The Terminator. Indiana Jones. Conan. Rambo. Ash. Dirty Harry. Rocky. John McClane. The Punisher. Deckard. The ‘80s and the early ‘90s were a golden era for action heroes. Arnie, Sly, Dolph Lundgren, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and more were delivering the goods in the multiplexes, mowing down the bad guys while delivering killer quips. For a while it seemed as if the action hero genre would never die out.
And now … where have they all gone?
I felt a tug on my soul for the old-school action hero after watching – to my mind – the rather excellent Sabotage. It was a treat watching Arnie get his gun on as the head of a corrupt DEA task force. It made me nostalgic for the good old days, when Arnie and Sly were the templates for action heroes, where they would take on entire armies of South American or South East Asian rebels, possibly taking time out to throw a steam pipe through a man’s chest and then quip “let off some steam” in the process.
What impressed me about Sabotage is that there was an agreeable grit and edge to Arnie and his comrades in the film … they swore, they drank, they had tatts, they had a laissez-faire attitude to regulations and body counts.
Because there is just something too neat and smooth about the current crop of action heroes.
Case in point, Chris Pine. Chris Pine is great as Captain Kirk – one expects the future to be all smooth and gleaming and polite and free of all the grime of daily life – but he was all too disappointing as a young Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. He struck me more as the sort of dude who should be serving my morning cappuccino that a dreadnought who could go toe-to-toe with the Russians. (For crap’s sake, is he wearing a skivvy on the movie poster? No action hero wears a skivvy when they can wear a singlet instead.)
I can’t picture this Jack Ryan storming the beaches at Normandy. I can’t picture him keeping his composure as Vietcong torturers go to work on his body with clubs. I can’t imagine him pummelling a side of beef with his bare fists until they are raw and bloody. I can’t see him screaming “Adriaannnn!” (He might text it, though.)
And there are all too many Chris Pine-esque action men out there. Orlando Bloom. Leonardo DiCaprio. Guys who look like they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths rather than being born in the gutter. Guys who would apologise profusely after belting a suspect over the head with a phone book rather than quip “your call is important to us”. Guys in stable, nurturing relationships rather than burnt-out maniacs on their fourth marriage, with their current wife already walking out the door with the kids.
I’m not thrilled about the attempts to “hand over the baton” to the next generation, either. For a moment in 2008 during Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it seemed as if Harrison Ford was about to hand over Indy’s whip and hat to Shia LaBeouf … until someone must have decided that would be a terrible idea. (That was a bad idea even before the days when LaBeouf walked around in public with a paper bag over his head.)
John “Bruce Willis” McClane shares screen time with his son in A Good Day To Die Hard, but no old-school action fan wants to see Willis hand over the mantle to Jai Courtney – we want to see Bruce Willis keep making Die Hard movies like the Police Academy films until they near double digits and become parodies of themselves.
I miss the days when Arnie would throw the Joker into an industrial-grade thresher and then quip “next time, try to blend in more”. Of course, that never happened. But if it did, it would be awesome.
And why exactly does no one deliver one-liners any more? Well, actually, they do, but they’re usually written by Joss Whedon and they’re so self-aware and conscious of their cleverness that they lack the bad-ass drama of, say, “I’ll be back” or “hasta la vista, baby”.
It was interesting that Hollywood had no good candidates to cast as the man giant Jack Reacher in the movie of the same name. The Reacher of the Lee Child books is a 230-pound plus behemoth, with the type of raw physicality you’d have to go back to Arnie or Sly to duplicate. In the end they went with Tom Cruise. Not a bad choice – Cruise has the acting chops and the intensity to pull it off – but I can’t really imagine Child’s character as written in Cruise’s rendition.
Vin Diesel is perhaps the best contender to the Arnie/Sly throne we’ve seen in a long while. His anti-hero Riddick from Pitch Black was a revelation: brooding, deadly, dominating the screen. Unfortunately we are yet to see a movie that does Riddick justice … but I’m still hanging out for it. (The Fast and Furious franchise, while not exactly to my taste, is going strong, too).
The other actor who nails the whole action hero thing is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. You’re so taken with his interpretation of Wolverine – complete with abs so sharp you could grate cheese with them – you forget that the character is supposed to be only five-foot-three and Canadian.
I’m also hoping to see Karl Urban play Judge Dredd again.
Jason Statham and the Rock both come close to Arnie/Sly excellence, but I can’t point to any of their films as “must-haves” for any action-man DVD collection.
Hollywood is aware that there is some kind of “action hero deficit”, which is why we have Red and Red 2, as well as the ongoing Expendables series, starring just about every action hero of yesteryear. They’re up to No.3 right now, but any more instalments and they’ll enter the Steven Seagal/Police Academy parody category as well.
Yes, we do have action heroes, but more and more they’re part of an ensemble like in the X-Men or the Avenger movies. Iron Man and Captain America are more in the modern hero in touch with his feelings rather than the invincible Neanderthal of yesteryear who has to be sent to Sensitivity Training by head office for calling his boss an asshole. Captain America mouths off about how the world has changed for the worst, but I can’t see him ever gunning down a suspect he knows is guilty and then throwing his police badge into the river afterwards during a scene that will haunt you long after you’ve left the cinema.
That’s why, when I created my hero the Spartan, I looked to the past to create him. Actually, the very distant past – some 2000 years ago. A man with a foot in both the ancient and modern worlds. A bad-ass soldier just as comfortable as using a sword as a Squad Automatic Weapon. A proper action hero, in other words.
Or maybe I just miss the ’80s.
My ebook military thriller, The Spartan, is now available on Amazon.