January 2021 Forecast
By Michael Lynderey
January 23, 2021
Times have changed in January, my semi-favourite month. Cold, dark, frost-marked, winter still beckons outside, but there's no horror film with a PG-13 rating and inconceivable $20 million plus opening out on the first weekend of the year; the MLK Jr. four-day window no longer features a surprise box office hit with a military theme, working very hard to pretend war is bad; and the weekend after that has not one Guy Ritchie movie that nobody wants to see.
They're all gone. Instead, what we have left are a pair of cold hard men fighting their long battles throughout the night, making one more stand, trying to carve a warm little spot from the remnants of the theatrical market. May the odds be ever in their favour.
1. The Little Things (January 29th)
Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson are the stars of January 2021, and the story they're telling is the one they know best: Denzel's a heroic if conflicted cop, Neeson the lone saviour at the end of his rope. One man's film is already out there, the other is punching at the door, about to break free. They'll tell us a little something about box office in 2021.
Studios are clearing much of the spring schedule (again), but Denzel isn't going anywhere. He returns to acting for the first time since his first sequel, The Equalizer 2, which opened in July 2018 and managed, after a bit of toil and trouble, to get to that magic $100m total that the more high-end of the man's films have been expected to claim.
Here he's in what appears to be a prototypical '90s-style (and 1990s-set) script about an LA police officer who teams with an unusual partner to track a man who has killed many women (in this way and in others, even in so much as he plays a normal human man and not a superhero, all of Denzel's films are '90s-style).
The star is paired with two actors, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, who once seemed quite unlikely to join him on the list of Oscar winners, but nevertheless just went ahead and did it (this isn't a statement of criticism, but the two rarely starred in the limited stereotype of films that the Academy considered to nominate). Leto broke out in the 1990s with My So-Called Life on TV and a good role in the masterful slasher film Urban Legend (I'm a big fan), before settling into intermittent indies, a realm he'd seemed likely to stay in, perhaps by design (Dallas Buyers Club changed that). Malek was shown to the world as the implausibly good-natured pharaoh in the Night at the Museum films, though waited years until the Mr. Robot show and then his award-winning Freddie Mercury expedition; this is indeed his first major film since Bohemian Rhapsody, a list that's now growing at a clip (his future includes David O. Russell and the inevitable James Bond picture).
So The Little Things is ostensibly a perfectly innocent serial killer thriller with a big name star and two key supporting roles, but it's now also Warner's continuation of its evil scheme, the second film they're sharing with HBO Max, on the same darn day, no less.
And when it comes to the decades-old struggle between streaming and the theatres, The Little Things' two-face inspired release is a more important one than Wonder Woman (which has so far pulled in about $34m, by the way). A film like that, with its expectations of hundreds of millions in grosses in a... non-surprising... time, will always have a home on the big screen. It's the little guy, the medium-bite adult thriller, the anonymous serial killer catcher, whose future in the movie business box office columns I'd question, and the kind of film whose grosses this year will probably tell us a lot more about how most studio films will be seen in the future.
But back to the picture, which should stand at its own: the title sounds more like a Nancy Meyers comedy than a film about cold, hard, men, and maybe the film is a little less retro than would first appear - is Leto really an evil serial murderer, or is there some kind of mind-bending plot twist that will acquit him of this accusation? (it's all in Rami's head; Denzel is a ghost; the women were all aliens, etc.). They do like to f--k with us these days. (Matthew McConaughey's Serenity, for example, began as a traditional steamy Florida thriller and ended in something no human could possibly try to explain, sober).
John Lee Hancock directs and also wrote this thang, and he's the man who made The Blind Side, The Founder, The Alamo, and others like them - all fine work, if not particularly suspenseful (or gory). Other cast supporting actors include Natalie Morales, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, names that when added together almost gives itself away as all playing police officers (and they are); and then none other than Jason James Richter (the star of Free Willy!), in what isn't his first credit since then, but certainly his first wide theatrical release since Free Willy 3: The Rescue in 1997 (!; and don't worry, Willy was saved).
The release date, this time, is the original, real mccoy - the film wasn't pushed back from anything in particular. Without HBO Max breathing down Denzel's neck, I'd have predicted about $5-6 million for the weekend. But since it must share the wealth, I have to go just a little lower. They made me do it.
Opening weekend: $4m million / Total gross: $11 million
2. The Marksman (opened January 15th)
Liam Neeson, granite-voiced, iron-eyed, fists of steel, heart of gold, returns in 2021 as the only movie star to have headlined not one but two films in wide release since the events of March 2020. I hope he's not getting used to it, but he's always played that cliché, the last man standing. Now he lives it.
Neeson's marksman is an ex-marine who spends retirement watching the border like the hawk he already physically resembles, and so sooner or later gets what was presumably his wish this whole time, as it is for all men: a noble quest in the pursuit of moral justice.
He must rescue a young mother and son from the evil Mexican drug cartel members, the kind that are always pouring back and forth across the border, like spoilt milk from a large jug down a curvy sink. Now, when faced with dozens of well-armed, cold-hearted killers, any other man would have, well, died, but luckily, our title character is protected by his invaluable set of unbelievably precise sharpshooting abilities (though he's not so skilled that either the mother or the son dies in the pursuit - take your guess whose number is up).
The Marksman has been directed by Robert Lorenz, who's produced pretty much every Clint Eastwood film for the last 20 years - and with the above plot description, that fact is plausible as hell. And while it seems like the plot of Rambo 5 has been remade here (Sylvester Stallone gonna sue somebody?), in fact this is a tale as old as time, or as old as Mexican borders, or old grizzled men with a talent for violent retribution rescuing the young and innocent from vicious drug lords inexplicably obsessed with their demise (or, as in Logan, from whatever science fiction idiocy the bad guys involved themselves in).
I swear Liam Neeson occasionally tells the press he's done with the action-thriller genre and will never pick up a gun again; or perhaps he's just working at trying to get into character there (Neeson's heroes are often pulled out of retirement and back into more glory days quite reluctantly. But grunt and squeal as they do, pulled they are).
When The Marksman, the first new big film since late December, opened on January 15, its $3m weekend was near in line with the actor's previous film, Honest Thief (...one last heist), which opened to about $4m in October, not to mention Kevin Costner's Let Him Go, which had the same weekend, and of course also featured one lone grizzled gunman taking down bad seeds in a cold, hard, world (jezz, can't these young women and their pre-teen kids in these movies ever fend for themselves? Honestly. So entitled.).
In the brave, nasty, new world of the 2020s, I expect younger audiences have been making horror films like Come Play and Freaky into moderate box office hits on the one side ($3m-$4m opens, $8m-$10m, totals, a successful box office tally by our decade's standards); while courageous adults daring to venture into theatres, or park under the night sky, have been doing the same, oft with matching box office totals, for action-dramas with baby boomer stars, like Let Him Go and Honest Thief.
What Costner and Neeson did in the fall, Washington and Neeson will do now once more. And if their studios, and audiences, are satisfied with these films' success, then their happiness again is near-guaranteed.