Before Steve McQueen, Hollywood didn’t produce action movies in the modern sense. You never saw John Wayne trapped on a luxury yacht with scheming terrorists, or Paul Newman tearing through Paris to find his kidnapped daughter. If you needed a testosterone fix, you survived on a never-ending slew of Westerns and war movies, or any plot in which our heroes took an inordinately long time to plan an escape. Occasionally, Hollywood threw a curveball like Cool Hand Luke, but even those movies starred accomplished actors and had loftier goals than just “Meet our hero … he’s about to kick some ass.”
McQueen changed everything in 1968 with Frank Bullitt, a renegade San Francisco cop who … (wait for it) … PLAYED BY HIS OWN RULES!!!!! Check out the poster for Bullitt and tell me this movie couldn’t be remade right now with Mark Wahlberg.
That poster’s formula (“gun-toting tough guy + dangerous word + aggressive tagline”) unknowingly created the recipe for five decades of cop movies. McQueen had flexed his action muscles before — most famously with the motorcycle scene from The Great Escape — but these were different stakes. Hold on, the mob murdered a witness Bullitt had been protecting? Sayonara, rulebook!!! The movie’s signature scene: a revolutionary, way-way-way-ahead-of-its-time car chase that paved the way for The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A., Ronin, The Bourne Supremacy, and the entire Fast & Furious franchise. Other than that, it wasn’t a huge deal. Check out McQueen’s Mustang zooming through the streets of San Francisco, and keep in mind, this scene was basically Julius Erving trying to dunk from the foul line, or Jimmy Snuka climbing to the top of the steel case to leap on Bob Backlund.
After McQueen (spoiler alert!) kills the bad guy at the end, he should have hoisted the first-ever Action Movie Star Championship Belt. How many actors won that thing? How can we figure this out? And is this piece a convoluted excuse to celebrate the surprisingly awesome Liam Neeson era — which peaked yet again with the recent success of Non-Stop? To that end, I sketched out the past 46 years using a complicated set of guidelines I created three minutes ago. The rules …
Rule No. 1: Over everything else, I need to believe our hero can kick everyone’s ass, in any conceivable situation, at any given time. And he needs to believe this, too.
Imagine the scariest dude on the planet (say, Nikola Pekovic after being fed a 32-ounce Red Bull/cocaine/stanozolol cocktail) beating up an entire bar, and then eventually he comes after our beloved hero. If I am not 100 percent convinced that my dude is winning that fight — OR, if I find it far-fetched that he’s winning it as he’s winning it — then he can’t capture the belt. This rule disqualifies A-listers like Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Keanu Reeves, Robert Redford, George Clooney, Will Smith, Ben Affleck and Tom Cruise a second time, as well as everyone who ever played James Bond,1 Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne, Iron Man, Batman or any other manufactured studio hero.
Rule No. 2: During our hero’s apex, I would have seen his action movie no matter what the plot was, and no matter how lukewarm the reviews were.
A good analogy: You know in no-limit hold ’em when someone calls a bet without glancing at their cards? They’re effectively saying, “I’m so good at poker, and I have so many chips right now, I don’t even care what my cards are.” That’s the final stage for an action movie star. The fewer words you can use to rope fans into your next project, the better. For instance …
“Liam Neeson, airplane.”
Done in three words. If Liam Neeson is beating people up, I’m there. The fewer words, the better. Remember this rule when we’re tackling the Vin Diesel issue. (Yes, there’s a Vin Diesel issue.)
Rule No. 3: The body of work from a particular run matters more than a single movie.
You lose the belt only if you (a) stop producing quality work, or (b) get blown out of the water by someone else. For instance, you can’t take 1992’s belt from an idle Arnold Schwarzenegger just because that lovable asshole Steven Seagal made Under Siege. Arnold didn’t have to release anything after the historic Total Recall/Kindergarten Cop/Terminator 2 trifecta. He could have released a one-man movie called Arnold Puts on Sunscreen and grossed $100 million. And actually, that would have been a better idea than Last Action Hero.
But that’s the whole point of the belt: If you’re The Guy, then you’re The Guy. You don’t stop being The Guy just because you didn’t make a movie for 15 months. Does the belt hinge on a largely unspoken, admittedly ambiguous collective attitude? Absolutely. That’s what makes this column so absurd. Let’s write it, anyway. Here’s how our Action Hero Championship Belt has changed hands since 1968.
Key Movies: Bullitt (1968), Le Mans (1971), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973)
Overview: By 1972, McQueen was Hollywood’s highest-paid actor, peaking with director Sam Peckinpah on The Getaway — just McQueen and Ali MacGraw going on the run after the proverbial Bank Robbery Gone Wrong. It’s such a good flick that Hollywood remade a half-decent version with Alec Baldwin and and Kim Basinger. Somehow, we haven’t had a Getaway remake with an all-minority cast yet. Can someone get Jamie Foxx and Rosario Dawson on the phone?
Biggest Challenger: After owning the spaghetti Western corner for years, Clint Eastwood jumped right on McQueen’s action corner in 1971 with Dirty Harry, playing a renegade San Francisco cop who … (wait for it) … PLAYS BY HIS OWN RULES! Hold on, I’m making an impromptu Rule No. 4 …
Rule No. 4: You can’t win the Action Hero Belt by shamelessly ripping off the movie that won the current champ his belt.
Despite the brilliance of the “Do you feel lucky?” scene, Clint gets a two-year fake suspension for the Bullitt theft. When High Plains Drifter came out in the summer of 1973, he could have swiped the belt right there … unfortunately, his suspension was still going. A lesson learned. Eventually, he’ll feel lucky.
Second-Biggest Challenger: Burt Reynolds broke through with 1972’s Deliverance, playing the lead role of The Buddy Who’s Too Tough To Squeal Like A Pig. Next up: 1973’s Shamus (IMDb’s synopsis starts, “New York private eye Shamus McCoy likes girls, drink and gambling …”) and White Lightning (as ex-con Gator McKlusky, who foils a moonshine ring).2 Eventually, Burt screwed up a potential title run by swerving a different way, becoming the world’s biggest and wealthiest movie star. Dumbass.
Key Movies: Magnum Force (1973), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Enforcer (1976), The Gauntlet (1977), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Escape From Alcatraz (1979), Any Which Way You Can (1980)
Overview: Now that’s a run! It started with Magnum Force, the Dirty Harry sequel that became 1973’s sixth-highest grossing movie.3 Everyone loved Harry Callahan — nobody cared when the influential Pauline Kael ripped Eastwood’s “wooden” acting, or the New York Times criticized Magnum Force for being too violent and derivative. That decade, Clint learned to juggle five different personae while remaining uniquely Clintish: Dirty Harry Clint (seen again in The Enforcer); Cowboy Clint (Josey Wales); Strategizing Clint (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Eiger Sanction, Escape From Alcatraz); Keep Getting Dem Checks Clint (The Gauntlet); and Likable And Sneaky-Funny Clint (the Every Which/Any Which franchise). No other action star, including Sly and Arnold, could have pulled off those last two movies.4
So this guy travels around beating everyone up in underground fights, only he’s pretty funny, and his wacky sidekick isn’t a human being … it’s an ape named Clyde!
There wasn’t a more versatile action star, or a less polarizing one. Have you ever heard anyone say the words, “I hate Clint Eastwood”? No way. It’s un-American. Clint’s eight-year reign remains the record.
Biggest Challenger: Soft-spoken Charles Bronson peaked in 1974 and 1975 with Mr. Majestyk, Death Wish, Breakout and Hard Times,5 having only the misfortune of overlapping with Clint’s heyday. Everyone loved Bronson in Death Wish, a brilliant vigilante movie and a surprisingly good snapshot of mid-’70s Manhattan (good and bad). But Bronson was hitting his mid-fifties and couldn’t capitalize on the momentum, eventually transforming into the Death Wish guy (in four increasingly horrific sequels). Did we ever figure out why every movie studio is leaving $500 million on the table by refusing to say, “Let’s remake Death Wish with Liam Neeson”?
Second-Biggest Challenger: McQueen released The Towering Inferno in 1974, a star-studded disaster flick that earned a “Best Picture” nomination and inadvertently kicked off the Disaster Movie era.6 This one hasn’t aged well, even if every O.J. Simpson scene remains high comedy. McQueen pocketed enough dough to take a four-year sabbatical to race motorcycles. After that, he made only one more decent action flick (The Hunter) before succumbing to cancer in 1980.
Quick aside: McQueen was like the Shaq-Kobe Lakers — maybe he won a few titles, but he could have dominated the decade. Did you know he backed out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because he wanted top billing over Paul Newman (and didn’t get it)? Did you know he turned down Eastwood’s Dirty Harry role, as well as the leads in The French Connection and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Did you know his Wikipedia page includes moments like “known for his prolific drug use,” “smoked marijuana almost every day,” “used a tremendous amount of cocaine,” “sometimes drank to excess,” “a heavy cigarette smoker” and “began carrying a handgun at all times in public”? And now, everyone under 30 knows Steve McQueen only as the guy who directed 12 Years a Slave. Bizarre.
Third-Biggest Challenger: Shout-out to the blaxpoitation era (Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown, Bernie Casey, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, etc.), and shout-out to the great Bruce Lee, who made an American splash with 1973’s Enter the Dragon before dying mysteriously a few months later. What a shame. By the way, this is the weirdest 10 minutes on YouTube. I will be ready to have an opinion on this clip about 19 years from now.
Key Movies: The Octagon (1980), An Eye for an Eye (1981), Silent Rage (1982), Forced Vengeance (1982)
These were NOT great movies. Well, except for Silent Rage. That’s a classic. But you knew what you were getting from every Chuck Norris flick. His acting was so wooden, you worried he might catch fire. He was only comfortable when he was kicking the living crap out of people. And if you were lucky, you might even see some boobs. Another handicap: As our friend Chris Connelly notes, “I spent 1980-84 at Rolling Stone, and I can assure you, no one there spent 15 seconds in those years thinking about Chuck Norris. Not even to joke about.”
Yeah, but still. If you’re judging for consistency, reliability, believability and ass-kickitude, as well as the aforementioned four rules, Chuck Norris built the bridge from Clint to Arnold and Sly. Chuck peaked in the Halloween rip-off Silent Rage, as a Texas sheriff hunting down a murderer brought back to life by scientists … a.k.a. The Killer Who Wouldn’t Die. Norris has never been better, and he’s never been worse. I don’t know why they haven’t remade this movie, either.7
Biggest Challenger: Harrison Ford dropped The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner while perfecting the whole, “If I have to fight my way out of this seemingly precarious situation, I will even if it seems totally improbable on paper” thing. Nobody would ever pick Ford over Chuck Norris in a fight. Sorry. Maybe you’d pick Ford if the question were “Who would be able to get you better weed?” But not for a fight.
Second-Biggest Challenger: Kurt Russell crushed the wildly enjoyable Escape From New York, which worked beautifully even though the premise was “Only 18 years from now, America will be in such bad shape that we’re gonna have to turn Manhattan into a maximum-security prison.” (Important: I absolutely and unequivocally love this movie.) But Russell didn’t want to be an action star. That was that. I bet he’d redo that decision.8
Third-Biggest Challenger: An actual question from people who’d just seen Conan the Barbarian in 1982: “Hey, that guy who played Conan, the former bodybuilder, Arnold whateverhislastnameis … you think he could be a movie star?”
Key Movie: First Blood (1982)
Overview: I liked Nighthawks. I loved Victory. But Sly Stallone couldn’t shed Rocky Balboa’s shadow until he played John Rambo in First Blood, one of many “Vietnam War vets struggling to readjust to American society” movies from that era … only this one mushroomed into a groundbreaking thrill ride (and eventually, an iconic franchise). In less than two hours, Rambo broke out of a small-town jail after being unfairly harassed, rode a dirt bike into the mountains, slowly annihilated the pursuing cops one at a time, fought off about 10 million rats, then returned to blow up the entire town. And why?
BECAUSE I DIDN’T ASK FOR THIS WAR — THEY DID!!!!
John Rambo was a Greek god. You know what was the smartest action-movie decision of all time? Not having Rambo kill himself. That was First Blood’s original ending until the test audiences nearly rioted. Can you imagine? Instead, we ended up with three more Rambo movies and a two-year title run for Sly. The lesson, as always: Don’t kill off your action hero until you’re absolutely positive you can’t get three or four sequels out of him.
Biggest Challenger: Sorry, Chuck Norris … Lone Wolf McQuade isn’t even sniffing First Blood. Not even after you and David Carradine had that stupendous fight scene. Hold on, is there any way we can work an overly melodramatic orchestra into that one? There is?
Second-Biggest Challenger: Maybe he didn’t make a movie in 1983 … but he’ll be back.
Key Movies: Conan the Destroyer (1984), The Terminator (1984), Red Sonja (1985), Commando (1985)
Overview: Throw out the Conan sequel even if it allowed us to see a semi-terrified Wilt Chamberlain ride a horse. And throw out Red Sonja, a goofy career choice since it ripped off his own Conan movies. If you saw The Terminator in 1984, you probably left the theater thinking three things.
1. Did they really have to show Arnold’s swaying dong in the beginning? I’m gonna have nightmares for three weeks. Put that thing away, Arnold!
2. There’s a 100 percent chance that I just saw the greatest action movie ever made.
3. When’s the next action movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger in it?
Arnold stumbled into something crucial in The Terminator: For the first time, an action star found the right balance between kicking butt and embracing his inner self-parody. “I’ll be back” became the film’s defining moment, as well as the signature line of his career. People loved imitating it. I’ll be back. So when he made Commando a year later — another classic, by the way — they gave Arnold a variety of chances to say Arnold things. And that’s how you eventually end up with a YouTube montage called “Commando best of stupid scenes.” The modern action hero was officially born.
Biggest Challenger: I know, you’re shocked that Stallone didn’t steal the 1985 belt for his unforgettable Rambo: First Blood Part II/Rocky IV double dip. What happened? Sly’s abominable appearance in 1984’s Rhinestone earned him a two-year fake suspension. Chris Connelly vehemently disagrees, writing, “Rambo: First Blood Part II was absolutely, utterly GIGANTIC.9 In terms of its immediate impact on pop culture and beyond, it was the biggest movie of its kind, ever. The way the word ‘Rambo’ entered the vocabulary, not just in the U.S. but around the world, the way it came to be used as shorthand for how Reaganite America related to the world. Die Hard had the biggest influence on action movies, but Rambo had the biggest influence, period. He could make a million Rhinestones … don’t see how you can deny Stallone top-dog status here!”
All good points. I’m presenting my rebuttal in the form of an embedded YouTube clip.
Second-Biggest Challenger: Chuck Norris dropped three of his best: 1984’s Missing in Action (Vietnam POWs), 1985’s Code of Silence (crooked Chicago cops) and 1985’s Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (love the final fight scene). Eventually, he landed a steady TV franchise, made some informercials and spawned one of the funniest running Internet jokes. Don’t weep for Chuck.
Third-Biggest Challenger: Bronson’s last real title run fell short with Death Wish 3 and Murphy’s Law. Hold your head up high, Charlie. At least you left behind an eight-and-a-half-minute YouTube clip called “How many people die in Death Wish 3?”
Key Movie: Cobra (1986)
Overview: On the heels of Rambo: First Blood Part II, we didn’t care if Cobra was about cops, snakes or a cop named after a snake. The movie’s confusing trailer promised us machine guns, car chases, bullets, explosions, and a toothpick-chewing Stallone wearing sunglasses. Wait, he was playing a cop who didn’t play by the rules and cut his pizza with scissors??? Even better! I knew this movie was released in May 1986 without looking it up. Why? Back in high school, me and my buddies were counting down the weeks until it came out. In a related story, there wasn’t a girlfriend to be seen at the time. Not a one.
Anyway, Cobra was legitimately incomprehensible; I’ve seen it 20 times and still couldn’t tell you what happened. The screenwriter should have just been credited as “Written by 200 Pounds of Cocaine.” We didn’t care — again, Sly was wearing sunglasses, chewing a toothpick and blowing people away. What else did you need? Stallone followed it with Over the Top, which combined three of my favorite sports movie angles: truck driving, arm wrestling and child custody battles. Yikes. At least we got a cool Sammy Hagar song out of it.
I’m ashamed to admit that I just watched that entire video … twice. But by the time Over the Top came out, Sly had already lost the belt. See, Cobra came out on May 22, 1986 …
Key Movies: Raw Deal (1986), Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987)10
Overview: And Raw Deal came out two weeks later. GIMME BACK THAT BELT, SLY! The following year, Arnold dropped Predator and The Running Man on Sly’s ass in what can only be described as an action-hero carpet bombing.
Biggest Challengers: Poor Sly couldn’t start filming Rambo III fast enough. Meanwhile, Mel Gibson upgraded from the Mad Max franchise to the insanely popular Lethal Weapon franchise … and still, he couldn’t hold a candle to Arnold. Predator AND The Running Man? In the same year???? I need to sit down.
Key Movie: Die Hard
Overview: Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker! Say hello to the single most influential action movie ever made. Die Hard unleashed a never-ending slew of “hero battling terrorists in a skyscraper/train/airplane/cruise ship/stadium/bus” movies (don’t worry, we’ll get to them) and turned Willis into an A-plus-lister. By the end of 1988, I would have walked five miles barefoot to see his next action movie. Imagine if he’d followed up Die Hard with Road House in 1989. Instead, he went this way …
1989: In Country
1989: Look Who’s Talking (voice only)
1990: Die Hard 2
1999: Look Who’s Talking Too (voice only)
1990: The Bonfire of the Vanities
1991: Mortal Thoughts
1991: Hudson Hawk
Bruce didn’t keep the belt because he had loftier goals, whether you agreed with them or not.11 Just know that John McClane is my personal action-hero GOAT.12 And actually, Hans Gruber might be the action villain GOAT. Even 25 years later, it’s relatively astounding how great Die Hard is — the whole Blu-ray/HD/plasma/surround-sound era made it timeless. I don’t think we’ll ever do better with an action movie. It’s perfect.13 Well, except for the final scene when Hans falls to his death — that looks like it was edited on some seventh-grader’s MacBook. Everything else? Perfect.
Biggest Challenger: Schwarzenegger took a semi-sabbatical, only making the smash-hit comedy Twins. (Dramatic pause.) He’ll be back.
Second-Biggest Challenger: After recovering from Arnold’s unforgiving Predator/Running Man assault, Stallone made the panic-decision “I need to release one action movie every nine months whether it’s good, mediocre or downright shitty.” Hence, Rambo III — a parody of a parody of a parody of a Rambo movie parody.
Third-Biggest Challenger: You know who’s Above the Law? Steven Seagal, that’s who. We’re still a few years away from the whole “he’s such an asshole in real life, I can’t enjoy his movies anymore” thing.
Fourth-Biggest Challenger: Poor Carl Weathers picked the wrong year to release Action Jackson. This movie’s ultimate legacy: a scorching-hot performance by Sharon Stone that laid the groundwork, and then some, for her Basic Instinct breakthrough. Every red-blooded male left that movie talking about her, not The Guy Who Used To Be Apollo Creed.
Fifth-Biggest Challenger: Ladies and gentlemen, the one, the only, Mr. Jean-Claude Van Damme! What’s the record for “Most Times Watching Bloodsport Even Though It’s Not Even Showing On A Movie Network But One Of Those Other Local Networks That Keep Interrupting It With Bad Commercials”? I think I broke this record three years ago.
Key Movie: Lethal Weapon 2
Biggest Challenger: Sly Stallone inexplicably released TWO prison flicks: Lock Up and Tango & Cash. Even more inexplicably, I enjoyed both of them. So Tango and Cash get framed for a crime they didn’t commit, stuck in a maximum-security prison … and they’re not immediately beaten to death? Sounds good! I’m in! Here’s everything you need to know about that movie in 195 seconds, courtesy of the Peabody Award–winning YouTube clip “Tango & Cash — Boiler Room Brawl.”
Second-Biggest Challenger: We didn’t comprehend the magnitude of Road House for years, and only after a solid decade of cable TV rewatches. Upon its release, we only knew Swayze as the Red Dawn guy who became the Dirty Dancing guy (strike one). The premise of Road House: The world’s greatest bouncer (strike two) butts heads with a corrupt millionaire who keeps terrorizing the same bar (strike three) before murdering the world’s greatest bouncer’s mentor (strike four) and declaring war on the world’s greatest bouncer (strike five). In the process, an entire town gets decimated (strike six). Oh, and we’re supposed to call him a “cooler,” not a bouncer (strike seven).
So how did THAT movie work? The answer: Swayze crushed it. He crushed it into little tiny pieces. You believe he can beat up 20 guys in 50 seconds at any given time. “You’re too stupid to have a good time!”
Everyone discovered Road House on their own timetable. My moment happened during my sophomore year in college, when Nick Aieta and I rented Road House from Blockbuster just because the VHS cover cracked us up. Is this a comedy? Is it an action movie? What is this? Swayze won me over somewhere between Nick yelping, “You don’t pick up a girl who just put staples in your side!” and Swayze’s I’m-gonna-annihilate-you reaction to the lead villain telling him, “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.” Road House was the Tim Raines of action movies — definitely a Hall of Famer, only nobody knew it at the time. Thank God for sabermetrics and cable TV.
Here’s my question: What enduring title would you give it? The best bad action movie ever? The best low-key action movie ever? The most surprisingly entertaining action movie ever? You’re right … let’s just go with “the best bouncer movie ever.” By the time it ended, I was ready to see Swayze in ANYTHING. Even Next of Kin.15 Sadly, Swayze earned a two-year hero suspension for fake-crying one too many times in 1990’s Ghost.16
Third-Biggest Challenger: After I originally left Van Damme out of the 1989 mix, Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew emailed me, “It hurts that you don’t have much love for Kickboxer. It drags in parts, but the beginning when his mulleted brother visits the Thai girlie bars aged hilariously; it has the world-famous drunk dancing fight scene; and the last fight is conducted with broken glass–encrusted hand wraps (and his enemy is not even remotely Thai).” I can’t refute any of these points. Can somebody play a song on the jukebox for Jean-Claude, please?
Key Movies: Total Recall (1990), Kindergarten Cop (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Overview: This wasn’t an apex, this was an a-fucking-pex. In two years, Arnold somehow crushed the science fiction, action comedy, summer blockbuster, three-boobed women, special-effects nerd-vana and “It’s not a toomah” corners. Everything peaked with James Cameron’s breathtaking T2, which left us stumbling from the theater like we’d just watched a UFO land. There had never been a cinematic experience approaching T2 before. And this was coming off Total Recall, a movie that EVERYONE loved. Amazing. In 1992, a rattled Stallone waved the ceremonial white flag with Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Our enduring action-hero scoreboard: Arnold > Sly.
Biggest Challenger: Bruce Willis released the lucrative letdown of a Die Hard sequel. So much potential, so gratuitously dark, so derivative, so many holes, so forced, so disappointing in the moment … and yet, I’ve probably seen it nine times. I don’t know what to tell you.
Second-Biggest Challenger: Steven Seagal released Out for Justice in 1991, one year after Hard to Kill AND Marked for Death. Just to be clear, those were three separate movies. Hard to Kill was the best of the bunch, peaking with the magnificent moment after our hero, Mason Storm (great name!), comes out of a coma after seven years, then regains 100 percent of his muscle tone within a week. He’s watching TV and sees the politician who screwed him say, “And you can take that to the bank.” And Mason Storm immediately whispers at the TV, “I’m gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent … to the blood bank.” Incredible. Seagal made Van Damme look like Daniel Day-Lewis.
Third-Biggest Challenger: Swayze released Point Break, only our most iconic bank robbery/surfing movie. I AM AN EFF BEE EYE AGENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Fourth-Biggest Challenger: Van Damme’s post-Bloodsport career was pretty spotty. Black Eagle. Cyborg. Lionheart. Death Warrant. And then, he made an incredible move … that’s right, in Double Impact, he decided to play twins! Of himself!
DOUBLE VAN DAMME!
Even more incredible, JCVD had to “act” differently as the two twins: One was a good guy and the other was a woman-slapping drunk, but you knew they were both Van Damme because neither one of them could act.17 Did the two Van Dammes fight even though we didn’t have anything close to the right technology to pull that scene off in 1991? Of course they did.
Key Movie: Unforgiven
Overview: The action-hero equivalent of Barry Sanders retiring in 1999, then returning to the 2011 Lions and rushing for 2,500 yards. And actually, that’s an understatement.
Biggest Challenger: The Seagal era crested with the delightfully mindless Under Siege … or as it’s better known, “Die Hard on a Boat.” Thank God we had a failed Navy SEAL turned cook working that day, or things really could have gotten out of hand. Seagal received significant help from Tommy Lee Jones (a Hans Gruber 2.0 performance) and Erika Eleniak (the former Playboy Playmate whose birthday cake scene put at least 2 million 13-year-old boys through puberty). It’s a classic. You can’t deny Seagal’s 1990-92 run, with the New York Times even dubbing him “the latest and suavest inheritor of the Charles Bronson-Chuck Norris-Bruce Lee action-film mantle.” Only Arnold, Bruce and Clint in their primes, as well as an increasingly awkward hairline situation, prevented Seagal from ever sniffing the belt. At least he took Senator Trent to the blood bank.
Second-Biggest Challenger: Wesley Snipes threw his beret into the ring with Passenger 57, which didn’t just stop at being Die Hard on a plane — it had villain Charles Rane (in a career-ending performance by Bruce Payne) ripping off Hans Gruber so completely/egregiously/shamelessly there’s an extended YouTube montage of his worst moments. Even the villain from Toy Soldiers thought Charles Rane needed to dial it back a few notches.18 With that said, the “Always bet on black” line alone should have earned a sequel, dammit. Why was Hollywood secretly racist with black action stars? I definitely would have seen Action Jackson 2 and Passenger 58.
Key Movies: Cliffhanger (1993), Demolition Man (1993)
Overview: With Arnold wrapping a two-year action sabbatical, Sly pounced by coming back strong with Cliffhanger — an immensely satisfying “Die Hard on a ski mountain!” flick highlighted by gorgeous cinematography, top-notch action scenes, Sly’s record-setting dangling/climbing/grunting performance (“Errrr-ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”), John Lithgow’s superb turn as the token evil villain (he’s the bizarro Bruce Payne),19 and some of the best cheesy-acting scenes of Sly’s career with him and Janine Turner. Maybe part of YOU died on that mountain, Gabe! I love Cliffhanger. It’s on the short list.
(Important note: Cliffhanger’s greatness has been overshadowed by 21 years of confusion around this question: Why was Michael Rooker’s character so furious at Sly’s character for trying to save Rooker’s girlfriend as she dangled from a harness rope? Look in the mirror, Rooker! Why’d you bring her hiking on the toughest trail on the mountain, you ungrateful buck-passer?)
Biggest Challenger: The good news: two throwback performances from Clint Eastwood (In the Line of Fire) and Harrison Ford (The Fugitive). YOU FIND THAT MAN! The bad news: This could’ve been a seven-year run for Arnold if not for Unforgiven and 1993’s mega-letdown Last Action Hero. He was that close.
Key Movies: True Lies (1994), Eraser (1996)
Overview: And just like that, he completely redeemed himself with a James Cameron reunion. If Last Action Hero was MJ wearing no. 45 post-baseball, then True Lies was the ’96 Bulls — not the greatest of all time, but the greatest of the post-T2 1990s. True Lies also shut everyone up and reminded everyone that Arnold was the GOAT. Oh, and it made history with the horse/elevator scene. The horse/elevator scene? Yes … the horse/elevator scene. We’re letting Arnold keep the title through Eraser. His next four action movies: End of Days (1999), The 6th Day (2000), Collateral Damage (2002) and the devastatingly disappointing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003. (Dramatic pause.) He won’t be back. I blame the Kennedys.
Biggest Challenger: Die Hard With a Vengeance hasn’t aged well. Know this: I was there opening weekend. So was everyone else.
Second-Biggest Challenger: In the mid-’90s, the Muscles from Brussels was cranking out action movies like Peter North cranked out porn. Let’s mix up the titles of Van Damme’s seven releases from 1993 through 1996 with Peter North movies from the same time frame. See how many you can guess.
Nowhere to Run
Never Say Never
You know what? I’m not telling you the seven correct ones. The best of those Van Damme flicks was 1995’s Sudden Death, a.k.a. “Die Hard at a Hockey Game.” Here’s a movie in which the screenwriter asked multiple people, “Do you think it would be too insane if, at some point, Van Damme played goalie for the Penguins during this game?” And all of those people said, “I don’t think that’s too insane — you should write that in!” Over the years, I’ve fought off the urge to write a Sudden Death column 34 different times. And we just hit no. 35. Let’s just say I have a lot of thoughts. And on that note … farewell, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Thanks for everything.
Third-Biggest Challenger: Seagal churned out 1995’s Under Siege 2 (a.k.a. “Die Hard on a Train”), an inferior movie to Under Siege … only you’re 20 times more likely to stumble across the sequel on cable. Sometimes I feel like cable networks are trying to hurt me. Regardless, Seagal was still serving a two-year fake suspension for releasing On Deadly Ground, the first and only environmental action movie about the dangers of pollution. What a blowhard. Go away, Seagal.
Fourth-Biggest Challenger: Pop quiz, hotshot: Where the hell did Keanu Reeves come from?20
Fourth-Biggest Challenger: Pop quiz, hotshot: Where the hell did Keanu Reeves go?
Fifth-Biggest Challenger: Do The Specialist, Judge Dredd and Assassins officially count as a Sly Stallone slump? I say yes. But just when we were ready to count him out …
Key Movie: Daylight
Overview: America’s hopes were high for Sly’s latest comeback movie. How high? I drove 100 miles from Boston to Hartford, weaving through holiday-week traffic on the Mass Pike and I-84, just to see Daylight with my buddy Gus. That’s how high. We thoroughly enjoyed the movie despite its unusual premise: The Holland Tunnel collapses after a massive accident, so Sly (a disgraced former NYC medical emergency chief)21 breaks into the tunnel to save the remaining survivors. Why was it unusual? Because they made the survivors so unlikably loathsome, you spend the second half of the movie rooting for everyone to die but Sly.
The other big mistake: Sly doesn’t kick anyone’s ass. Why didn’t they throw in the no-brainer “five biker gang members wreaking havoc and living by their own rules in the tunnel right until Sly beats the shit out of them” scene? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Sly spends much of the movie grunting, straining, lifting things and belting out his signature crooked-faced line: “Errrrrrrrwwwwwwww-ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” After that, he gained 30 pounds to chase an Oscar nomination for Cop Land, only he never looked the same post–weight loss. (Translation: The plastic surgeon let him down.) So that’s what it took to end a 15-year run from Arnold and Sly: the Kennedys and plastic surgery. Damn it all.
Biggest Challenger: ESPN Films’ Dan Silver believes, “1996 should belong to Will Smith. Independence Day was THE BIGGEST thing that summer. He’d just come off the success of Bad Boys and easily could have been our next mega-action star.” My counter: Not enough distance from DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air yet. I mean …
Key Movies: Con Air (1997), Face/Off (1997), Snake Eyes (1998), 8MM (1999), Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000)
Overview: A four-year title run for then-recent Oscar winner Nic Cage? Who saw that one coming???? For once, an overqualified action star embraced those overqualifications. Did it impair his acting chops and eventually ruin his credibility? Of course. But Cage ushered in a new era of action flicks — calculated, over-the-top, utterly ridiculous heart-pounders made by a generation weaned on Sly and Arnold.22 Con Air and Face/Off were the LeBron and Durant of Rewatchably Ludicrous Action Movies.23 Snake Eyes spawned the 24/Jack Bauer real-time premise. Gone in Sixty Seconds beat The Fast and the Furious by one year. And nobody wants to admit they enjoyed 8MM, or that they thought about dressing up like Machine for Halloween at least once. Wait, that was just me? Forget I mentioned this.
Biggest Challenger: The Arnold/Sly era finally petered out. Van Damme and Seagal became self-parodies of their self-parodies. Willis succeeded with 1998’s Armageddon and that’s about it; every other action choice failed. Keanu made The Matrix in 1999, but that wasn’t an old-school ass-kicking movie. Will Smith had grander ambitions and you always knew it. Same for Brad Pitt, who made a splash with Fight Club and could have chased the belt. (He never wanted it.) Only Jackie Chan broke through in Rush Hour (and then some), but right as Cage was peaking.
Really, it’s Nic Cage and only Nic Cage. What happened next? He dropped the mic! Nic Cage didn’t make an old-school action movie from 2001 through 2007, until the abominably watchable Ghost Rider ushered in the unexpected “Nic Cage Will Do Any Movie … Seriously ANY Movie” era. In his prime, Cage was more of a thinking man’s action hero than anything. And maybe this WAS a waste of an Oscar winner. But you know what? It’s still real to me, dammit! I will always defend you, Nicolas Cage. Now put the bunny back in the box.
Key Movies: The Fast and the Furious (2001), Knockaround Guys (2001), xXx (2002)
Overview: After hinting at a possible run in Saving Private Ryan and Pitch Black, Diesel finally broke through with a movie best described as “Point Break with cars.” Now here’s someone who passed the “people need to believe I can kick anybody’s ass at any given time” test. Find me a better I’m-about-to-beat-you-up speech than this one (1:32 mark):
Vin should have dominated the action decade, only his agent had other ideas. Check out this five-year stretch on IMDb: A Man Apart (stunk), The Chronicles of Riddick (liked it), The Pacifier (uh-oh), Find Me Guilty (oh boy) … and a one-year sabbatical. Talk about dropping the ball. Really, Vin, it took you eight years to realize you needed to make a Fast/Furious sequel? It would have killed you to play just ONE cop who didn’t play by the rules? Or one guy who “used to be the best,” only he’s not working anymore, only someone lures him out of retirement for one last job, only that job goes horribly wrong, and now he’s on the run until he can save his own name???? THIS ISN’T HARD! I’m still agitated.
Biggest Challenger: Could Matt Damon have won the belt by playing anyone other than Jason Bourne? We’ll never know. What about a revenge sequel called Good Will Hunting 2: Southie Justice, with Will returning to Boston to avenge Chuckie’s murder? Too late? (Thinking.) You’re right. Too late.
Key Movies: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Overview: Find me a better action movie from 1/1/03 through 4/22/04 than Kill Bill: Vol. 1 or Kill Bill: Vol. 2. You can’t. And find me a better ass-kicker from 1/1/03 through 4/22/04 than the Bride. You won’t. I’m taking the Bride over the Rock (2003’s Rundown) and Diesel (see above). Eight years later, the Rock and Diesel would take out their frustrations on losing to a woman in this phenomenal Fast Five scene.
Key Movie: Man on Fire
Overview: We wanted Denzel to be the biggest black actor ever (happened). We wanted him to play Malcolm X (happened) and Jackie Robinson (didn’t happen). We wanted him to unleash Evil Denzel in a movie (happened) and win an Oscar (happened). We wanted him to bang Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief (didn’t happen). We wanted him to hug Tom Hanks and make us less afraid of AIDS (happened). We wanted him to make THE great modern basketball movie (didn’t quite happen). And we wanted one GREAT action movie from him (finally happened, thanks to Man on Fire). Long live John W. Creasy. I love love love love love this movie. I love this movie. I absolutely love this movie.
Hey, J.Lo’s ex-husband, you move, you make one sound … I’ll snatch the life right out of you, you understand?
Biggest Challenger: Even if Rule No. 2 disqualifies Tom Cruise, he’s genuinely frightening as the mysterious white-haired assassin in Collateral who torments Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith.24 In all caps … TOM CRUISE FIGHTS IN NIGHTCLUB!
Key Movies: Transporter 2 (2005), Revolver (2005), Crank (2006)
Overview: The biggest action-movie expert I know? My father. He’s the creator of the phrase “Five O’Clocker” for every action movie that’s just good enough to be seen in the theater, but only right after work at 5 p.m., and only if you don’t have to pay full price. Anything slightly better is a “Six O’Clocker,” which is how he described Non-Stop last week. High praise. Anyway, I was lukecold on Statham’s two-year title run until my dad critiqued my first draft by saying, “I watch any action movie that comes on where Jason Statham is the star. Deserves higher recognition.” Well, then. You’re life … I was thinkin’ about takin’ it.
Key Movie: Rush Hour 3
Overview: When the best reason to give someone the belt is “The Rush Hour trilogy grossed over $500 million domestically,” it’s time to reevaluate things. Where did we go wrong in the mid-2000s? For one thing, we definitely burned out the old-school action model by producing too many (especially Die Hard rip-offs). Hollywood started gravitating toward expensive franchises (Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible, the Bond movies, the Matrix movies, etc.), comic-book movies (The Hulk, X-Men, Catwoman, Daredevil, etc.), science fiction (The Chronicles of Riddick), kid-friendly action movies (The Mummy, etc.) and elaborately well-done action movies (Kill Bill, Man on Fire, etc.). And the next generation of Arnolds and Slys never emerged.25 The Rock wasn’t Arnold. Diesel wasn’t Sly. Statham wasn’t Seagal. We kept ending up with overmatched newcomers like Thomas Jane, who carried one of 2004’s “big” action movies (The Punisher). Within a few years, Jane was starring in Hung.
For all of those reasons, a half-asleep Mark Wahlberg nearly stole the 2007 belt for Shooter, with a script Van Damme and Swayze probably would have rejected 20 years earlier. You’re right, they totally would have made it. But things were grim. Really, really, really grim. We needed a savior.
Key Movie: Taken
Without any warning, a 56-year-old actor with no ass-kicking experience single-handedly saved action movies. For one thing, Taken is required watching for any father and his under-18 daughter. Here’s what happens if you don’t listen to me — you might get kidnapped, hooked on heroin and thrown into a prostitution ring. My daughter doesn’t turn 9 until May and I’ve already watched Taken with her. Twice. I’m not apologizing, either. I laid the groundwork early. YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO ME, HONEY. OR ELSE.
This movie knows exactly what it is: Somebody took Liam Neeson’s daughter, and he’s flying to Europe and killing as many people as possible until he finds her. Period. Taken could have worked with a few other actors, but Neeson makes it special. You know what else helped? Before Taken, Neeson enjoyed a conventionally successful career. He made Woody movies, worked for Scorsese, played Oskar Schindler and Alfred Kinsey, made a Star Wars movie, played Michael Collins, did The Haunting, even showed up in Love Actually. We had a history with him. We thought we knew him. And suddenly, his fake daughter was in danger — GO FIND HER, LIAM! — and he was unleashing this entirely different (and particular) set of skills. I loved Taken. What a classic. The genre was decidedly NOT dead. Liam Neeson … savior.
Key Movies: Fast & Furious (2009), Fast Five (2011)
Overview: He’s just holding the belt here until Liam Neeson decided to start doing Liam Neeson things again. But it’s finally time to bring up the Diesel issue. If he’s playing Dom Toretto, I’m there. If he’s playing anyone else, I’m probably not there. He fails the five-words-or-fewer test. His success (and failure) is directly tied to the Fast & Furious and Riddick franchises. And I’m fine with that. It’s just an asterisk that Arnold, Sly, Clint, Chuck and even Nic Cage never had … right?
Biggest Challenger: Neeson didn’t make another action flick for three years, finally releasing Unknown in 2011. They buried it in February (a.k.a. Dumpuary), and the reviews were dreadful. It plays like an inferior version of Taken, only with January Jones and amnesia thrown in. It’s awful. It’s the movie you watch on TNT when they’re being dicks and won’t show Taken. Assholes. Do I watch it every time it’s on? Sure. But it’s the principle.
Second-Biggest Challenger: GOOD GAWD THAT’S SLY STALLONE’S MUSIC!!!!!
(And on that note, we officially ushered in the Nostalgia Action Hero era. I’m fine with it … but it’s not worth discussing, either.)
Key Movies: The Grey (2011), Taken 2 (2012), Non-Stop (2014)
Overview: You can explain these three movies in five words or fewer.
• The Grey: Liam Neeson, wilderness, wolves.
• Taken 2: Liam Neeson, someone gets taken.
• Non-Stop: Liam Neeson, airplane.
According to IMDb, Neeson has five movies coming over the next two years. The 2014 movies have already been filmed; the 2015 movies are in production. I tried to guess the plots, without knowing anything about any of them, in five words or fewer. The actual plots are in parentheses.
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014): Liam Neeson, Wild West.
(Actual plot: Apparently it’s a Seth MacFarlane comedy. Way to mix it up, Liam.)
A Walk Among Tombstones (2014): Liam Neeson, afterlife, cemeteries.
(Actual plot: IMDb says, “Private investigator Matthew Scudder is hired by a drug kingpin to find out who kidnapped and murdered his wife.” In the words of Daniel Bryan … YES! YES! YES!)
Run All Night (2015): Liam Neeson is being chased.
(Actual plot: IMDb says, “An aging hitman is forced to take on his brutal former boss to protect his estranged son and his family.” EVEN BETTER! SIGN ME UP!)
Taken 3 (2015): Liam Neeson, someone gets taken.
(Actual plot: Liam Neeson, someone gets taken.)
Silence (2015): Liam Neeson, Mafia, witness.
(Actual plot: IMDb says it’s a Scorsese movie set in the 17th century as “two Jesuit priests face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and to spread the gospel of Christianity.”)
You can’t win ’em all. But Neeson is a heavy favorite to hold the rejuvenated Action Hero Belt through 2015. Can anyone else make a run? Your best bets for challengers:
Tom Hardy: Laid the groundwork with standout performances in Warrior (a terrific MMA movie) and The Dark Knight Rises (as Bane). Did you know he’s rebooting the Mad Max franchise next year? It’s true. Just for the hell of it …
Chris Hemsworth: Really good in Rush. So good I almost forgave him for stomping on Swayze’s soul with the Red Dawn remake. He seems focused on that Thor/Snow White/Avengers lane, though. Couldn’t he marry Liam Neeson’s daughter in Taken 3 so Liam could groom him to eventually take over the franchise?
Jason Momoa: A sleeper. You know him as Khaleesi’s husband from Game of Thrones. I thought Momoa stole Bullet to the Head from Stallone (in 2012), then found out to my delight that my fellow action-junkie comrade Rafe agreed. We both went out and bought a shitload of Jason Momoa stock. At the very least, he needs a whirl on the old Norris/Seagal/Van Damme low-budget corner. Please?
Tony Jaa: I know, it would’ve happened by now. But can you really count this guy out?
The Rock: We might be smelling what the Rock is cooking with Hercules and Fast & Furious 7 (both coming soon). If that combo doesn’t earn him the belt, then he’s never escaping the WWE’s shadow. Or, he needs to pull a Tonya Harding on Neeson.
Channing Tatum: Men like Tatum. Women like Tatum. He’s funny. He can handle any role — serious, funny, angry, charismatic, you name it — making him the late Paul Walker’s logical successor for the Fast/Furious franchise. Even White House Down, his obligatory Die Hard rip-off as mandated by the Action Movie Rules Committee, was exceedingly watchable.26 Worst-case, he’s Nic Cage 2.0. He’s a slight favorite over the Rock to become The Next Guy … if he wants it.
Just don’t count out Liam Neeson yet. I could see him fending off these young bucks with more Taken sequels, a Death Wish remake, maybe even a Bullitt remake. As long as he keeps playing by his own rules, we’ll be fine. Long live Liam.
Main illustration: Photo illustration by Josue Evilla
Championship belts by Neighborhood Studio