There was a moment, for four or five days of my life, when my only goal was to see Die Hard 2. (Which, then, most people I knew referred to the movie as Die Harder, but that version of the title has seemed to have dissipated over the years.) A month before the release of Die Hard 2 I had gotten my driver’s license. But to see Die Hard 2 I had to be 17, which I was not. It’s a weird no man’s land of an age, where a human being is old enough to operate a moving vehicle on an interstate highway, but not old enough to hear the word “fuck” more than once during the course of a motion picture. Seeing Die Hard 2 in a movie theater was proving to be a challenge.
(I do find myself getting irrationally annoyed when people tell stories about how they saw all these “hard R” horror films in theaters with their buddies when they were 12, or whatever. How did everyone live near theaters with such lax rules except for me? I had a terrible time seeing rated R movies before I was 17. My first date ever, we were supposed to see Pretty Woman. Wouldn’t that have been a nice story? Well, they wouldn’t let us in to see Pretty Woman because it was rated R, so we saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles instead. To this day I have misplaced hatred towards Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for this very reason.)
At the time, just outside of Kansas City, somewhat near Arrowhead Stadium, there was a somewhat decrepit movie theater at a somewhat decrepit shopping center called the Blue Ridge Mall. (This mall was finally demolished a few years ago.) Now, my parents didn’t live particularly close to the Blue Ridge Mall, but, after a few failed attempts at other theaters, this was the first theater where, by chance, whoever was working that night, didn’t seem to care I wasn’t old enough to see Die Hard 2. (This theater would become my “rated R” theater until I turned 17. I had, probably, around a 50 percent success rate. But this was much better than my rate at other theaters, which was “zero.” But I remember I did, eventually, also get in to see Total Recall and Darkman. I was denied entry to The Two Jakes, a movie I didn’t wind up seeing until 2020.) And, let me tell you, when I finally got to see these movies, it was exhilarating. But not because I was watching something even close to “dirty” or “sinister.” I was watching movies where people kind of acted and talked like they did in real life.
I’ve been thinking about this past incarnation of rated R movies a lot lately. Mostly due to having not much to do socially these days, I’ve been rewatching a lot of rated R movies from that era. And, frankly, they are awesome. A friend of mine, before the pandemic, had a huge blindspot when it came to action movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. He had just assumed he wouldn’t like them because he doesn’t really like today’s versions of action movies. Well, he’s all caught up. And not only does he like these older rated R action movies starring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, he loves them. And the reason being is they literally don’t make these movies anymore. Because, while watching, they kind of, sort of feel like PG-13 action movies of today, in that they are intended for a younger audience. Then, out of the blue, there’s a bunch of profanity, or someone gets killed and there’s a lot of blood and a funny punchline. This kind of movie is so rare today, these moments all feel like real shocks to the system.
Today, if an action movie is rated R, that’s basically the selling point. And the movie has to be “dark” and “earn its R.” Back then none of these movies were trying to earn an R. They were just barely R, but that’s what makes them unique now, because no studio is going to let a “barely R” movie see the light of day. Today, it either has to be PG-13 or full-on, all the way, R. There’s no Die Hard 2, middle-of-the-road R-rated action movies anymore. And I didn’t realize how much I missed them until now.
I asked ‘80s and ‘90s film historian Kumail Nanjiani (oh, and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter) – who has also been re-watching a lot of action movies from that era over the last few months – if he’s also noticed this.
“Yes,” agrees Nanjiani. “I think R- rated movies then were more fun and more varied. I think the difference in R-rated movies in the past compared to R-rated movies now seems to be that R-rated could be ‘casually’ R. They could be fun movies. Whereas, now, every R feels like a decision.”
Nanjiani’s use of the word “casually” is interesting here, because that’s a pretty good way to sum it up. Here’s an example: Deadpool and Logan are two famously R-rated superhero movies. And there’s nothing “casual” about either of their R ratings. It almost felt like a studio note was, “If we are going to let you make this rated R, you’d better use the word “fuck” in literally every sentence.” (For the record, I like Logan quite a bit.) We can even see this with The Snyder Cut of Justice League. One of its promotional tools is that its “rated R.” That never used to be a thing: “Come see Commando, it’s rated R!”
Now, compare all this to a movie like Planes, Trains and Automobiles. There is absolutely no way possible this movie would be rated R today. It’s barely even rated R then, save for one scene in which Steve Martin unloads the word “fuck” 18 times. Which is a classic scene we’d, again, never get today. Could you even imagine the conversation in the corporate offices, “So, wait, you’re telling me we are going to make this nice family holiday movie rated R because of one 90-second scene? Forget it! You’re fired! Now find me Spider-Man!” (For some reason I picture J. Jonah Jameson as the head of Paramount Pictures in 1987.)
Honestly, I think what makes these “casual” rated R movies so appealing is our normal lives are “causally R.” No, most of us aren’t dealing with explosions on a regular basis, but we do hear some casual expletives often during our day. But not “let’s make this a rated R movie in 2021” often. There’s something strangely realistic in the way people talk in these action movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s that we don’t get today.
And they are shockingly fun. As I mentioned before, when they do use an expletive, it’s usually at an opportune time that really hits. Nanjiani adds, “Movies for adults are generally R now, or hyper-violent thrillers.” Looking back at a few of the movies that fit in this category I’ve re-watched over the last few months (and that I had a great time re-watching. Like, an actual good time): Die Hard 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Passenger 57, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Young Guns, Total Recall, Predator, Commando, The Running Man, Under Siege, Eraser, Tango & Cash, Con Air – or even comedies like Major League and, yes, Planes Trains and Automobiles … all of these movies are rated R and I’d have a difficult time believing any of them would be released with an R rating today. And none of them are really aimed at adults or are hyper-violent thrillers. And even when they do release them as R today, like say 2018’s The Predator, the somewhat fun spirit of the original is long gone and it leans into the fact it’s an “R movie.” These movies all work because they are “casually R.”
People often lament that studios don’t make mid-range budget movies anymore. And that’s true. And some of the movies above would fit into that category. And, boy, this past year sure would have been a good time for some new “casually R” movies. But the “casually R” movie is now extinct as that theater at the Blue Ridge Mall where I got to see them in the first place.
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