Action heroes come in two categories: New School and Old School. Just last weekend, Liam Neeson, 58, led the box office pack with Unknown, showing 16-year old Justin Bieber and I Am Number Four‘s 20-year old Alex Pettyfer who’s Daddy. Neeson isn’t the first, nor will he be the last, older man showing the world how a Hollywood action star should perform, both on screen and in the charts.
It all comes down to how our culture defines masculine authority. As America raises generations of man-boys, many of Hollywood’s most manly movie stars come from overseas. Thus it is no surprise that today’s crop of worthy male action leads is not only slim, but older than ever, from 55-year-old Denzel Washington in November action hit Unstoppable and Jeff Bridges, 61, in Oscar-contender True Grit to Harrison Ford, the 68-year-old star of Cowboys & Aliens, coming in July.
This is not a new trend. Consider John Wayne (62 in 1969’s True Grit and 68 in its 1975 follow up, Rooster Cogburn), Clint Eastwood (63 in 1993’s In The Line of Fire, 78 in 2008’s Gran Torino), Sean Connery (66 in 1996’s The Rock), Gene Hackman (68 in 1998’s Enemy of The State, 71 in 2001’s Heist), and Gary Cooper who was 60 when he filmed his last, The Naked Edge, which came out after his death in 1961.
It’s tradition to hold on to our favorite leading men until they simply can’t hack it anymore. They gain gravitas and danger as they age. The real problem is how to replace them. Daniel Craig (42) and Matt Damon (40) are just now reaching their movie star prime (some already question Damon’s marquee power). It’s worth noting that our leading men seem to be getting shorter. While Wayne was 6’4″, Cooper 6’3″, Connery, Eastwood and Hackman more than 6’2″ and Washington 6′, on the shorter side are 49-year-old George Clooney (5’11”), Craig, Damon and Mission Impossible‘s Jeremy Renner (5’10”)– his co-star Tom Cruise is 5’7″.
At 6’4” Neeson is a return to the grander scale of manly man — sexy-ugly, not pretty-sexy — and his success with Unknown (propelled by 2008’s Taken) suggests at least few more good years for this Northern Ireland import. His Unknown co-stars have nothing but praise for him. Diane Kruger says: “I think because of his age and because of his body of work and his gravitas as an actor… it brings a whole other layer of depth to this kind of film…It feels fresh.” And January Jones, who plays his wife, believes: “He’s such a perfect casting choice for this movie, because you could be intimidated by him physically because he is fit and could cause you harm,…But at the same time there’s something so vulnerable about him in certain things he says and certain things he does that makes you want to take care of him, there’s both sides of that.”
The Guardian is calling Unknown “the indie mainstream hit” and the Chicago Tribune hails Neeson as “his own kind of action star…More subtly than Harrison Ford, Neeson excels at the slow fuse snaking its way to explosive revenge.” And THR’s Tim Appello says Neeson is special, an “edgy case” with a “heroic remoteness.”
The State’s John Anderson goes deep into the issue: “The landscape of recent motion pictures, in particular Manly Movies, looks increasingly like the last days of the dinosaurs.” By the time The Expendables II opens in 2012, Anderson writes, the combined age of its five stars will be 291: “If one were to compare the future of Hollywood He-Men to say, The Terminator, there would be few replacement parts in the warehouse. Who’s coming along to fill the shoes of Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis — or even Liam Neeson?” He offers Orlando Bloom as a would-be replacement…”Yikes.”
Yes, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Christian Bale and “a few others,” Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra tells Anderson. But, he admits, “It’s hard to find an actor who has the physicality, the good looks, the charm all on top of being an amazing actor.” The bottom line is that these older stars still prove potency at the box office — and The Expendables and RED are last year’s proof.
Now Schwarzenegger will be back to fill the action void. It seems that these aging stars are not expendable after all.