Friday, March 28, 2014

Who is the Action Hero World Champion?

Yesterday, Grantland's Bill Simmons posed the question of who holds the action-hero championship belt, and then provided an extensive history of who's passed it on to whom and how long they held their title. It's a truly fascinating piece, and serves as a rich history to the kinds of red-meat films that we cinephiles often ignore in favor of celebrating whatever Martin Scorsese or the Dardennes Brothers have completed.

Sure, it's a very objective process, and the criteria Simmons uses certainly eliminates a lot of famous action heroes and heroines from contention. It had to be done: he defines "action hero" as the protagonist of a very specific kind of movie, which makes determining a champion much easier. But it also highlights two very different things. The first is that there are number of truly great action-movie performances that never spawned action-oriented careers. For example, one of the first ones to come to my mind was Sigourney Weaver's Lt. Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies, but particularly 1986's Aliens. But Weaver never really pursued a career as an action star, so she didn't count toward this project. There were some who made the list who moved on to other types of projects - Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and Denzel Washington, for example - but they had streaks where they starred in consecutive action movies. It's the "one-hit wonders," for lack of a better term, who missed out.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

More after the jump.

The problem with Simmons' piece - and the second revelation that it uncovers - is that the "action hero" and the films they star in no longer really exist in mainstream cinema. The Rambos and McClanes of the '80s and '90s fell away with the end of the Cold War, as the United States lost its "mortal enemy" in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Once X-Men and Spider-Man proved how lucrative superheroes could be at the turn of the millennium, they quickly replaced "action heroes" in blockbuster movies. This is only highlighted by recent examples of old-school action movies such as The Expendables, Bullet to the Head, and The Last Stand. Each of these films relies on the star power of aging action stars  (particularly Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwartznegger) essentially pretending that the dream of the '80s is still alive, and as a result, they feel like stale relics of a by-gone era and fail to ignite the box office (The Expendables did well, but the franchise has had diminishing results). The recent remake of Rambo and the failures of the last two Die Hard films only underlines how down this genre is.

This isn't to say that the genre is completely dead, of course. This weekend will see the release of The Raid 2, the sequel to 2011's bone-crunching bloodbath. The Raid is actually a perfect example of the old-school action movie's current situation. It's a punishing film that invests far more into its carnage than it does into plot or characterization, which is exactly what fans were hungry for anyway. It is also an Indonesian production, and the fact that it was made outside of Hollywood is also a part of what made it an international sensation. Independent filmmakers are keeping this genre alive, and they're doing so without "stars" in the Hollywood sense. It's also no coincidence. that in The A.V. Club's "Watch This" feature, four out of this week's five films recommended as "ultraviolent action movies" hail from the Asian continent.

So let's revisit the question that the title of this post asks: who is the "action hero" star of the moment? Simmons' piece names Liam Neeson, and given his streak of Taken, Taken 2, and Non-Stop, it's hard to argue with that point. But who else could qualify for the distinction? In order to really discuss this, though, we have to throw out Simmons' "no franchises/superheroes" rule, since they are the action heroes of the past 15 years. Here are a few candidates for "biggest action star" of today.

Tom Cruise

Cruise has long been a known for taking on both big-budget action movies and more "serious" movies, but ever since the turn of the millennium, he's focused almost solely on action. He's not really the box-office draw he once was, as Oblivion and Jack Reacher proved, but he's the face of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and he's got another big one coming up in Edge of Tomorrow. He could even be bigger than Neeson in terms of being an action star.

Daniel Craig

In Craig's hands, James Bond has never been more brutal. He's almost single-handedly transformed Bond from a suave secret agent with tons of gadgets and women into a one-man wrecking ball, and the result has been some of the best films in the long-running franchise (Casino Royale and Skyfall). Though he doesn't act much outside of the Bond franchise at the moment, that role alone should be enough to put him in the conversation of "action star." But he does have Defiance and Layer Cake in his past, which only adds to his case.

Vin Diesel / Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

Diesel and Johnson are a one-two punch because much of their current status as action stars comes from their duets in the Fast & Furious franchise. Though it was at first conceived as a series of films about street racing, Fast Five - with an assist by Fast & Furious, the fourth film in the franchise - blew the doors open for this to become a highly-lucrative franchise full of physics-defying action. Diesel also has the Riddick franchise to give him a boost, while Johnson has Pain & Gain and the upcoming Hercules that will almost certainly give him plenty of opportunities to show off his impressive pecs.

Jeremy Renner

Renner is a bit of a question mark. The only true lead that he's had in an action movie is taking over the role of Jason Bourne in The Bourne Legacy, though you could also toss in his Oscar-nominated performance in The Hurt Locker and make a stronger case. But he's also got The Avengers under his belt, playing super-archer Hawkeye, but he's not really the star of his Marvel films. However, given his appearance in Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and sequels for both Bourne and Avengers coming up, he's clearly in the running.

Mark Wahlberg

Honestly, Wahlberg could probably make this list solely through his personal reputation of wondering how historical events would have been different if only he had been there. In just the past two years, he's appeared in Contraband, Broken City, Pain & Gain, 2 Guns, and Lone Survivor, and if that wasn't enough, he's bringing that action-movie cred to Transformers: Age of Extinction this summer. Out of all of those, Transformers is the only one that really belongs to a franchise, which makes Wahlberg the closest thing to an old-school action star on this list.

Jennifer Lawrence

As Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle have proven, Lawrence has much bigger goals in her career than being an action star. Still, there's no denying the fact that her Katniss Everdeen has become a huge character in pop culture, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the highest-grossing film of the year 2013. That's not even her only action franchise: she'll reprise her role as the shape-shifting Mystique in this summer's X-Men: Days of Future Past. Eventually, she may leave all this action behind. But for now, it's impossible not to mention her as a possible action star.

Chris Pine

Pine has a tricky situation. He has a big franchise in Star Trek, and he's done a commendable job of turning the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk into a modern-day action hero. However, he's hardly the draw for those films, and his other efforts at action stardom - Unstoppable, This Means War, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - have each failed to really ignite the box office. He's a possibility, but a fast-fading one if he can't carry a movie on his own.

Jai Courtney / Jason Momoa / Channing Tatum / Sam Worthington

from top: Courtney, Momoa, Tatum, Worthington

All of these guys have one thing in common: they're all legitimate possibilities to be action heroes, but they lack the credentials to really earn the designation yet. Worthington has the most experience behind him, with Avatar and two Clash of the Titans movies, but only the latter really gave him a chance to prove himself. Tatum is a big star already, but if White House Down is any indication, he may not be able to carry an action movie despite him seeming like a perfect action star. Momoa has the reputation of Game of Thrones, but the failures of Bullet to the Head and his Conan the Barbarian reboot haven't been inspiring. Courtney is the freshest face in this bunch, but he's got a pedigree: A Good Day to Die Hard, Divergent, Jack Reacher, and Starz Channel's Spartacus: War of the Damned. However, unlike the other three men here, he's yet to carry a movie by himself. He'll be Kyle Reese in the upcoming Terminator: Genesis, which may be his best chance to show off. Any of these men could rise to the top in the coming years, but for now they'll just have to prove themselves.

Who else could go on this list? And what do you think makes an "action star" or "action movie" these days? Let's discuss it in the comments.

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