When you think of action movies, and action in general, what you might imagine is young men (along with a growing number of women) jumping and swinging from burning buildings to collapsing bridges as they chase a bad guy and they defy death. These men and women are almost always in their prime, sporting nearly superhuman physiques that only the best trainer in Hollywood (and some help from the special effects team) can pull it off.
However, if you look at the most recent list of action movies, especially if you exclude superhero movies, you’ll find that our action stars are older than ever. Tom Cruise is the best example, an action star in his late 60s who nonetheless managed to anchor Top Gun: Maverick with enormous success. However, Cruise is not alone. Everyone from Keanu Reeves to Brad Pitt is showing how much our action stars are getting older, which raises an existential question for the genre as a whole: why do action stars get older?
When did action stars get so old?
It’s best, perhaps, to start with Cruise, who has been an action star for almost as long as he has been a movie star. In fact, Maverick is just the long overdue sequel to top gun, which is the movie that cemented Cruise as a member of Hollywood’s A-list. For about 20 years after from top guns, Cruise branched out into other genres besides action. He was an action star, to be sure, but he also starred in prestigious projects like Born on the Fourth of July (war drama), Jerry Maguire (romantic comedy) and Eyes Wide Shut (cerebral thriller) while trying to show his versatility as a performer.
By the mid-2000s, however, Cruise was doubling down on action movies, and for the past decade, that’s basically all he’s done. In theory, one would think this trend would go the other way: Cruise would begin his career in a variety of action vehicles, eventually moving into roles in more prestige-driven projects that required less running and jumping. Instead, Cruise has reasserted himself as an action star, and there may be a simple reason for that embedded in Top Gun: Maverick: Cruise sees himself as one of the few actors capable of getting these types of non-superhero action movies off the ground.
However, Tom is not totally alone. Other actors are capable of casting original action blockbusters. Keanu Reeves and John Wick feel like another stark example: Reeves had been a star for decades, but wick it helped him regain his movie stardom and launched a new franchise in the process. That franchise works in part because John Wick is a retired hit man who gets pulled back into a seedy criminal underworld that he’s already familiar with. It’s about Reeves’ stellar personality as much as anything else, and it feels almost impossible to imagine a younger actor in the role.
Even Brad Pitt, who has never really been an actor solely identified with the action genre, is now starring in Bull.et Train as he approaches the later stages of his career. Meanwhile, we get very few of these kinds of movies from younger stars, and when we do get them, they’re generally not as warmly or as widely received as movies like John Wick either Maverick.
let’s take The Gray ManFor example, a movie with a couple of younger action stars. While the film has been a huge hit for Netflix (or so we’re told; streaming information is notoriously skewed) and may even spawn a sequel and cinematic universe, the action itself feels almost totally anonymous. It doesn’t really suggest that Ryan Gosling is a generational action star, and that’s largely because he isn’t as iconic as Cruise, Pitt, or even Reeves. And even if he is, he’s already 41 years old, that he’s considerably older than Cruise in the top gun original or Eddie Murphy in 48 hours. either beverly hills cop.
Older men are top action vehicle stars for a remarkably simple reason: They may be the last generation of true movie stars we have. It’s unclear if the men and women who will come after them will have the same star power and credibility, which is what’s ultimately required to take on these types of charisma- and personality-driven projects. That’s not to say that younger stars don’t have the charisma to make an action movie work. It has a lot more to do with what a studio is and isn’t willing to fund. Tom Cruise has the kind of clout needed to make the Mission: Impossible movies go on indefinitely, but Ryan Gosling doesn’t have that same power…yet.
This is not to say, of course, that Cruise, Reeves and company are necessarily bad action stars. Reeves remains fully watchable in roles that involve lots of carefully choreographed shots and punches, and Cruise is the only movie star of any age who seems willing to risk life and limb just to get incredible shots.
These older stars could provide an excellent model for what younger stars should be doing, and Cruise does a version of that in Top Gun: Maverick, where he shepherds a roster of young stars into the booth and shows them how to be action heroes. However, at the end of the film, what Maverick seems to have realized is that none of these young stars are really in a position to step into Cruise’s shoes. Can you imagine Miles Teller headlining Top Gun 3? We can’t either. Cruise is one of a kind, and we’re not likely to find a great replacement.
We live in an era filled with exciting action movies, and that’s thanks in no small part to the work of these older stars. The flip side of that coin, however, is that the future of the action movie looks a bit bleak. When these older action stars leave us, or stop making these types of movies, it’s unclear where the genre will go next. Will Gosling, Teller, Glen Powell or some other young star step up and make sure that action movies have a future, or will these films disappear altogether?
There is another kind of action movie, perhaps even more miraculous like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation either Maverick. Mad Max: Fury Road It doesn’t have an aging star at its center (Miller ditched original star Mel Gibson for the fresher, less toxic Tom Hardy), but it does have an aging director in George Miller who was willing to see the project through to completion. It stands as one of the best action movies ever made, and it’s clear evidence that the action movie doesn’t have to die with the stars that are so important to it today, at least in America.
with the prequel furious at Fury Road Scheduled for release in 2023, this action-motion baton can be passed to 26-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy, who will embody the titular character with the same intensity she brought in The Queen’s Gambit. Maybe the future of the action genre is female? With the pioneers Sigourney Weaver (Aliens) and Linda Hamilton (Terminators 2) paving the way, is a natural progression that should have been done long ago. However, what comes next may have to be more like Fury Roadand hopefully it will be much better for it.