“In a world….dominated by comic book movies, where the action is CGI…where the heroes have at least 3 movies and 50 years of comic books worth of back stories…where the action is rated PG 13…where the villains have a point…One man…will rise again and bring REAL action back to the screen…”
THE LOST ACTION HERO
Now if you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, you read that paragraph in the exact voice it was intended to be read in, the oft parodied “trailer-guy” voice (kudos to the great Don LaFontaine for single-handedly defining an era of movie marketing). Also, if you grew up like me in a country other than the USA, chances are that the only Hollywood movies that ever made it to your country before the arrival of high speed internet were action and/or disaster movies. I was born into a family that is crazy about movies – Bollywood, Hollywood…all kinds of movies – and even though Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson may have never heard of my birth place, my uncles and father had quite literally learnt English by watching For a Few Dollar More or Where Eagles Dare in matinee shows and later on VHS. I was raised hearing about how bad-ass Clint Eastwood is or how much ass Rambo kicks. So by the time Die Hard was released, the only Hollywood movies I ever cared about were either monster movies (courtesy Jurassic Park) or action movies watched on VHS. Then the greatest miracle of my childhood life happened around the early 90’s when India was introduced to cable TV.
It wasn’t just me as a kid, but the whole world seemed crazy about them for two solid decades. Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson were names that equaled blockbuster success. Although action movies in the form of westerns or war movies or urban crime dramas have always been popular, there was something in the 80’s that perhaps started with Rambo First Blood in 1982 that just propelled the action genre to front and center of popular demand. The rest as they say is history. Predator, Terminator, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Commando, Desperado, Hard Target…not even considering the more ridiculous fare of Chuck Norris… the 80’s and 90’s were a golden era for the genre. Successful movies often spawning multi-movie franchises.
Maybe it was the end of the cold war with no clear enemies for Hollywood to portray or maybe it was the beginning of the computer age where brains gave way to brawn or maybe it was just general genre fatigue…the popularity of action movies waned significantly towards the end of the 90’s. Not that good ones weren’t being made. But they just weren’t the big awaited spectacle they used to be. I mean there is only so many times you can see Schwarzenegger kill foreigners for Mu’rica while walking away from an explosion in slow motion.
THE CAPES ARE COMING
Although superhero movies like the Donner’s Superman in the 70’s and the Burton’s Batman movies of late 80’s had already proved to the studios that such movies can be also be hits, the comic book movie wasn’t still a dependable blockbuster genre that it is now. Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (2001) might have been the first true modern movie to change that perception. The beginning of the new millennium was marked by a new kind of hero – One that wears a masks to fight villains as fantastical as he is…while also balancing his personal life in the wake of city/world threatening calamities. This mix of sci-fi, action and drama was perfect for a generation tired of revenge plots/killing terrorists. Couple that with the advancement of visual effects and you had the perfect time for comic book movies to shine. X-Men and Spider-Man were just the beginning. Their success soon gave way to different experiments in the field and a little known experiment called Batman Begins would prove that crime drama, comic book stories and action movies can all be expertly blended into one in the hands of an auteur film-maker. Even if comic book movies were viewed by many till then as just ‘kids movies’ the gritty nature of Nolan’s fresh take elevated the genre to newer heights by attracting even mature audiences to it. At the same time Marvel was working their own plans and mere 3 years later would release Iron Man.
Forward 10 years later and we all know what kind of importance comic book movies have now. A genre seen as a niche was now the norm. Jaw dropping action, bad ass lines, walking away from an explosion without looking at it had become the reign of the caped crusaders. The action hero had been overtaken by the superhero.
However, not all was lost for the ‘pure’ action movie genre. With the growing value of 80’s and 90’s nostalgia for a generation of kids that were now people with disposable income – mainstream Hollywood was also ready to look into the general direction of action movies again. The Bond movies after facing the heat for still not changing its old school flamboyant action movie era ethos, went through a serious revival (the term gritty reboot has become too cringe now) in the form of Casino Royale. The Bourne movies starring Matt Damon popularized a new kind of gritty action and the probably the worst development to ever hit the genre – the shaky cam. And a single most bad ass response to a phone call from the most unlikeliest of action stars – Liam Neeson which single-handedly boosted not only Neeson’s career from being a supporting actor to a leading one with Taken, but also created a new niche for action movies. This subdued but genuine revival of the genre would not only lead to some great action thrillers like The Inside Man or explosive sequels like Bad Boys II (I love it more than 1. Its complete Bay-hem) – it would also lead to the smartest tribute to action movies in the form of Hot Fuzz and also to what was essentially an action heroes ‘Avengers’ (or a 90’s kid wet dream) – The Expendables in 2010.
The Lost Action Hero, found some new footing in the late 2000’s and has been clawing his way back ever since. Let’s take a look at some of the best action heroes/franchises who are currently defining the genre.
ONE MAN…WILL FIGHT BACK
While Taken may have been one the comeback of the revenge genre and all due credit to Liam Neeson for bringing his unique set of skills (see what I did there?) to the action genre. The real credit for starting the revival of action movies in the late 2000’s goes to none other than Jason Statham. A bald rough looking bad-boy who had gained early fame in British crime movies like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch – both directed by Guy Ritchie – seemed like an odd choice for a guy to revive the action hero, who had been a strictly staple American figure till then. Even with Schwarzenegger’s heavy Austrian accent.
But his kick-boxing, Kung Fu and martial arts training paid off with great success in the Transporter franchise. Subsequently leading him to star in several remakes of old action flicks like Death Race and The Mechanic plus weird shit like Crank. Statham soon earned his place as one of Hollywood’s most dependable action stars with him still doing many of his own stunts. A hard-core action guy, he finally cemented his fame when he was one of the only modern action stars amongst a galaxy of legends in The Expendables. He would later go on to star in the extremely popular Fast and Furious franchise and grow up to be a popular character in it. Statham is a rare breed in that he is a Brit, who is a martial artist and is a ‘pure’ action star starring mostly in action movies to date. Some would call that stereotyping but I call that playing to your strengths.
HE WILL RISE
Speaking of British action stars, one has to mention Gerard Butler. However, Butler is a much more versatile actor having done movies like The Phantom of the Opera and The Game of Their Lives and also playing small roles in Tomb Raider 2 and Tomorrow Never Dies. But his real claim to fame was Zack Snyder’s action epic 300. While 300 is as much a comic book movie as it can be, it did help create Butler’s image as an action star. While Butler would go on to star in rom-coms like P.S. I Love You and The Ugly Truth and Shakespearean dramas like Coriolanus, he also starred in a series of action movies like Gamer, Law Abiding Citizen, Den of Thieves etc. But his Taken, his Transporter, his Rambo would be the ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ series.
Starting with Olympus Has Fallen in 2013, the movie was as cliché as it comes. In what sounds like a Michael Bay wet-dream, a bunch of foreign ninjas have attacked the white house and kidnapped the president. Are you a man enough dude to rescue him? Jokes apart, yes Butler is the man enough dude. As former presidential bodyguard Mike Banning, Butler brings his ease and Scottish charm to the role despite having a questionable American accent. He appears to be a natural at the brutal shootouts and fights. My personal favourite in the franchise is the second movie – London has fallen. While it suffers from the ‘same shit but different location’ disease that infects even the best of action franchises (read: Die Hard 2), it does have some intense and innovative action sequences. Particularly a long single take raid on a building at night, is one of the best action scenes I have seen in recent times and its scenes like those that have me excited for the sequel ‘Angel has fallen’ which comes out later this year.
ADDING FUEL TO THE FIRE
They may have more sequels than anyone ever asked for but like it or hate it any conversation about modern day action movies isn’t finished without the Fast and Furious franchise. What started as ‘Point Break’ but around street racers slowly evolved into a franchise with skydiving cars and highly questionable physics. Hey but it works, having 9 successful sequels to a franchise grossing over 3 billion dollars isn’t questionable at all. I personally am not a big fan but I can understand the appeal – I mean it’s got hot girls, hot cars, snappy dialogue and some actually fun characters played by charming actors.
But the anchor of the franchise more than the late Paul Walker or even after the addition of The Rock has always been Vin Diesel. Diesel was never a pure action bad ass and has starred in movies like Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room. But one of his most underrated movies is the sci-fi action thriller – Pitchblack (2000) which spawned two more sequels. He also starred in XXX franchise in the past which is basically James Bond for adventure sports junkies. His role in the Fast and Furious franchise continues in the 9th movie scheduled to release in 2020, this time also adding John Cena to its stellar cast. There is a cool relaxed energy to him which he carries on-screen and yet bring dead seriousness when required. Add to it, his deep sexy voice and this makes him the second hot bald action hero on our list so far.
GETTING READY TO ROCK
The Rock a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson is the first and most successful example of a pro-wrestler turned movie star. While bodybuilders or boxers transitioning to Hollywood actions stars is a very old trend, only a few like Schwarzenagger have tasted consistent success in it. The Rock is one of them. Starting with a horrendous CGI appearance in The Mummy Returns, he soon starred in his first moderate hit – Walking Tall, which was a remake of a 70’s action movie. He did the odd comedy in between – but mostly stuck to what he knew best which was action adventure.
The Rock carries what Will Smith has always had – a general super charisma. There is just some energy about him that you could put him in any movie and he’ll genuinely end up being likable even if the movie sucks. The Rock is also smart enough to know his strengths and knows that he isn’t a born actor. He uses that charm and comedic timing to great effect. Moreover his physique and real life good guy image makes him a brand to reckon with. Having him in the movie makes the movie marketing much easier. His introduction to the Fast and Furious franchise was the nitro-boost that the franchise badly needed to take themselves to the next level.
While still doing traditional action flicks like Skyscraper, The Rock has turned his attention to the comic book genre and a Black Adam film has been in development with DC/WB since 2014. The movie has just found its director and hopefully The Rock will deliver the same magical thunder-strike to the DCEU like he did to the Fast and Furious franchise.
The Rock’s immediate next release however is going to a spin-off from the Fast and Furious franchise teaming up with Jason Statham in Hobbs and Shaw releasing this year.
ONE MAN ONE MISSION
Over all the years beginning from 1996, there was one franchise which has stood the test of time. One man who no one initially thought would become the master of the action genre when he debuted, but now rules it. One man who accomplished the impossible Tom – mothafucking Cruise. No other franchise has financially and critically been this successful in delivering action, thrills, suspense and spectacle more than Mission Impossible. No shared universe, no comic book fandom backing it – just one successful movie after another. The secret sauce of all the movies – despite having no real connection to each other and having no one central ‘show-runner’ behind them – is undoubtedly Tom Cruise. The success not only lies in his attractive persona but his increasing ambition to put his life on the line and deliver real stunts.
There was a time when Jackie Chan (at least in India) was hugely popular because he did his own life threatening important stunts. We would wait for the end credits of any Chan movie to see the blooper reel, to really appreciate how many attempts went into perfecting just one stunt. Tom Cruise has started earning the same kind of popularity worldwide. Now it has become so much that the story behind the movie becomes the USP for the MI: franchise. An A list star who has no logical reason to put his life on the line or put so much effort into perfecting stunts (He actually practiced for the HALO jump in Fallout. He hung off the side of a plane taking off in Rogue Nation) other than giving the CGI desensitized audience is something truly spectacular. And it works, Mission Impossible movies have more or less always been loved by the audiences and of late have become more than just ‘oh that Tom Cruise spy movie again’.
He is also an accomplished actor and that gives him more range when doing different kind of action movies ranging from thrillers like Jack Reacher and Collateral to amazing sci-fi like Edge of Tomorrow. He is slated to star in the Top Gun sequel and also the next movie in the MI: franchise. We are not and will never be ready for the next insanity that Cruise will pull off next.
HE IS BACK
If you ask the internet right now about who they are crazy about, you’ll get one answer – Keanu Reeves. I have personally been a huge Keanu fan since I was a kid because the first Hollywood movie I remember watching on TV and that too repeatedly is Speed. Despite starring in dramas like A Walk in The Clouds or Something’s Gotta Give or Coppola’s Dracula, Keanu has always been more of an action star. His breakout role in Point Break made the movie an instant action classic.
Even though everything in his personality off-screen and his persona on-screen would suggest otherwise, Reeves is actually very well suited to do action movies. He puts in great effort behind training for his scenes and his “woah” face might be considered a hangover from his Bill and Ted days, he just gives a genuine energy on screen. His acting is a bit stoic which actually adds a few layers to his character at times. This worked brilliantly in Matrix which still remains more than just a VFX showcase not just due to its complex ideas but also because of simplicity Keanu brings to the role. There is a genuineness about him that makes him not some muscle bound hulking hero but an everyday guy who you can connect with.
Nothing is a better example of this than the John Wick series. Conceived in 2014 by life-long stuntman David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, the John Wick series is a perfect blend of original action, original story-telling and heartfelt emotion. While its world building and rules and some of the characters are akin to comic books, the action is gritty and gruesome while still being very stylistic. The story which began with an insane premise about a retired hitman getting payback for the people who killed his dog and stole his car, would not have found success if it wasn’t for the relatability that Keanu brings to the role. All throughout the series, Wick is a loner faced with insane amount of odds, yet is a force of sheer will. Keanu is also a loner faced with insane amount of tragedy in his personal life. His mother remarried 4 times and he was raised by grandparents and nannies. His wife gave birth to a stillborn daughter and later died in car crash. Apparently she was also suffering from depression. His sister had battled cancer for more than a decade. Yet Keanu is also a force of sheer will power. He acted in Matrix sequels back to back to cope with his wife’s death, he also trained tirelessly for his role in John Wick.
The 3rd movie in the franchise was a whopping success worldwide and gained more than 500 million dollars which isn’t bad for an R rated movie which wasn’t heavily marketed. The best thing about the franchise and one of the many reasons behind its surprise success is that in the age of CGI and shaky-cam the John Wick franchise-owing to its stuntman directors has clear well shot detailed action scenes which don’t mind getting a bit bloody if needed.
This I believe, is the real reason action movies are making a come-back, while the superhero genre isn’t going anywhere yet (and shouldn’t as I am a comic book lover as well) The Lost Action Hero has just found a new direction. In a world… when you are tired of shared cinematic universes and aliens and CGI battles… where sometimes you just want to just sit back, relax, not worry about connectivity and back story too much…when you just wanna watch someone actually jump off an aeroplane 35000 ft in the air, kill a mothafucker using a book, while taking revenge or saving Mu’rica or running for his life…don’t worry…the Action Hero is back and he is just getting started.