The Last Stand of Our First Action Heroes
At 65, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back to save the day for old time's sake — with Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis right behind him
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.
He’s returning to take another stab at celluloid glory in The Last Stand, which opened Friday. The movie marks his first time back on the big screen in a leading role since starring in real life as the governor of California from 2003 to early 2011.
In his new film, Schwarzenegger portrays — no big stretch here — an action hero. In Last Stand, his character is the sheriff of a small border town who learns that a notorious drug dealer is headed his way after escaping from the FBI. One guess as to who will make it his mission to catch the bad guy.
I haven’t seen the film but, based on the trailer, it clearly knows what Arnold’s fans want. There are big guns, car chases, wisecracks and shenanigans aplenty.
Schwarzenegger, 65, isn’t the only aging action hero still trading punches and gunfire on the silver screen. Sylvester Stallone, 66, opens in Bullet to the Head on Feb. 1 and Bruce Willis, at 57 the baby of the group, reprises his role as one-time New York City cop John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard. This fifth installment of Willis’ popular Die Hard franchise is due on Valentine’s Day.
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Good on them, as the Aussies say, for still giving it a go. So maybe the members of this tough-guy threesome can no longer run as fast, punch as hard or wear only sleeveless or ripped undershirts, the better to show off bulging biceps and pecs, but even action heroes have to make a few concessions to age.
Action heroes ruled in the 1980s and '90s. These three were founding members of the club. Their films all followed a similar template: an ordinary guy turns out to be an extraordinary guy, capable of out-shooting, out-slugging and out-thinking preening megalomaniacal criminals and enemies.
While their films were all the same, or at least same-ish, each actor had a distinct persona. Stallone broke through as a star in the Oscar-winning Rocky (1976), which he wrote, but he established himself as an action hero and put the genre on the map with his Rambo films, First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). On screen, he was usually a sensitive, often brooding soul locked in an action hero’s body. Opponents were always underestimating him, to their eventual regret.
Schwarzenegger was an Austrian bodybuilder who first gained fame after coming to America to compete with the world’s best musclemen. Soon, helped by his brash, ingratiating personality as showcased in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, he set out to conquer the world beyond Gold’s gym, namely Hollywood. He first scored at the box office wearing a loincloth and swinging a club as Conan the Barbarian (1982) then hit the jackpot playing an android in The Terminator (1984).
Fans never went to Schwarzenegger films for the depth of his dramatic acting, but he knew his way around a comic punch line (“Hasta la vista, baby”) and always managed to convey that he, like the audience, was having a swell time with this nonsense. No one was ever more diligent about promoting his movies or his brand than Ah-nold.
Willis, the latecomer to the action hero party, was a TV star first, playing a wisenheimer private detective in Moonlighting (1985-89). The breakthrough film for him, the one that put him into the superstar stratosphere, was Die Hard (1988). As McClane, he was New York cynical and tough as nails.
All three heroes had a good, long run at the top of the popularity and earning charts. Then it was over. Their movies stopped being surefire hits in the United States, though they continued to make money overseas. Stallone trotted out Rocky and Rambo retreads and kept on plugging.
Schwarzenegger, who had always said acting was merely a means to an end, became a politician (and a philandering husband, but that’s for another column). And Willis kept making action movies, but also turned in solid performances in more serious works (like last summer’s Moonrise Kingdom).
Meanwhile, Hollywood shopped for younger action heroes and tried to update the genre. Enter Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible films and Matt Damon in the Bourne Identity movies. Others who took a shot at establishing themselves as pre-Geritol versions of Sly, Arnold and Bruce included Nicolas Cage, Ben Affleck, Keanu Reeves, Vin Diesel and, more recently, Dwayne Johnson and Jake Gyllenhaal. A few met with brief success, but none of ’em stuck the landing the way the old guys did.
Stallone rebooted his career in 2010 with The Expendables, a jaunty, old-school throwback that teamed senior action heroes (Sly and Dolph Lundgren) with younger stars (Jason Statham and Jet Li). The movie proved there was life in those aging muscles yet, grossing $274.5 million worldwide at the box office, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
For many fans, the highlight of the film was a brief scene where Stallone rendezvoused with Schwarzenegger and Willis, who were making cameos. (They rejoined Sly briefly in last year’s The Expendables 2.)
And now the original three musketeers — shouldn’t someone have cast them in a remake of Dumas’ classic back in the day? — are back, each with a major solo turn in an action thriller. Based on the trailers, I think it’s fair to say it’s unlikely any of these films or performances will be Oscar contenders next year. But that’s not the point. It never was.
We want to see these guys running, jumping, shooting, brawling and cracking wise. If they manage to save the world in the bargain, all the better. And if they keep doing it even when they’re using walkers, well, you gotta believe.