Since the dawn of cinema, action movies have ruled the box office. Whether it was Spaghetti Westerns in the early 60s, spy thrillers of the 70s, or the muscle-bound Schwarzenegger and Stallone films of the 80s, something about a white man in violent, over-the-top scenarios has a way of captivating audiences enough to warrant countless sequels and millions of dollars.
But, as the action movie spectacle continued to evolve, the action stars did not.
Sure, younger actors may still produce exciting and successful action films, but the top stars are still the same men who have been making action movies for decades. Every now and then, a Chris Pratt or John David Washington will come along and make a few top-tier action movies, but the top names when googling “current action movie stars” are Tom Cruise (58), Denzel Washington (66), and Keanu Reeves (56).
Yes, these are all incredibly dedicated actors who put a lot of time and energy into making these movies, but our suspension of disbelief can only go so far.
When Liam Neeson starred in the first “Taken” film, we somehow believed that a then-55 year-old man could take on an army of human traffickers. Sure, all movies require some level of suspension of disbelief. Obviously, when you watch a Batman movie, you go into it expecting to believe in a world where a man can jump off buildings dressed as a bat and beat up a bunch of low-level criminals.
But, looking back at “Taken,” it seems preposterous that we believed this for at least the first of the franchise. That effect wore off quickly as the following two films were not as beloved as the first, and the franchise quickly soured. Strangely, the same has not occurred for countless other action stars.
Sylvester Stallone, a man well into his 70s, is still making action movies, with the most recent “Rambo” movie being released in 2019. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the “Terminator” franchise that same year at the ripe old age of 71, and the “Mission Impossible” franchise has only grown in popularity despite Tom Cruise’s aging. But the question is, why?
I think this is a strangely simple answer. We want to believe. The best part about fun action movies is imagining being in those worlds and thinking that we could do what they do. When we heard Liam Neeson’s “particular set of skills” speech in “Taken,” we imagined the strength and courage of taking on a group of traffickers. When Tom Cruise hangs off the side of a plane or climbs the Burj Khalifa, we want to think we can do that.
Especially as people age, they want to be able to do not only the activities they used to be able to do, but also the activities they never could do. My dad has never shot a gun or driven an Aston Martin in his life, but he definitely wishes he could be James Bond.
These movies thrive for the very reason we enjoy cinema. Movies bring us into a new world and give us a hint of how it would feel to experience what the characters on screen are experiencing. Film is often an escape from reality, and even as things get complicated, these movies will always be fun, simple and consistent.
So, I wouldn’t expect to see this freight train genre slow down anytime soon. Tom Cruise shows no signs of slowing down, and even the action stars you think are young, like Mark Wahlberg or Dwayne Johnson, are well into their 40s. But there’s no denying that these movies are a great time, financially successful and usually worth the cost of admission.