Whatever Happened To The Hollywood Action Hero?

Once upon a time in hollywood, leading men were virile, vengeful and violent. and so were the movies they made. in today’s blockbusters, pretty boys in spandex act out family-friendly comic book squabbles. but all is not lost. with a slew of recent throwbacks to the glory days of Wayne, Eastwood and Stallone, two elder statesmen are staging a brave last stand for masculinity at the movies...

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Super Bowl weekend, 2009. That’s when it all changed for Liam Neeson. While a huge chunk of the great American masses hunkered down in their homes for a three-day glut of beer, Doritos and Big Game sports specials, culminating in a near-four-hour smackdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, something very strange happened at their local multiplexes. Neeson, then 56 and with a middling commercial track record, a funny accent, a crooked nose and a lanky gait, against all the odds, was transformed into an action superstar and a Hollywood hero of the highest order.

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His movie, opening that Friday night, 30 January, was called Taken. It was a modest-to-low budget action thriller directed by a French novice called Pierre Morel, and starring Neeson in the hardly promising role of a former spy turned angry dad in search of his kidnapped daughter. Familiar, hokey, and derivative (it has the same plot premise as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1985 movie Commando), it should’ve died on its arse.

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After all, Super Bowl weekend, in the snickering parlance of Hollywood insiders, is an infamous dumping ground for hopeless cases – Highlander: The Final Dimension (1994), Children of the Corn 2 (1992) and Spice World (1997) were all wilfully euthanised at the US Box Office during this same three-day celebration of small-screen sport.

But Taken was different. On the first night alone, to everyone’s surprise, it made $9.4m. By close of business on Sunday, it had made $24.7m (still the third-highest Super Bowl weekend haul ever), and went on to make $226m worldwide.

[Above: Liam Neeson in Taken 3 (2014)]

The film became a phenomenon. Neeson’s rousing first act diatribe – “What I do have are a very particular set of skills…” – became immediately quotable and oft parodied, in everything from late-night variety show Saturday Night Live to adult sitcom Family Guy. Audiences of all ages, and both genders, seemed to respond to the sight of Neeson’s superannuated avenger cracking skulls and snapping limbs in the name of the fatherly bond. Neeson’s career skyrocketed. His asking price rose to $10m per project. He made two credible action movies with The Grey (2011) and Unknown (2011), and a Taken sequel in 2012 that raked in even more money ($377m) than its predecessor.

Inevitably, his box-office success created a new flurry of studio interest in the Old Fart Action Genre (previously and solely confined to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as geriatric mobsters in 1986’s Tough Guys). Thus John Travolta and Kevin Costner both tried and failed with their flops, respectively, From Paris With Love (2010) and 3 Days to Kill (2014). Even Harrison Ford, aged 69, relented and threw on a Stetson and a six-shooter in the miserable western bomb Cowboys & Aliens (2010), while Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger witnessed swiftly diminishing returns for their high camp Expendables (2010‑14) franchise.

Elsewhere, after three middling action vehicles, Unstoppable (2010) , Safe House (2012) and 2 Guns (2013), 59-year-old Denzel Washington scored big in 2014 with smash hit The Equalizer (adapted from the Eighties TV series) – allegedly step number one in securing Washington his own Taken-style franchise about an aged special ops professional bringing down the bad guys with extreme back-snapping, eye-gouging prejudice.

Neeson, however, is now 62, and about to see the release of Taken 3 in January. This installment frames his heroic protagonist for the murder of his wife, and then throws him into a pissing contest with the LAPD, the FBI, the CIA and, well, anyone with a bad attitude and a gun. Typically, during the course of the film, Neeson punches, he chops, he kicks, leaps and shoots.

Yet what’s remarkable in the modern movie context is just how singular he seems. In fact, pair Neeson together with Denzel Washington and they occupy a very lonely place in the contemporary Hollywood landscape: they can boast more gravitas than the usual action himbos (Neeson has an Oscar nomination, Washington has two wins – beat that Statham!); they effortlessly exude more masculinity than the entire Marvel Universe put together (never confuse muscles with masculinity, see Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, all the Chrises); and they never indulge in the wink-wink post-modern japes that have defined and ultimately ruined so many of yesteryear’s A-list beefcakes.

Here, I’m thinking of poor Arnold Schwarzenegger, doomed forever as he drifts into his dotage to be the wrinkly guy turning to camera and barking a weary variant of “I’ll be back!” (And he will! In a new Terminator movie, Terminator: Genisys in 2015.) Or the strange reality of Harrison Ford, the family-friendly variant, at 72, dusting down Han Solo once more for Star Wars: The Force Awakens next December, or Rick Deckard for a rumored Blade Runner 2, or yet another Indiana Jones.

The re-mining of these roles is cute and ironic, yes, but no screenplay, no clever plot device or no nod to the stalls can disguise that telling whiff of desperation that each of these films brings to mind.

And then there’s the A-list moneymakers, the golden boys. Tom Cruise, Will Smith and the so-called “Highest Paid Actor in Hollywood” Robert Downey Jr (according to Forbes magazine, Downey Jr, star of the Iron Man franchise, makes roughly $75m a year).

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Yet these men are problematic heroes, and definitely fail the old-school action man test. Downey Jr, for a start, has emerged not from a bona fide action tradition but from the world of quip-filled comedy. “Robert Downey Jr is the fast-talking, dapper little guy archetype,” says Chris Holmlund, author of Impossible Bodies: Femininity and Masculinity at the Movies. “And it’s notable that in Iron Man (2008), he wears a suit to give him artificial strength, rather than real muscles.”

Downey Jr’s legacy is the eccentric leftfield comedy of Air America (1990), Short Cuts (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), all of which he took, with winning results, to Iron Man.

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Equally, Will Smith’s bad-boy heroes – see Bad Boys (1995), Men in Black (1997) and After Earth (2013) – are nothing of the sort. They’re squeaky clean with an eerie Disney polish. While Tom Cruise has built an action career out of anodyne cartoon high jinx, safely pre-packaged for an audience that is primed to expect from “The Cruiser” a self-satirising roll call of motorbike pursuits, street sprints and overblown finales – see the last few Mission Impossibles, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Oblivion (2013).

Neeson and Washington are thus, undoubtedly, the last of the old-school Hollywood heroes. They can trace their lineage back to Clint Eastwood, and before that to John Wayne and to a heroism that was rooted in the ordinary and real; a heroism that was forged among a generation of actors (Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas) who didn’t just talk or look tough, they actually went to war. Imagine shipping, say, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp and Matthew McConaughey off to the Iraq-Syria border today? Two words: Tropic Thunder (2008).

[Above: Jack Black and Brandon T. Jackson in Tropic Thunder (2008)]

Yet, what does this sudden dearth of credible screen heroes really say about contemporary movie stars? How does it affect the function of cinema today? And, well, to paraphrase Eighties rock goddess Bonnie Tyler: where have all the good men gone?

As luck would have it, I met Denzel Washington recently and I asked him about his screen lineage and his connection to Neeson, and to Eastwood before that. “I am not Clint Eastwood,” Washington said. “I am not Liam Neeson, either. I am the Denzel Washington of my life. And they’re not me.” Which is a very Denzel thing to say.

He added with a smile, nonetheless, that he had been gorging himself on Eastwood DVDs because of his upcoming role as a cowboy, his very first, in a big-budget remake of The Magnificent Seven. “I hadn’t seen High Plains Drifter (1973) since it came out in the Seventies!” he said, beaming, suddenly breathless, like a fan. “And, oh wow, man! Clint was a monster! He was good!”

Washington’s close friend and director Antoine Fuqua was more revealing. He discussed the paucity of real heroes and real men in Hollywood today.

Fuqua, who directed Washington to a Best Actor Oscar in Training Day (2001), and is behind both The Equalizer and the new Magnificent Seven, acknowledged that Neeson and Washington were a dying breed, and had this to say about the pretty boys and the buffed-up comic book Marvel men in the Tinseltown gene pool: “I’m constantly having this conversation with my agent: ‘How many guys am I going to see in spandex, who are flying around and saving the world at 23 years old?’ I  don’t believe them. I don’t believe they have the life experience to do one per cent of the things that they’re doing or saying."

"But more than anything, I just don’t believe them as characters. So, I end up sitting in the room, and the agent’s saying, ‘Well, this guy’s getting a lot of tweets right now, and the girls really like him!’ And I’m saying, ‘Yeah, well he looks like he’s about 16, and he’s still on his mother’s tit, and he’s supposed to be this guy who’s saving the world?’ I just don’t get it!”

Similarly, I heard the same argument, almost verbatim, when I spoke to Olivier Megaton (real name Olivier Fontana), director of Taken 2 and Taken 3, about the allure of Neeson as an aged action star. He said that the key to Neeson’s success was precisely because he lived in opposition to today’s smooth-skinned pumped-up action stars. “Liam is good-looking, but not too good-looking,” he said. “He has a natural shyness, a deep voice, and this ordinary sense that he could be the father next door. Audiences seem to connect to him in a real way, because he’s not some big star with muscles.”

In fact, no matter who you talk to in movies, from casting directors to producers to critics, they will all point to a very conspicuous schism between the heroic model embodied by Neeson and Washington (and Wayne, Eastwood etc before them) and the contemporary screen hero.

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[Above: Denzel Washington in Man On Fire (2004)]

The shorthand version of the argument states that, in the digital age, the age of the geek, the old-school, analogue, macho man has been replaced by either geek fantasy heroes (comic book stars) or touchy-feely, geek protagonists (see Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston). The old guys, like the elegiac cowboy heroes they so often play, are simply on borrowed time. While the new guys who have emerged, with all their whizz-bang urgency, reboots and upgrades, are where it’s at. And it’s that simple. Right?

Not quite, says Franklin Leonard, a former development executive at Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment who founded and now runs The Black List, an annual file of the hottest unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

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Leonard says that The Black List, which has become something of a bible among industry circles, is still inundated with screenplays about so-called “old school” heroics. The problem is getting these stories made. “Every year there are scripts that are essentially about a hero past his prime who is out to get revenge, or who needs to rescue a person that is close to him,” he explains, adding that The Equalizer started life as a Black List script. “But the hard part is finding actors who can both believably play these roles and satisfy the economics of making them work. Because if you look at the generation following Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington, the vast majority of these actors are not the reason why the movies they’re in are successful."

"Chris Evans, obviously, is Captain America, but people are going to see the movie not because it’s Chris Evans, but because it’s Captain America, no matter who plays him. So we’re at a stage now where there are very few actors, below a certain age, who can carry a movie on the strength of their own celebrity and popularity.”

This, naturally, has led to an interesting phenomenon in casting circles. Call it, say, the Neeson Effect. “There are so many times when producers walk in here and say they’ve got the perfect script for Liam Neeson,” says top casting director John Hubbard – his credits include two Bourne movies, King Kong (2005) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) – and the first thing I have to say is, ‘Well, do you have his quote?’ And they say, ‘Er, how do you mean?’ And I say, ‘His quote is $10m per picture.’ And they say, ‘Oh no, no, no. We haven’t got that. But this is a very good script!’”

In more simple terms, Neeson and Washington are high-value commodities. The scripts are there, the producers are eager. But well, there clearly isn’t enough Neeson and Washington to go around (Washington’s quote, incidentally, is $20m per picture – he typically brings in more returns than Neeson). And below them, following hot on their heels, who is there? Benedict Cumberbatch being intense and internalised as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014)? Eddie Redmayne doing self-torture as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2015)? Brad Pitt, a box office draw for sure in the zombie pic World War Z (2013), but, well, he’s just too perfect, or, as they say in Deliverance (1972), he got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?

“The sort of actors coming forward now are different,” Hubbard says. “You can’t classify them easily anymore. ‘Oh, he’s action! He’s the good-looking leading man! He’s the character actor!’ I mean, Eddie Redmayne does not look like Chris Hemsworth. But still he’s admired, particularly by women. And a lot of that is in the type of work he does.”

[Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 2 (2000)]

And yet, surely the demise of the traditional Hollywood hero cannot be explained away that easily? Maybe it’s just that new stars arrived who weren’t that macho, and so they couldn’t do the roles? The critic and author David Thomson says that, typically, it’s more nuanced than that.

For a start, he says, our culture has changed irrevocably, and doesn’t even believe in heroes anymore. “Liam Neeson and Denzel are representing a culture that is now long gone,” he says. “We don’t have heroes now. Celebrity is a culture that is suspicious of its heroes, and so ready to be contemptuous and disdainful of them. Like our presidents and our prime ministers, they’re not larger than life anymore. They’re as small as life. And that’s depressing and disappointing. But it’s a fact.”

Furthermore, and crucially, Thomson suggests that to fully understand the heroic demise we have to look closely at the very act of movie watching itself, and then ask ourselves why we used to go to movies in the first place, and what was happening when we did?
The answer, he says, and this is fundamental, is that we went to movies for instruction. “In the golden age, people looked to movie stars as behavioural models,” he says. “It began with very fundamental things. How do you smoke a cigarette? How do you walk across a room? How do you kiss someone? Let alone how do you deal with a major moral dilemma or an ordeal? That was true of films, and it’s definitely over now.”

He is speaking, essentially, about the imitative power of movies. And of generations of boys (myself included, born in the Seventies) who grew up watching these men, these cowboy heroes, these rogue cops and who searched within their faces, quips and gestures for valuable hints and desperate signals of how to inhabit this thing called masculinity. It helped, of course, that our own fathers were often stern and distant, too, and that there seemed to be some strange interplay between the strong silent law-giver at home, and the morally righteous enforcer on screen. Indeed, these movies, anything from The War Wagon (1967) to True Grit (1969) to Dirty Harry (1971), were often consumed together, the more violent the better, like some illicit bond of intimacy between father, son and screen.

And all along, while staring intently at heroics in action, we kept asking the quiet question, never uttered aloud, “Is this a man?”

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Well, says Thomson, that’s all over now. Yes, young boys and teenagers will still ask that question. Just as they will still look to male iconography for answers. But today’s teens, the men of the future, are more likely to find their imitative selves not in screen cowboys, but in video games and porn.

“The extraordinary faceless male figures in video games are far more violent, destructive and triumphant than Liam Neeson or any screen hero,” Thomson says. “While the male fantasy that needs a sense of triumph is certainly catered to by pornography, which is consumed in enormous quantities by young men, and most of which has a very strong male domination line to it.”

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This theory is intriguing and slightly disturbing. It says men are no longer trying to assimilate the moral and emotional parameters of masculinity and instead are simply practising unfettered machismo during psychopathic killing sprees at an ersatz Mexican border in video games like Call of Duty: Ghosts, or daily sexualizing their own identities as mindless humpers of fetishised women in online porn.

Robert Weiss, a California-based “sex addiction expert” and author of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work and Relationships agrees men no longer looked to movies for role models, but said their influences today were found not just in porn and video games alone. On porn consumption he noted, “I deal with thousands of men who have porn problems, and the number one demand from consumers of porn is they want an image of an unattractive man having sex with a woman. He’s got to be older, a little overweight and losing his hair. They’re not going to feel threatened by that guy.”

Furthermore, if you take this argument to its conclusion, with so much modern porn (or so I’ve heard) featuring no male protagonist at all, just a banging body-part, what does that mean for modern male imitative behaviour? Have we gone, in the space of two short decades, from wanting to be a bad-ass cop with a decent moral register to seeing ourselves only as throbbing, disembodied cocks? Does this account for the lack of conspicuous machismo among sockless, loafer-wearing, mustachioed twentysomething hipsters today? Or does it explain why so many of the same young men, who have clearly grown up on porn, are, like, total dicks?

No, really. It’s not that fanciful: if they can blame murder on Natural Born Killers (1994), I’m sure you can pin naval-gazing idiocy on relentless cock-watching.

[Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984)]

Point being, movie stars as behavioural models may be over, but the old-fashioned hero isn’t dead and remains a compelling archetype. I challenge you to look at Neeson facing off against a deranged serial killer in A Walk Amongst the Tombstones (2014), or Denzel Washington challenging the Russian mafia in The Equalizer and not find yourself shouting inside, “Yes! Punch them! Shoot them! Make the world right again!” David Thomson agrees that we haven’t seen the last of them. “I think there’s still an audience for these men who accomplish stuff and behave decently and with honour,” he says. “It will take a lot more of what we call progress to get rid of it.”

Certainly the way Taken director Megaton discusses Neeson implies that the actor possesses qualities that work outside all the arguments about imitative behaviour and economic imperatives. “There is a mystery there, and Eastwood had it, too,” he said. “They don’t say much, but when you put the camera in front of them they have an ability to express everything.” Megaton adds that Taken is not a boys-only club. “Women are going to them on their own or together with friends. It’s a very open audience, from 14 right up to 60-year-olds.”

Similarly, The Equalizer director Fuqua tends to get near mystical when he discusses Washington and the effect he can have on any audience, not just those seeking their hero fix. An avowed cineaste, Fuqua happily traced the path from Wayne to Eastwood to Washington, and said that, yes, “Denzel is iconic in that way. He has the same masculine presence and sustainability as those men.”

Unhappy with this analysis though, he continued and said there’s more to it. “The audience only knows the reason why Denzel sustains. But from working with him, he gives his heart to the role, and audiences pick up on that. But more than anything, he is a good man. And audiences feel that, too.”

Just a good man. Think about that. No super powers. No gadgets. No whistles and bells. Just a good man. It’s a beautiful thing. And it sustains. Now, if only there were more of them. 

Taken 3 is out on 8 January


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