In the '80s, as Reagan promoted an economic plan based on free enterprise and individualism and urged a massive buildup in defense spending, action stars sometimes seemed to function as the administration's public face. Stallone's Rambo trilogy refought and won the Vietnam War, cultivating support for more military spending; in Commando, Schwarzenegger waged a one-man campaign against a communist dictator in South America; and in the first Die Hard, Bruce Willis defied the wishes of the local police and the federal government, defeating German and Japanese bad guys, while winning back his ex-wife who had left him to join the workforce. These reactionary movies railed against government intrusion and offered a solution in the form of vigilante justice.
The new Rogue Cop movies seem to offer the same solutions—mindless violence, not-so-witty action-hero quips, and high body counts—to the problems of today. A Good Day to Die Hard transposes post-9/11 politics onto a Cold War template, as hero John McClane travels to Russia to battle terrorists with a nuclear bomb. The Last Stand, which opens today, offers an anti-immigration allegory, with Schwarzenegger's small-town border sheriff as the last line of defense against an escaped Mexican drug kingpin trying to ram his way back into Mexico. Bullet to the Head tells the story of a rogue cop who teams up with a hitman to solve a murder.
It's significant that these films are being released in January and February, a dumping ground for movies that aren't good enough to earn a prime release date the year before. Last year at this time, Scott Meslow here at The Atlantic quoted the editor of Box Office Mojo saying that, "January typically sees genre films and films that have tested poorly getting their contractually-due theatrical release, while discerning adult audiences are catching up on the various 10-best lists and the general moviegoers are seeing the event films of December." Meslow noted that since 2004, the top-grossing film in January has generally made less than half the total box-office take of the top-grossing film in December.
And this crop of Rogue Cop films may be of varying quality. But they're also out of step with their times. The more-successful recent action films have been more forward-thinking. It's true that the protagonists of The Hunger Games, The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises could all be labeled "rogues," but their heroes achieve their victories through cunning, persuasion, and a degree of teamwork—not brute force. This coming summer, multiplexes will be filled with more contemplative action movies like After Earth and World War Z, which are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience but also appear to tether their violence to some sense of larger moral action.
The action titles out in early 2013, meanwhile, find themselves disadvantaged because of American current events. Gangster Squad, now in theaters, is a prime example. The bloody flick—featuring a team of rogue cops and gangster played by the likes of Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling—was pushed back from its original September 2012 release date because one of its scenes too closely resembled the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. The studio moved the release to January, unaware that another, even more horrifying shooting would occur just weeks before that. To date, it has made a relatively soft $21 million at the box office—just a little more than a third of its reported production budget. Likewise, Tom Cruise's Jack Reacher, in which he plays a rogue military police officer who enacts brutal revenge on an Eastern European bad guy, kicked off this season with its debut on Christmas Day. The film underperformed at the box office, and his more existential sci-fi thriller Oblivion, due out in April, is expected to do much better.