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Ranking the Top Action Stars, from McQueen to Neeson

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by Anne Thompson
March 27, 2014 1:19 PM
1 Comment
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Liam Neeson in "Taken 2"
Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator

Grantland's Bill Simmons should get a bonus for what will likely be one of their most viral stories, "The Action Hero Championship Belt," his ranking of the top action stars since the first prototype of the modern model, Steve McQueen. Simmons cleverly narrows his focus to define what an action star is: see how he deftly eliminates mere movie actors who play in action movies and sideswipes westerns, although Clint Eastwood has his day. Tom Cruise (He Who Does His Own Stunts, to the terror of directors like John Woo) deserves better, along with Charles "Death Wish" Bronson, who only rates challenger status, along with Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal, Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, Keanu Reeves and Jean-Claude Van Damme:

Rule No. 1: Over everything else, I need to believe our hero can kick everyone’s ass, in any conceivable situation, at any given time. And he needs to believe this, too.

Imagine the scariest dude on the planet (say, Nikola Pekovic after being fed a 32-ounce Red Bull/cocaine/stanozolol cocktail) beating up an entire bar, and then eventually he comes after our beloved hero. If I am not 100 percent convinced that my dude is winning that fight — OR, if I find it far-fetched that he’s winning it as he’s winning it — then he can’t capture the belt. This rule disqualifies A-listers like Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Keanu Reeves, Robert Redford, George Clooney, Will Smith, Ben Affleck and Tom Cruise a second time, as well as everyone who ever played James Bond, Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne, Iron Man, Batman or any other manufactured studio hero.

Clint Eastwood in "Magnum Force"

And so, naming his own personal Top Movie Stars (since 1932, Quigley has listed the top ten box office performers), Simmons picks the action heroes who meet his definition every year since the reign of McQueen began with "Bullitt" in 1968. He skips over all-time Quigley top ten champ John "Duke" Wayne, who to his mind represents an older western hero archetype, as well as Burt Reynolds, who made the Quigley list 12 times during the 70s and 80s and only gets as far as a challenger to Eastwood here. Yes, Eastwood repeatedly makes Simmons' cut-- along with Arnold "The Terminator" Schwarzenegger, Sly "Rambo" Stallone, Mel "The Road Warrior" Gibson, Chuck Norris, Nic Cage, Bruce "John McClane" Willis, Vin Diesel, Denzel Washington, Jason Statham, Jackie Chan, and today's Ultimate Action Hero: Liam Neeson. One woman qualifies, deservedly: Uma "The Bride" Thurman. 


Uma Thurman as 'The Bride' in 'Kill Bill'
But what about Angelina Jolie in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Wanted" and "Salt"? Or Milla Jovovich of "Resident Evil" fame? I'm glad Chan made the cut, but it's too bad Simmons is only considering the domestic market, thus missing out on Asian action stars like Chow Yun-Fat ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hard-Boiled," "The Killers," "A Better Tomorrow"). Jet Li has had some domestic success though ("Forbidden Kingdom," "Hero"). 

I love that Simmons argues that Kurt Russell, who ably carried John Carpenter's "Escape from New York" and the Wyatt Earp western "Tombstone," could have been an action star if he had wanted it and would love a career do-over. While Willis eventually saw the light, Simmons reminds that post-"Die Hard," he ran in the other direction. And I love the way Simmons incorporates footnote reactions into the post, which he seems to be updating as they come in. This story is a great argument for taking the time to do something well. It was not tossed off the top of his head. 

To Simmons' list of up-and-coming action stars-- Tom Hardy, Chris Hemsworth, Jason Momoa, Tony Jaaa, The Rock and Channing Tatum--I would add Jason Clarke, Jovovich, Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurai, Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano. Who else? 

Weigh in, please! Where does Simmons go wrong? 

 

1 Comment

  • Brian | March 27, 2014 2:18 PMReply

    As a connoisseur of these films, I see what Simmons is doing here so I won't quibble, even though I rushed here eager to tout John Wayne or Douglas Fairbanks (the original action star). But he does make a case for starting with McQueen. Still, there are quite a few contenders from earlier years, most notably James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (1949), but I'll leave those aside for now. I just want to throw in some kung fu stars of the 1970s like Gordon Liu (THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN), Alexander Fu Sheng (AVENGING EAGLES), Chen Kuan Tai (BOXER FROM SHANTUNG) and Sammo Hung (THE MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER). I'm sure the likes of Seagal and Statham, as much as I like both of them, could only look from afar and marvel at a career like Gordon Liu's, which extends from SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974) to KILL BILL VOL. 1 & 2 (2003-2004) and THEN some, with dozens of frenetic kung fu films in between. Or, just as impressive, Sonny Chiba, a Japanese martial arts star whose career dates back to 1959 and who emerged as a karate star in the "Street Fighter" films, starting in 1974, and who starred in dozens of films and TV episodes before also turning up in KILL BILL VOL. 1.

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