When Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzennegar were tearing up bad guys in the eighties with their sinewy muscles and oiled up bodies, it set a new standard in the film industry for action heroes. The mantle once held by Errol Flynn was no longer able to contain the attention of the masses. Something more visceral, something more exciting, and something a bit more outlandish was needed. Fast-forward to the eighties and there’s your answer. Toughness, strength, and masculinity had finally reached it’s visual apex with the birth of the “new” action movie star. Focus shifted strongly towards strength and fitness. This trend of “body conscious” made its way into the female world as well. Jane Fonda was an exercise icon for a time being! I mean, no judgement, but it’s hard to imagine that woman was selling an exercise program. This physical intimidation made for a bigger presence on-screen. The stars of the era were larger than life with their dialogue, larger than life with their bodies, and larger than life with their presence. People could not get enough of it, either. Rambo, Rocky, The Terminator, Predator – these movies had massive success! At one point, Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, and others were some of the the top paid stars of their era. And these actors weren’t the average Joe of the eighties, but rather representatives of a physical extreme. You didn’t have to have ab crevices deep enough to eat cereal out of to be considered prime action star material. Amongst the many rising stars of the era, few names stick out like Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise. Cruise specifically, had a kind of charming, everyday magnetism that made him as easily accessible as he was to appreciate.
When Top Gun was first released, it seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the era. What’s better than flying’ planes and playing games with the boys? Set the whole thing to a backdrop of the rock and roll eighties and you have a surefire hit. And if your lead actor happens to be a charismatic, young, talented leading guy, he’s going to go places! And that he did. They all did for that matter. When the nineties rolled around, you had more Terminator sequels, more Rocky sequels (really?), and lots more of Tom Cruise. After Top Gun, there was a focused period in Tom Cruise’s career where he chose to join a bevy of substantive dramatic pieces. Movies like Magnolia and A Few Good Men would be perfect representations of this temporary career shift. But the film that really brought Cruise back on the action scene, the film that made him a seminal star, the film that basically launched him into global stardom was none other than the original Mission Impossible. The film was a true turning point in action cinema. It brought a level of excitement and genuine edge-of-your-seat action that hadn’t really been done before in a slick spy flick. The old-school James Bond films were certainly great tales of espionage and had a certain level of “action” that kept audiences entertained. But it wasn’t the same. The excitement, the fear-of-certain-death quality being shot at you with brute force was noticeably absent. So when Brian De Palma had a plan to create a new genre of espionage films, he was going to make sure that they were going to take risks. When Mission Impossible was released, it became a super hit and the beginning of a heavy re-branding phase for Tom Cruise. Not only was the guy a top dramatic actor, working with big-time filmmakers like Scorsese, Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson, but he was a certified box-office success. Thus was the birth of an action icon of that era. And boy was it like a baby-boom. Tons of stars were getting their big explosive break during this era. Some more naturally than others. Just look at Harrison Ford! He’d already been an established leading man, who had handled his fair share of action-packed roles. Indiana Jones and Star Wars were such box-office mega hits, it seemed perfectly natural for the guy to headline a movie like Air Force One a decade later. The man had so many iconic characters, he himself had become an icon. And producers hoped that his iconic nature would rub off on any character they wrote for him. Just like Cruise, this spurned endless, lucrative action film deals, which studios continued to produce despite his age. No one really questioned these guys kicking ass as adult men (they looked great after all) – until someone finally said they were old. But at that point, it didn’t matter. We’d grown up with them, learned to love them like a family member, why would we let them be replaced? No we had to let these characters grow old with us, which is why we are where we are today.
Cruise and Ford are just the figureheads for a much larger movement taking place in Hollywood. Look at people like Liam Neeson, who seems to just find himself getting into life or death battles on just about every form of transportation imaginable. Or look at the entire cast of The Expendables. Each one has definitely been getting too old for this shit for some time now. Even when they do include younger characters, they are a pleasant novelty (i.e. Shia LaBoeuf in the easily-forgettable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). That may garner a couple eyebrow raises, since most of these guys don’t seem to old themselves. But rest assured, while people like Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, The Rock, and Mark Wahlberg may seem younger in comparison to some of these other guys, but not a single one of them is under forty-five years old. So why is the action star an aging figure? Is the talent pool dried up? Is the interest level in movies like this low? But is has less to do with the talent that isn’t and more to do with the nostalgia that is. After all, it’s hard to let a good thing die, isn’t it? When you can’t get enough of Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne, or Dom Toretto doing their thing – you really don’t want someone replacing them. Look at what happened to the entire Bourne series when they tried to reboot it. Jeremy Renner sure gave it a college try, but audiences did not like what they saw. But that’s no fault of his. People were conditioned for Matt Damon and they sure as hell weren’t going to have it any other way. And it’s this roll-over nostalgia that has kept these stars and their franchises running with as much steam as possibly still can. Just last month, the top box office hit was the most recent Mission Impossible…the sixth in the series! Just a few years ago, they thought that Cruise was done and they were grooming a successor to the franchise – maybe Jeremy Renner (poor guy)? But alas, people just didn’t want change. And frankly, neither did Tom Cruise. The guy was just as willing (and capable) as ever of doing all the stunts he was doing twenty years ago. A similar retirement rumor followed Harrison Ford in the last Indiana Jones movie, with talks of grooming a young(er) Shia LaBoeuf as his replacement. But what really is Indiana Jones without Indiana Jones? A shell of it’s former existence, that’s what. So they are in the process right now of making another Indiana Jones with Harrison Ford who will be in his mid-seventies by the time of the film’s release. This is the same guy who they brought back to reprise his role from Blade Runner and from Star Wars. For good reason too! There are some people and specifically some characters that just aren’t as easily replaceable. Disney sure tried with last spring’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, but based on the lackluster response to that, it doesn’t bode well for anyone who is not Harrison Ford to be Han Solo. Just as no one else could really be Ethan Hunt in our eyes. Even Alica Vikander suffered the frigid cold shoulder of the critics (and audiences) when her rendition of Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider was received about as warmly as a flat beer. The problem is that identity has become so strongly infused with image. ‘New’ things often require people to adapt. And that’s ultimately difficult for people to do. When something cultural is so good at a specific moment in time, people use that ‘thing’ as a quality standard, and anything that is different, that deviates from that standard – lateral or otherwise – is considered straight trash. If we could preserve all of these characters with their own special worlds and their own special existences in perfect stasis, that would be amazing, but time moves in a linear fashion and that just isn’t possible, even if you are Ethan Hunt.
If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. The same goes for the action hero. I suspect that we’ll see this trend transcend this genre and bring on a heaping wave of nostalgia-based actors playing other roles well into their old age. I mean if we can continue bringing back Ethan Hunt, then why not bring back Maverick from Top Gun or anyone else who drums up those old nostalgic feelings? The problem is that we’ve got an issue with transition when it comes to action movies. The Jack Ryan series is a perfect example. One came out a few years ago starring Chris Pine in the titular role, making it the fourth iteration of the character on-screen. Unfortunately, there’s something to be said for a character which isn’t as iconic as say a Zorro. With so many different people playing Jack Ryan (and so many different people interpreting the base text), it’s hard to pin down exactly who this person is. The audience seeks to relate to the characters on-screen. When you have that connection and keep it going strong, you’ve got a lot of expectations from your audience. The upside of this is a increased need for creativity in franchises. If you’re going to be re-using the same old characters, you have to at least present them with more interesting (and often more philosophically-oriented) problems. It’s your own way of acknowledging the issue. The Mission Impossible films used to ask, “How can Ethan Hunt defuse this bomb in time and make it in time to stop the heist in Brussels?”. Now the films ask, “Why is Ethan Hunt still doing what he’s doing despite the risks?”. The self-awareness in the issue is fairly evident. Even in the latest film Mission Impossible: Fallout, just about every supporting character had their own moment to sit in awe that Tom Cruise is really still doing this. The audience’s relationship with the characters is truly personal (and truly meant to be), so when you bring about four or five iterations of the same character within a relatively short time span (you’ll get it right someday Spider-Man), you’re betraying an element of audience trust. And in most cases, that’s seemed to backfire. Except for one notable example: James Bond.
See, James Bond is a bit of a break in the equation. He’s a character that has made the transition from page to screen with great success and sustained adoration for the past half-century and more. That in itself is an accomplishment! He’s an embodiment of action and more importantly, an evolved reaction. With James Bond, the character evolves with a generation. When Daniel Craig was first announced as Bond, everyone was up in arms! How can you have a blonde Bond? How can you have a short Bond? And yet, shortly after Casino Royale came out, everyone kind of got used to it. It was this sensation that this is different, but still okay. And now, four Bond films later, we can’t seem to let Daniel Craig go! He is Bond now. He’s made the role his own and transformed it for a whole generation. And even though the role reportedly drove him to nearly-suicidal lengths, and he’s threatened to quit time and time again, they managed to coax him back one final time for the sake of the fans. They don’t want Bond to end his blonde legacy on the Spectre note. They want Skyfall! But if they get Skyfall, they want more. Therein lies the paradox. But that’s not how Bond works. He’s not tied to Daniel Craig. He exists in his own realm. He has and will live on long after Craig dies.
People just certainly do want too much of a good thing. When you character is iconic enough and you really happen to enjoy them, they build a life for themselves outside of the screen. They become iconic. Icons don’t die. They’re timeless. Which in a sense, it true. Characters don’t die. Look at how many times Robin Hood has made his way onscreen? Or Superman? Or Sherlock frickin’ Holmes? These guys are still around and may be well into the future when we’ve evolved beyond screens entirely. But the actors who portray them, the beloved faces we get used to, the human element that cinema so dearly draws us towards, cannot live forever. And when we see Indiana Jones hang up his hat, it’s horrible. It’s a reminder of our own mortality. Frankly, it’s easier to see Han Solo get killed than die of old age because, at least for the audience, it keeps the story alive. Not all franchises are meant for this fate though. Some of these action-packed series will likely pursue quiet endings for the stars that made these characters iconic. But at least for now, it’s not likely that will happen until said actor has to come to set with a cane. So will we see Tom Cruise do an atmospheric freefall in thirty years? Doubtful. But will we see Ethan Hunt do one? Not Impossible.