The Return of the Action Hero

Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures
December 27th, 2013

Your Favorite Action Heroes Come Roaring Back  

In the 1980s, a handful of action stars dominated the box office in much the same way their characters overpowered their adversaries. Toward the middle of the 1990s, however, audiences began to seek out a different sort of action movie. Smarter films were made with more intricate plot lines, and some of the favorite action stars of the previous decade either found themselves cast in different types of roles or were mostly forgotten. Many of the most famous stars of that era have found a resurgence in popularity lately, and Hollywood is cashing in on this trend.  In 2010, Sylvester Stallone wrote and directed "The Expendables" and reunited with other notable past stars Dolph Lundgren and Eric Roberts, with walk-on performances from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Critics of the movie didn't place much faith in its success before it opened, but moviegoers quickly proved them wrong. The film became a huge success and it spawned a sequel as well as a third installment that's currently in the works. "The Expendables 2" (2012) offered expanded roles to Willis and Schwarzenegger and added other fan favorites Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. Now in the postproduction phase, "The Expendables 3" (2014) rounds out the who's who of 1980s action films with Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford.


Schwarzenegger has benefitted the most from the renewed popularity of action films. While he was originally known as an action star, he began taking more diverse roles in the late '80s and early '90s. He made family-friendly movies such as "Kindergarten Cop" (1990) and "Twins" (1988) as well as lighthearted action movies such as "Last Action Hero" (1993) and "True Lies" (1994). These films were commercial and popular successes, but his popularity waned in the next decade. His later job as the governor of California limited his exposure, and many fans wondered what his return to the screen would offer. Audiences once again embraced his thick accent and witty lines, and Hollywood responded. In 2013, he played a sheriff protecting his town from drug lords in "The Last Stand" and starred alongside Stallone in "Escape Plan." He's also working on a sequel to "Twins" called "Triplets" and will reprise his iconic roles in "Terminator: Genesis" and "The Legend of Conan." 


After scoring a knockout with "Rocky" (1976) and its popular successors, Stallone had an impressive list of blockbusters in the following years. "First Blood" (1982) told the story of a troubled Vietnam veteran, and it spawned successful sequels. He also used his fists effectively in "Tango and Cash" (1989) and defied Mother Nature in "Cliffhanger" (1993). A string of smaller parts and less successful films followed, but his triumphant return to esteem came with the releases of "Rocky Balboa" (2006) and "Rambo" (2008), in which he reprised the titular roles. He stars opposite Robert De Niro in Christmas Day's "Grudge Match" and plays a reclusive former football coach in next year's "Reach Me."


Always good for a wisecrack, Bruce Willis has remained an A-list star since "Die Hard" (1988). He played tough cops in "The Last Boy Scout" (1991) and "Striking Distance" (1993) and helped save humanity in "Twelve Monkeys" (1995) and "The Fifth Element" (1997). He took a twelve-year break from action movies between "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" (1995) and "Live Free or Die Hard" (2007) and concentrated on a number of diverse film and television opportunities. Although he only had a small part in "The Expendables," his countenance and demeanor have led to a number of roles as an older, wiser, and more grizzled version of his earlier film persona.


While Van Damme and Lundgren have made a number of successful European movies over the years, they were reintroduced to the American public with "The Expendables" and its sequel. They had been interested in making another sequel to "Universal Soldier" (1992), and their renewed popularity allowed them to star together in "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning" (2012). Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson remain popular to this day, so audiences will definitely enjoy seeing them in "Expendables 3" next year. If everything goes right, Hollywood will most likely give Norris, Snipes, and Roberts opportunities to revitalize their careers.  The 1980s provided movie audiences with a number of iconic heroes.

From Schwarzenegger's cyborg savior and Stallone's championship boxer to Willis' John McClane and the various roles played by other actors of the time, fans of the genre identified with these powerful leading men. In recent years, a mix of patriotism and the desire to escape reality has led moviegoers to demand the return of these men—and like the heroes they are, they've come to save the day.