You’ve heard the sayings. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Variety is the spice of life. A change is as good as a rest. And so on. Well, for most actors it’s straightforward to enjoy a wide range of roles, but action stars do have a tendency to plough the same bullet-ridden furrow. It’s like they sense the public’s resistance to them doing anything except busting heads and blowing stuff up. Dolph Lundgren is a classic example, holding out for more than thirty years before changing pace and enriching our drab lives with Kindergarten Cop 2. Generally, though, the point arrives after about a decade when the average action star tries to break free from his macho prison, especially as he realizes he’s not getting any younger. Even Steven Seagal (who is not exactly renowned for generating guffaws on or away from the silver screen) has attempted to tickle our funny bone via a self-mocking cameo in 1998’s My Giant in which he revealed: “I’ve always wanted to do Shakespeare.”
Mind you, it’s fair to say that although these about-face ventures may occasionally make money, they often result in less than stellar art.
Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose & Any Which Way You Can
Don’t do it, he was told. They’ll never go for it. But Clint, perhaps tired of playing renegade cops, hard-bitten, trigger-happy loners and wallowing in all that other mean, bloodthirsty stuff, ignored the professional advice and instead signed up for a knockabout comedy in which he starred alongside a horny, cookie-scoffing orangutan named Clyde.
And boy, did he have the last laugh. Both of these blue-collar flicks were huge hits, even if the sourpuss critics hated them with a passion. Clint plays a down to earth, gum-chewing trucker who likes a bit of bare-knuckle brawling on the side. For some reason he falls for country and western singer (and real-life squeeze) Sondra bloody Locke, but she mysteriously takes off, prompting him to pursue her cross country. The silly sod.
In the superior sequel, Clint is forced to participate in a mafia-organized big money fight with a Bronson lookalike. Clyde, meanwhile, gets his own song and a lengthy bedroom scene.
Plusses: The faintly surreal sight of Clint and Clyde sitting at a bar supping beers in unison. In fact, Clyde is far and away the best thing whether he’s snogging Clint’s unimpressed battleax ma (“Stop that, you goddamn baboon!”), giving a bunch of hopeless, over the hill neo-Nazis the finger or taking a dump on the front seat of a cop car. Somehow, he didn’t end up with his own sitcom.
The Black Widows biker gang, providers of lame slapstick in the first flick, markedly improve in the second. Listen to their leader when once again presented with evidence of his men’s lack of mettle. “Why me, Lord?” he says, looking skyward. “I mean, you made other men out of clay. Mine…? You made outta shit.” Any’s humor is sharper, providing some genuinely funny moments. It’s not a good flick by any means, but there’s a sort of glee to its relentless absurdity.
Debits: You really do have to enter into the spirit of these films’ slapdash nature otherwise you’ll find them overlong, implausible and tiresome. Then there are all those drippy, self-pitying country tunes. Plus, a real mongoose-rattlesnake fight sure ain’t cool. Every is thin gruel, firmly placing me in the camp of the sourpuss critic, but the genial Any comes close to making up for it, especially the way it loses its mind around the halfway point (catch the inspired 10 parody). Overall, I would have preferred some pissing about with the main roles. You know, have Clyde as the bare-knuckle brawler, Clint being snuck into a zoo to get laid, and Sondra bloody Locke as the orangutan. Right turn, Sondra!
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins & Junior
Ah, the ol’ one-joke comedy. Are there any better examples out there than these two? In Twins a virginal, 230-pound, tropical island-inhabiting Arnie is teamed with the paunchy, sawn-off, urban runt Danny DeVito as his long-lost brother. In Junior Arnie gets up the duff. Gawd, this was not a fun way to spend the best part of four hours.
Plusses: Barely any, that’s for sure. The predictable, saccharine Twins only offers the briefest of pleasures, such as Arnie laughing at Stallone on a promotional poster for the latest Rambo flick. I guess I was also amused by Twins’ prologue in which Arnie and DeVito’s carefully chosen, genetically superior mom and six dads are all white. Don’t think they’d get away with that today.
Twins was a massive hit and followed by the equally successful Kindergarten Cop. Hence, it was no surprise that Arnie reunited for the third time with director Ivan Reitman in another attempt at funniness. Now Arnie deserves some sort of credit for taking a role that bravely confounded expectations, but Junior still proves to be the worst of the bunch. Nothing is inconceivable runs its tagline. Well, if you chuck in Jingle All the Way as well, Arnie making a funny flick is. It doesn’t help that I dislike comedies based around infants and am still trying to rid myself of the taste of shitty nappies ingested during Three Men and a Baby. Now I’m sure there’s some intrinsic comedy in Arnie (that embodiment of ferocious masculinity) having a bun in the oven, but Junior barely scratches the surface. Its best bits involve him confessing to DeVito “My nipples are very sensitive” or his self-pleased observation “Feel how soft my skin is.” However, the odd funny line is nowhere near enough to erase my distaste at the feminization of an action god or carry an overlong flick that drowns in gooiness well before halfway.
Debits: Twins‘ biological-medical-governmental underpinnings make no sense. Why are Schwarzenegger and DeVito so different? And how can they have six dads? I thought only one sperm could fertilize an egg. And what is this half-hearted federal experiment about anyway? Then it wanders into Crocodile Dundee territory as the innocent lunk Arnie samples big city life for the first time i.e. supermarket porn and an attempted mugging. Whenever Schwarzenegger steps outside the action genre his lack of acting chops becomes painfully obvious. Comedy requires a great deal more nuance than action. Still, he’s not helped by a weak script that births a strange, labored interplay with the ‘genetic garbage’ DeVito. I’ll go along with them mirroring each other’s actions, but their psychic connection is too much. Despite the fights, burly gangsters, mild profanity and shootings, Twins has a sentimental streak a mile wide. Obvious stunt doubles, a bad soundtrack, an innate lameness and DeVito’s positioning as a poon hound with a half-mullet, balding ponytail thing attached to the back of his head don’t help.
In Junior there’s a similar lack of snap and sharpness. Everything is spelled out, as if none of us know anything about gestation. It’s also pro-life, typified by Arnie telling a disapproving DeVito: “If you could feel for one minute the sense of absolute joy and connection carrying a baby brings, you would understand.” No, Arnie, fetuses should be destroyed with a blowtorch while singing satanic hymns and then we wouldn’t have to sit through cutesy dreck like Look Who’s Talking, Baby Geniuses or Mr. Mom. Apart from our main man slipping into drag during some faintly unbelievable sequences at a retreat for expectant mums, Junior’s second half is devoid of anything approaching amusement. Christ, it drags. Emma Thompson’s redundant, accident-prone character is the final cherry on the top of this cinematic miscarriage.
Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou
The gravelly voiced ex-marine, who won a Purple Heart in WW2, had long been punching heads, robbing banks and throwing scalding coffee in the face of a gangster’s moll before winning an Oscar for his dual portrayal of a tin-nosed killer and a drunken gunslinger in this comedy-western.
Plusses: Amid the jaunty banjo songs about hanging, Marvin mainly plays a grimy alcoholic who can’t hit shit with a bullet unless drunk. He’s often in his own world, rambling and mumbling to himself while barely aware of whoever’s nearby. It’s a broad piece of acting to say the least. The main reason to watch is to enjoy spotting the shitload of inspiration provided for Blazing Saddles. I guess a young Jane Fonda is also very easy on the eye.
Debits: Ballou isn’t dull but it’s not much to get excited about, either. It sorely lacks laugh aloud moments. The Oscar for Marvin’s clown act seems mighty generous, especially when compared to how on the money he was in later stuff like Point Blank and Prime Cut. It’s not often you get to see him wear a corset, though.
Van Damme in Welcome to the Jungle
VD held out for a long time when it came to starring in a comedy. Twenty-seven years to be exact. Was it worth the wait?
Plusses: Look, VD is quite good value here. He plays a no-nonsense, possibly insane team builder in charge of a group of corporate lackeys. Introduced in their office wearing dog tags while proclaiming himself an ex-Navy SEAL, he tells them: “I’ve seen men die. I’ve made men cry.” They then fly to an uninhabited jungle island to be put through their paces, only for the elderly pilot to die pretty much upon arrival.
This set-up is pure sit-com territory, but benefits from the presence of a legendary hardass like VD. His performance is squarely aimed at taking the piss out of himself. I mean, where else can you see the Belgian beefcake grappling a tiger while shouting at the petrified onlookers: “Stick a finger into the tiger’s ass!”
Debits: Not too many. Jungle has a bit of snap and bite while providing an intentionally silly, undemanding ninety minutes that riffs on Lord of the Flies. I wouldn’t go out of your way to find it, but VD does better than most action stars when it comes to flexing their often woefully underdeveloped chuckle muscles.
Sylvester Stallone in Rhinestone, Oscar & Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot
By mid-1984 Sly was on a run of six hits while his misshapen co-star Dolly Parton had also scored big with her first two films. Rhinestone, which saw a dancing Stallone dressed up like a sparkling country and western superhero during its caterwauling climax, understandably brought such success to a temporary halt. Instead of grasping that comedy wasn’t his forte, Stallone regrouped at the start of the 90s and put out two more humorous efforts in a row. Bad move, brother.
Plusses: Director Bob Clark demonstrated his lowbrow comedy pedigree with the golden smut of Porky’s, but shit his pants with Rhinestone. It’s got a nonsensical setup wherein chirpy musician Parton takes a ridiculous, sexually coercive bet from her drooling tool of a manager to turn reckless taxi driver Stallone into a country singer in two weeks. This involves carting him from New York to Tennessee, landing us firmly in culture shock territory. Sly responds by rushing through most scenes, exemplified by his tone-deaf musical contributions in which his wild overacting is nothing short of embarrassing. Honestly, a yodeling Tarzan marshaling jungle animals from afar is more restrained. Sly bludgeons every ounce of potential comedy and when it’s lying bloody and bruised on the floor he stamps on it. I dunno, but maybe this honky tonk shit was his attempt to replicate Clint’s Every and Any success. Rhinestone’s sole plus is that it ends.
Sly’s anger at this box-office turkey was taken out on the Vietnamese people when he killed about ten thousand of them a year later in the sequel to First Blood. Somehow, though, he forgot Rhinestone’s gargantuan failings by putting his hand up for the incredibly dull 1991 farce, Oscar. Here he plays a reformed mob boss in Depression-era New York, but it flat lines from the opening scene. It’s on a more even keel than Rhinestone, with a less-frenzied Stallone mostly mistaking scowling for comic timing, but the former was such a ghastly, OTT misstep that Oscar ends up nowhere near as memorable. It also feels too much like a play. There are no amusing lines or situations, making you wonder how John Landis (the guy who helmed Animal House and Trading Places) could have so decisively lost his sense of what’s funny.
Sly threw his leaden, shit-smeared dice once again in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, which is surely one of the ghastliest titles in Hollywood history. The one-joke premise concerns our legendary tough guy being tied to the apron strings of his overbearing dwarf mother (an irritating Estelle Getty complete with a cutesy, ribbon-adorned, handheld dog). Why he puts up with her schtick is anyone’s guess. Comedy is no different to any other genre in that it has to create a set of workable rules within a plausible world.
Stop! doesn’t, its contrived premise collapsing within ten minutes when Sly and his mom turn up at the building of a suicidal jumper only for Getty to merrily commandeer an LAPD bullhorn and hand out baby photos. Matters aren’t helped by Sly overselling every emotion. He simply doesn’t have the necessary subtlety to be a comedic actor whether ranting to himself or (in an extraordinary dream sequence) dressed in diapers. There aren’t many movies out there that promote matricide but I’d argue Stop! is one. Still, at least the hatred heaped upon it finally enabled Sly to understand his pronounced limitations in this regard. He hasn’t starred in a comedy since.
Debits: Well, I think I’ve covered those in the plusses. Schwarzenegger stunk just as badly in his comedies, but at least he managed to ring the box-office bell with half of them.
Dave Franklin’s movie book Go Fuck an Iceberg! is available from Amazon and other outlets