Films

Whatever happened to the retro tough action hero?

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James King
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Action movies are finally moving with the times

There’s a moment in 1995 Bond movie GoldenEye that now feels oddly prescient. “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” Judi Dench’s M coolly tells Pierce Brosnan while sipping bourbon on ice. “A relic of the Cold War.”

With memories of cardboard Commies and painful oneliners still fresh (“Keeping the British end up, sir”), it was the jolt Nineties Bond – and indeed action cinema as a whole – desperately needed, but it’s taken a new century and a new star for 007 to finally grow. Watch Dr No, where Connery casually smokes a cigarette as he pumps lead into Professor Dent, or witness the way he pushes Fiona Volpe into the path of a bullet in Thunderball, and he’s the chillingly ‘blunt instrument’ that creator Ian Fleming described him as. These days though, Daniel Craig blends that bluntness with soft edges – still breaking bones but getting his own heart broken by those once-quickly-dispatched Bond girls, too.

Bond’s not alone. In today’s action world, considerate Deadpool names his team ‘X-Force’ so as to be gender-neutral; thoughtful Logan (AKA Wolverine) takes care of an 11-year-old girl; and even the era’s gruffest, grizzliest badass – Bryan Mills in Taken – is played by the fella who once portrayed Oskar Schindler. If these guys have issues (and they usually do), they’re at least open about them.

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The brash Eighties, of course, was known for putting showiness over sensitivity and the musclemen in Hollywood balked at exposing chinks in their emotional armour. Today that doesn’t just seem foolish, but dangerous. Sylvester Stallone cast aside early Vietnam-era complexities in his Rambo and Rocky franchises to turn both characters into fanatical juggernauts, while Schwarzenegger often played eerily unblinking militants.

The films are thrilling, sure, but when the Austrian Oak gets tooled-up for action in 1985’s Commando – all army boots, shot belt and rocket launcher – he’s got the turned-on pout of an NRA fanatic at a gun show. This is not an open-minded dude you’d want to spend quality time with.

There is a charm to their retro madness, of course. This was a time of rookies and risk-takers, when an endearing craziness could get you a long way, and it’s no surprise that the ‘super producers’ of the era – Don Simpson, Joel Silver – were as renowned for their own devil-may-care attitudes as the deranged characters they created (Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley and Die Hard’s John McClane to name just two). 

But Simpson died of a drug overdose in 1996 and Silver’s unpredictable nature saw his sway gradually erode. If Lethal Weapon’s booze-battling loose cannon Martin Riggs was real, he’d surely be similarly downtrodden by now.

Not everyone’s happy that action movies are moving with the times, though. Genre expert Michael Lucker – author of Crash! Boom! Bang! How To Write Action Movies – told ShortList he’s had enough of all this sensitivity. 

“We’ve gone from men to boys,” he says. “In the old days, they were all badasses who would shoot first, ask questions later. Then the ‘great emasculation’ happened – something I attribute to movie studio marketing departments trying to please everyone in the audience to turn a profit. Now male action heroes are more like ‘boys next door’.”

He is especially disappointed by the current rash of caped crusaders: “The superhero universe encourages us to seek someone with special powers to save us, rather than empowering us to save ourselves. But in the end, that’s exactly what we need to do. Be our own heroes.” It’s certainly true that Patrick Swayze never had Tony Stark to help him clean up the Double Deuce in Road House.

Empowered or not, we shouldn’t really be looking to the small minds of Steven Seagal in Out For Justice (sample line: “You were still sucking your thumb while your brother was around town sucking dicks”) or Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Impact (a fitness instructor who ‘hilariously’ touches up his female clients) for inspiration, should we? 

It’s no wonder ‘boys next door’ Matt Damon and Keanu Reeves would later take over the action world – as proper actors, they were looking for characters with depth. Steve and JCVD, on the other hand, were more used to pumping iron than treading boards.

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The classic lone wolf has made a comeback of sorts, notably in the no-nonsense ‘stubble-and trouble’ genre spearheaded by former model, kickboxer and diver Jason Statham (less notably with Gerard Butler or Tom Cruise’s take on giant Jack Reacher). 

Thankfully, The Stath plays most roles with a glint in his eye, but this new wave of outsiders taking on the establishment certainly chimes with the questionable ‘America First’ mood that got Trump into the White House, his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ sounding like something Charles Bronson might have said in Death Wish 4.

Lucker also sees our current kickass heroines harking back to those old days of insular male killing machines: “Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron… they possess many of the same qualities we long admired in our men,” he says. “They’re not damsels in distress. They’re damsels of death.”

But when the behemoths of Eighties action paid tribute to their origins in 2010’s back-to-basics The Expendables, they did so as a team working together. Today, it seems, there’s nothing more enlightened in high-octane movies than to acknowledge the importance of your friends, your gang, your family (play The Fast & The Furious drinking game, necking a shot every time someone mentions this F-word, and you’ll be sozzled quicker than Dominic Toretto drives a souped-up Dodge Charger).

Yes, these days, tough guys relish the help of fellow avengers. Even a brute like Vin Diesel happily admits to wooing his favourite actor – a certain Dame Dench – with flowers so she’d star with him in The Chronicles Of Riddick. Can you imagine Chuck Norris doing that?

James King’s book Fast Times And Excellent Adventures: The Surprising History Of The ’80s Teen Movie is out now, £16.99 (Constable)

(Images: AllStar)