Everyone has his or her own must-watch list: movies that, regardless of what you’re doing, you just have to watch if they come on TV. Some are classics and some are guiltier pleasures (I’m being nice about your Operation Dumbo Drop and Youngblood obsessions), but they all have that certain must-watch-ability factor in common. Action fans might be the most regular of the must watchers, as we’ll seek any excuse to (a) watch stuff blow up, (b) watch guns shot in slo-mo, and (c) blow off reality in favor of a world where you disregard the law and a fear of bodily harm in favor of appearing cool and saving the day. For yours truly, They Live, John Carpenter’s sci-fi-action-horror flick, is a must watch.
They Live offers a little bit of everything that the action fan craves. It’s surprisingly thought provoking while still being utterly badass. Yet I always get a little melancholy by the movie’s end and not just because this was John Carpenter’s last good movie. It bugs me because I know I’m watching the first and last big-screen action vehicle for the great Roddy Piper. And I still can’t figure out why. Look, I understand that I’ve been banging the pro-wrestler-turned-action-star drum a bit much of late, but what I’m saying here is like being over 50 and increasing your fiber intake: it’s unpleasant but necessary.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the Hot Rod, will go down as one of the great professional wrestlers of all time, though he was far from the most muscular or skilled. Nobody watched Piper’s bouts for his technique or his finishing move, which I couldn’t name for you to save Holly McClane from Hans Gruber. (That’s a Die Hard joke, people. Get with it.) That’s what Piper isn’t. What he is? Pure entertainment, an unapologetic antagonist, the bad guy who relished fans’ disdain. Nobody pranced, preened, insulted, assaulted, aggravated, and attacked like Piper, and I’d say he’s the most lovable villain in wrestling history. Which means he was a hell of an actor. (Spoiler alert, wrestling fans.)
Seeing as wrestlers make for great action stars, Piper seemed primed for Hollywood. What they would do with a man who made his name by breaking coconuts over the head of a man nicknamed Superfly, nobody knew. Then again, if the Situation is scheduled to make $5 million in 2010, Piper should have been a mortal lock for $200,000 in 1987. (And, by the way, if I see Mr. GTL as a fist-pumping cop on the edge in The Abdominator anytime soon, then I quit.)
When They Live hit theaters, in the fall of 1988, I couldn’t see it fast enough. My best friend and I made a beeline to the theater like the Ultimate Warrior, arriving early to beat crowds that never materialized. The movie is even better than expected, and Piper steals the show as a down-on-his-luck drifter with surprising depth. (Carpenter said he cast Piper because, “unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him.”) In one movie, he gave us one of the greatest lines in action movies (“I have come here today to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all outta bubble gum”), as well as perhaps its finest fight scene: an oft-imitated, never duplicated alley fight with Keith David. Piper, a star performer from the contemporary macho vaudeville that is pro wrestling, delivered on his potential and seemed poised to join the ranks of Stallone and Schwarzenegger as a big-time action hero. But, like a sequel to Howard the Duck, success never came for Piper. I am sad about one of these things.
The former host of Piper’s Pit has been in many a movie since They Live, yet his resume is full of half-ass straight-to-video schlock-fests. We thought studios would line up to build franchises around him, not offer scripts rejected by Lorenzo Lamas. Who knows? Maybe movie audiences had a tough time embracing someone they saw as a villain. Maybe Piper hated auditions or didn’t care about box-office glory. I can’t help but wonder why nobody seems to have seen the potential that I and many other devoted They Live fans saw in the man known as Nada. Piper wasn’t even in The Expendables.
Maybe it’s my job to write an action-packed screenplay and subsequently rescue Piper’s career like Tarantino pulling Travolta from the wreckage of another Look Who’s Talking. And maybe it’ll be a monster hit and we’ll all see what could have been. Or maybe it becomes another cult hit and morphs into a must-watch movie for action fans. Which would be great, because then we’d have not one but two “Rowdy” Roddy Piper must-watch movies on cable TV. Which would be a great cure for my They Live melancholy.
Nick Stevens, co-host of AMC’s Action Pack (Wednesdays, at 8pm | 7C), tries to make funny about movies, pop culture, and sports as often as possible. He lists John McClane, Batman, and Tom Brady as the people he’d most like to have beers with. For more of his grown-up nonsense, visit his Tumblr page or follow him on Twitter.Read More