There are a lot of perks that come with age: Wisdom arrives with every passing year, self-awareness and acceptance increases each day, and the ability to rub a youngster’s nose in your kick-ass experience is immediately satisfying at all times.
Yep, being able to pull seniority—and earn it—is a timeless classic, whether in Elizabethan literature or on the big screen with an M16 in one hand and a DEA badge in the other. That instant appeal certainly is what Arnold Schwarzenegger has in spades in this weekend’s Sabotage, an action flick that posits the former governator as the coolest alpha cop on screen, despite all the younger DEA sidekicks trying to keep pace while lagging far behind him. It is also part of a noble tradition of classic silver screen stars who can still prove their ability to one-up the next generation like a bus driver dropping the kids off at school. Without further adieu, here are 10 seasoned pros that still got it!
Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (1992)
The squinted eyes, the half-chewed cigar, and the flowing poncho—Clint Eastwood cut one of the most mythically searing images of an Old West that never existed. Truly, none of the legendary frontiers of boundless horizon and endless opportunity shimmered quite as alluringly as in the hands of 20th century storytellers, but Eastwood’s onscreen alter-ego, often existing in a landscape that was as much southern Spain as Southwest Texas, occupied a special iconic status; he was The Man With No Name (at least in the Sergio Leone Dollars Trilogy), and he was an indestructible force of nigh supernatural justice.
He’s also why Eastwood felt so obligated to unravel that Old West myth about the lone gunslinger in the hopes to find something true underneath. What he came up with was ugly, anguished, and ultimately tragic. Yet, in the filmmaker’s swan song to the American genre, he arguably created his greatest masterpiece. In a film in which aging Bill Munny (Eastwood) may be a bad man, and a killer of women and children to boot, he is also one that recognizes the virtue in standing by his grit and true-self. William Munny is a killer, but he is still twice the man as the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), the boastful braggart who often appears like a child trying to impress daddy when cast in Munny’s long shadow. Munny also has none of the pretensions or illusions about his vile nature that Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) displays as the self-appointed white hat who hides behind a badge as he does wicked things. No, Bill just does Little Bill in. That says it all.
John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)
To continue the Western image, if there is one who eclipses Eastwood in the popular consciousness, it’s John “The Duke” Wayne, a bigger than life presence who is as ubiquitous within the genre as horses and Monument Valley. Indeed, it could be argued that there is no other shot with as much hopeful optimism bounding from the frame as the dolly-in on Wayne’s youthful Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). But in that movie, Wayne played a young man, and in The Searchers (1956), also directed by Ford, Wayne is the epitome of seasoned.
Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a former Confederate officer who, after some years away, has returned to his not-so-loving brother Aaron Edwards and his too-loving sister-in-law, Martha. However, the reunion is short-lived when Aaron, Martha, and most of their family are brutally slaughtered by Comanche Native Americans. With their youngest daughter Debbie kidnapped, Ethan teams with the only person he has left close to blood, the part-Native American Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), to bring her home. It is an epic quest that spans the seasons and the years, as little Debbie grows into comely Comanche wife Natalie Wood, and Ethan’s journey changes from one of revenge and rescue to twisted white supremacist euthanasia. While we may not always agree with Ethan’s viewpoints, there is no tougher S.O.B. on either side of Indian Territory than the man that Martin comes to see as a father figure, and whose mutual respect is the one thing that may have stayed Ethan’s hand. In the film’s closing shot, Martin gets to join the darkness of civilization with a terrified Debbie when she’s “saved” by her family. But Ethan is the real deal: a desperado without a place in the settled West, walking alone into the fading light.
Sean Connery in The Rock (1996)
When looking to cast someone intimidating enough to escape from Alcatraz 25 years ago, and crazy enough to go back with Nicolas freakin’ Cage, director Michael Bay and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson could not have done better than the original international man of mystery. Sean Connery (or at least his interpretation of Terrence Young) is James Bond. There have been other actors to play Fleming’s double-0 superspy, but none have had the perfect balance of detached indifference to aggressive violence, as well as aggressive foreplay. That is why Bay’s one truly great movie had an acting coup when they indirectly implied that The Rock’s John Patrick Mason was the 007 returned to the big screen. He may have started with grungy white hair, but the irrepressible Scotsman brought style back to the ‘90s and even managed to bury Cage’s frenzied antics with sheer all-consuming presence. He may not have been able to out-crazy Cage when they shared the screen (who could?), but he managed to supplant the young man as the obvious second banana with the simple fold of a tie and the roll of an R. This was Connery’s movie to save the day and kill terrorists in, Cage might as well have been stirring his martinis.
Michael Caine in Harry Brown (2009)
Some young punks just need a lesson in how things are done. That is at least the way Harry Brown (Michael Caine) sees things after he retires from the Royal Marines to a London council estate following a career of service in Northern Ireland. The neighborhood is so rough that Harry can’t take the shortcut to see his wife dying in the hospital or do much of anything when his pub-mate Len Atwell (David Bradley) is killed by a local gang of street hooligans. No, these delinquents need more than one lesson, and Harry is willing to stay after school to make sure it gets drilled in their heads right next to the bullets. In one of Caine’s best later-in-life performances, he embodies an older generation’s distaste and apprehension for youth culture, and in these seedy neighborhoods where even the cops have given up, maybe old Harry has a point?
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa (2006)
If you told anyone 10 years ago that “Rocky VI” would be the best sequel of the whole damn lot, you would have been laughed into silence after the words “Rocky VI.” Who wanted to see Sylvester Stallone resurrect his signature character again, especially past the age of 60? The answer is probably only Stallone, but we are lucky that he did since Rocky Balboa stands as a stark bookend on the 1976 classic underdog story. As an old man whose family and personal issues have lost him his fortune, Rock’s a washed-up athlete that no one sees the value of anymore. That is at least until, much like the original Rocky, a world champion conjures a PR move by holding an exhibition match with the former heavyweight icon. What unfolds is Rocky not winning the bout and proving the dissenters wrong (again), but him instead going the distance one last time and being able to still stand on his own two feet. Rocky proves in his “Death of a Prize Fighter” opus—crystallized through the snowy streets of Philadelphia during the training montages—that he is still worth a damn to at least himself. That is something worth fighting for, especially when it makes a whippersnapper half his age learn a little respect.
Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Ironically, one career highlight revisited in the 21st century that had far higher expectation, and achieved much lower adoration after release, was the return of Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry Jones Jr. (Indiana is the dog’s name). Yet whatever shortcomings the fourth adventure with Indy may have introduced, none of them were at the hand of Ford. Hell, despite being 65 during production, he still looked like he could wallop co-star Shia LaBeouf, stuntmen not required. Bringing back the heroic charisma of everyone’s favorite archeologist, all the “old school” stuff about this movie worked like a charm, including Ford and a welcomed return for Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. The newfangled special effects, aliens, and LaBeouf may have left the movie wanting, but Ford’s Indy still can dominate multiplexes with the snap of his whip. Even after 70, he likely could do it again.
Bruce Willis in Looper (2012)
Bruce Willis. This is an action star who has been in the game so long that he never really needed a comeback since he has reliably been right there making stuff blow up good for decades. It is probably why he has hinted more than once that he is tired of the bullets and brawn genre as of late. So, when director Rian Johnson got him to engage for some of his best work in years with Looper, it really made for something special. Willis’ Old Joe doesn’t just show any kid how they used to do things downtown; he gets to show himself when he travels back to his past and meets Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a smart-mouth with a gun. Well, Old Joe is smarter and has a gun too, so what are they to do with their impasse when the younger decides he has to kill his senior? For starters, not bleed on themselves after Old Joe kicks his teeth in during this time traveling Gordian-knot. Willis hasn’t been this lively in years, and the result is a movie where he can finally look in a mirror and like what he sees: Gordon-Levitt’s Young Joe playing catch-up.
Liam Neeson in Taken (2008)
“But what I do have are a very particular set of skills.” These are the words that have launched a brand new sub-genre: the Liam Neeson Punches People In February Movie. And Neeson is indeed a master at it. As a late-in-life action star, Neeson’s tall frame, imposing Irish brogue, and perfected ability to deliver the understated deadpan have made him a natural to the genre with low-cost, no-nonsense action flicks that always get the job done. Still, none have done that job better than Taken, a film where a couple of smug French sex traffickers thought they could kidnap Liam Neeson’s sweet, oblivious daughter (Maggie Grace as another millennial who underestimates Neeson’s awesomeness), and get away with it. They even mock Neeson over the phone after he fairly warns them about his aforementioned skill-set. Perhaps, he should have offered them a PDF of his CV? In any case, they dare to taunt Mr. Neeson, “Good luck.” That was a…Really. Stupid. Idea. Neeson spends the next 95 minutes testifying to this when he cuts a bloody war path through Paris that depletes the local population of about half a thousand scumbags. He warned them.
Morgan Freeman in Se7en (1995)
Morgan Freeman’s Somerset says everything that needs to be known about himself at the end of David Fincher’s first masterpiece, Se7en. “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” An educated and highly intellectual detective, Somerset has been in the game too long to not realize how foul people tend to be. Yet, he is willing to give the good fight, even when staring into the abyss of his final case involving a serial killer committing seven murders based on the Bible’s seven deadly sins. It is a shadowy world that bypasses noir and cuts straight into nihilism. But if younger Det. Mills (Brad Pitt) had only heeded some of Somerset’s advice about the job and handling these fiends, perhaps he could have resisted pulling the trigger and firing several shots into John Doe’s chillingly evil head. Doe, played with seething misanthropy by a smiling Kevin Spacey, never got the upper-hand on Freeman’s world-weary Somerset. However, that might be due to the box not being meant for him. Nevertheless, it was the inexperienced Mills who let John Doe’s work of art be completed.
Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino (2008)
And to round out the list, we return to an even crustier and more grizzled Clint Eastwood. Nearly 20 years before Gran Torino, Eastwood said goodbye to the Man with No Name in Unforgiven, but it is in Torino that he makes his peace with “Dirty” Harry Callahan. As bitter Walt Kowalski, Eastwood plays a retired assembly line worker from Detroit. A former veteran of the Korean War, he is cut from the same mold as Schwarzenegger in this weekend’s Sabotage. He’s aged, withdrawn, and angry that his wife was taken away from him. But rather than whither away on his front porch with a can of PBR on constant tap, he puts the blue ribbon down just long enough to pick up the shotgun and clean up his neighborhood.
When gangs threaten his Hmong neighbors, Walt makes their protection his hobby, even turning the young son who once tried to boost his prized Gran Torino, a troubled kid named Thao (Bee Vang), into his very own protégé. He has no use for his wife’s religion, or the bourgeois condescension from his adult children and spoiled grandchildren. He is going to use his few remaining years to make the world a better place, one trespass-free lawn at a time. Still never anything less than a racist and a short-sighted senior with as many prejudices as Eastwood’s famed San Francisco cop, Eastwood was allowed to covertly explore the trope one last time while still finding the heroism therein. Yeah…