Liam Neeson’s ‘Non-Stop’ demonstrates the Rise of the Ageing Action Hero

Tomorrow sees Liam Neeson’s return as yet another antique action hero in Non-Stop [1], the story of an air marshall whose passenger flight is held hostage to the tune of $150m. Since 2008 hit Taken reminded audiences that the older gent can still kick ass and hold his own at the box office, Neeson, 61, has starred in a spate of action flicks including The A-Team, Unknown and Taken 2, and is showing no signs of slowing, with Taken 3 already announced [2] and lead roles in upcoming action thrillers A Walk Among The Tombstones (fall 2014) and Run All Night (2015). Whilst Neeson initially dismissed the possibility of reprising his character, Bryan Mills, in a third Taken movie, joking, “that’s just bad parenting,” he was reportedly enticed back to the role with a handsome $20 million cheque [3]. Nice work if you can get it, but the real question is: why can he get it? Why is Hollywood paying out sums of that scale for action stars in their twilight years? One thing is clear, Neeson is far from the only oldie picking up the gun; there are plenty of other stars clamouring to put the silver back in silverscreen…

Arnold Schwarzenegger, or affectionately, “Arnie”, 66, exploded back in to cinemas after his political hiatus in action ensemble blow-ups, The Expendables and The Expendables 2. He subsequently manned the minigun in The Last Stand and then again reunited with Sylvester Stallone, 67, for more high-octane action in last year’s Escape Plan. Not to be left out, The Expendables 3 will see Harrison Ford, 71, joining the current posse alongside Mel Gibson, 58, who, despite leading the excellent and criminally underrated prison thiller, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, a few years ago, isn’t exactly bankable these days. (In fact, given his chequered and controversial past, for many it’s a mystery his career has even survived this long. I, for one, thought The Beaver was his death knell.)

At 59, Kevin Costner has jumped on the action thriller bandwagon with 3 Days To Kill [4], and fresh off the back of his action comedy escapade, 2 Guns, Denzel Washington, also 59, is confirmed to play Robert McCall in this years reincarnation of the 1985 TV Series, The Equalizer. Tom Cruise, 51 and experiencing somewhat of a career revival of late surfing on this current vogue, has rebounded with M:I – Ghost Protocol, Oblivion, Jack Reacher and this May’s sci-fi blaster, Edge of Tomorrow [5]. Even Kiefer Sutherland, 47, is seeing 24 revived for a new season (24: Live Another Day), and although the accompanying film is still not a dead cert, in interview with Total Film [6] Sutherland describes it as “an ongoing situation”. Fair enough, they’re probably waiting for him to get a few more years under his belt.

Hollywood isn’t oblivious to this phenomenon. On the contrary, The Expendables series is basically a nostalgic love letter to the action heroes of yore, and tongue in cheek films like RED [Retired, Extremely Dangerous], deliberately play with the idea of pensioners wielding arms for comedic effect, teaming together a cast including Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Dame Helen Mirren. Unsurprisingly, like The Expendables, when RED reeled in a comfortable cash haul (as such compelling star power was always inevitably going to do), it spawned RED 2, last summer’s dodgy sequel that dragged Anthony Hopkins, 76, in to the mix as well.

Even the younger faces aren’t exactly youthful. Action stalwarts Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, Gerard Butler, Jeremy Renner, and Dwayne Johnson are all comfortably in their 40s, and it only takes a glance over some classic action franchises to see that this is a relatively new trend. Once upon a time, action was a young mans game: Kurt Russell, 30, in Escape From New York; Tom Cruise, 34, in Mission: Impossible; Bruce Willis, 33, in Die Hard; Matt Damon, 32, in The Bourne Identity; Mel Gibson, 31, in Lethal Weapon; Eddie Murphy, only 23, in Beverley Hills Cop, the list goes on…

True to the machismo form of the action genre though, it seems young and sexy dies hard and early, with female action roles pretty much at least twenty years junior to their male equivalents, and including many newer, younger faces. Take Chloe Moretz for instance, whose unforgettable turn as the foul-mouthed fighter Hit Girl in Kick Ass at 13 already enjoyed a sequel and has a third in the offing; or Sairse Ronan, only 17 and breaking necks as child-assassin Hanna; or Oscar winning starlet Jennifer Lawrence, 23 and flexing her action chops time and again for the record-breaking [7] behemoth franchise, The Hunger Games. True, there are a number of slightly older action veterans still rolling with the punches, and this is a testament to their enduring sex appeal. Actresses such as 29 year old Scarlett Johanssen in the Avengers franchise, Michelle Rodriguez, 35 but still Fast and Furious, and Kate Beckinsale, who was 38 years old in her most recent action fare, the 2012 remake of Total Recall which sadly also appears to be the last on her action roster. Broadly speaking though, there is a vast and disproportionate chasm between the ages of male and female action roles. Given the target audience of these films, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

But flagrant sexism aside, the question remains, where are the young action stars of today? There’s definitely no shortage of younger acting talent (although arguably you wouldn’t believe it watching todays blockbusters), so this is doubtless yet another display of Hollywood’s lack of imagination, shortsightedness, and commitment to bucks over brilliance. In much the same way as sequels are tried and tested formulas, almost guaranteed to turn a vast profit, the movie stars of yesteryear retain their box office power film after film, providing little incentive for studios to deviate from the success that trails in their wake. In short, why try a newcomer when you can afford Tom Cruise? Why cast uncertainty when you can cast solid gold? One thing’s for sure: twenty years from today, Hollywood will be wishing they had fostered a crutch of Neeson’s calibre, and the likes of Chris Pine and Channing Tatum really aren’t going to cut the grade.