In the 2010 movie Red, in which a group of aging secret agents come out of retirement, a 64-year-old Helen Mirren manned a giant gatling gun and teared into an oncoming car. Earlier this year, in A Good Day to Die Hard, 58-year old Bruce Willis took down a helicopter by ramping a truck through its rear end. In last October’s Taken 2, 61-year old Liam Neeson extricated himself from a set of chains before massacring an army of AK-47-wielding terrorists. And late last summer, in The Expendables 2, 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone went head-to-head with 52-year-old Jean Claude van Damme in a brawl of punches and choke holds. On the page, it all looks kind of silly — old people popping caps and kicking ass! But onscreen, the leading actors sell it. And audiences have happily bought in — three of those four movies grossed $300 million each worldwide. This weekend’s Red 2 is just the latest example of Hollywood’s new niche for actors entering their golden years.
Call it “Geri-Action,” gun-filled punch-’em-ups with stars in their fifties and sixties. There is no lack of fresh-faced young people who could be plugged into these modestly scaled action pictures. That’s how it worked twenty years ago when Willis was plucked from his sitcom Moonlighting, cast in Die Hard, and given the opportunity to play against type. So why is Hollywood mostly reluctant to replicate the formula with any of today’s young leading men? (This summer’s Channing Tatum–led flop, White House Down, won’t help change any minds.) What can an actor hovering around 60 do that someone in their twenties or thirties can’t? When did “I’m too old for this shit” become an inapplicable one-liner? There are a number of likely factors: Younger actors are starring in franchises whose brands overshadows them, and older actors have familiar star power and are reliable global box-office draws. As one independent film executive told Vulture last year, “Foreign buyers buy ‘yesterday.’ They don’t buy ‘tomorrow.’”
It doesn’t hurt that the men who helped define the eighties action movie are still around and kicking it. Willis continues to be a draw — this year he’ll have appeared in Red 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and the fifth Die Hard movie. Sylvester Stallone has starred in and written two Expendables movies and a third is on the way. He will team up later this year in the prison action-thriller Escape Plan with 65-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, who himself has a cop drama (End of Watch director David Ayer’s Sabotage) and a zombie shoot-’em-up (Maggie) on the horizon.
Yet if the Planet Hollywood triumvirate were the only elder statesmen keeping star-driven action alive, the trend would reek of novelty. (There’s already more than a whiff of nostalgia.) But older A-list talent is also keeping geri-action on its toes. Liam Neeson, 61, who had previously only handled the occasional sword (Rob Roy, Kingdom of Heaven, Batman Begins, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), is now a bona-fide hard-fisted action star thanks to Taken and Taken 2. In the past three years, Oscar winner Denzel Washington, 58, has kung-fu’d his way across a postapocalyptic landscape in Book of Eli, climbed and scampered across a speeding train in Unstoppable, and beat the hell out of CIA operatives in Safe House. Even 52-year-old Sean Penn is getting in on the action with The Gunman, which can be whittled down to “Taken, but with Sean Penn.”
While there is an appeal in seeing caliber actors give action a try, the casting choices also make up for the ongoing failure of Hollywood to create new action stars. 33-year-old Channing Tatum failed to bring in audiences for his Bruce Willis impersonation in White House Down. But that movie might have flopped because it was preceded by the similarly plotted, R-rated Olympus Has Fallen. On the other hand, almost every other young up and comer — Taylor Kitsch (32), Henry Cavill (30), Charlie Hunnam (33), Liam Hemsworth (23), Chris Hemsworth (29), Garrett Hedlund (28), Chris Pine (32), Andrew Garfield (29), Josh Hutcherson (20), Taylor Lautner (21), Chris Evans (32) — has found themselves either in a superhero film, franchise-starter, or sci-fi blockbuster where concept and brand outshine the leading men. There is a minuscule group of middle-aged men (The Rock , Jason Statham , Vin Diesel  on a good day) who have grown into careers that are primarily action-based. And Tom Cruise, 51, continues to star in Mission: Impossible films and original sci-fi tales (Oblivion, the upcoming Edge of Tomorrow), while Matt Damon, 42, crushed the Bourne movies and will be seen in next month’s Elysium. But there isn’t a newcomer who can be counted on to similarly topline those types of movies. The modern spectacle doesn’t require a young action star. It requires a young warm body.
But most of those bodies are as bland as white bread. (Also, white as white bread, but that’s another issue altogether.) It’s why they can be so seamlessly dropped into special-effects-heavy movies, whereas geri-action stars come prepackaged with well-honed personas and histories. And thanks to the wonders of endless TV repeats, the classics from the Stallone-Schwarzenegger-era are still weaning young audiences on action. They’re instantly recognizable to the entire world — a priority for studios looking to rake in the box office dollars overseas, which as important a factor as there is these days. As Claude Brodesser-Akner wrote on Vulture last summer, “It was no accident that Summit’s 2010 action thriller RED was populated with stars like Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich. Sources say that its budget was a little under $60 million, but with the cast’s international appeal, the company was able to raise 70 percent of that budget by preselling distribution rights to overseas exhibitors.”
We watch action movies for the visceral pleasure that comes from an actor or actress pushing themselves physically. If geri-action movies continue to be made because relatively small-scale action typically makes a profit here and abroad, they will continue to deliver as entertainment because age adds to the audience’s satisfaction — “How are these guys still doing this?” Stallone and Schwarzenegger have their muscles, but now they’re etched like a tree’s rings. We see Neeson’s age on his face in Taken, and it makes his “special set of skills” all the more impressive. If you dropped any of them into a superhero movie, they’d be overwhelmed by the Sturm und Drang. Movie studios aren’t settling for older action stars. Rather, they’re casting to a genre that’s also in its golden years.