The aging action hero has become an important figure in post-millennial action cinema. Its significance can be seen in how the protagonists of several big-budget action film franchises are not only struggling to save the world but are also struggling to cope with the realities of their aging bodies. Indeed, the issue of aging has become a recurring theme in franchises such as The Expendables (2009 – 2013), Taken (2008 – 2012), The Fast and The Furious (2001 – 2017), Mission Impossible (1995 – 2018) and James Bond (2006 – 2015).
Indeed, the presence of the post-millennial aging action hero and aging male body is made to rehabilitate the tropes of hegemonic masculinity and the indestructible male body by emphasizing the benefits of the aging male body and where male toxicity is replaced by wisdom and maturity; egocentricity is replaced by allocentrism. But insofar as the presence of the aging action hero is due to the fact that the actors playing said characters are also aging, its presence shows the dynamism of action cinema in offering alternative visions of heroism and heroes.
The Hardbody film genre of the eighties and nineties is perhaps one of the most representative examples of a genre that is associated with promoting and encouraging hegemonic masculinity via the spectacular body. The genre has not only codified an image of what an action star and action hero should look like but it has also codified a set of desired traits of masculinity and heroism. And its influence continues to be felt in post-millennial action films. According to Drew Ayers, the Hardbody genre can be defined as a group of films that “[c]onsists of those (usually very violent) Hollywood action films made chiefly between the eighties and early nineties that feature a central male hero as the lone protagonist charged with “saving the day.”
The genre is so named precisely because of its tendency to fetishize the display and visualization of the “actor’s hard and sculpted muscularity and/or its athletic skills and physical prowess” (42). The skills and prowess of the hero are usually manifested in the character being (a) he is a top martial artist, (b) he is an expert marksman or (c) he has a combination of both skills. To reinforce his destructive qualities and capabilities, the Hardbody hero is always shown to be an expert in using different kinds of weapons, vehicles and technical objects in his missions. But the Hardbody hero as a symbol of an idealized form of heroism and masculinity is best represented by his hard and sculpted male body. Therefore it is not a surprise to see why actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean Claude Van Damme came to represent the archetypical hard-bodied hero — particularly in terms of their real-life technical abilities and sculpted male body. Indeed, their status as action stars is reinforced — if not enhanced — by their real-life abilities as martial artists and bodybuilders.
Re-configuring Action Heroes from Hard Bodies to Maturing Bodies
It is important to remember that generic forms can shift and change over time. They, as Stephen Neale (2005) reminds us, are not necessarily fixed and stable but can be malleable and dynamic. As action heroes become older, their physical state weakens but their mental resolve strengthens as they are able to access the situation and their place in the world. They recognize the need for their knowledge, experience, and skills in a world of heroes and villains. But at the same time, while they may seek to isolate themselves in terms of romance and marriage, the aging action heroes do have an immediate and close circle of friends that they can turn to for counsel and help if the situations call for it.
This idea of the socially adaptive action hero can be seen in the buddy cop film; a genre that also came to the fore during the eighties. Following in the footsteps of an odd-couple formulation, the buddy cop film sees the pairing of two diametrically opposite characters being forced to team up in a professional capacity. But as they began to work together and start to resolve the differences amongst them, their professional relationship usually develops into a personal and close bond between the two characters. As a result of their friendship, the hard body hero is forced out of his egocentric shell and into the wider social world. In so doing, the “buddy” becomes the father figure or mentor to the egocentric hero by showing — through his own success at platonic and romantic relationships — the possibilities that are open if new modalities of maleness and masculinity are adopted.
The social thus opens up an idea of masculinity from only being violent and hegemonic to include other configurations of masculinity: in this case, a more social and agreeable form. But this configuration is not necessarily something that softens the propensity of a hero to engage in violence or aggression but rather it offers the hero a space to consider to consequences and purpose of his actions.
The issue of toxic representations of masculinity in action cinema by dominating others with their physicality and aggression is thus ameliorated by the emphasis of showcasing not only the hero’s social and personal relationships but also by the self-restraint and regulation of not enacting their dominance and aggression onto other characters. Consider Denzel Washington’s character in The Equalizer for a moment. The character is an ex-black ops agent who lives a quiet life working in a home repair despot whilst mourning the death of his wife. But he is forced to take down the Russian mob in the film because of his friendship with a young lady who was fatally injured by them. Or consider Liam Neeson’s character in Taken where the character is forced to take a human trafficking syndicate after his daughter was kidnapped by them.
This transition from being a hard-bodied hero to becoming an aging hero can also be clearly seen in the Fast and Furious series. While many people might not remember that Vin Diesel’s character started off as an antagonist in the beginning of the series, it is the development of his character that shows an evolutionary shift from hard bodies to aging bodies. At the beginning of the series, the character is a hijacker and drag racer who embodies the heroic ideal of a rebel who lives by his own code. But by the end of the series, the character is not only married but bears the responsibility of being a father.
The lone hero has aged into a different conception of being an action hero. The post-millennial action hero, by growing older and becoming more mature as a man, is increasingly replacing the idea of heroism and heroes from a type of negative form of hegemonic masculinity to a more social and more inclusive form of masculinity. But even if ideas surrounding the figure of action heroes have somewhat changed over the years, and action heroes have somewhat aged over the years, the basic ingredients of the genre – and the possibilities that exist or have yet to be explored – allows the action film hero to continue on to save the world in varying situations.