Okay, I lied. These aren’t bad action stars but ones that, for one reason or another, manage to step up from the traditional action movie genre and are now in a class above Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport or Steven Seagal in Hard to Kill. (I've already shared my thoughts on Bad Action Heroes and Why I Love Them.)
Bruce Willis came out of an amazingly popular television show (Moonlighting) and has since starred in comedies (Death Becomes Her in which he plays totally against type), science fiction adventure, and films that defy categorization (Look Who’s Talking, Look Who’s Talking Too, and Pulp Fiction). But I think he earned his action cred with The Last Boy Scout and the Die Hard series. In these films, he plays a cynical wisecracking cop. The Last Boy Scout (with Damon Wayans) had a great ending and Die Hard has a catchphrase that became part of our pop culture (“Yippee ki-yay Mo***”) and even turns up in 2012’s The Expendables 2. The Die Hard movies are probably some of the most popular movies ever though they break some of the action movie traditions: John McClane is married, has a family, and is conflicted about his action-packed lifestyle. By the end of the film, he looks beaten up. I love them.
So with Bruce Willis, we have an action hero who has a style that cuts across several genres and can act to boot. Don’t believe me? Watch Twelve Monkeys, a science fiction film with Brad Pitt and Madeline Stowe. Willis’s character travels through time to gather information on a man-made disease, and falls in love with Stowe’s character in the process. Even though the viewer knows this cannot end well, one wants so terribly for the two main characters to find happiness. He makes you care. My guilty pleasure: The Fifth Element. Bruce Willis is basically a futuristic John McClane. Favorite line: “Anybody else want to negotiate?”
Another actor who has the physique of an action hero, is an accomplished martial artist, and is a good actor besides is Wesley Snipes. Like Bruce Willis, he has acted in non-action films: Waiting to Exhale, Disappearing Acts, and Down in the Delta as well as in several Spike Lee productions. He has appeared in comedies (White Men Can’t Jump) and a film that I have seen and hardly know how to describe: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. He is probably best known for the Blade franchise, which I love. But my favorite is Demolition Man. Snipes is the villain to Sylvester Stallone’s hero (an interesting counterintuitive pairing). Snipes is great as the blond psychopath and Stallone plays the hero with a certain goofy charm—especially when he knits Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) a sweater. I’ve read that Snipes has been offered a role in The Expendables 3; I am already looking forward to it.
My absolute favorite action hero is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Honest. I thought Conan was awful and Commando is your standard B action movie. He is not a very good actor. Right, he was fine in Terminator, but he played an android. Remember? No pity or remorse. (And the film was written by a woman so it included a love story!) But the man is a genius in choosing his film vehicles. Let’s look at Predator, one of my all-time favorite movies. It looks at first as if it is going to be a typical “attack the drug cartels in Central America” film. A black ops team, with parts played by several former body builders, drops into Central America looking for a missing American team. (Which turns out to be a lie.) But an immensely powerful and dangerous alien is hunting them and begins picking them off one at a time.
Besides the enemy, which was really an incredible creation, there are a couple of other features that really elevate this movie. The one female character is not a girlfriend, stripper, or floozy; she is a hostage of the American team. She goes from possible enemy to ally. Second, it was brilliant of Schwarzenegger to include a team of more or less equals. Okay, some of the other actors were not great, but every one of the team is a memorable individual. And the viewer cares as each one is picked off. Third—and this is key—these hard-bitten soldiers are scared. Jesse Ventura empties his BFG into the jungle; Bill Duke rubs a razor against his cheek until it breaks, and Billy commits suicide by Predator. Of course Dutch keeps fighting but by the time he has vanquished the Predator, he is clearly used up. This is an action movie with heart.
And Schwarzenegger does the same in several others of his body of work, mostly in his science fiction action films. Think The Running Man and Total Recall as well as the Terminator sequels. By surrounding himself with competent actors and choosing intelligent interesting stories, Mr. Schwarzenegger overcomes his acting deficiencies.
Finally, no discussion of action heroes would be complete without mentioning Milla Jovovich, just about the only female action hero I can think of. She was charming in The Fifth Element but really hits her stride as Alice in the Resident Evil franchise. Because women are so infrequently butt kickers, her expertise had to be explained as the product of a scientific experiment. This gives her superhuman speed and strength and also means she can be cloned to return for all the sequels. I love the video games and the movies. It is so exciting to see a woman in the main role. Or women, since Michelle Rodriguez and Sienna Guillory are great in their tough chick roles. Plus, these films have a little more emotion than most male-centric action movies. There is her friendship with Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez), the romantic entanglement with Matt Addison (Eric Mabius), and the attraction between Alice and Carlos Olivero (Oded Fehr).
I’m really looking forward to seeing Resident Evil: Retribution.
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition. A career librarian, her second novel, Death of a Dyer, will be out in 2013. She lives in New York.