Growing up in the UK’s equivalent of The Shire meant that access to the escapism of video rentals was something as distant as The Misty Mountains. The arrival of a man who looked like Stanley Uris from Stephen King’s IT, driving a van that was filled to the rafters with VHS, and which glowed like the Pulp Fiction briefcase when opened, introduced me to a roll-call of the 80s Action Heroes. Monosyllabic men, who quipped their way through bullets and bodies. The first plastic case to cross my sweaty palms featured a muscular fellow, holding a gun, against a colourful heatmap backdrop. It was Predator, and that was a long time ago.

Arnold Schwarzenegger - 80s Action Heroes

About where things began to change for the real expendables is hard to pinpoint. Why did these one-time box-office giants; Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van-Damme, and to a lesser degree Lundgren, suddenly find their powers diminishing?

The beginning of the end of the 80’s action hero can actually be found in one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best; Terminator 2: Judgement Day. For it was here that Linda Hamilton blurred the lines of masculinity, taking ownership of something which had thus far been the key defining characteristic of her male counterparts; the muscles. This was no longer the playground of the hard-bodied male.

Sarah Connor Terminator 2

The following decade would be hard on the Planet Hollywood brigade. Stallone would suffer the ignominy of Stop or My Mom Will Shoot and Judge Dredd. Van-Damme would be pummelled by Street Fighter. Lundgren would descend into DTV fare by way of Johnny Mnemonic. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger would follow suit, putting aside a triumphant reunion with James Cameron on True Lies, and the unfair drubbing dished out to The Last Action Hero, he’d end the 90s as Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin, poster-boy for Christmas turkey, Jingle All The Way, and doing the same thing Van-Damme had been reduced to ten years earlier, playing dual roles in The 6th Day.

The MatrixThen 1999 hit, and a little film called The Matrix re-defined everything. The action heroes had become these vessels of balletic androgyny; lithe and athletic. Audiences no longer wanted lumbering monoliths of days gone by. And so our icons seemingly vanished, some into politics, some into addiction, some into Spy-Kids 3-D.

Now, in 2017, they’re not quite ready for the Cyberdyne compactor, so it’s time to dust off the VHS directory to see what our favourite 1980s action heroes are up to now.

Hardly a box-office draw in the league of his peers, Dolph Lundgren still had a decent go at cracking Hollywood. A bit part in A View to a Kill led to his iconic role in Rocky IV, which in turn got him the keys to Castle Greyskull for the live-action Masters of the Universe movie, which sadly turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

In a strange case of six-degrees-of-separation, and outside of the kitsch appeal of any of these actors appearing in The Expendables franchise, Lundgren’s most high-profile recent roles were in a sequel to Kindergarten Cop, and a recurring role as Konstantin Kovar in TV series Arrow.

However, he appears to have fared better than fellow Universal Soldier, Jean Claude Van-Damme, who has spent most of his time in straight to DVD sequels to 1992’s pretty decent Roland Emmerich directed gore fest. There was a brief period of notoriety from his self-deprecating, semi-biographical oddity, JCVD, and that YouTube clip in which he did the splits whilst perched atop two large haulage vehicles. Aside from that it has been beer adverts and Kickboxer spinoffs.

Attempting to evolve in order to suit the cinematic landscape doesn’t appear to have appealed to either of them, but that’s not an accusation you could level at Sylvester Stallone. Always a more interesting actor than the action label afforded him; First Blood was Vietnam subtext smart, even if people only remember the more violent aspects of the film, and there hasn’t been a boxing movie with as much riding on the outcome, in terms of character, since the original Rocky.

When the shift in audience tastes happened, at least Sly attempted something different with 97’s Copland. For one reason or another, that film never garnered the attention it deserved, and after a bit of voicework on Antz, Stallone was soon trying to recapture past glories with an awful remake of Get Carter and the troubled production that was D-Tox. It wasn’t until 06’s Rocky Balboa that looking back to go forward started to pay off, and he had a decent box-office hit again.

This, of course, lit the fuse for The Expendables franchise, which has admittedly stretched a single joke rather thin over 3 films, but hasn’t stopped part 4 being announced for 2018, although Stallone has subsequently stepped away from the franchise. It also led to Ryan Coogler’s punctuation of the Rocky franchise with the superb Creed. A role which earned Stallone an Oscar nomination, and a Golden Globe win. Hollywood loves a comeback story, and Stallone’s has been a remarkable example of life-imitating-art. But please Rocko, enough with the bread adverts already.

Stallone Warburtons
I kneaded the dough

We’ll end this retrospective with the man who took on the Predator, the future, and in his race to become Governor of California; Arnold Schwarzenegger. The man whose image adorned the front-cover of my first ever video-man van rental, and whose profile was at an all-time high going into the summer of 1993. What he hadn’t accounted for back then was that he was about to be turned into something of a genre dinosaur himself by Steven Spielberg’s ‘Adventure 65m Years in the Making’.

Ever since The Last Action Hero brilliantly predicted the fallibility of his own stardom, Schwarzenegger has been trying to find his place in the world. He bowed out of cinema with Rise of the Machines (a good ending tacked onto an average movie), having attempted to venture down the serious route with underrated satanic smackdown, End of Days, and even during his terms in office, he still did some mo-cap work on Terminator: Salvation, unable to let go of his glorious past.

A final return to the leather jacket and tin-head wasn’t helped by the sheer awfulness of the Genisys script, and Paramount’s recent announcement that they wouldn’t be pursuing further instalments is probably the best thing for all parties.

If it that means that Schwarzenegger can focus on smaller, more character driven roles, such as terminal illness allegory come zombie flick, Maggie, and this month’s Aftermath, in which he plays a grieving father looking for answers after an air traffic collision, rather than the Commando style act of revenge that would have driven his characters in the 80s, then his slowly gestating comeback might just succeed. I believe he said something about returning one day, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.

There will always be a place for what these guys represented on the dusty shelf labelled nostalgia, and you’d be hard pressed to find a group of contemporary action heroes who’ll be as fondly remembered in years to come. I think if the mobile video van pulled up in the near future, we’d hopefully be choosing between Furiosa and Black Widow, whilst perusing the cover of Expendables 7 and rolling our eyes.