Does Your Action Remake Really Benefit From an Unknown Star?

By  · Published on February 25th, 2014

As our own Neil Miller informed all of you brahs and brahlettes late last night, that incredibly ill-advised Point Break remake has found its very own Johnny Utah! And it’s somehow not Keanu Reeves, even though the man has not aged a day since the Kathryn Bigelow original from 1991! (Did they blow all their cash on co-star Gerard Butler? Eh, maybe.) Instead of going to the Reeves route, or even the actor-you’ve-actually-heard-of route, the Ericson Core (no, not actually a kind of cell phone you had when you were in junior high) production has gone with Luke Bracey, who you may (or may not) know from his previous work in G.I. Joe: Retaliation (where he was a masked Cobra Commander, the entire time) or a little something called Monte Carlo.

Bracey joins a long line of unknowns populating the cast list of seemingly big-time action “reimaginings” and, as the remake machine continues to grind on, chewing up and spitting out plenty of new talent along the way, we have to wonder – is casting an unknown really paying off?

Although the box office seems to be crowded with plenty of large-scale remakes of beloved action features, that’s not exactly the case – or, alternately, we may all just be remembering back to 2012, a magical time at the movies when no less than four big action remakes hit the silver screening, including three beloved properties of the eighties. Of those action remakes – Red Dawn, Dredd, Total Recall, and Contraband (a remake of an Icelandic original) – two included relative unknowns in lead roles. Red Dawn, oddly enough, was populated by names that were not big when the film was first shot, including Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth, who then shot to superstardom while the film languished on the shelf. Their apparent star power didn’t matter too much, and when the film finally arrived in November of 2012, it made less than $45m at the box office. Not a success, you guys, not at all.

Elsewhere that year, Karl Urban toplined the Dredd remake, in an apparent attempt to catapult the Star Trek co-star to his own success, and only making $35.6m along the way (not coming even close to recouping its reported $50m budget). Total Recall and Contraband, with their recognizable stars (including Colin Farrell and Mark Wahlberg, respectively) fared far better – the new Recall made almost $200m worldwide and Contraband pulled in a tidy $96.2m on a scant $25m budget.

Last year didn’t see the release of any legitimate action remakes, it seems that the field was far more crowded with continuations of stories and such, rather than full-on re-dos. Perhaps everyone was still reeling from the crammed 2012 schedule? Or wondering how to duplicate the massive success of the most profitable remake-starring-an-unknown of all time, 2010’s Jaden Smith-starring The Karate Kid, which made a truly shocking (and flummoxing, because, come on, it’s not really that good) $359m at the box office.

Or maybe they were just shooting this month’s RoboCop, starring Swedish film star Joel Kinnaman, a bonafide action guy who is still not too well known in the States. Kinnaman’s RoboCop is the best current example of an action remake starring a relatively newbie that has been a success – in just two weeks at the box office, the film has made over $144m around the world. This is not going to be another Dredd, by any means.

So what is drawing in audiences to certain action remakes and not others, especially when unknowns are rounding out most of these remakes? A little something called nostalgia, perhaps? The original RoboCop made a strong $53m at the box office back in 1987, spawning two sequels along the way. Similarly, the original Karate Kid was a major hit in 1984 – it pulled in a stunning $90.8m, and kicking up two of its own direct sequels (sorry, Hilary Swank movie). The first Red Dawn made considerably less that same year, only hitting $38m in returns. Similarly, Judge Dredd made just $34.7m at the American box office in 1995, though its foreign sales pushed it to $113.5m (a little guy named Stallone might have helped). What’s the key to making an action remake that people turn out to see? Turns out, it might not be the talent – it might be a little thing called (shock! Gasp! What?) a profitable jumping off point. Your talent, unknown or not, just might not matter.

So here it is – the original Point Break made nearly $84m at the box office back in 1991, landing it in the top ten for action outings that year (and this was a year that saw the release of The Last Boy Scout and Terminator 2: Judgment Day). As much as it pains me to say it, this Point Break remake just might be a hit, simply by virtue of its place in the remake machine.