Danny Glover was 41 years old when he first expressed exasperation over his age in Lethal Weapon, although it should be noted that Glover’s Roger Murtaugh was a veteran cop with a large brood looking forward to reaching retirement age (which was not that far off in his future at the time). The line, repeated in each of the franchise sequels, became a cultural catchphrase with real longevity, maybe because it spoke to the core humanity often so lacking in our action heroes; these characters are less defined by any sense or consideration of inevitable death or genuine emotional investment in others than routine triumphs over the insurmountable and the improbable.
It is odd, in fact, to recall the Lethal Weapon franchise moment when Murtaugh sits on a booby-trapped toilet awaiting an inglorious end. Even though we know his impossibly heroic partner Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) will save his butt, there’s an understanding, for the discerning viewer, that we’re watching a telling moment that sadly, would never happen to one of our “reel” heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, right?
Yet, Glover’s A-list hero peers (Stallone and Glover were born in 1946, while Schwarzenegger burst forth a year later) have shuffled across the screens in the last few weeks like a couple of grumpy old men in search of any spot to drop their last heavy loads.
In The Last Stand, a few opening weekend masochists forced themselves to watch as Schwarzenegger’s small border town sheriff and a ragtag collection of kooky deputies (Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville, Jaimie Alexander and Zach Gilford) fought against a supposedly elite extraction team seeking to transport a notorious racecar driving drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega) back across the border.
Everyone knows this stand is just the beginning of an all-out offensive to firmly reposition Schwarzenegger back in the Hollywood action pantheon, yet it was difficult to sit idly by as this stiff old man creaked and popped his way through fight sequences that harkened back to his glory days, which are at least 25 years in the past. Any one of the Treadstone-trained assassins from the Bourne franchise would have terminated the Govenator before his antiquated CPU had time to boot up after traveling from the future and audiences certainly recognized this fact and stayed away from the multiplex.
A similar fate met Stallone and his solo outing, Bullet to the Head. Playing an antihero, a contract killer with a strict code of ethics (so that’s where Jason Statham gets it from) who teams up with a detective (Sung Kang, patiently waiting for the next Fast & Furious movie to be released) to avenge their dead partners, Stallone looks like overly dried and cured jerky next to his not-quite civilized barbarian adversary (Jason Momoa). Momoa, as hulking as he is, displays a sleek swagger that Stallone and Schwarzenegger never quite had, even in their prime.
Each of these action icons had hard bodies, but, in hindsight, neither was truly a hard man, which is plain now that they’ve reached the age when all that remains is the respect that flows from one-time hardy manliness. We’ve grown tired of fleeting glimpses of chiseled muscles and barely decipherable quips in between high capacity magazine bursts (which brings up the point of carelessly releasing a movie with the title “Bullet to the Head” during a national debate on gun control, but that’s a topic for another day).
I wonder, though, are we as tired of the old school action model as it seems (based on box office returns) or are we just more aware of how out of cultural shape these guys seem to be? The movies themselves aren’t necessarily any better or worse than the current crop of genre exercises from acolytes like Statham (his Parker is definitely a next generation iteration, supported by his role in Stallone’s nostalgic Expendables trips) and Dwayne Johnson (the truly charming heir apparent to the muscle-man throne). How long before we grow tired of them?
Such thoughts take me back, way back to another tough guy, the possible idol and mentor to Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Charles Bronson. He was in his early 50s in 1974, when Death Wish appeared in theaters and in his 60s by the time the sequels took aim at the box office. I remember his vigilante hero, as he aged, not because he came out swinging at the young punks in his path, but instead because wore his age and respect like battle-tested armor. He was a real stand up guy who never seemed too old for his kind of fight.
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