Movielovers are living in a rather turbulent time. The old guard of leading men and action heroes are fading away into low key roles, retirement or unpopularity. You can't bank on Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, or Sylvester Stallone (although he's making a decided comeback) any longer. Bruce Willis is still kicking hard, but he'll soon be at that age where he's just too old to play the wisecracking cop, or the weary soldier. And who will replace him? Who will replace any of them?
Well, Hollywood doesn't know. If you've watched the industry as closely as I expect Cinematical readers do, you'll know they've been sweating over the lack of red-blooded males available to action and thrillers. Gone are the days of Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson where you could find a whole magnificent seven or dirty dozen of them if you needed. Now, Hollywood just seems to be picking any square jaw to fit the gap. The new trend seems to just be manufacturing them. We've seen Taylor Lautner dubbed the new action hero, and Sam Worthington is taking any part that requires a bit of testosterone. With Gerard Butler and Dwayne Johnson more interested in rom-coms and tutus, can you blame them for grabbing any good set of abs?
But surely it takes more than that. Here, I should stop and say that by "action movies" I don't just mean the explosion heavy stuff like Cliffhanger or Commando, though there's a definite lack of that kind of fun, but the more nuanced thrillers and dramas like Witness and Ransom (or going really far back, Tokyo Joe or This Gun For Hire) or the finer character work you find in franchises like Dirty Harry or Die Hard. It takes a certain kind of man to carry those films and those characters. They don't have to be drop dead gorgeous (when you break them down to their parts, Humphrey Bogart and Bronson weren't), but they have to have charisma, they have to be of a certain middle age, and they have to exude an inner and outer strength.
Who has that today? One Cinematical reader expressed a lot of skepticism when I called Jeffrey Dean Morgan a "true man's man kind of actor" and with a resume of stuff like The Accidental Husband, I can't exactly blame them. But I'd argue he displayed more grit as The Comedian than Lautner showed in New Moon or Worthington showed in Avatar, but he wasn't handed a leading man crown. He's still working his way up. Same with Daniel Craig or Hugh Jackman, who reportedly still aren't considered A-List enough to open a film that isn't a James Bond or Wolverine installment. Same with Eric Bana, who just seems to lurk on the edges of major offerings. But are any of them -- Craig, Butler, Worthington, Jackman, Lautner, Bana -- true macho material? Even the bigger names among them just haven't made the leap.
Perhaps it's a problem of audience reaction. Were we ever told that Gibson was the new action star? I seem to remember it dawning on audiences gradually, and then Martin Riggs hitting everyone like a punch to the gut. "Holy crap!" said audiences. "I like that guy! He has great eyes! Make Lethal Weapon 2!" I feel like audiences had that with Butler after 300, and Jackman after X-Men, but nothing ever came of it. Did Hollywood lack the right scripts at that very moment? Or did the actors drop the ball with their buzz? I don't know. I just know they're making fluff when they should be making grown-up thrillers. At least Clive Owen is trying, even if offerings such as Duplicity fall a little cold and flat. So is Russell Crowe, and if audiences fail to respond to something like State of Play, what is a studio to do?
So, what does make a great action star? How do you pick them? Can Hollywood make a conscious decision to groom them into idols, as they seem to be doing with Lautner and Worthington? What does Worthington have that, say, Morgan doesn't? What makes Craig so much harder to cast in non-Bond roles than Ford in non-Indiana Jones films? Let's try to solve the problem that's plaguing every manager, agent, casting director, and studio executive in the 21st century.