Monday, April 2, 2012

Heavy Action: Unlikely Action Heroes

Not all action heroes are created equal.

1. Nicolas Cage - Prior to becoming the go-to action hero for much of the late '90s and 2000s, Nicolas Cage was starring in offbeat comedies, giving bizarre performances in small, eccentric movies and winning Oscars for drinking himself to death. Then The Rock happened, and the world was never the same. His first action movie performance works specifically because he doesn't belong and the film plays on that; unfortunately, he followed it up by getting all big and jacked up and playing a dull hick in Con Air. That was a hit, too, however, and a new action hero was born. Aside from Face/Off (which came out the same year as Con Air), none of Cage's action movie performances have been as fun or interesting as that first one. His whole appeal is that he probably shouldn't be in action movies; why he insists on sleepwalking through a series of uninspired, conventional, disposable efforts is impossible to understand. In the name of Zeus's BUTTHOLE, bring back Stanley Goodspeed.

2. Matt Damon - How Miramax's golden boy of the late '90s became the second-most kick-ass breakout action star of the 2000s (behind The Statham) is something of a mystery. Much of the credit belongs to director Doug Liman, who cast Damon as Jason Bourne, the "thinking man's" action hero who still beats all kinds of ass, in The Bourne Identity. He's all steely focus and intensity, and his fights are short and fast and brutal and, best of all, feel real.
I always thought he was like a Streisand, but he's rocking the shit in this one.

Damon is also a smart enough actor not to completely alter his career trajectory as a result of his success in the genre; he made a trilogy of cool action movies and hasn't really made one since. Green Zone does not count.

3. Anthony Michael Hall - The man who stole our hearts as The Geek in 16 Candles and Brian "PB and J with the crusts cut off" Johnson in The Breakfast Club was looking to break out of his typecast dork roles when he starred in the 1986 action thriller Out of Bounds, but America wasn't ready to accept him as an action star. Can't imagine why. Hall plays the excellently-named Daryl Cage, a small-town farm boy who takes a trip out to L.A. and immediately gets mixed up with drug deals and murder. The most impressive thing about the movie -- besides that it tries to convince us that Anthony Michael Hall could star in action movies -- is the soundtrack, with a score by Stewart Copeland and songs by Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths and Belinda Carlisle.

4. Will Smith - A novelty rap act and goofy sitcom star before Michael Bay got his soulless hands on him, Will Smith became an action star the minute he ran down the streets of Miami, chasing a bad guy with his shirt open:
It was as embarrassing then as it is now, but there's no denying that Smith owes his action hero status to the awfulness of Michael Bay (making him the second unlikely action hero credited to Bay, after Nic Cage). And, sure, his Bad Boys co-star Martin Lawrence could have been picked for this list, too, but he's mostly the comic relief. You can tell because he still has to wear a tank top under his open shirt. If Bad Boys had been made as originally planned, it would have starred Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. Talk about unlikely action heroes. Acting!

By the time shit got real in Bad Boys II, Smith had finally found a movie in which his insufferable ego matched the slick, soulless bombast on screen. The pupil had become the master. The circle of life. Hakuna Matata. Be our guest. 

5. Keenan Ivory Wayans - When Damon Wayans paved the way by starring opposite Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout, it only made sense for older brother Keenan to dip his toe into the action movie water by following a similar path, playing comedy relief opposite an established action star -- in this case, Steven Seagal in The Glimmer Man. But second banana wasn't going to cut it for the creator of In Living Color and the director of White Chicks, so in 1997 he wrote his own action movie in which he could star: Most Wanted. He plays a former marine who's set up (by Jon Voight, because OF COURSE) for assassinating the first lady (the wife that changes all the rules). The movie's $11 million box office total pretty much insured that Keenan wasn't cut out for action hero status, which freed him up for the next 10 years to direct a whole bunch of terrible comedies starring his siblings. See also: Marlon Wayans in G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra.

6. Liam Neeson - Like Bruce Willis and Jason Statham before him, Liam Neeson learned that it only takes one hit action movie to change the entire course of your career. Once 2009's Taken was a massive success and Neeson proved to be an incredibly capable and commanding action hero, the guy who was one-time star of Schindler's List and Michael Collins became the star of Unknown, The A-Team, The Grey and Battleship. Now, it seems like audiences are only interested in Neeson as a kicker of asses -- or, at the very least, a puncher of wolves. There is no greater evidence of his cemented status as an action hero than the fact that he's now starring in Taken 2 (which I'm still advocating be called Still Taken or, at the very least, Taken Too). Once you've got your own action movie franchise, you know you're the real deal.

7. Billy Crystal - Sure, it's more of an action comedy than a straightforward action movie, but 1986's Running Scared still cast Billy Crystal as a Chicago cop, gave him a gun, put him in car chases and let him kill people. And guess what? He's pretty good at it. The movie (directed by Peter Hyams, who would go on to make Timecop and Sudden Death) is still one of the most underrated buddy cop movies of all time and a really good Chicago movie, plus convinced us that Billy Crystal could be a badass -- something Mr. Saturday Night failed to do.

8. John Pankow - Through a series of events that I won't get into here, Mad About You's John Pankow became the hero of a big-budget Hollywood action movie for about 20 minutes in the '80s. Yes, this guy:
If you haven't already seen William Friedkin's fantastic cop movie To Live and Die in L.A., stop wasting my time. You don't know what you're missing.

God, that movie kicks ass.

9. Bridget Fonda - When recasting Anne Parillaud in Point of No Return, John Badham's 1993 American remake of La Femme Nikita, I can't imagine that sweet, adorable Bridget Fonda was anyone's first choice to play a drug addict-turned-deadly assassin. Casting her against type doesn't even work in a subversive way; she just feels miscast and out of place. The movie's not bad, though -- much better than its reputation suggests.
Yes, Bridget Fonda. I will marry you.

10. Patrick Dempsey - Early on, Patrick Dempsey appeared to be following Anthony Michael Hall's career path: become famous for playing a series of geeky twerps, then try to break out of the mold by appearing in a bad and forgettable action thriller. That makes 1991's Run Patrick Dempsey's Out of Bounds, which is literally the best thing that can be said about it (not fair; I haven't seen it in 20 years, so maybe it's way better than I remember). And that it's one of only a few action movies to ever kill a bad guy by impaling him on a mechanical rabbit. Also, Kelly Preston. Like Out of Bounds, this one has never been released on DVD, but here's the whole movie, if you're interested.

11. Bruce Willis - It's impossible to imagine it now because Bruce Willis and action movies go together like peanut butter and another kind of peanut butter that smirks a lot, but when Bruno was cast in Die Hard back in 1988, it seemed like the craziest idea for an action movie. He was David Addison on Moonlighting. He was funny and he was awesome, but audiences probably didn't picture him swinging from fire hoses and blowing up elevator shafts. And, yet, that unlikely casting created the best action hero of all time in the best action movie of all time. So there.


  1. I was at a theater showing "The Raid: Redemption" (which belongs in this column, it's the best 'heavy action' movie of 2012 even though it was made in 2011) when the trailer for the new Jason Bourne movie w/o Matt Damon came up. The trailer ended without a single reaction from the crowd but, a second later (timing is everything), some black dude in the back screamed 'Man, fuck that shit.' The entire theater broke out laughing and clapping. Me thinks Universal underestimates how much Matt Damon was the main appeal of the 'Bourne' franchise. There is a reason there hasn't been a "Bad Boys III" w/o Willis & Lawrence, no "Indiana Jones" movie w/o Harrison Ford, or a "Die Hard" w/o Bruce Willis. Except for Bond and superhero franchises when you build your action series around a guy you can't just replace that guy and expect audiences to just truck along as if nothing's changed.

    James Belushi should also be in this list. Haven't seen "Running Scared" (i.e. the mandatory naming in every 'Heavy Action' column of something Peter Hyams has worked on) but I just don't buy the comedian-turned-cop routine of Belushi as the American sidekick to Arnold's European super cop in "Red Heat." For a while in the late 80's/early 90's Belushi was the go-to guy for funny ("K-9") or desperate cops ("Traces of Red") after every other major or 'B' actor had turned down those scripts. Thankfully TV gigs and audiences not buying Belushi's tough guy act spared us from suffering through more of his copper roles.

    Terrific column. Funny, for some of us that didn't watch their funny TV shows/movies ("Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Moonlighting" & "Blind Date") or were too young to know, Bruce Willis and Will Smith have always been action movie stars. Eye of the beholder I guess.

  2. As I’ve told you before these columns are great, but this one is a whole other level of awesome; a fantastic piece. Nicolas Cage’s 90s action films were The Holy Trinity for me growing up. I don’t watch them as often now but they hold some great memories. For a long time Face/Off was the one I liked the most but having seen them all again in the past year The Rock has taken the top spot now.

    I still remember the first time I saw To Live and Die in L.A. and thinking “what the hell is Ira from Mad About You doing in this?” It’s a fantastic film as you say, but that was really jarring on first viewing.

    I would throw Angelina Jolie in to the mix too. She just looks far too fragile to do any damage to people, although that being said I thought Saoirse Ronan did a great job in Hanna and she looks tiny.

    I think he did a really good job in the role, but Michael Keaton as Batman seems a little bit of an odd choice on paper.

    One last thing, Liam Neeson’s reinvention as a bad ass over the last few years is brilliant. I remember being a little surprised when I heard about Taken, but he suits that sort of role perfectly.

  3. Great column! I would like to add some other names to the list.

    Charlie Sheen(Before he became a walking punchline)-"The Rookie", "Navy Seals","Terminal Velocity"

    Whoopi Goldberg-"Fatal Beauty" and possibly "Jumping Jack Flash"

    Cuba Gooding Jr.-"Chill Factor" and various generic DTV action fare

  4. Thanks, everyone. Here's the running list of additions:
    -Jim Belushi
    -Angelina Jolie
    -Saoirse Ronan
    -Chuck Sheen
    -Whoopi Goldberg
    -Cuba Gooding Jr.

    I might consider adding Christian Slater, because I didn't expect the guy from Heathers to be headlining Broken Arrow and Hard Rain. Maybe Geena Davis, too.

  5. Geena Davis - "Cutthroat Island", "The Long Kiss Goodnight"
    Christian Slater - "Broken Arrow", "Hard Rain"
    Milla Jovovich" - "The Fifth Element", "Ultraviolet", the "Resident Evil" series
    Christian Bale - the "Batman" reboots, "Equilibrium", "Terminator Salvation"

  6. Another potential follow-up could be unlikely villains: Travolta in BROKEN ARROW, Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT, Montalban in STAR TREK 2, Dawson in THE RUNNING MAN, that guy from L.A. LAW in DARKMAN...

    1. Nice! Good call, Mac! That list is definitely going to happen. Gene Simmons in Wanted: Dead or Alive and maybe Craig T. Nelson in Action Jackson should probably be on there, too. But I better not give them all away...

  7. Another couple of suggestions for 'Heavy Action' treatment from reading the Nic Cage entry (and I can't believe I didn't think of them sooner): John Woo's "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled" (both available in underwhelming but watchable R1 Blu-ray and DVD versions).

    "Face/Off" may be the 'Greatest Hits' compilation of every Woo stunt/trick/motiff (those damn doves flying into the camera) and one of the few great Travolta movie roles he made out of his post-"Pulp Fiction" revived stardom. But damn, do action heroes get any more bad-ass and f'ing cool than Tony Leung and Chow Yun-fat in "Hard Boiled" (and the latter alongside OK-but-he's-no-Tony-Leung Danny Lee)? These guys' guns are their fists, their aim is their lethal punch and their ballet of death as bad guys eat led from all directions (left/right, above, below... look out!) fun to watch and as entertaining as the best-choreographed fight sequence in a Jackie Chan movie. And the hero of "Hard Boiled" is even named Tequile because, why the hell not?

    I'm avoiding spoilers for those that haven't seen these movies, but really? John Woo has yet to top these movies since he moved to (then left) the States, with the possible exception of the not-readily-available unrated cut of "Hard Target." Never has reload-free gunplay, stuntmen in trampolines, a trip to the library, blind singers, extended stays at the hospital and urinating babies been more kinetically staged, shot and experienced than in these late 80's/early 90's masterpieces of the art of of WOW!

  8. This is great!

    For anyone that has seen "Harry Brown" you'll know that oldman Michael Caine can deliver an ass-whooping!

    1. Good call, Luke. He goes in the same category as the geriatrics from RED.

    2. I'm sure John Malkovich (59) and Bruce Willis (57) appreciate you lumping them as 'geriatrics' along with Morgan Freeman (75), Helen Mirren (67), Brian Cox (66), Richard Dryfuss (65) and the reigning champ, Ernest Borgnine (95!). 'Marty' didn't get the girl but at least he got the next best thing: a long and active life doing the things he loved.

  9. Speaking of heavy action, The Raid: Redemption is getting really positive noise. I've had two conversations in as many days where people urging me to see it. Any F heads see it?

  10. Yes I did. Read my full review here: .
    Bottom line: best ass-kicking action movie I've seen in a few years, worth tracking down and seeing in a theater before it disappears. Two words: MAD DOG. See him, love him, worship the ground he walks (or else). ;-)

  11. "Peanut butter that smirks a lot" made me laugh so hard that Bugles came out of my mouth. the scary part? I'm not even eating Bugles.

  12. To steal a line from Real Time with Bill Maher:

    New Rule: From now on, all of Liam Neeson's movies must be titled "I am Going to Hunt You Down and Kill You".

  13. Don't forget Shadoe Stevens - maybe the most ridiculous decision ever.