Hollywood has not always been synonymous with originality. Nowhere is this more obvious, however, than the return to our screens of some of the greats of the action genre. The genre which made stars of Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone and co has endured a rocky spell of late, having to play second fiddle those heroes who wear spandex and suits made of iron, and seems to be struggling to find a role in the digital age. Have we seen the last of the action hero or does hope remain?
After nearly a decade out of the leading man limelight, Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to our screens in The Last Stand (2013), perhaps harbouring hopes of ushering in a second age of classic Arnie films. But times have changed. Though he will no doubt continue to be cast in roles similar to those for which he made his fame, Arnie’s most recent outing in Sabotage (2014) was comprehensively slammed in the press, and an upturn in critical approval is not on the cards. His fellow action cohorts have fared little better. Both Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis have returned to their old haunts of Rambo and Die Hard respectively, only to be met with derision.
So why has Hollywood recalled the services of these ageing giants of B-movie cinema? Where are the new young guns?
When looking for answers as to why a new generation of action heroes has not arisen to replace the battered and bruised, one might point to the meteoric rise of the superhero film. While this genre has been the subject of much debate and intrigue over the past decade, it is not unreasonable to assert that the action heroes of yesteryear have been replaced by the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America.
Whereas once a Bruce Willis film would have been held up as an example of what an action hero should be, bold reinventions of tired sagas like Batman have paradoxically installed the superhero as the bastion of realistic, believable characters capable of death defying feats of pure exhilaration.
Now, whenever a new action film comes along, it seems to be suffering a bit of an identity crisis. In attempting to compete with spectacle of the superhero genre, many of today’s action films take place in an increasingly ludicrous context in which the action hero is powerless to retain credibility. In looking for an example of this, one need look no further than any film in which Liam Neeson has appeared in the last five years.
Though entertaining at times, films such as Taken, Taken 2 and most recently Non-Stop epitomise much of what is currently wrong with the action genre. Instead of focusing on the raw attributes which make for a great action hero, these films enlist the aid a serious actor such as Neeson and plunge him into a world in which his only escape lies in his ability to punch a whole bunch of people.
Though Neeson provides ample entertainment for audiences, one cannot help but feel that he is single-handedly attempting to fill an action hero-shaped void which no one else appears capable of filling. Many will point to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as a sign that the action hero is alive and well. Yet somehow, because he was a ready-made export from the world of wrestling, he will never truly belong to cinema audiences.
It surely can’t be the case that audiences have grown tired of seeing a good old action romp. The overwhelming success in the last decade of the Superhero genre is testament to the fact that audiences will still flock in vast numbers in search of some exotic escapism. Fortunately, in 2012 the genre received a much needed shot to the arm in the form of a low budget Indonesian martial arts film. The Raid (2012) and its sequel The Raid 2 (2014) dazzled and exhilarated audiences with its unrelenting and violent action sequences. Iko Uwais’ extraordinary athleticism and intensity saw him shine as the star, with the likes of Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen similarly making their name in the action movie genre through their remarkable and exceptional acts of skill and talent. Although not stars in their own right, they play their role as part of a greater vision for these new and unique action vehicles to entertain, thrill and re-establish their relevancy in the world of cinema.
So what does this mean for the action hero? The example of Liam Neeson suggests that a role remains for the action hero at the top end of mainstream cinema. Moreover, the success of films like The Raid tells us that audiences retain a thirst for the kind of visual spectacle that only action films can supply. These films live and die by their ability to entertain. They are not beholden to some A-list star. If the action hero is to survive, then it must cast off the tired tropes of yesteryear and strive for something new and original. Don’t hold your breath though – The Expendables 3 hits cinemas this summer.