Today’s Top 10 list comes from sitegoer Brian Tousey, who teaches a film course in Los Angeles, and writes a film-based blog called Maximum Tenderness. His previous list for Scene-Stealers was Top 10 Stephen King Movie Adaptations. If you’d like to contribute a Top 10 list to Scene-Stealers, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s Brian:
I think that the PG-13 rating is one of the worst things that has happened to movies. Horror movies have suffered the most, especially in the last decade. But what about some beloved movie franchises that were compromised in the name of getting a younger demographic in the theater? A lot defenders of the PG-13 rating claim that a PG-13 today would be an R rating 10 years ago. But that is a weak argument; the downgrade in rating always makes a difference. Ask yourself this: Are any of the following movies improved by the change from an R rating to PG-13?
So let’s give thanks for the few series that have maintained their R-ratings throughout the run of their series. Thank you, “Lethal Weapon” series. Thank you, “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise. And thank you, “American Pie” 1-3. For as shitty as some of your sequels were, you will always have the dignity for sticking to your R-rated guns.
In what universe would lowering the rating of the would-be “Stakeout” franchise help in any way? Was there a contingency of teen Richard Dreyfuss fans that would have loved to have seen his latest movie but were unfortunately turned away due to its R rating? There are myriad reasons why “Another Stakeout” failed- you can point to Rosie O’Donnell, the lack of moustaches on Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez, or the fact that adding the word “Another” in front of a sequel title is never a good sign [see also "Another 48 Hrs" (1990)]. The first “Stakeout,” while primarily a comedy, opens with a fairly brutal jailbreak and closes with some R-rated violence in a Seattle logging complex. This raised the stakes in terms of real danger for the hero cops assigned to the stakeout. But in the decision to make the sequel PG-13, it cut whatever edge the R rating brought to the original, essentially cutting this franchise short at number two.
The original “Caddyshack” is a stone-cold classic for too many reasons to count. You’ve got the quintessential Rodney Dangerfield performance [I will accept "Back to School" (1986) arguments as well], Bill Murray at his most quotable, one of Chevy Chase’s three best roles, and a hilariously apoplectic Ted Knight. This was one of those breezy rated R movies- the kind you could watch with your dad and it seemed OK. It was hilarious AND it had boobs. “Caddyshack II” was watered down in every way, right on down the line. Jackie Mason? Watered down Dangerfield. I love “Unsolved Mysteries,” but Robert Stack is no Ted Knight. Michael O’Keefe’s role as Danny Noonan was large shoes to fill, and Jonathan Silverman was not up to the task. I mention these names because they are all embodiments of the very concept of ‘PG’, which is what “Caddyshack II” was rated.
Every movie in the “Alien” and “Predator” franchises, despite varying wildly quality-wise, was R-rated. That’s appropriate–these are movies that demand to have a particular brand of carnage that require Children Under 17 Being Accompanied by a Parent or Adult Guardian. So when it came time to throw together that long-gestating smackdown movie between an Alien and a Predator (“Alien vs. Predator”, or AvP), 20th Century Fox decided that toning down the violence for a PG-13 rating was obviously the way to go. The downgrade in rating was devastating in terms of showing how dangerous each of these alien species truly was. Actually, the Aliens managed to escape with some dignity, as they existed in all their incarnations as mindless killing machines. The Predators don’t get off so easy, though. The best part of the original Predator was how intelligently and ruthlessly the Predator conducted its hunts. But every movie that contains a “vs.” in the title seems to need a good guy and a bad guy, and the Predators drew the short “good guy” straw [the same thing happened to poor Jason Voorhees in "Freddy vs. Jason" (2003)]. A few years later, the studio tried to rectify the situation by making “AvP: Requiem” (2007) a hard R, but the damage was already done.
The original “Conan the Barbarian” was the first R-rated movie I ever saw in a movie theater. I remember watching that opening scene, in which a young Conan watches Thulsa Doom coldly behead his mother. The movie that followed was a cavalcade of nudity and violence the likes of which could only come from the mind of John Milius [he of the screenplay for "Apocalypse Now" (1979)and the “Do You Feel Lucky?” speech from "Dirty Harry" (1971)]. It had its campy qualities, but on the whole this was a fairly gritty and nasty little bit of super-violence. The sequel,”Conan the Destroyer” (at least the title fills you with confidence), went entirely campy, and the rating went from a robust R to a spindly and weak PG. The loss of the word “barbarian” in the title is telling; the Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) of “Conan the Destroyer” is a downright jovial and fairly verbose fella, wisecracking his way through not-very-dangerous situations with a comic-relief sidekick played by Tracey Walter, Cookie from “City Slickers” (1991)! Ah, the comic relief sidekick has been the death-knell of many a badass character … I saw “Conan the Destroyer” in the theater when it came out with no parents in tow. It was entirely appropriate for a 12-year old, which I posit that a Conan movie should never be.
There are arguments that could be made for “European Vacation” (which had more bare breasts than the original), or “Christmas Vacation,” which is pretty great in its own right. But did either of these movies benefit from being downgraded to a PG-13? Are either better than the R-rated original? Nope (and the less said about the PG-rated “Vegas Vacation,” the better). The majority of the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” could be rated PG-13; Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) prides himself on running a fairly wholesome family trip, filled with side-trips to Dodge City and the “second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, which is only four short hours away”. But the R-rating is necessary when darkness and tragedy intrude on this good-natured family trip in the form of a dog-killing, Aunt Edna-killing, and of course this freak-out: “I think you’re all fucked in the head. We’re 10 hours from the fucking fun park and you want to bail out. Well I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun. We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’ll need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles. You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes! I gotta be crazy! I’m on a pilgrimage to see a moose. Praise Marty Moose! Holy Shit!” They tried his sort of freak-out again in “Christmas Vacation” to diminished returns.
It is difficult to argue for the quality of any “Police Academy” movie, but the series did begin life as a raunchy R-rated comedy, sort of a cross between “Porky’s” (1982) and “Stripes” (1981). It wasn’t great, but it did get the job done in terms of gratuitous nudity, blowjob jokes, and gross-out humor. The second movie came out with a PG-13 rating. After that, every single movie in the franchise was PG rated. The difference in tone between the original and, say, “Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach” (1988) (how many colons does a movie title need?) is vast: The comedy went from being for adults (well, at least older teenagers) to clearly being a series for children, much in the same vein as the Keystone Kops. I know that this was a lucrative series for Warner Brothers, so maybe they made the right decision by watering down the content. But the fact remains that if you have to watch a “Police Academy” movie, you are always better off going with the original.
“The Road Warrior” (1981), the best of the Mad Max trilogy, was somehow able to figure out a way to have a child play a role in the narrative while still maintaining all of its R-rated badassery. It helped that the kid was feral and fairly handy with a razor-edged boomerang; he was as R-rated as the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, they weren’t so lucky when they included an entire commune of children in the PG-13-rated “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” This middle sequence of this movie is a real shame, especially since the movie starts strong (with the awesome Thunderdome sequence) and ends pretty well, too, with one of the series’ patented car/truck/train chases. But that middle section in which Max (Mel Gibson) finds himself surrounded by children who are waiting for a savior to lead them to a promised land? It brings the movie to a halt; these kids are the Ewoks of the series. It softens the movie and worse, softens the character of Mad Max. Why would a paying audience want to see Mad Max turn into Slightly-Annoyed Max? Looking back, I bet everyone thought it would be the addition of Tina Turner and her song “We Don’t Need Another Hero” that would sink the movie. No, Tina did just fine. But no one saw those kids coming.
The character that suffers the most from the downgrade in rating in the “Revenge of the Nerds” series is Booger (Curtis Armstrong). The Booger from the original supplies a weak party with Wonder-Joints, orchestrates panty raids (“We’ve got bush. We’ve got bush!”), and combs high schools looking for dates. Booger was an R-rated character, born and bred. By the time “Nerds in Paradise” came out, he was stuck with weak lines like “VIP? Very Immense Penises!”, and studying under a gross-out master by the name of Snotty. Sigh. Other sins of the PG-13 sequel? Toning down the character of Ogre (Donald Gibb), who in the original literally dropped a kid from rooftop, to making him an honorary nerd in the sequel. Ogre a nerd? That is unforgiveable to a Nerd purist. Finally, how can there be a Nerd movie set in Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break without even a little bit of nudity? There were sequels after “Nerds in Paradise” that were supposedly even worse; I never saw them. The second one took the wind out of my Nerd sails.
The PG-13 rating of “Live Free or Die Hard” got a lot of press when it came out, with even Bruce Willis initially questioning the wisdom of a toned-down “Die Hard” movie. Someone at the studio must have gotten to him, however, because he retracted those derisive statements and claimed that the fourth in the series was the best one since the first. Hmm. That isn’t the movie that I saw. “Live Free or Die Hard” had the weakest villain, the weakest caper, and the weakest John McClane. In fact, by reducing the rating to a PG-13, the result was a character that looked like John McClane but didn’t really act or feel like him. “Live Free or Die Hard” felt like a “Die Hard” movie in the same way that “Beverly Hills Cop III” (1994) felt like a “Beverly Hills Cop” movie. The action had to become more sensational but less visceral with a PG-13 rating, so instead of a down and dirty fight, like the one between McClane and Alexander Godunov’s terrorist in the original, you get a car launched at a helicopter or McClane riding the side of a fighter jet. I know, the action got more cartoonish as the series went along [McClane being shot out of a waterspout in "Die Hard With A Vengeance" (1995) comes to mind], but every “Die Hard” before number four had a scene where our hero was so beaten up that he was literally gooey with blood, sweat, and tears. That is what “Live Free or Die Hard” was missing. A gooey John McClane.
Remember the first “The Terminator” (1984), when Arnold storms the police station and picks off police officers one by one? That scene was so effective because it was violent and immediate; he was right there in the room with them, staring them in the face, killing them. It made the concept of a machine that couldn’t be reasoned with truly terrifying. It made the deaths personal. The same is true in T2 (1991), when the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) launched his metal hand-sword through a guy’s face (and the carton of milk from which he was drinking). These scenes are R-rated scenes, and they go a long way toward making those movies what they were. Even the weak “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) was able to deliver some good R-rated action. The deaths in the PG-13 rated “Terminator Salvation” are of the impersonal variety–lots of people in vehicles dying when the vehicle is blown up from afar. The storyline of the fourth “Terminator” should have guaranteed an R rating, right? This is the one that takes place after the robot apocalypse where humans are being systematically hunted and slaughtered. We have seen glimpses of this future in all the previous “Terminator” movies; it looked dark, raw, and super-violent. As we now know, that isn’t what we got; instead, we got what I hope is a franchise killer. I don’t know if I can handle another compromised “Terminator” movie.