Sylvester Stallone may be a limited actor, but you can't say he doesn't have sense of humour. In Marco Brambilla's enjoyable 1993 future-shock thriller Demolition Man – which screens during TIFF Bell Lightbox's new Saturday-night series Schwarzenegger/Stallone: The Rise of Beefcake Cinema – a futuristic cop played by Sandra Bullock tells her musclebound co-star that she'd recently checked some research materials out of the "Schwarzenegger Presidential Library." The real Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as Governor of California in 2003 turned that throwaway gag into prophecy, and Demolition Man into the most prescient vision of West Coast-dystopia since Blade Runner.
The line is actually the result of an elaborate game of one-upmanship between Stallone and the erstwhile Terminator; Schwarzenegger had fired the first salvo earlier that summer in Last Action Hero (1993), with a sight gag placing Stallone in the poster for Terminator 2. Their battle was borne out of mutual respect, a clash of box-office titans who were never going to compete for Oscars.
In some ways, Beefcake Cinema might seem like an odd programming choice for the Lightbox – there's only so much critical exegesis one can attach to Conan the Barbarian (1982). But the series has a purpose beyond reminding us that The Hunger Games stole its best ideas from The Running Man (1987). It examines the period in cinematic history when "action" went from being a component in all sorts of movies to a stand-alone genre of its own.
The adventure films, Biblical spectacles, Westerns and police procedurals that had previously dotted the Hollywood landscape all had action sequences – fights and chases that drove their stories forward. Around the end of the 1970s, however, a shift occurred whereby those elements became the main attraction. It was a mutation, and Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the mutant lords, ready to kick sand in the faces of the leading men (Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino) who made their mark in the 1970s.
Stallone started Off-Broadway and soon became known for his prime-cut physique. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker compared him in Rocky (1976) to Brando, but instead of spending his career wishing that he'd been a contender, Stallone went right for the title belt. He became a two-fisted screen icon, loveably dense in Rocky and its sequels and surprisingly soulful as John Rambo in the terse, brutal First Blood (1982).
Schwarzenegger was more of an outlier, a massive bodybuilder who was barely plausible as a normal human being. Conan the Barbarian was a case of typecasting gone right, but it wasn't until The Terminator (1984) that a filmmaker really figured out what to do with the Austrian muscleman. By having Schwarzenegger play a hilariously conspicuous "infiltration unit," James Cameron hit the sweet spot between emphasizing and making fun of the actor's physical menace.
If Conan was a throwback, The Terminator was a look ahead, accentuating its star's superstructure with ingenious prosthetics that, beyond cinching the film's awesome tech-noir aesthetic, also functioned as a kind of visual shorthand for the birth of the '80s American action film: hard bodies fused with heavy metal.
Both men took criticism for contributing to the dumbing-down of mainstream cinema, as well as flack for their limited acting skills. And both dutifully flailed around in subsequent studio comedies, trying to prove that they had range. But Schwarzenegger's funniest performance came in Paul Verhoeven's baroque sci-fi epic Total Recall (1990), skirting wild-eyed self-parody – while still looking awesomely buff, of course. Stallone, meanwhile, kept playing Rocky Balboa and John Rambo over and over again, with diminishing returns. By the mid-90s, he was doing "comeback" vehicles like Cliffhanger, an effective piece of B-movie junk that proudly showed off the then 47-year-old actor's buff body as he dangled from taut ropes over jagged Colorado terrain.
Even though Schwarzenegger won the box-office battle with his own mega-sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), he was also sowing the seeds of his downfall. That film's central conflict between the lumbering cyborg Terminator and the sleek, shape-shifting T-1000 was a precis of the coming battle between analog and digital special effects – a war that would claim a generation of multiplex behemoths among its casualties. The action film, which had always integrated special effects, was now subordinate to them. The advent of CGI was the technological equivalent of the comet that killed the dinosaurs, only it also brought dinosaurs to life: Demolition Man, Cliffhanger and Last Action Hero were all squashed by Jurassic Park. As the '90s closed, the titans found themselves outpaced by leaner models like Keanu Reeves, who saw the T-1000's fluid movements and raised them by several million pixels.
The icons of Beefcake Cinema dealt with their demotions in different ways – Stallone by replaying his most successful characters as spent old warhorses, Schwarzenegger by exiting the film frame altogether (although he kept popping up in the terrible Terminator sequels). Their paths crossed in 2010's The Expendables, a sort of cinematic monument erected by Stallone in his own battered image. The cast was an elephant graveyard of bullet-headed icons, Stallone and Schwarzenegger alongside Bruce Willis, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke and Jason Statham. And the tone was elegiac, like the Wild Bunch with heavier artillery.
A sequel, The Expendables 2, comes out on August 17; future programmers of high-end cultural institutions, please take note.
Schwarzenegger/Stallone: The Rise of Beefcake Cinema runs at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox from June 16 to Sept. 1 (tiff.net)
Special to The Globe and Mail