The imminent release of The Expendables underlines the continuing presence of aging action stars. 1980s action stars such as Stallone, Willis, Ford and Gibson are hardly without precedent as they keep punching into their 50s and 60s. Indeed they follow earlier action stars such as Wayne, Lancaster, McQueen and Eastwood who all performed middle aged or senior tough guy roles (Astruc celebrated Wayne’s defiant aging in Rio Lobo: “He will enter the grave as he always lived. On horse.”). Stallone stands out as different from more usual patterns of action aging only because he remains defined by a built body.
The most recent film in the Die Hard series exemplifies a more familiar pattern of aging action. The dogged die hard persona – regular guy who just won’t give up – ties perfectly with a scenario of aging action bodies. Live Free or Die Hard played out an intergenerational scenario of McClane’s aging tough cop at a loss in a digital world, teaming him up with a younger guy who brings expertise but not experience. The Indiana Jones films worked this inter-generational scenario both ways (Jones as son, then as father). McClane was already weary in the original movie back in 1986, echoing the tough older guys played by Wayne in films like The Sands of Iwo Jima. Signifying experience, aging male bodies – whether buff or sagging – effectively add to action authenticity.
This sort of longevity only really applies to men – Hollywood’s action women have been young and sexy for over a decade. With the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s late-40s reprise of her role as Ripley in Alien: Resurrection – her role in Avatar raises a different set of issues – Hollywood action and adventure tends to allow older male stars a fantasy space it denies to women. While a mid-40s Jodie Foster plays tough in The Brave One, the marks of age as experience-as-authenticity don’t register here. More often women figure in fantastical action scenarios in which their powers are magical, their bodies eroticised; both are rendered through digital effects rather than signs of physical strength. Experience is effectively erased.