As we’re constantly reminded, we only have one able-bodied, classical-style action star left: Jason Statham. And even he’s 46 years old and hangs around with the “Expendables” codgers. The trend these days is for AARP-aged action stars — in fact, these are the same people who were mowing down baddies en masse or piledriving taunting henchmen in the 1980s. It’s called movie magic.
This weekend we see two more entries in this field. In “The Escape Plan,” Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, onetime rival kings of Hollywood action, team up to break from a high tech prison — despite being 67 and 66, respectively. Also out in limited release is “Chinese Zodiac,” allegedly the last “big” action film from 59 year old Jackie Chan. But, its star/director charges, it's not the last action film he'll ever make. In fact, a Stallone/De Niro boxing movie en route, plus more movies where Liam Neeson, 61, shoots guns, there’s no end in sight for this curious trend.
That said, the thrill of seeing old timers acting like lithe twenty year olds has been long with our culture. It's a tradition, albeit one that has ramped up in recent years.
Henry Fonda, “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968)
Fonda spent a very long career building himself up as the decent guy. Jimmy Stewart was nice, but Fonda was good — the stand-up man who does the right thing, protects the weak or transcends weakness himself. It wasn’t until he was 63, with nothing left to prove, that he went bad. In Sergio Leone’s fourth western, he’s a hired gun introduced leading a massacre on a nice family, then shooting dead a cute ginger kid. That wasn’t all: Fonda forces himself onto our reforming ex-prostitute protagonist (Claudia Cardinale), and has to go mano-a-mano with Charles Bronson (who shall reappear on this list forthwith). As they say, life begins at 60.
Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, “Emperor of the North” (1973)
Marvin and Borgnine were 49 and 53, respectively, when they made Robert Aldrich’s Depression-era hobo train movie. That’s not old — but Marvin, who greyed prematurely, was already looking well past his age (cigarettes and booze will do that), while Borgnine was long out of his boyish “Marty” days. Marvin plays a renowned hobo known for his skill at riding the rails without getting caught. Borgnine plays a crazy-eyed conductor infamous for the sadistic glee he takes from killing hobos who board his trains. The whole movie builds up to a duel, and it’s the opposite of a letdown. Aboard a moving locomotive, they break out chains, axes and whatever else is at hand, soon winding up covered in Heinz 57-blood.
John Wayne, “Brannigan” (1975)
At 68 — before his autumnal swan song, “The Shootist” — The Duke made the kind of movie most actors wouldn’t make at 58, playing a cop who travels to Jolly Ol’ to speed around in cars and very, very, very slowly draw his gun on perps. Can you believe this isn’t the oldest entry on this list? (Keep reading.)
Roger Moore, “A View to a Kill” (1985)
Pierce Brosnan, the man born to play James Bond, was waiting in the wings in the early ‘80s as the then-current Bond was bound to retire. And why wouldn’t he? He was almost 60 years old. Regardless, Moore wouldn’t surrender the throne, and at 58 he made his last appearance as 007. Technically, about 40% of his performance is stunt men shot from a distance, or shots of him in front of rear projection, pretending to be skiing madly down a hill. But he’s still randy as ever, although he’s at this point really more of a dirty old man.
Charles Bronson, “Death Wish V: The Face of Death” (1994)
Bronson came to mega-stardom relatively late in life, not hitting “Death Wish” paydirt until he was in his 50s. Through the ‘80s he was an industry unto himself, making cheap, sleazy, highly questionable vigilante pictures, including one where he hunts down a killer nudist (“10 to Midnight”). Few of these did well, and almost no one went to see the final installment in his most famous franchise. This is too bad because he was a 73 year old gunning down “creeps” with big guns. Bronson holds the record — and it will surely be beat by Stallone and/or Schwarzenegger and/or Chan.
Harrison Ford, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008)
Ford seems to have resigned himself to being old, now that he’s 71. He plays administrative roles now, in “42” and “Ender’s Game.” But only five years ago he was relaunching his second most famous franchise, and looking pretty weary while doing it, too.
Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” (2008)
This isn’t technically an action film, but it does feature Clint wielding guns, pushing people around, barking threats, etc. It’s the only one to really acknowledge that its hero, then 78 (now 83), can’t do this stuff anymore. In fact, Clint has been scarce from the screen the last two decades. His last proper action film was “In the Line of Fire” in 1993, which still features him running on roofs and putting the moves on Rene Russo. If Clint isn't stretching his muscles on screen these days, that's partly because he sometimes directs two, often long movies a year. That's the true sign of a badass. Never say die, Clint.