Action movies still continue to break records. Top Gun: Maverick finished its theatrical run with nearly $1.5 billion in revenue… and its protagonist, Tom Cruise, celebrated his 60th birthday in 2022.
Far from thinking about retirement, he recently shared a video detailing the stunts he performed while filming the seventh instalment of the Mission Impossible series, set to be released in 2023. As usual, he didn’t have a stuntman – he did it all by himself.
Why is Tom Cruise still jumping off cliffs at the age of 60? Well, it appears that it’s been difficult for Hollywood to find an enticing generational replacement. Across the action genre, in fact – with all its fist fights, chases and shootouts – the leading actors aren’t spring chickens.
In 2022 alone, we saw Brad Pitt, 59, star in Bullet Train, Liam Neeson, 70, in Memory, Mel Gibson, 66, in Panama and Sylvester Stallone, 76, in Samaritan. Meanwhile, 73-year-old Jeff Bridges played a retired CIA agent in the TV series, The Old Man.
These men are the norm – not the exception. The age of graying tough guys isn’t over yet. In the summer of 2023, Denzel Washington, 68, will return in another installment of The Equalizer. And Harrison Ford – at the age of 80 – will be back as the beloved archaeologist, Indiana Jones.
Noel Ceballos – a journalist at GQ – notes that we’re living through a period in cinema defined by “middle-aged heroes.” Perhaps the actor who best defines this is Neeson, the star of the Taken franchise. His character’s threatening line to his daughter’s kidnapper is now famous throughout the world: “If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”
The daughter’s kidnapper is just one of the 74 people Neeson will kill in his three-part vengeful journey. When the first part was released back in 2008, the Irish actor – who received an Oscar nomination for Schindler’s List (1993) – became, at the age of 56, an action star, and one of the few to have emerged in recent years.
Journalist and writer Alberto Olmos wonders: “Why is a 60-year-old man chosen as the ideal actor to jump from buildings, shoot Russians and take stab wounds and punches?”
After watching the film Nobody (2021) – a thriller about a home invasion – he came to the conclusion that the genre is linked to a concept of masculinity that is incompatible with actors from today’s generation. It’s implausible that young performers such as Tom Holland or Timothée Chalamet would kill 50 people in a movie. “Nobody would believe it.”
Olmos calls this concept “retromasculinity.” The protagonist of Nobody is Bob Odenkirk, the star of Better Call Saul, who was 59 at the time of filming. He plays an overworked, mild-mannered husband who is unable to protect his family from a gang of thieves who break into his home.
“Overwhelmed by the degrading consequences of his tamed masculinity,” explains Olmos, “the protagonist of Nobody begins to experience a form of moral agony.” He has not behaved like a man. The feeling of guilt makes him rediscover what being a man is all about. From there, the film turns into a succession of shootouts. “With a shotgun in each hand,” Olmos writes, Odenkirk’s character “rediscovers masculinity.”
In the same article, the journalist points out that “almost all these films apply the same idea: a man who seems ordinary is actually a killing machine, a retired FBI agent, a secret mobster or hitman…” Subsequently, a tragic event unleashes his dormant masculinity. Perhaps this theme plays into a longing for higher testosterone levels?
American sociologist Michael Kimmel published an essay in 2013 entitled “Angry White Men.” In it, he analyzed how profound social, cultural, political and economic changes have left many men with an internal sense of frustration and anger. The text regained validity after the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections. The former president found support among the “humiliated” men of his country. Following Trump’s election, far-right groups and figures – such as the Proud Boys or Jordan Peterson – have emerged, calling for a restoration of weakened traditional white masculinity.
The idea of a new Trumpian action man isn’t so far-fetched if we go back to the origins of the genre. Spanish film historian José Luis Sánchez Noriega emphasizes that each era generates its own myths and heroes. For instance, he notes, the release of Rambo in 1982 was the perfect reflection of Ronald Reagan’s USA: solitary heroes, who take the law into their own hands. The eternal enemies are the public institutions, which are never able to deal with the severity of situations. All of this played into President Reagan’s rhetoric – the former Hollywood actor constantly pushed individualism over the collective.
The 1980s were the golden age of action movies. Actors such as Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Stallone, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger brought in the fans. All of these men – according to Noriega – represented “muscular machismo, on the verge of inhumanity.” One may remember Arnold in Commando (1985) breaking someone’s neck on a plane and putting sunglasses over his eyes, before jokingly telling the flight attendant that his friend was “dead tired.”
Another action hero who’s getting up there in age is Will Smith. The 54-year-old almost torpedoed his career after slapping Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife. Many criticized Smith – who ended up going into rehab after the incident – about this show of toxic masculinity.
Shortly afterwards, Sony Pictures announced that it would be suspending the fourth instalment of the Bad Boys franchise for an indefinite period, due to Smith’s actions. Ironically, Detective Mike Lowrey – Smith’s hot-tempered character in the series – probably would have done something far worse if someone had dared to insult his wife.
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