|Harrison Ford in Ender's Game (2013).|
When is the right time to give up the craft? How much does age affect your ability to execute your art? With artisans or musicians, it’s when your body fails, when your fingers can no longer keep up with your mind, or when you’ve exhausted your contribution to the medium and you feel that there’s nothing more you can add. Perhaps it’s both, or more. But for actors – especially stars of action cinema – it’s a different story. Money and special effects can go a long way to help Hollywood’s ever-sagging elite stave off the rigours of time, and artificially extend their influence over pop culture.
We see this most often with the action idols of the 1980s: Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Ford, and Willis, whose improbably-proportioned physiques defined the cinematic excess of the Reagan era. Everything about them and their tentpole action films was oversized, in a way that popular film had forgotten since the gargantuan epics of the 1930s – spectacle, as an end in itself, was back in theatres in a big way. Plots were thinner, necklines were lower, guns were louder, explosions were bigger, and in centre frame, one of these four would stand, muscles bulged and glistening, as wantonly turgid and provocative as a giant erection on screen. But shock value promises diminishing returns, and as an actor, hitching one’s wagon to that most physical of stars seems like a short-term investment at best.
This proved to be true in the decades to follow, and this fearsome foursome of ‘80s action cinema were due to fade into obscurity like the rest of their kin – but, curiously, they didn’t. Despite the ravages of time, they continued to bank on their earlier hits and produced flop after flop (true in all cases, from late Arnold stinkers like Collateral Damage (2002) and The Last Stand (2013) to Harrison Ford’s deeply unfortunate turns in bombs like Hollywood Homicide (2003) and Firewall (2006). This arc is familiar to filmgoers; and in most cases we’ll simply get bored and move on to younger, fresher fare – but for these aging heroes, we continue to line up. Even though their faces droop, their step is slow, and their once-thunderous punches land like a toddler batting at a mobile, we continue to tolerate their presence on our theatre marquees. Their attempts to remain relevant are completely transparent; sometimes pathetically so. The question becomes, then: why do we encourage them? Why do we buy a ticket to a film that we know, deep down, will be unconvincing?
Of the four mentioned, Harrison Ford’s continued prevalence is undoubtedly the most offensive. As a man who professes to never having wanted to be an actor in the first place (turning to set carpentry after several failed early attempts at acting, until he was hired by a young Coppola protégé to star in his breakout film, American Graffiti, and soon after, Star Wars), he certainly seems to have no problem overstaying his welcome in the field. It’s baffling, as a person swayed by the magnetism and relatability he showed with his iconic performance in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), to watch him sleepily grumble his way through his dialogue in Ender’s Game (2013) – an otherwise mediocre film that was wholly ruined by his contemptuous, non-committal showing. In nearly all his recent roles, Ford radiates discomfort and a palpable desire to flee from the screen, like an antsy child at a cocktail party. At least his peers maintain a modicum of gratitude to still be working at all, for which I’m inclined to give them more credit.
|Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones.|
Perhaps the distaff perspective will help us here. We’ll ignore the separate issue of the disproportionate age between most action film love interests and their leading man counterparts – are there any examples of female action stars who overstay their welcome? I’d argue that Sigourney Weaver qualifies, as her brilliant leading role in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) has led to a host of supporting roles in similar modern action sci-fi fare like this year’s Chappie, for no real reason other than the genre credibility she brings to the table (I can tell you it’s not her acting that’s drawing in the crowds). Salma Hayek’s recent performance in Everly (2014) might count, as well: she made her name in early Latino actioners like Desperado (1995) and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), but despite her best efforts, she can’t elevate the trite, empty gore of such a hollow, forgettable revenge vehicle. It must be said that, in fairness, she’s doing a lot better job of preserving her physical assets than her male equivalents, so at least she’s still got that going for her.
|Sylvester Stallone and Jason Momoa in Bullet to the Head.|
So where did all this get us? Are we victims of branding that has seared so firmly into our minds, leaving so deep an impression, that its effect is permanent? We’re witnessing the actor-as-commodity at peak efficiency – a near-guarantee for studios that a familiar name and a vague remembrance of cinematic thrills long-past will put butts in seats, no matter what tripe is actually being slapped into the trough in front of us. But I suspect I’m missing the point. Maybe the paycheque that Arnold receives at the end of the shoot is just icing on the cake, whose flavour is simply the experience. I expect that he and all his peers are just glad that they can still have fun making movies – playing with big toy guns, wearing sunglasses, and cracking wise – while they still can. And while it might be disappointing for us, I suppose that on the strength of their heyday hits, I can’t begrudge them a little self-indulgence. I know I’d do the same in their place. After all, you only get to be an ‘80s action star once.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.