Revisit the Collective: A PG-13 Rated Rant Against the Demise of R Rated Action Films

(CS: This was written early in my time as pop culture columnist of The Collective Publishing; it was posted September 19. 2012. It ended up being one of the first really popular pieces for the site that went about as viral as anything posted on there ever went, and the comment section had some life discussing my opinion. While PG-13 is still the blockbuster sweet spot, movies like Logan, Deadpool, and John Wick have made R-Rated action slightly more popular in the mainstream in the past decade.

I should take a moment to clarify some rating system differences between the USA and Canada. A PG-13 rating in the States means anyone under 13 should be accompanied by an adult. An R rating means anyone under 17 must be accompanied by an adult. In Canada, the rating system is determined by province rather than the whole country. In Ontario, 14A is our version of PG-13, but with a slight increase in the age. The Ontario version of the American R is 18A. An R in Ontario actually is the American version of NC-17, which means anyone under 17 is not permitted to see it in the theatre.

Another major difference is many movies rated R in the USA get a 14A rating in Ontario, especially if the reason for the rating is language or violence that isn't too gory. Most PG-13 rated movies especially comic book movies like Marvel or anything that is still marketed towards kids gets a PG here. This also means many PG rated movies in the US get a G rating here.

I am not sure if I knew the rating differences at the time, which is possibly why I felt there wasn't any R-Rated action movies anymore, but they were pretty rare in 2012 when most studios felt the R rating would be box office death for an action picture,)

I remember as a kid going to the video store (a what?!?), and picking out a VHS tape (what are these words?), and then watching my dad pick out his own movie. It was such a wonderful treat being able to choose my own movie, and stay up later to watch the whole film. When my film was over, my dad would alert me it was time to march up to my room, so he could then watch his “grown up movie.” I remember thinking his movies were magical forbidden fruits, and a few times I’d try to sneak downstairs to get a peek at these mystical films. I wasn’t allowed to see them because they were rated R, which as a kid I assumed meant “Really Too Awesome for Little Kids.” (CS: I get this with Everett who will ask me if he can watch a certain movie and then when I say no, he asks for the exact age for when he can see it.)

My dad pushed me off to bed, and he then entered into this exclusive club that my age prevented me from entering. It was a world that allowed language that would cause soap to be inserted into my mouth, more gallons of blood than I ever would see at the butcher’s shop, and the most alluring of forbidden fruit, a nice long look at completely unclothed boobies. (CS: Two things. When the heck did I ever go to a butcher shop? And bare boobies are something that has become very rare in any mainstream movie no matter the rating.)  Throughout grade school, I knew the greatest thing about becoming an adult was being able to watch films like The Terminator, Aliens, Die Hard, Predator, Lethal Weapon and Rambo: First Blood Part 2. (CS: After I wrote this article, every movie but Lethal Weapon got a sequel, and all of them were rated R in the States. It did not help make any of them good though.) One of the greatest thrills in my early teen years was trying to convince the video clerk or the movie theatre ticket seller that I really was 17 years old (puberty was just taking its time getting to me). One of my vivid and glorious memories of 1991 was my dad actually taking me to the cinema to see Terminator 2: Judgement Day (“I’m seeing an Arnold Schwarzenegger film without having to keep the volume low in my friend’s basement!”). (CS: My guess is that it was rated 14A in an Ontario theatre.)  There was a true coming of age moment finally being allowed to watch your first R rated action film that you knew would offer up a healthy dose of carnage, curses, and nudity. But Hollywood seems intent on eradicating the possibility of that moment for my son. (CS: I was wrong. He already has a laundry list of movies he is counting down the years to being able to see.)

Look at the selection of R rated action films from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and you’ll definitely be treated to some of the true classics of the genre. Now, look at the big action films of the past several years, and you’ll notice the majority of them are rated PG-13. This means the films stop being forbidden by the time you enter high school, and that is just one cruel robbery of one of the true defining moments of early teenagehood. 

Don’t get me wrong, there have been some amazing PG-13 action films. I’d never argue that comic book films like The Avengers or Dark Knight should have been produced to be R rated films. Both those films offer up everything I could desire from them within the confines of the PG-13 rating. (CS: Ahem. PG in Ontario.)  But there are some premises that were just meant to be rated R. Sometimes you just need your 2 hours of blood, swearing, and bare breasts. Over the last several years, it has just gotten much harder to find those things in an action movie because the big mainstream films have been sanitized down to a PG-13. (CS: There is a solid selection over the last ten years that will at least offer up the swearing and blood.) 

I’m a well-adjusted guy. Honest. I’m calm and relaxed, and my real life world view often tends towards pacifism. I rarely swear around the house, and keep my vocabulary family friendly around most company. (CS: Though Danika said a rather naughty word at a fairly young age, and it wasn't Emily where she got it from.)  I am not into pornography, and I would label my sex life “tame”. I’m a decent human being. But sometimes I just want a two hour escape where I can enjoy the type of things that I never indulge in when I’m in the real world. A rated R film lets me explore the world where a wisecracking cop with an expletive ending catchphrase shoots up evil European terrorists into Swiss cheese after these villains crashed an office party full of co-worker doing some hanky panky. One of the greatest travesties of modern film was when the fourth Die Hard came with a PG-13 rating, and they had to cut out John McClane’s most legendary term of endearment. (CS: Then they gave an R rating to the follow-up and proved maybe quality has nothing to do with the rating.)
Let us get our facts straight here, this move towards PG-13 rated action films has nothing to do Hollywood suddenly getting a morality makeover. Hollywood has noticed that teenagers like to go to movies. They’ve also noticed that the modern teenagers have a rather large disposable income. Teenage boys (and a lot of girls) love action. Hollywood wants to grabs those teenagers and get them into the cinemas. They also know that adults (and even teenagers) aren’t looking for “kiddie fare” and want some violence and explosions. So, they make a PG-13 film that allows for a fair amount of action to appease adults, but also ensures that they can get those wealthy teenagers into the cinemas. R rated action films aren’t favoured anymore because the film studio executives feel it doesn’t allow for as much broad appeal (aka it will only allow adults to part with their cash). (CS: Teenagers can get into R rated movies with an adult, but sadly, I will soon need to face the fact most of them don't want to go with their parents. I think, the bigger issue of the decrease of R rated action is that most kids go with parents to see PG-13 action movies, and so, studios then can get away with marketing merchandise and rides based off the movie to younger kids, thus more revenue streams.) 

The push towards PG-13 rated movies has also delivered a blow to live action family films. Look at the last several years, and see how many PG rated films you can find that aren’t animated. I love animated films, and I know kids will go to see them in droves, but do we realize how much classic kid friendlier fare we’re missing out on? Look at the 80s to see how many really great PG rated films there once were. Back then you had such classics as Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Empire Strikes Back, Ghostbusters, Goonies, Gremlins, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Labyrinth. (CS: While all those movies would be PG in Ontario, most of them except for Labyrinth and Goonies would be PG-13 in the States today.)  Now, many of these kinds of action films that would appeal to kids are produced for the PG-13 rating, which means many young kids are likely forced to watch animated features until they grow up a little. They miss out on the thrills and excitement that I got to experience as a young child when I enjoyed each of these films on the big screen. (CS: I was oblivious to the fact that I was basically being taken to see PG-13 movies as a kid, because that rating didn't exist yet. Crazy fact, Jaws was PG because the PG-13 rating didn't exist until 1984.) 

Maybe I just have to face the facts that days like my childhood are done, and if I want to watch a good R rated action film then I need to track down Blu-rays of classic films or find the “unrated” version of modern films. (CS: 1980 versions of a family and kid movies was definitely far more edgy than what passes off as kids fare now.)  But is Hollywood’s current strategy of churning out PG-13 rated film after PG-13 rated film really the key to box office gold? 

Hollywood has made money off R rated films in the last few years. Most comedies still slide towards the R rating, (CS: Now, a comedy barely makes it to theatre) because Hollywood has deemed that raunchy sells (even if they’re theoretically losing out on the teenage market). (CS: They weren't.) The Hangover series has been a monumental success, and Judd Apatow has had a very successful career directing/producing rated R comedies. But what about action films? Well, in 2012 we had R rated actioners in 21 Jump Street, Expendables 2, and Underworld Awakening top the box office rankings in their opening weekend. On the other hand, the big budget, special effects upgraded remake Total Recall with a PG-13 nosedived at the box office while in 1990 the original ruled the top spot. I’m not saying that it was the R rating that made the original a better movie, but I do believe it allowed the film more freedom to be a more appealing action film. Over the top, in your face, bloodfest action films like Expendables, Rambo (2008), and Resident Evil prove there is still a lucrative market for a good old fashion R rated action film. (CS: A few R rated action movies that were released after this article were The Nice Guys, John Wick, Upgrade, Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, Baby Driver, and Kingsman. Though almost all of them were 14A here in Ontario. 

I’m not calling for the demise of the PG-13 action film. I know it is here to stay for a long time, and I realize more and more films are being created to appeal to the teenage market. (CS: I now realize it was likely the preteen market they were trying to grab with the rating.) I also realize the majority of films that I saw this summer were PG-13, and most of them were quite good. Sometimes an adult just needs something a little bit edgier and a little bit riskier. A young child needs that forbidden fruit that they dream about one day finally being able to partake in. After all, what is the fun in parenting if I can’t even once shoo my son off to bed right before the heroine bares it all and then quickly guns down the potty mouthed bad guy? (CS: I had nothing to worry about, it has happened a few times already.)