It’s catch-up time in The Rest of America this weekend. While there’s technically only one brand-new nationwide release, about which more in a moment, limited releases are expanding. In roughly descending order of screens, Lone Survivor, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, and August: Osage County all go to more screens this weekend, mostly in hopes of capitalizing on awards buzz, or in the case of Lone Survivor because this is about when Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty made some money. The lovely Her is also getting a wide release, while Llewyn Davis is going wider but not quite mall-level and August: Osage County gets out of its exclusive two-screen arrangement in NYC, but probably not full-on national yet.
But if you’re all caught up on end-of-year releases and beginning-of-the-year found-footage horror, well, Lionsgate won’t let you forget it’s January, because their The Legend of Hercules movie looks positively shlocktastic. It stars Kellan Lutz, maybe not even on the list of 10 most charismatic Twilight actors, and is directed by Renny Harlin, making a return to theatrical features after an extended stay in TV episodes and direct-to-DVD movies. Harlin’s last real theatrical release was the John Cena starred 12 Rounds, which means a former big-budget action director had to make the second-most famous low-rent John Cena vehicle. (The Marine is the most famous? Right? Right?) Harlin has been on my mind recently because I took it upon myself to catch up with the fourth and fifth Nightmare on Elm Street movies on cable. The fourth one, The Dream Master, is directed by Harlin, and it’s pretty good; I believe it was also one of the biggest-ever entries in the series, kicking off a brief period where slasher sequels could serve as training grounds for big-budget action directors. Harlin got the Die Hard 2 gig after Nightmare 4, and while it’s not a franchise highlight, maybe in the wake of A Good Day to Die Hard, all other Die Hard movies should be considered franchise highlights. He also helped Stallone to one of his first big comebacks (Cliffhanger in 1993), and made two ill-advised action movies starring his wife, Geena Davis, one of which (The Long Kiss Goodnight) is pretty damn good. Unfortunately, the other was Cutthroat Island, the kind of studio-bankrupting bomb no one wants on his or her CV—but even that didn’t appear to sink Harlin, as he made a summer hit out of Deep Blue Sea, still probably the purest expression of his abilities. Deep Blue Sea is a giant-shark movie that’s no closer to Jaws than Die Hard 2 is to Die Hard (in fact, it’s probably way further away), but there’s no shame in being probably the second-best giant shark movie ever.
Yet after this late-90s peak, Harlin went into a tailspin: he reteamed with a newly downward-trending Stallone for Driven; followed it up with the nearly unreleased Mindhunters (still unseen by me, and extremely tempting); got hired to make a substitute Exorcist prequel when Paul Schrader’s was too think-y; and made the stunningly lame The Covenant and 12 Rounds, as well as the acceptable but unremarkable Cleaner. Suddenly, he was rattling around on the margins of the big-studio business, and I’m not really sure why. Harlin is by no means John McTiernan, but he belongs to a class of late 80s/early 90s action hacks whose skills look fleeter and more seasoned when compared to, say, John Moore, or even Brett Ratner. Watching Nightmare 4‘s well-crafted special effects sequences, I thought: “Wait, did Renny Harlin make a Predator movie?” He did not. But then, when the opening credits came up for Nightmare on Elm Street 5, I saw the name Stephen Hopkins and thought: oh, right, this guy! Stephen Hopkins made Predator 2, and also Blown Away, which is pretty good. And, like Harlin, he now mostly directs TV. He might even be doing better than Harlin, because he directs episodes of House of Lies and has never made a movie starring Kellan Lutz. I don’t mean to get all old-fogey, but it does seem like action directors of yore, even middling ones, tended to get some better on-the-job training than many people who get put in charge of massive action-fantasy pictures like 47 Ronin. Someone like Nimrod Antal, who got his American movie career started with horror (Vacancy) and graduated to a Predator movie, now seems like an exception more than the rule—and Antal has seemingly barely worked since Predators, only directing that Metallica 3D movie from last year.
Basically: January doesn’t have to be like this. It could be home to a better class of B-movies and anti-Oscar junk food. For a while, it seemed to be moving in that direction, and I guess next weekend the month does take another small step towards rep rehab, with a new Jack Ryan movie and a Kevin Hart comedy I imagine will do just fine. But January 2013, by contrast, had two different movies starring Expendables; two different crime movies with big stars (Broken City and Gangster Squad; ok, neither were very good, but they weren’t utter junk); a totally decent horror movie (Mama); and that movie where Hansel and Gretel kill witches (ok, also not good, but still: points for trying). This year, Lionsgate is doing its best for the Januariest January possible; it also releases I, Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein’s monster (whose name is not Frankenstein) fights gargoyles and/or angels, or something. It’s the only wide release of January 24. It’s not directed by Renny Harlin, or Stephen Hopkins, or even Paul W.S. Anderson, or anyone else who has made an action movie before.