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In its heyday, the action movie sold two hours of rollicking summertime fun to audiences at the nation’s multiplexes.
The massively successful genre evolved over the course of the 1980s and made superstars out of its leading men, people like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whose hyper-violent contributions to cinema were lapped up by an eager public.
But times change and so do public tastes, and the action movie eventually lost its status as the summer event film, consigning many of its stars to direct-to-video purgatory.
What follows is a list of the fifteen action movie stars who fell from box office dominance to the lowest rung on the ladder. Some recovered and are still working today, while others will be lucky to ever make another movie again. But what they all have in common is dazzling success in the action genre, followed by crushing failure.
Click ahead to see the 15 action movie stars who got their financial butts kicked.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 29 Nov 2010
Clint Eastwood is a living legend, and it would be hard to find an actor in the action genre --- or any genre, for that matter --- as revered as he is. However, nobody’s perfect, and Eastwood has failed at the box office more times than most people can count. But he always had the successful Dirty Harry franchise to fall back on if he needed to.
As the 1980s were drawing to a close, Eastwood took on the franchise one more time with The Dead Pool, the fifth installment in the series. The film performed well below expectations, earning only $38 million, which made it the least successful film in the series, with the exception of the first. After this dismal showing, Eastwood hung up his .44 Magnum for good and retired the character.
Nicolas Cage started his career in a number of critically acclaimed films, eventually winning an Oscar for his role as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. However, soon after winning the award, he began appearing mainly in action movies. He starred in Face/Off, Con Air and Ghost Rider, curious choices for an actor who was as accomplished and acclaimed as he was.
The films brought him big paychecks, which he spent on real estate, a private jet, yachts, cars and jewelry. Compounding matters was an allegation by the Internal Revenue Service that he owed millions of dollars in back taxes, and there were also lawsuits from East West Bank and Red Curb Investments for unpaid loans, also equal to millions of dollars. In 2009 Cage put up much of his real estate for sale in order to pay his debts and avoid bankruptcy.
During the 1970s, Burt Reynolds was as big a star as there was. His appearance in the 1972 film Deliverance put him on the map, and he spent the rest of the decade hitting home run after home run at the box office, appearing in such crowd pleasers as White Lightning and Smokey And The Bandit. Yes, in the 1970s, Burt Reynolds was the definition of “unstoppable.”
In 1980s, he became decidedly stoppable, thanks in part to poorly chosen projects, such as The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, and a series of mediocre cop movies that simply didn’t attract audiences. His diminishing professional fortunes were exacerbated by a messy divorce from actress Loni Anderson that a 1994 Orlando Sentinel article claimed was costing the actor $11,000 a month in alimony payments. Unable to keep up with the payments in the face of a waning career, Reynolds filed for bankruptcy in 1996.
Known as “The Muscles From Brussels,” Jean-Claude Van Damme had a successful run of action films in the 1990s. The Belgian former bodybuilder parlayed his martial arts skills into an acting career that included starring roles in such popular movies as Kickboxer and Universal Soldier. However, his most popular film was 1994’s Timecop, a science fiction film about time travel in which he beats up Ron Silver.
Just months after Timecop, Van Damme’s career began its downward trajectory with the release of Street Fighter, and each of his next few films was less popular than the last. He tried to stop the decline with Universal Soldier: The Return, but it was too little too late, and every film he made afterwards went directly to video. He would not appear in another theatrically released film until 2008’s JCVD, in which he plays himself as he foils robbers in a Belgian post office.
Don Johnson had spent over a decade as a struggling actor before hitting the big time with television’s Miami Vice. The show was different from any police drama that had come before it, with its emphasis on MTV-inspired visuals and its use of modern rock music to keep the pace lively. Johnson’s character, Sonny Crockett, was a world away from Kojak and Joe Friday, unshaven and dressed to the nines in $1000 Giorgio Armani suits.
When Miami Vice went off the air, Johnson transitioned successfully to a new show, Nash Bridges. However, when that show ended in 2001, the work got more and more scarce, and by 2004 he had to file for bankruptcy in order to avoid seeing his Colorado ranch auctioned off. Among his outstanding debts were almost $1 million to a bank and, as a sign of how desperate his situation had become, $5000 to a local grocery store.
From 1984’s The Terminator to its 1991 sequel, Arnold Schwarzenegger had an uninterrupted string of massively popular films. However, in 1993 he released Last Action Hero, and oh, how the mighty fell. The film lost money, unheard of for a Schwarzenegger movie at the time, due to a combination of bad press, bad word of mouth, and opening opposite Jurassic Park and Sleepless in Seattle, both of which annihilated his movie at the box office.
Schwarzenegger briefly got back on his feet with 1994’s True Lies. However, in 1997 he starred in Batman & Robin as Mr. Freeze, giving him the privilege of being in the least profitable film in the Batman series. The movie earned almost $43 million on its opening weekend, but it suffered a drop of 63% the very next, due again to bad press and bad word of mouth. Schwarzenegger saw all his subsequent movies decline in popularity, but fortunately he won the governorship of California in 2003, making it all a non-issue.
Michael Madsen has starred in many films, such as Donnie Brasco and Sin City, but he is perhaps best known for his chilling turn as the sadistic, ear-removing Mr. Blonde in the 1992 crime drama Reservoir Dogs. These days, however, E! Online has reported that Madsen is in serious debt, much of it to the film’s director, Quentin Tarantino, as well as to actor Pierce Brosnan.
Madsen is also said to owe money to hotels, clothing stores and car dealerships, and by his own estimate, his debts total close to $4 million. Although he is a consistently employed actor who draws a steady paycheck for his services, he has stated that after paying all of his bills, he actually ends up over $3000 in the red each month. Eventually, he was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2009.
Wesley Snipes has appeared in such action movies as Passenger 57 and New Jack City, but he is perhaps best known for his portrayal of the sword-wielding, vampire-hunting main character in the Blade film series, which turned him from actor to bankable action star. However, in 2006, he was charged with multiple counts of tax evasion, stretching back a decade to 1996.
Snipes responded to the suit with questionable legal defenses, such as alleging that the US tax code does not allow the income of American citizens to be taxed, which should be news to most American citizens. In 2010 he was sentenced to three years in prison after a two-year appeals process, and although he has not yet begun to serve his sentence, it’s a good bet that there won’t be a Blade 4 any time soon.
Not long ago, Mel Gibson was one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. He starred in the successful Lethal Weapon series, and many of the movies he appeared in afterwards achieved blockbuster status. But in 2002, he hung up his Walther and said that he was done with acting, preferring to direct. However, In 2006 he appeared before the camera again, this time in a mug shot.
Gibson had been arrested for drunk driving, and once in police custody, he began to say some not particularly sensitive things about adherents to the Jewish faith. The scandal didn’t affect the performance of his next directorial effort, Apocalypto, but when he returned to acting in 2010’s Edge of Darkness, the film was a major disappointment that earned only half of its $80 million budget. The underperformance of the movie may suggest that his career as an actor is too damaged to ever recapture its former glory.
In the early 1990s, when it came to pure boneheaded violence, the films of Steven Seagal made a Schwarzenegger movie look like My Dinner With Andre. His most popular film was 1992’s Under Siege, in which he plays a Navy SEAL out to stop the hijacking of a US battleship. The film grossed over $150 million and was his only one to receive generally positive reviews.
Seagal’s career began to slow in the mid-1990s. He made Under Siege 2: Dark Territory in 1995, hoping that a sequel to his most popular film would put his career back on track. However, audiences didn’t care for the film’s “Die Hard on a train” premise, and it was a commercial failure. He was simply not selling tickets any more, and with the exception of 2001’s Exit Wounds, every film he starred in after 1997’s Fire Down Below was released directly to DVD.
“Sly” Stallone’s 1976 boxing movie Rocky was a hit with filmgoers and a favorite of critics. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the underdog fighter, and the movie won a Best Picture Oscar. Stallone reprised the character five more times, but it was the role of a Vietnam veteran in 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II that made him an international superstar.
Stallone’s career was damaged in 1992 when he made Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, which starred Estelle Getty of The Golden Girls. It failed miserably at the box office and was ripped to shreds by critics, causing the actor to furiously backpedal into the action genre with Cliffhanger. In 2010, Stallone told The Sun that Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was the worst movie he had ever made. “If you ever want someone to confess to murder,” the star said, “just make him or her sit through that film. They will confess to anything after 15 minutes."
Although he got his start as a comedian, actor Chris Tucker is best known for his portrayal of a police officer teamed up with Jackie Chan in the successful Rush Hour franchise. Tucker received huge paychecks for the last two installments, earning $20 million for Rush Hour 2 and $25 million for Rush Hour 3.
Unfortunately, Tucker didn’t pay his taxes on those huge paydays, and in 2010 he was reported to owe the Internal Revenue Service more than $11 million. Tucker had already gotten into trouble with the state of California, who filed a lien against the actor in 2009 for unpaid state taxes totaling over $3 million. The court cases have not yet been resolved, but Tucker is already selling off such real estate as his $6 million Florida home, presumably to settle his debts.
As the star of the Mission: Impossible films, Tom Cruise is one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. However, this status hasn’t protected him from box office failure. In an interview with Matt Lauer, he attacked actress Brooke Shields for her decision to take Paxil to combat postpartum depression. Claiming angrily that there was no such thing as a chemical imbalance, he characterized psychiatry as a “pseudoscience.” Cruise drew upon his beliefs as a Scientologist for these criticisms, but to people sitting at home watching the interview, he was perceived as an agitator who was attacking a sad mommy.
His eccentric behavior negatively affected the public’s perception of him, and when Mission: Impossible III was released one year later, it underperformed considerably and was deemed a commercial disappointment. Two months later, Paramount Pictures terminated its 14-year contract with the actor’s production company. According to Paramount CEO Sumner Redstone, "His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount."
For years, Chow Yun-Fat has been a major star of Hong Kong action films. His ultra-violent movies have been incredibly successful in his native land, and his films began to develop a cult following in the United States during the early 1990s for their nonstop violence and highly choreographed gunplay. So it made sense to bring Yun-Fat to the United States and see if he could replicate his Hong Kong magic on American shores.
The attempt failed miserably. His first American movie, 1998’s The Replacement Killers, failed to make back its modest $28 million budget, and the following year’s The Corrupter suffered a similar fate, despite having an even lower budget. Eventually, Yun-Fat saw the writing on the wall and went back to making Chinese films, starring in 2000’s highly successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was a winner with critics, members of the Academy and the moviegoing public.
Dolph Lundgren became famous after starring in 1985’s Rocky IV as a steroid-enhanced boxer from the Soviet Union. With his baritone voice and monotone delivery, he was perfect for the role, and the movie became the most profitable in the series. Lundgren had the steely determination and necessary physique to become a successful action movie star, and great things surely lay ahead for him.
Sadly, Lundgren’s career was hobbled by a disastrous series of films. His first after Rocky IV was 1987’s Masters of the Universe, which made no money and was a less than auspicious beginning to his career. Next came 1989’s The Punisher, which critic Christopher Null called “one of cinema’s worst duds ever.” Lundgren finally starred in a successful film in 1992 when he appeared alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier, but by then he had firmly established himself as a direct-to-video wonder, and he has stayed that way for the last two decades.