By James Robinson
If you squinted while watching the trailer for "Escape Plan," it could be 1983 all over again.
The film's only-in-the-movies plot follows Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone), a structural-security expert wrongfully convicted and sent to serve time in the most secure facility ever built -- which, ironically, he also helped design. To escape, he must call upon the help of fellow inmate and international criminal mastermind Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
In the trailer, Stallone and Schwarzenegger, 67 and 66 years old, respectively, sport thick heads of hair. Schwarzenegger, showing off a new goatee, taunts Stallone's character that he punches like a vegetarian. Stallone hangs one-handed off a helicopter with the ease of a man a third his age, firing a gun with his free hand.
Sagging waistlines and fading eyesight be damned, in Hollywood the dreaded inevitability of age is no roadblock for hair-raising action. Counterintuitive as it may be, as newer and much younger stars flail in the action genre, Stallone and Schwarzenegger are deep into their fourth decade on screen with no suggestion of retirement.
There's a fitting logic to these two stars headlining a movie together. Both broke out in the late 1970s, Schwarzenegger through bodybuilding, Stallone with "Rocky," before moving on to dominate the 1980s. Together, they each defined the hard-bodied, superhuman action aesthetic of the time and peppered the decade with hits.
''Rocky" sequels and the "Rambo" franchise were huge business for Stallone, and with "Conan," ''The Terminator," ''Commando" and "Predator," Schwarzenegger couldn't miss in 10 years.
But the '80s shine wore off and the '90s brought forays into ham-fisted comedy alongside strange dark turns. Schwarzenegger played a pregnant man in "Junior," and Stallone's "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" -- about a detective whose mother comes to stay -- remains a cinematic punch line 20 years later. Schwarzenegger disappeared into politics, while Stallone struggled to find his comfort zone in the 2000s.
Come 2013, the year hasn't been kind to either actor. Schwarzenegger's "The Last Stand" and Stallone's "Bullet to the Head" received mixed reviews. Some critics responded well to what they saw as the stars' savvy awareness of their appeal, but others responded brutally.
''Sole redeeming quality is that it ends," USA Today weighed in on "Bullet to the Head."
More crucially, audiences stayed away. "The Last Stand" made half of its budget back internationally; "Bullet to the Head" made considerably less than that. These recent wobbles aren't limited to Stallone and Schwarzenegger, either. Of their 1980s class, Bruce Willis has struggled to find a hit recently with any movie that doesn't have "Die Hard" in the title. Mel Gibson has become commercial poison following a highly publicized personal meltdown, while Harrison Ford has largely moved away from action, donning Indiana Jones' fedora for one further outing in 2008 with tepid audience response.
Older stars have their work cut out for them at the modern box office when looking to break new stories. This year's eight highest-grossing movies to date were either sequels or working from well-known source material, fronted by actors many years Stallone and Schwarzenegger's junior.
In recent years, the biggest action strikeouts have come from original scripts or from studios looking to build new franchises on less dependable ground. Both Ryan Reynolds' "R.I.P.D." and Channing Tatum's "White House Down" massively underperformed this summer.
This has left stars such as Schwarzenegger and Stallone occasionally forgotten, but not replaced. Heavy investment in new, unknown action stars, like "Friday Night Lights" star Taylor Kitsch, has not worked out, with "John Carter" and "Battleship" unable to find the audience to match the exorbitant budgets.
Subsequently for older action stars, nostalgia remains a powerful commercial force. Stallone's "Expendables" franchise has found success heaping all of yesterday's heroes together. The third entry, due next year, will feature Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes and Nicolas Cage, alongside returning cast like Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
And in an age in Hollywood where the franchise is king, Stallone and Schwarzenegger's sort have powerful assets to cash in that their younger peers do not.
Schwarzenegger has signed on to appear in a fifth "Terminator" movie and in a new "Conan." Stallone is developing a new "Rambo" movie and there is speculation that Rocky Balboa will reappear in a spinoff from the original franchise.
John Rambo will turn 70, probably in a cinema near you.