For fans of action movies, the 1980s were a delirious boom time, delivering the bounties of Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The ’90s were almost as good, with the rise of Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and Wesley Snipes. And for this generation? Well, they have pretty much the same guys. If you watched any action movie in the past year, there’s a good chance you encountered gun-wielding geriatrics. Willis, 58, has been cracking wise (and heads) in everything from A Good Day to Die Hard to RED 2; Stallone, 67, dusted off the creatine supplements for his ballooning Expendables franchise; and Schwarzenegger, 65, is still quipping and killing in The Last Stand. If you’re looking for a leading action star who’s ineligible for AARP, apparently you’re out of luck—Hollywood just isn’t ready for its heroes to retire.
It’s not difficult to see why. This summer’s big flops all pushed young, relatively untested performers at audiences. Armie Hammer, 26, couldn’t stir interest for The Lone Ranger even with the help of Johnny Depp. No amount of pectoral muscles could convince people to watch Channing Tatum, 33, save America in White House Down. And Ryan Reynolds, 36, practically killed his nascent action career with the dead-on-arrival R.I.P.D.
“The heyday of the young male action star is effectively over,” says analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com’s box-office division, who cites Tron: Legacy’s Garrett Hedlund and John Carter’s Taylor Kitsch among the failed onscreen experiments. “It’s simply not like it was in the ’80s, where solid action heroes were falling out of trees. Now studios are desperately trying to find the next big young action star, and stumbling. They’re trying to find someone to take on the mantle, but no one is going to pay to see some young guy who no one knows save the world.”
You’re more likely to see today’s young stars in already established properties—Chris Hemsworth, 29, as Thor, or Henry Cavill, 30, as Superman—rather than headlining their own original franchises; audiences increasingly favour familiar costumes over familiar faces. The trend has left studios—risk-averse at the best of times—no choice but to double down on yesterday’s heroes, rather than spend any time developing a potential star, a luxury Stallone and Co. once enjoyed. Instead, a month before RED 2 even opened, Lionsgate green-lighted a sequel, which will keep Willis busy before filming a sixth Die Hard. Schwarzenegger is prepping yet more Terminator and Conan movies. And Stallone is ramping up The Expendables 3, which adds Snipes, 50, and Gibson, 57, while swapping Willis for the even older Harrison Ford, 71.
“It’s nostalgia that’s driving the business now,” says Todd Brown, the programmer behind The Rise of Beefcake Cinema, a film series that ran at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox theatre last year. “Stallone and Schwarzenegger are much smarter than they’ve been given credit for. They know exactly what audiences want—their old, familiar heroes, with a little wink.” Naturally, though, moviegoers’ trips down memory lane can’t last forever. Eventually Stallone will just be too old to punch someone, which is when the real crisis hits.
“Hollywood desperately has to start investing in the younger generation,” says Brown, pointing out the fate that befell Hong Kong’s once-vibrant industry. “In China, they just stopped developing action stars, and left all the roles to pop stars and computers. They stopped looking for these singular guys who could do the heavy lifting.” Once a hotbed of talent, Hong Kong hasn’t produced a new action star of note since Donnie Yen, who’s now 50.
But perhaps the age of the action star is simply coming to a close. “It might not be the actors—it might be the world we live in, where the idea of one guy kicking butt isn’t appealing anymore,” says Dergarabedian. Or maybe the next action star will come in a different form—“a Jonah Hill type.” For now, though, audiences can make do with yet another Schwarzenegger/Stallone pairing when their prison-break movie Escape Plan opens in October. At least producers didn’t go with the original, all-too-apt title for the sexagenarians’ project: The Tomb.