Back in 1987, in the golden age of action heroes, the horror film Predator featured the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura as muscular mercenaries fighting space aliens in the Amazon. Now, “Predator” has been remade, as Predators and the space aliens are now at war with Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar in 2002 for playing the emaciated piano player persecuted by the Nazis in “The Pianist“
Thus the world of the action hero has changed: Bulked-up Oscar winners are racing through the world’s jungles with submachine guns, while aging bodybuilders and athletes are going into politics.
Nor is Brody alone. Earlier this summer, the hunky, swashbuckling hero of “Prince of Persia” was played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who received an Oscar nod for “Brokeback Mountain“. Next year’s “Green Hornet” will star Seth Rogen, the amiably chunky co-star of such comedies as “The Forty Year Old Virgin” and “Superbad“. The current titleholder as World’s Favourite Superhero is Robert Downey Jr., who received an Oscar nomination in 1992 for “Chaplin“, but now thrills crowds as “Iron Man” and — for a change of pace — an unusually athletic “Sherlock Holmes“. Oscar nominee, Edward Norton (“American History X” and “Primal Fear”) has announced he will not return as “The Hulk” in “The Avengers”, but the rumour is that he may be replaced by Mark Ruffalo (Independent Spirit Award for “You Can Count On Me”.)
Where have you gone, Sylvester Stallone?
Nowhere, actually. At 64, Stallone is reuniting his action-hero pals — Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren — along with some of the new guys, such as Jason Statham, in “The Expendables“, a movie that plays on the image of the golden age icons. There weren’t many Oscar winners among them, let alone nominees for Independent Spirit Awards, but bicep for bicep, they could kick Adrien Brody’s butt. If Schwarzenegger had been a piano player in 1940s Poland, he would have won the Second World War single-handedly.
Today they’re, well, expendable: Stallone and Schwarzenegger and the others of a more muscular era — a time when an Austrian accent or a mouthful of marbles didn’t stand in the way of saving the world — have been replaced by a more lithe and athletic model. Statham is a throwback to that era, but the other Great White Hopes of the 21st Century, names like Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, have faded into jokey takeoffs or children’s movies, where their size and fearsome demeanour are played for laughs.
That’s also a danger with action films, of course, and the reason why “The Expendables” appears to come with the ironic self-awareness that has made the genre so ripe for parody: the muscled men mowing down the enemy while remaining invulnerable themselves.
The action heroes of the early days of cinema were performers such as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn, dashing heroes who bounded around historic sets, outsmarting evil kings or sorcerers. They had a pre-computer athleticism that has been replaced today by the martial-arts suppleness of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, who is also in “The Expendables”. Sometimes they were cowboys, like John Wayne, an early example of the Large Man, whose power is that he doesn’t get hit by bullets, but never misses himself, an ability that has been passed down through the ages.
The action hero as muscleman was a function of the biblical epic or the historic fable: 1950s beefcake Steve Reeves, say, flexing his muscles as Hercules or — to a newer generation — Schwarzenegger looming ominously as “Conan the Barbarian”. But in the new age of big special effects, he came in other forms as well: suave (Sean Connery and the other Bonds), smart (Matt Damon and Will Smith), absurd (Steven Segal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, et al.), retro (Harrison Ford), insane (Mel Gibson, then and now), or smirking (the Law of Bruce Willis).
Rambo intensity gave way to Neo metaphysics: The hero who could defy gravity and dodge bullets was a creation of both special effects and a new kind of heroism, the bravery that comes at the edge of an existential void. Humphrey Bogart — a kind of action hero in the 1940s, when they were noir and fought with fists — stared into a glass of booze and wondered why, of all the gin joints in the world, she had to walk into his; Keanu Reeves stared at a blank manufactured world and wonders at the very nature of reality.
Meanwhile, almost when no one was looking, a new kind of tough guy invaded the action genre, and it wasn’t a guy at all. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley kicked alien butt in “Alien“; Uma Thurman kicked martial-arts butt in the “Kill Bill” film;, Sarah Connor kicked time-travel butt in the “Terminator” films. Last month, Angelina Jolie took over a role that was meant to be played by Tom Cruise — a part-time action star who fatally injured his career jumping from a couch — and kicked CIA butt in “Salt“.
The result is a confusing time for the action genre, which is suspended between two eras: The no-neck he-men are giving way to actual actors and (gulp!) women. The development has created films that are more flexible, mashups of action and irony of the sort you get when a Michael Cera, say, goes all tough-guy in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World“. The classic action stars have, through age and popular taste, become figures of nostalgia.
“My men are not expendable,” said Schwarzenegger in the original “Predator”, but, 13 years later, that’s exactly what they are.
“The Expendables” opens Aug. 13.
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