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What's Behind Hollywood's Obsession With Old Man Action Heroes?

We’re in the midst of a full-on re-emergence of the Old Demi-Gods of Action from direct-to-DVD obscurity, failed career comebacks, and politics. The hard-bodied troops of ’80s action cinema are returning to the genre they helped perfect via The Expendables series, Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand, Stallone’s Bullet to the Head, and the trotting out of Bruce Willis’ John McClane for yet another Die Hard. It’s a kind of new (old) wave, but it isn’t one isolated to reappointing former glory to older-aged action stars. It’s equally indoctrinating new ones through movies like Red and anything that gives Liam Neeson a gun. These days it seems action films aren’t just a young man’s game anymore – they’re becoming a game for finely aged actors. We’ve had actors dolling out justice well into their middle-years before (see: John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, the cast of The Wild Bunch ), but it’s never been this pervasive as a trend. Which begs the question: why now?

One reason is the current state of the action genre. As Adam Sternbergh noted in his heartfelt eulogy for the bygone days of Commandos and Rambos – “America forgot how to make action movies.” Where once we had a healthy action genre, now we just have action movies – most of which are superhero flicks or CGI sinkholes. There’s no more good old-fashioned bare-chested, bare-knuckled grit. Not that there’s anyone to get bare-chested or knuckled. Aside from Jason Statham and false-starters Vin Diesel and The Rock, no new young action stars have come along to replace the old, and the existing ones have faded (Tom Cruise, Will Smith). Now we just get regular actors like Matt Damon and Daniel Craig taking on action movies.

That vacuum is precisely why Stallone was able to make The Expendables. He saw an opportunity to leverage the fact that Hollywood wasn’t offering us anything better than the best of the past. The modest but sequel-justifying success of Stallone’s film (and Red) in 2010 helped lay the groundwork for the potential financial viability of the movies we’re getting now. What does well gets made more, and so trends are born with business models founded on giving the people what they want until they don’t want it anymore. So, we’re getting older actors rising or returning to action star prominence.

The key to understanding the “why now?” of this current trend isn’t just economics and genre atrophy, however. It’s the age of the actors. They’re Baby Boomers. As these actors see their careers reinvigorated on screen, their generation is shifting into retirement age. Amongst non-movie-stars, there’s a general societal expectation that when you get older in the work force you should make way for younger generations. Boomers in particular are being pressured to do so. But no one wants to be pushed into obsolescence, especially since life hardly ends at 65. That’s something that will be particularly true for Boomers, a generation probably positioned better than any other previous one to have active post-retirement lives. It’s telling that The Last Stand’s poster tagline is a blatant rejection of what is expected of Boomers right now: “Retirement is for sissies.”

That brings us back to what we’ll call Boomer Action Cinema. Actors are dependent on being visible, so more than anyone they understand not wanting to be dragged into irrelevance — particularly Schwarzenegger and Stallone, who once were kings of their domain. Which is why these films effectively function as a generational yawp. They’re a representative assertion that boomers are not useless, dismissible, and ready to make that long journey into night; they’re still capable, functional, and experts at whatever skills they have. That’s exactly why this wave of movies is constructed around narratives that center on these actors being better than their juniors who are ready to push them out of the way and forget them.

Consider how in The Expendables 2 (spoiler alert) there’s only one young person on the team and he dies. Or how the heroes of The Last Stand, Bullet to the Head, Red, Taken all face down significantly younger opponents and defeat them handily. It’s a kind of fantasy exorcism of a generation’s insecurity and frustrations over its treatment. These films aren’t content to simply assert the continued relevance of the Boomer generation. They want to assure us that they’re better than the current one.

For now these actors and their films have the clout to let theater screens continue to play out their cinematic justifications of Boomer relevance (in Hollywood and out) and their value to the stagnant action genre. But, it’ll be interesting to see how the recent box-office failure of The Last Stand will impact this wave of films. It may just prove to be an anomaly if Red 2 or Bullet to the Head do well (Die Hard will because it’s Die Hard). But if these films fail, and the older action hero trend ebbs, it won’t just represent the loss of the superficial pleasures and Boomer catharsis of seeing Helen Mirren wielding big guns or Schwarzenegger spitting out one-liners like old times. It will signal that Sternbergh is right; the great American action film is finally dead.

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