Monday Morning Critic – Taylor Kitsch, John Carter, Savages & The 2012 Summer To Forget – Red Scorpion

Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.

History remembers many things and tries to obscure others. In 2004 Jude Law was poised to become the next big star, appearing in a handful of films, but none of them became big hits. Alfie and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow may have been flops but Closer made its budget back and then some. I ♥ Huckabees didn’t make a ton of money but didn’t cost a ton, either and he had a small part that was slightly more than a cameo in The Aviator. And after a brief Twitter exchange with NY Post Film Critic Kyle Smith about this, it got me thinking.

Have we ever seen an actor headline three high profile disasters at the box office like Taylor Kitsch has in 2012?

Julia Ormond had Sabrina and First Knight in 1995 but neither of those were really epic disasters; foreign box office receipts ended up boosting both of those back to respectability. And Law didn’t result in losses that could fund a good sized summer blockbuster in its own right, complete with publicity and advertising, like Kitsch has. Battleship made $300 million or so internationally, which is terrific until you consider that the film cost about that much with P&A thrown in. Considering the studio makes about 60 cents on the dollar per ticket sold, roughly, that’s $120 million in the red or so. Throw in John Carter, which grossed $280 million worldwide against a $250 million budget (with the same $100 million in P&A) and you have $200 million or so losses. And now it’s time for Kitsch’s final summer film, Oliver Stone’s Savages.

Savages just got completely buried in the rush for The Amazing Spider-Man, which looks like it’ll cross $140 million or so in its opening week. It only cost $45 million, a relatively tiny sum for a film opening in the summer for an action film, and an extended run in theatres and good VOD/DVD sales will most likely wind up with the film in the black when all is said and done. R-rated crime films don’t have a high ceiling, especially when you don’t have a ton of stars, but they make for good counter-programming for adults and usually manage to survive for periods of time like family films. Yeah they don’t pack 10 screens every night for months on end BUT they do enough to justify their presence.

It’ll be a nice consolation for Kitsch if Savages ends up as a minor hit of sorts, like winning one game in a best of seven series. Yeah you didn’t get swept but losing 4-1 isn’t exactly something to be proud of, either, as it’s kind of a beat down but without the complete factor to it. Covering this film’s box office receipts, probably by a small margin, is an accomplishment but it’s not something that’s going to be held up as Kitsch’s arrival as a movie star considering he headlined two of the biggest money-losers of the year. Opening to $16 million on a $45 million budget is fairly impressive and a market haul of $100 million between foreign and domestic box office grosses would put that film into the black. One out of three isn’t bad, one imagines, but the smallest one being the money maker isn’t what I imagine Walt Disney or Universal imagined when they green lit everything one imagines.

Movies he headlined in 2012 lost as much money as it cost to make and market The Avengers, to put it in perspective.

The thing that strikes me is just so how unprecedented this is, especially for an actor who deserves better. Kitsch has that star presence and enough acting chops that he probably will end up becoming a star. But right now he’s stuck with the stink of two very poorly performing films that featured him prominently and that’s a problem. He won’t headline another summer blockbuster for a while, of course, as failure generally doesn’t get rewarded in Hollywood when you hit nine figures in losses.

Kitsch wasn’t the cause of both Battleship and John Carter being underperformers. But he didn’t exactly benefit or stand out in any real way, either. The former had one of the worst pre-release buzzes of the year and people aren’t exactly coming out en masse for science fiction tales, even ones that have really successful source material. If the end game was that by the end of the summer Kitsch would be a movie star then he’s almost worse off than when he started.

Young actors generally tend to get the bulk of the blame when a big film misfires; Kitsch isn’t a name and not quite a movie star, thus two big films made and marketed around him failing (in Hollywood terms) is a reflection on him and not the fact that John Carter is a tough sell no matter what the budget and that movies about board games are laughable. Battleship was a very expensive wannabe Transformers but without the general affection for it, it seems, and a disaster waiting to happen.

So what does Kitsch do from here? It’s not all that hard and I think he’s a smart enough actor to be able to pull off a Tom Hanks like revival of his career; Hanks famously had a number of failures before finally becoming a star and Johnny Depp couldn’t draw an audience regularly until he became Captain Jack Sparrow. Without a Lindsay Lohan coke-fueled fall from grace Kitsch’s career could easily be where people thought he would after this summers’ fare. How so?

1. If you can’t headline a good film, be a part of somebody else’s good film

Kitsch seemed to excel in the ensemble drama that was Savages, which was more of a poor story-telling exercise from Oliver Stone than bad acting from Kitsch. If anything you could point to Blake Lively as the acting weak link of that film. A number of ensemble dramas, etc, would probably work best for him. Being a small part of a success is better than being a big part of failure; people tend to associate actors with successful things regularly even if they weren’t huge parts of it. Orlando Bloom still gets good vibes despite both Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean are significantly in the rear view for him. Getting in a handful of good, successful films will lift the taint that Battleship and John Carter have left on him.

2. Work the indies and develop your craft

Taylor Kitsch has a lot of good chops waiting to come out as an actor and has presence, et al, but it needs to be honed. Once a budget crosses $100 million a high level of acting is generally never demanded. When a film goes smaller than that, especially on the indie level, good acting usually comes with it. By becoming a better actor he gets a higher profile and more prestige pictures, et al, and eventually looks fade.

3. Time cures all ills

Ben Affleck got over Gigli and has since become a newfound respected director. Eventually years from now Taylor Kitsch will get another chance to headline another big blockbuster if the opportunity presents itself. He’s too talented not to be a big star; one imagines that someone is lining up a comic book franchise with him in mind in the future.

4. Continue to be a good hand on set

A big thing that kills a lot of young careers is the inability to be reliable on set; talent only trumps behavior for so long. Kitsch so far has been fairly solid behind the scenes; bad behavior is usually leaked by those behind the scenes out. It’s why Katherine Heigl’s backstage “diva like” behavior gets discussed regularly despite her limited success as a leading lady. She’s still a headliner BUT enough people don’t like her that bad things get leaked about her behavior on set, et al. It’s snide and gossipy but this is entertainment; there’s a reason why actor behavior behind closed doors gets leaked regularly. Hollywood functions like any industry: you want to work with people who are talented and easy to create with. And if you want to slowly poison someone’s career without being a dick about it in public you leak it to the press and gossip rags; one rumor repeated by a 100 websites can slowly sabotage someone’s career. Sometimes talent trumps workability but when it comes to people with similar skill sets and abilities the prima-donna loses out most times; Hollywood has a way of correcting bad behavior in this regard.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

This Week’s DVD – Red Scorpion

When it comes down to it, Sylvester Stallone’s third sequel to Rocky was kind of insulting towards the Soviet Union. Rocky 4 had an American champion beat up the ‘roided up Soviet boxing champion in Moscow and the crowd becoming fans of the American underdog. Not exactly even-handed but this was the ‘80s, after all.

Even-handedness wasn’t exactly Hollywood’s forte at this point. Blatant homerism was the rule of the day and one film kind of showcases that attitude towards the “Evil Empire” more than any other: Red Scorpion. Without Rocky 4 Dolph Lundgren would’ve never been able to headline his own film, much less have had the opportunity to do this film. Apparently the one thing he learned from Stallone on the set of that Rocky sequel wasn’t good script selection.

It’s got a fairly simple premise, even for a ‘80s action film. Red Scorpion follows Russia’s version of Rambo, Lt. Nikolai Rachenko, as he’s sent on a mission to kick some ass in Africa. Sent in to kill anti-communist forces, he’s captured and tortured. Breaking out of the prison, he’s taken in by an African bushman while on the run. Discovering he’s been on the wrong side of the equation, Russian Rambo can do only one thing: get a machine and start killing some commies.

The film’s production was actually 100 times more interesting than the film was. Filmed in South Africa during Apartheid, it was boycotted en masse because for a moment in the ‘80s anyone that had anything to do with South Africa was boycotted. Produced by Jack Abramoff, who left Hollywood to become a big shot lobbyist and had that particular aspect of his life chronicled in the sucktacular film Casino Jack, the film wound up being a spectacular failure at the box office because of the whole South Africa bit.

It shows you things have changed; no one would bat an eye about a film made in Darfur right now. BUT almost a couple decades ago the boycott was a big thing when it came to dealing with unfavorable shenanigans in other countries. Really, only in the ‘80s could you have a film like this. It’d be like a studio making a film called Purple Lion about a guy who is in Al Qaeda who finds that he’s been on the wrong side and goes on a one man killing spree against Islamic militants in Pakistan or something along those lines.

Someone would rather fund a romantic comedy starring Chris Brown and Rihanna called Beat That Bitch before a quasi-remake of Red Scorpion. They’d be a couple who falls in love due to their mutual love of music and bad Italian cooking. One complication arises, though: his wacky problem of beating her senselessly for “disrespecting him” by talking to other men about the weather and her beloved Chicago Cubs. That film would get made before Purple Lion does and this is a Hollywood system that gave us Think like a Man earlier this year. You could have an epic cameo from Sammy Sosa as Brown’s therapist who encourages him to keep hitting her because “you love her with your fists” and the film’s big romantic ending has her Rihanna asking Chris to slap her around all romantic like. I’m shocked that hasn’t at least been pitched in Hollywood, honestly, especially considering there are tons of women who have no problem with Chris Brown slapping them around.

That film would have an easier time getting made than Purple Lion; the only thing that could really top it would be Pixar making an animated musical remake of Schindler’s List starring Mel Gibson as Oscar Schindler.

Thirty years ago, though, you could get away with something like this if you had independent financing and kept it under a certain limit before production ensued. The film famously ran over budget as well, essentially became the type of film people point to as a cautionary tale. It’s not quite Cleopatra level disaster, because the film didn’t have a massive blockbuster budget to make up, but it lost plenty of money.

The interesting thing about the Blu-Ray/DVD combo which just came out, which I’d been waiting for, is that besides the upgraded a/v on both discs you get some awesome behind the scenes features. How awesome? You get Dolph Lundgren discussing the film from many years removed (his English is impeccable) and he has a level of candor that is amazing. He discusses the film and his career in depth, amongst other things, and what a nightmare the film was to produce. There’s an interesting perspective about a film like this he provides such candor it’s amazing. It’s refreshing in an EPK era to see an actor essentially say “well, this is why this film didn’t succeed” and rattle off a handful of reasons why and point out the differences in working with Stallone (whom he considered a great director in how he glowingly discusses his work) and working with other people who didn’t quite care as much.

In the scheme of things, Red Scorpion is to Dolph Ludgren what Commando is to Schwarzenegger. It’s a staple of ‘80s action cinema that’s good for a fun two hours or so. It’s not a good film, though, but its fun in an odd way.

Slightly recommended.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club

Ice Age: Continental Drift – The animals are back and getting into more prehistoric shenanigans

Skip it – But watch the line going into the theatre. You’ll have kids all excited and parents debating amongst themselves whether or not to commit suicide during the first act or to wait and see if it goes up in quality to rancid. Afterwards you’ll have a handful of folks kind of like this:

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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