When you think of action movies, and action more generally, what you might imagine is young men (along with an increasing amount of kickass women) jumping around and swinging from burning buildings to collapsing bridges as they chase a bad guy and defy death. These men and women are almost always in their prime, sporting nearly superhuman physiques that only the best Hollywood trainer (and some help from the VFX team) can accomplish.
If you look at the most recent slate of action movies, though, especially if you exclude superhero movies, you’ll find that our action stars are older than ever. Tom Cruise is the prime example, an action star nearing 60 who nevertheless managed to anchor Top Gun: Maverick to enormous success. Cruise isn’t alone, though. Everyone from Keanu Reeves to Brad Pitt is showing just how much our action stars are aging, which poses something of an existential question for the genre as a whole: why are action stars getting older?
When did action stars get so old?
It’s best, perhaps, to start with Cruise, who has been an action star for almost the entire time he’s been a movie star. Indeed, Maverick is just the long-delayed sequel to Top Gun, which is the movie that cemented Cruise as a member of Hollywood’s A-list. For roughly 20 years after Top Gun, Cruise branched out to other genres besides action. He was an action star, to be sure, but he also starred in prestige projects such as Born on the Fourth of July (war drama), Jerry Maguire (romantic comedy), and Eyes Wide Shut (cerebral thriller) as he tried to show off his versatility as a performer.
By the middle of the first decade of this century, though, Cruise was doubling down on action movies, and for the past decade, that’s basically all he’s made. In theory, one would think this trend would go the other way: Cruise would start his career in a variety of action vehicles, and eventually move on to 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 who’s capable of getting these kinds of non-superhero action movies off the ground.
Cruise isn’t totally alone, though. Other actors are capable of launching original action blockbusters. Keanu Reeves and John Wick feels like another clear example: Reeves had been a star for decades, but Wick helped him recapture his movie stardom and launched a new franchise in the process. That franchise works in part because John Wick is a grizzled retired hitman who is pulled back into a seedy criminal underworld that is already familiar with him. It’s about Reeves’ star persona as much as it’s about 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 Bullet 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 aren’t typically received as warmly or as broadly as movies like John Wick or Maverick.
Take The Gray Man, for example, a movie featuring a couple of younger action stars. While the movie has been a major success for Netflix (or so we’re told; streaming info 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 will be a generational action star, and that’s in large part because he’s not nearly as iconic as Cruise, Pitt, or even Reeves. And even if he is, he’s already 41, which is considerably older than Cruise was in the original Top Gun or Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. or Beverly Hills Cop.
The movie star is dying, and with it, the action movie
Older men are the primary stars of action vehicles for a remarkably simple reason: They may be the last generation of true movie stars we have. It’s unclear whether the men and women who will come up after them will have the same star power and credibility, which is what’s ultimately required to front these kinds of charisma- and persona-driven projects. That’s not to say that younger stars don’t have the charisma necessary to make an action movie work. It’s got much more to do with what a studio is and isn’t willing to finance. Tom Cruise has the kind of clout needed to make Mission: Impossible movies happen 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 utterly watchable in roles that involve lots of carefully choreographed shooting and punching, 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 some version of that in Top Gun: Maverick, where he shepherds a roster of young stars into the cockpit and shows them how to be action heroes. By the movie’s end, though, what Maverick seems to have realized is that none of these young stars are actually fit to stand in 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.
The future is female
We are living in an era filled with exciting action movies, and that is thanks in large part to the work of these older stars. The flip side of that coin, though, is that the future of the action movie seems kind of bleak. When these older action stars leave us, or stop making these kinds of movies, it’s unclear where the genre will go next. Will Gosling, Teller, Glen Powell, or some other young star step up to the plate and ensure that action filmmaking has a future, or will these movies disappear altogether?
There is another kind of action movie, perhaps even more miraculous thanksomething like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation or Maverick. Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t have an aging star at its center (Miller jettisoned original star Mel Gibson for the fresher and less toxic Tom Hardy), but it does have an aging director in George Miller who had the will to see the project through to completion. It stands as one of the best action movies ever made, and is clear evidence that the action movie doesn’t have to die with the stars that are currently so important to it, at least in America.
With the Fury Road prequel Furiosa set for release in 2023, this action move baton may be passed over to the 26-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy, who will embody the titular character with the same intensity that she brought in The Queen’s Gambit. Maybe the action genre’s future is female? With pioneers Sigourney Weaver (Aliens) and Linda Hamilton (Terminator 2) having paved the way, it’s a natural progression that’s long overdue. What comes next may have to be more like Fury Road, though, and hopefully it will be all the better for it.