Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Over The Hill: Aging Action Stars and the Culture of Tolerance

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.

But these four favourites aren’t the only aging action stars deserving of consideration. Liam Neeson, for example, has carved out a new niche as Hollywood’s executioner-du-jour, an instant go-to for any script requiring a grizzled ex-Special Forces/ex-CIA/ex-whatever tough guy with a bald moral code and a thirst for revenge. This strikes me as a rather strange mid-career step, considering his best-known prior work bounced between period dramas like Schindler’s List (1993) and Rob Roy (1995) and lighthearted romantic comedies like Love Actually (2003) and Kinsey (2004). To continue to age, and then move from these spheres into pure action schlock like Taken (2008) and its sequels, seems almost inherently oxymoronic. A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson’s recent literary potboiler adaptation, was a step in the right direction, although it too succumbed to the temptation to put a gun in his hand and have him growl improbable threats into a telephone. His character, a freelance detective named Matt Scudder, is exactly the kind of haggard, world-weary figure Neeson’s screen persona has been building towards for years: the recovering alcoholic, the ex-cop with one fatal mistake that killed his career – the strong, silent, and (mostly) non-violent type. With his tall, angular frame and his deep crackling voice, he wears the post-noir trenchcoat with ease, and it allows him to explore nuances of character and dialogue that don’t exist in his now-usual fare. So it’s too bad that Tombstones can’t escape its action scenes, no matter how convincing Neeson makes it. It might be he’s fulfilling some specious contractual obligation, or just a marketing push towards the Neeson that audiences know, but in the end both they and the actor (as an artist) are done a disservice through this sort of pandering. It’s disappointing in the extreme to be reminded that Neeson can indeed perform, and do it well – which is easy to forget given this recent period as a gravelly-voiced, one-dimensional superthug – it’s just that most of the time, he’s not allowed to.

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.
There are, of course, those who seemingly defy age – like the indefatigable Tom Cruise, whose eyebrow-raising public persona does little to dull the effect of his cinematic energy and drive (he was scaling the Burj Khalifa at 48 for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol while his peers like Sylvester Stallone were busy flexing and growling in noxious fare like Bullet to the Head), and Jason Statham, who is in such ferociously good shape I have no doubt he’ll continue to impress well into his middle age. And I haven’t yet mentioned the Asian contingent, whose brightest stars, like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, have understood that since their craft is so strongly tied to their physical prowess, it was necessary to give up the ghost the instant they could no longer execute on the jaw-dropping stunt work that made them famous (in recent years they’ve both turned to direction and production, with occasional non-physical turns in historical epics). These are the refreshing exceptions to the rule, which remains in full force to this day.

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. 

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