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Old School Action Stars: Few Replacements, Not Expendable

by Sophia Savage
February 22, 2011 8:39 AM
8 Comments
  • |
Thompson on Hollywood


Action heroes come in two categories: New School and Old School. Just last weekend, Liam Neeson, 58, led the box office pack with Unknown, showing 16-year old Justin Bieber and I Am Number Four's 20-year old Alex Pettyfer who's Daddy. Neeson isn't the first, nor will he be the last, older man showing the world how a Hollywood action star should perform, both on screen and in the charts.

It all comes down to how our culture defines masculine authority. As America raises generations of man-boys, many of Hollywood's most manly movie stars come from overseas. Thus it is no surprise that today's crop of worthy male action leads is not only slim, but older than ever, from 55-year-old Denzel Washington in November action hit Unstoppable and Jeff Bridges, 61, in Oscar-contender True Grit to Harrison Ford, the 68-year-old star of Cowboys & Aliens, coming in July.

This is not a new trend. Consider John Wayne (62 in 1969's True Grit and 68 in its 1975 follow up, Rooster Cogburn), Clint Eastwood (63 in 1993's In The Line of Fire, 78 in 2008's Gran Torino), Sean Connery (66 in 1996's The Rock), Gene Hackman (68 in 1998's Enemy of The State, 71 in 2001's Heist), and Gary Cooper who was 60 when he filmed his last, The Naked Edge, which came out after his death in 1961.

It's tradition to hold on to our favorite leading men until they simply can't hack it anymore. They gain gravitas and danger as they age. The real problem is how to replace them. Daniel Craig (42) and Matt Damon (40) are just now reaching their movie star prime (some already question Damon's marquee power). It's worth noting that our leading men seem to be getting shorter. While Wayne was 6'4", Cooper 6'3", Connery, Eastwood and Hackman more than 6'2" and Washington 6', on the shorter side are 49-year-old George Clooney (5'11"), Craig, Damon and Mission Impossible's Jeremy Renner (5'10")-- his co-star Tom Cruise is 5'7".

At 6'4'' Neeson is a return to the grander scale of manly man -- sexy-ugly, not pretty-sexy -- and his success with Unknown (propelled by 2008's Taken) suggests at least few more good years for this Northern Ireland import. His Unknown co-stars have nothing but praise for him. Diane Kruger says: "I think because of his age and because of his body of work and his gravitas as an actor... it brings a whole other layer of depth to this kind of film…It feels fresh." And January Jones, who plays his wife, believes: "He's such a perfect casting choice for this movie, because you could be intimidated by him physically because he is fit and could cause you harm,...But at the same time there's something so vulnerable about him in certain things he says and certain things he does that makes you want to take care of him, there's both sides of that."

The Guardian is calling Unknown "the indie mainstream hit" and the Chicago Tribune hails Neeson as "his own kind of action star...More subtly than Harrison Ford, Neeson excels at the slow fuse snaking its way to explosive revenge." And THR's Tim Appello says Neeson is special, an "edgy case" with a "heroic remoteness."

The State's John Anderson goes deep into the issue: "The landscape of recent motion pictures, in particular Manly Movies, looks increasingly like the last days of the dinosaurs." By the time The Expendables II opens in 2012, Anderson writes, the combined age of its five stars will be 291: "If one were to compare the future of Hollywood He-Men to say, The Terminator, there would be few replacement parts in the warehouse. Who’s coming along to fill the shoes of Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis — or even Liam Neeson?" He offers Orlando Bloom as a would-be replacement…"Yikes."

Yes, there's Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Christian Bale and "a few others," Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra tells Anderson. But, he admits, “It’s hard to find an actor who has the physicality, the good looks, the charm all on top of being an amazing actor." The bottom line is that these older stars still prove potency at the box office -- and The Expendables and RED are last year's proof.

Now Schwarzenegger will be back to fill the action void. It seems that these aging stars are not expendable after all.

8 Comments

  • Sergio | February 23, 2011 10:11 AMReply

    Well actually I DID see The Mechanic and you know it wasn't bad. Really. Much more action packed that\n the Bronson original which was actually a character study with the only action during the last 15 minutes of the movie. Straham's version was pretty savagely violent, but as a mid-winter popcorn fodder B movie pretty entertaining.

  • Brian | February 23, 2011 6:48 AMReply

    I'm a big Jason Statham fan as well. However, his last film, THE MECHANIC, bombed. Heck, even I didn't go see it--and I was looking forward to it. It's just been a bad time for moviegoing given this snow-heavy season in the Northeast.
    Overall, I just don't think there's that much of an audience for the traditional action hero-style movies anymore. Films like TAKEN or UNKNOWN take it into a more mainstream direction with a non-traditional type of hero, and succeeded because they cast Liam Neeson, someone with arthouse chops who can also do action somewhat convincingly. The Bourne films worked in that regard because you got the action stuff, couched, usually, in a plot setting that's a little more complex and demanding than the usual action plot, so it drew in an older, more sophisticated crowd than a Van Damme or Seagal movie would. And Matt Damon was capable of handling the action demands. Nothing wrong with any of this. If I want hardcore old-school action, I've got a collection of hundreds of kung fu films, many of which I either haven't seen or have seen only once. And there are plenty of Van Damme and Seagal straight-to-DVD vehicles I still haven't seen.

  • sp | February 23, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    Sergio , I definitely agree with you about the manly & the underrated Jason Statham. He was wonderful in "The Bank Job". I just will Statham would be more picky about scripts and directors he chooses to work with.

  • Chris Hodenfield | February 23, 2011 3:16 AMReply

    The major contributor to an actor's gravitas is actually playing roles that offer gravitas. Think of the Charlton Heston example. Compare the well-meaning fellow in "Private War of Major Benson" with the guy he later became -- God's own instrument of vengeance. He had the roles.
    If Bradley Cooper and Jon Hamm had a few hero roles, they would easily become your go-to stud-muffin action heroes. And don't forget Will Smith. There are many others who would love to try on some Gary Cooper-type roles, but first we'd have to a movie industry that wanted to make movies about fighting for justice.

  • Sergio | February 23, 2011 12:38 AMReply

    "Today men are interchangeable with women in all their roles"

    AMEN to that sister. Funny I just finished watching my DVD of The Yakuza that 1974 Sydney Pollack film with Robert Mitchum. He just captured the screen with his world weariness "seen it all and I've done it all" ugly, tough guy persona with that face that looks lived in. Neeson has that so to a certain extant and so does Craig and I wish there were more like them. There's a huge audience waiting for guys like them. Why do you think The Expendables has done almost $300 million worldwide. People are missing those tough guys. You can have Jesse Eisenberg or Robert Patterson. I'll take Jason Straham any day

  • Andy Klein | February 23, 2011 12:04 AMReply

    Hey, at 66, Danny Trejo is just hitting his stride!

  • Ritas | February 22, 2011 11:27 AMReply

    Movies reflect the reality, and to have manly heroes there should be a definition of what it is, to be a man. Today men are interchangeable with women in all their roles, except perhaps biologically. So, the resulting metro-men can't be manly heroes.

  • Mallorean | February 22, 2011 11:17 AMReply

    Interesting piece. One thing the old school got going for them was that they were not celebrities before they were typecast into their heroic roles. Someone like The Rock who was supposedly the next Stallone was a product the Studios were trying to sell the public. Of course in an age of blogs and twitters, it is going to be difficult to be manly and heroic.

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