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Film: Aging Franchise Players

Will Harrison Ford's return as Indiana Jones spur likeminded resurrections?

By Steven Rosen · May 4th, 2008 · Movies
  Harrison Ford (left) shows Shia LaBeouf a thing or two in the latest Indiana Jones picture.
2008 Lucasfilm LTD

Harrison Ford (left) shows Shia LaBeouf a thing or two in the latest Indiana Jones picture.

Can you imagine Toby McGuire, at age 65, still playing Spider-Man? Or a Social Security-age Daniel Radcliffe still working his way through Harry Potter books, assuming J.K. Rowling or her estate still is writing new ones? Or even Johnny Depp, who is already 44 but looks like a kid, reprising the ever-youthful Capt. Jack Sparrow in 2029? Maybe he could, but who would want to see it?

And yet, at 65, Harrison Ford is returning as Indiana Jones this summer (May 22) in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It's the fourth installment and first since 1989. Amazingly, it doesn't seem a stretch to buy the concept. While Ford's acting career has suffered in recent years, the man has kept in shape and, apparently, in health.

But more importantly, he's playing the kind of "franchise picture" character who is supposed to age well in subsequent sequels. His Indiana Jones was rugged and mature to start with. He wasn't a kid -- or an adult who looked like a kid, as is the fashion with so many of the young movie stars today.

The actors of Ford's generation benefited from a change in Hollywood thinking in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

No longer were only beautiful wunderkinds primed for star-making vehicles. Men (and some women) in their thirties, some already typecast as B-movie and character actors, got a chance to headline. Some showed their age, others their ethnicity -- they either were adults or looked older than their age. They are different from today's movie-star template -- blandly handsome Tom Cruise, who broke through playing a teen (at age 21) in 1983's Risky Business and has tried to stay frozen in time ever since.

Ford's stardom came a little later than others, but he was present for the dawning of the era of sequel-spawning blockbusters and event films of the mid-1970s, including a little sleeper called Star Wars and then 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark. That introduced him as archeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones.

Interestingly the third film in the Indian Jones series, 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, featured the original and greatest star of perhaps the best of all "franchise pictures" -- James Bond's Sean Connery as Indiana's dad. Ahead of its time, Bond has had staying power. By 1989 the pushing-60 Connery had been deemed too old to play Bond, and he didn't want to continue, either -- in hindsight, a mistake on both counts. (Connery isn't listed as appearing in the new Indiana Jones movie.)

The Bond series since Connery has had an ongoing problem with what to do when its glamorous stars get too old. My hunch is that the craggy, uber-mature Daniel Craig with his lived-in looks will still be playing well at age 65, if he's able and willing. (He's already 40.) Craig's next Bond film, Quantum of Solace, arrives Nov. 7.

Craig might have ongoing competition from Matt Damon's Jason Bourne. While the 37-year-old Damon looks young (although his deep voice gives him gravitas), Bourne doesn't seem an age-dependent character at all. One can still see him -- and Damon -- out in the cold, defying the American Intelligence establishment, for 30 more years.

Among the aging franchise players besides Ford, we've already seen now-61 and solid-like-rock Sylvester Stallone revive his Rocky and Rambo movies in recent years. Time hasn't been kind to Stallone as an actor or a star, and the fable-like original Rocky had long since been replaced in our memory by the clich├ęd bloat of the four sequels through 1990. Reviving both franchises seems like a desperation move on Stallone's part -- playing his last good hand.

But Bruce Willis, who's now 53 and balding, still has the right persona -- punchy and determined, with a wisecracking beer-buddy strain -- for his franchise player, John McClane. Last year's Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth of the Die Hard movies and first since 1995, did well for him.

If I had to pick an older actor whose return to an iconic role would still be viable and fascinating, it would be Clint Eastwood. Sure, I know that age 78 (on May 31) is a little old to wear a serape and smoke stogies, as his The Man With No Name character did in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, or to be taunting "punks" much faster than he is (Dirty Harry).

But so much of Eastwood's subsequent career has been based on directing and/or starring in films that question the macho violence of his first hits (1992's Unforgiven, especially) that I'd like to see his revisionist take on those characters 35 to 40 years on.

Of course, just our luck, he'd probably want to first pair up again with that orangutan from the second of his popular Which Way movies, 1980's Any Which Way You Can.



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