-picture in a time when R-rated action films flourished?  I don't know the answer to either question, but it is fun to ponder.  Your turn to share below.  Any thoughts to add on the action film landscape then and now?

Scott Mendelson             


LYT said...

Where does DARKMAN fit?

Matt from Phoenix said...

Another interesting question is would we (audiences) have enjoyed Taken as much if it starred Jason Statham? Was part of the allure of Taken that we didn't expect Liam Neeson to be so action heroic-y. Could the same be said of Bruce Willis circa Die Hard? Willis was known for comedy and romantic comedy with Moonlighting, and then he is running around barefoot over glass fighting terrorists. Is part of the allure the surprise of the actor?

Scott Mendelson said...

Hmm, I confess I forgot about that one (I do like the picture though). Darkman made $33 million back in 1990, which would equal about $60 million in 2009. I would argue that the film is more a horror-tinged superhero film than a pure action picture (it has lots of violence, but only a couple out-and-out extended action sequences), but including it still puts it on the mid-range scale of the kind of movies that Seagal and Van Damme were putting out back in the early 1990s (think Out for Justice or Double Impact).

Scott Mendelson said...

Indeed. Much of the appeal was the idea of Liam Neeson doing the ass-kicking primarily due to his reputation as a 'serious actor'. Movie stardom is just that, elevating the box office purely based on your presence. For example, Jack Reacher may look like a high-level Jason Statham film, but the mere fact that it stars Tom Cruise will cause it to vastly outgross most-if-not-all Statham films.


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