If Netflix can get big viewership for forgotten or theatrically ignored star-driven actioners, why should they bother to spend big bucks on their own action movies?
This isn’t a surprise, but at least one of Jason Statham’s best movies, especially among his “action movies,” is getting a bigger audience for at least the next few days. Judging by the theatrical box office ($48 million worldwide but on a $22 million budget in 2013), you probably didn’t see Homefront. The film actually grossed more worldwide than the likes of The Transporter ($44 million in 2002), Safe (my personal favorite among Statham’s solo action vehicles, which grossed $40 million in 2012) and the Jennifer Lopez co-starring Parker ($47 million in 2013). It earned less than The Killer Elite ($57 million in 2011), but that Statham/Clive Owen/Robert De Niro action spectacular cost a whopping $70 million.
Homefront concerns a retired DEA agent who moves with his young daughter back to their late mother’s hometown. A schoolyard altercation between his kid (Izabela Vidovic) and a young bully leads to conflict with the kid’s mother (Kate Bosworth), who is both a meth addict and the brother of a local small-time dealer (James Franco). While the kids eventually make up, the grownups have a harder time letting go, and, well, action and violence eventually ensues. It’s like Carnage or The Slap, but with explosions, fisticuffs and shoot-outs. It also works as a meditation on modern masculinity and male ego without using a yellow highlighter. It’s a pretty damn stylish action drama that emphasizes the “drama” over the action.
It also has a ridiculously overqualified cast, including Frank Grillo as one of the baddies, Clancy Brown as the sheriff and, yes, Winona Ryder as Franco’s strung-out girlfriend. The film, directed by Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls and Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead) and written by, yes again, Sylvester Stallone, keeps the focus on character and plausible human interaction. There’s a skewed realism to the melodrama, including an emphasis on de-escalation and plausible reactions to the dust-ups. Everyone brings their A-game, including Statham who knows not try to upstage the more colorful supporting cast. Ryder is having fun and Franco especially relishes his small-time criminal who eventually realizes that he’s the villain in his own story.
It’s a reminder that Sylvester Stallone A) is very intelligent and thoughtful about the movie business, B) wrote the first Rocky movie and directed the first three sequels, and C) didn’t make a truly bad movie until Staying Alive in 1983. His post-Rocky flicks were dramas like Escape to Victory (a film about POWs playing soccer), F.I.S.T. (a Teamsters drama) and Paradise Alley (a 40’s-set drama about three Hells Kitchen brothers who get involved in professional wrestling). Heck, even First Blood was a survivalist action drama about a PTSD-stricken Vietnam vet lashing out at small-town locals. The stereotype of Stallone as an “action guy” didn’t really kick in until Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985 and Cobra in 1986.
Homefront feels like a hybrid of Stallone’s earliest work and his latter-day action flicks, as it’s a character drama with action as opposed to an outright adventure flick. After a violent prologue which feels right out of a Craig R. Baxley flick (Statham, undercover with racist drug dealers, riding a motorcycle as his long hair flows in the wind), the picture doesn’t really go “full Statham” until its final thirty minutes. It’s a B-movie with an unusually stacked cast and unusually specific characters amid a conventional (but refreshingly logical) narrative. It even avoids certain genre tropes. While Statham’s young daughter does get damsel-ed in the third act, it’s almost accidental and the cat lives.
As far as its momentary popularity on Netflix, it’s their most-watched movie at the moment, it’s another example of the streaming platform being just as popular (if not more so) for old-school grindhouse action flicks as prestige TV and network binge favorites. I’ve written my share of posts about films like Peppermint and Colomibiana being momentarily popular, and Liam Neeson’s Unknown had a run near the top just before Honest Thief opened theatrically last week. Meanwhile, in a skewed irony, Outside The Wire is now sitting below the Lionsgate/Millennium studio programmer. Why spend a fortune on Netflix original actioners when studio discards pull in solid viewership for a fraction of the price?
Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos reportedly remarked in 2019 that spending $115 million on JC Candor’s Triple Frontier, a muscular actioner starring Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Pedro Pascal, Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund may have been a mistake. To be fair, since then, Netflix has paid up for the Dwayne Johnson/Gal Gadot/Ryan Reynolds action comedy Red Notice and is allegedly giving $200 million to the Russo Bros. for the Chris Evans/Ryan Gosling actioner The Grey Man, while the Russo-produced Extraction (starring Chris Hemsworth) is allegedly Netflix’s most-watched original movie ever. Nonetheless, the continuing popularity of third-party star-driven actioners like Unknown, Homefront and Jessica Chastain’s Ava implies that “new to you” action flicks may be good enough for the Netflix consumer base.
It’s no secret that Netflix has seen seemingly decent viewership for the very kind of star-driven studio programmers (Patriots Day, How Will I Know, Mile 22, etc.) that have been ever-more ignored in theaters by consumers who only go to the movies for would-be event films. The great irony is that Netflix and other streaming platforms has led to an exodus from theaters for “just a movie” offerings, only for those same films to be “discovered” on Amazon, Hulu and the like. It’s not dissimilar to how “new to you” TV shows like L.A.’s Finest, Cobra Kai, You and Schitt’s Creek become Netflix hits. That’s partially why Roku just bought a bunch of Quibi shows for their platform.
I am reminded of how the 1960’s Batman show was canceled after three seasons partially because ABC realized that the show’s viewership had become mostly kids and that those kids were content watching reruns. While there is value in pricey actioners like Michael Bay’s 6 Underground, like media coverage, prestige and showing force, Netflix may be able to get away with filling the demand for action movies with “new to you” reruns. Why bother spending $100 million on entirely new action movies when audiences, the same audiences who routinely ignore such fare in theaters and then complain that Hollywood only makes superhero movies, will lap up that star-driven actioner that they missed in theaters and treat it like a newbie?