The Last Action Hero?

By Kezia Tooby

Do you remember a time when Hollywood action heroes were excessively muscular, swore a lot and could fight off swarms of enemies with their physicality alone? A time when heroes were never once affected by their injuries? If you cast your mind back to the Eighties and Nineties you will recall the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren who used nought more than sheer physical strength to fight the good fight, but where is that kind of action hero today? Instead of the bodybuilder we’ve got Shia LaBeouf.

In the late Eighties and the Nineties, the male body within the Hollywood action film was a spectacle. ‘Muscle culture’, as Yvonne Tasker calls it in her 1993 text Spectacular Bodies, saw the bodybuilder become a film star and an action hero. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most famous example of this and demonstrates how these muscular actors were typecast and how the action genre became a part of their star persona. The action genre was about visual excess, whether it was the muscles of the hero, the extreme violence or large body counts audiences thrived on ridiculous abundance.

The popularity of such films is rooted in a number of things: from the muscular action hero hitting a zeitgeist to it representing the male in crisis. Geoff King speculates in his book Spectacular Narratives, that “the popularity of such figures has often been seen as part of a backlash against the demands of feminism, reasserting a particular brand of macho heroics. Some have argued that these performances can be read differently, their hysterical excesses manifesting a version of masculinity in crisis and overproduced in an act of desperation that lays bare its artificiality”. Whereas Tasker believes this manufactured bodybuilder was an “excessive caricature of cultural expectations”. Whatever the reason, these heroes were box-office hits – but did they actually disappear or simply evolve into something else?

The action hero per se has not disappeared but this physical muscular version has certainly declined. According to Tasker in 1993 “contemporary American action movies work hard, and often at the expense of narrative development, to contrive situations for the display of the hero’s body.”  With this in mind perhaps now there just isn’t room for the physical action hero anymore, ]with the multitude of special effects that now dominate the genre it seems one has replaced the other. Another point to take into consideration is that of Joe Queenan, writing in The Guardian in February 2008, who states that franchise actors such as Arnie or Stallone are “bankable stars who so completely dominate a genre that when they fade away or die, it’s hard to replace them”. Perhaps this explains the various failed replacements in the form of actors such as The Rock and Vin Diesel who are not entirely unsuccessful but have for one reason or another not reached the same level of fame as our previous heroes.

So what else is Hollywood offering us? The everyman hero has long been a narrative staple but has recently dominated the action genre with characters such as James McAvoy’s Wesley in Wanted (2008). These everyman heroes, however, often have a common narrative twist in the form of becoming a superhero such as Peter Parker in the Spider-Man series (2002-2007) and Steve Rogers in the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). While these characters may become super-human they do start out as just an average Joe and their transformation is explained to the audience, rather than them being extraordinary from the beginning like the bodybuilder action hero. Perhaps as they are more relatable than the excessively muscular action star, today’s audiences are more comfortable with an identifiable character. The original and best everyman action hero was average cop John McClane in Die Hard (1988), played by Bruce Willis, who was much more of a wise guy action hero than a muscle man. It seems the everyman hero has evolved from this character but unfortunately many of the good points have been left out in the process. Even McClane’s latest outing in Die Hard 4 (2007) sees him as a filtered version of himself with less swearing and an ‘everyman’ geek sidekick.

Today Hollywood strives to make action films that are family friendly, XXX (2002) was a 12A, Terminator Salvation (2009) was a disappointing 12 and even Die Hard 3 and 4 (1995, 2007) were 15 certificates whereas the first two were classified as a respectable 18. More often than not the certification of an action film is a 12A resulting in the conventions of the genre being toned down to a more family friendly level. This is not exactly what you’d call an improvement. There are, of course, exceptions such as Jason Statham in the 18 certificated Crank (2006) and Crank: High Voltage (2009) but these seem to be anomalies.

Action films have also become more realistic with less fantasy and excess even in comic book adaptations. There appears to be a necessity to embed high levels of realism into action films; Batman Begins (2005), The Bourne films and X-Men: First Class (2011) exhibit this, the character’s physicality is made believable and explained to the audience. There is little room for inexplicably and excessively muscular action heroes, other than comic book heroes, within these action films that are suspended in reality. I for one miss the day when an action film was pure escapism and fantasy.

Remakes of Schwarzenegger vehicles Total Recall (1990) and Conan the Barbarian (1982) are looming. Colin Farrell has been cast in Arnie’s role in Total Recall and, relatively unknown, Jason Momoa as Conan. Are they trying to resurrect the muscular action hero or are they trying to redefine it? Rumours abound of Jason Statham taking over from Shia LaBeouf in The Transformers franchise so maybe Hollywood, or at least Michael Bay, is trying to inject some muscle into the action film. Either way, these replacements are no Arnie, are they?

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