With the likes of Liam Neeson, Nicolas Cage and Matt Damon stepping into the role of action star, the idea of what an action hero is has become far more malleable than before.
With that in mind, here are a list of (relatively) recent action leads who deserve more exposure in the genre.
Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai)
Whitaker is a fine character actor, but until Jim Jarmusch made him the lead of this 1999 picture, he would be the last person you would expect to play a professional hitman.
Jarmusch’s movie is far more than just your typical shoot-‘em-up, but as a genre exercise he offers Whitaker the chance to show off his physicality (Whitaker is a trained martial artist) within the context of one of his best dramatic roles. Now over 50, it is a shame that outside of a supporting role in Taken 3, Whitaker has been unable to find another character like Ghost Dog. With this film as his resume, Whitaker is perfectly placed to capitalise on the upsurge in middle-aged action vehicles.
Badass moment: The art of execution by plumbing.
William H Macy (Cellular)
One of the most unlikely action heroes on this list, and one which does not get nearly enough kudos. Macy leavens his retiring cop an air of the everyman quality he gives all his other roles, turning what could have been a thankless cliche into an offbeat, fully rounded human being. More interested in getting on with his new career (a health spa) than policing, he is forced back into action when Chris Evans’ beleaguered hero barges into his life. Doing his fair share of heavy-lifting when it comes to putting caps in asses, Macy is almost unrecognisable — if he turned up in the next Expendables movie, I would believe it.
Badass moment: William H Macy vs. The Stath. One of the least likely showdowns in cinema history.
Val Kilmer (Spartan and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)
Kilmer’s had flirtations with action in the past (Batman Forever) but he has found few roles that felt like a natural fit. Tombstone comes close, but that is a western. Thank Christmas then, for David Mamet and Shane Black who give Kilmer two of his best roles in years. A lesser known Mamet, Spartan features Kilmer as a black ops asset trying to rescue the President’s daughter. In a non-showy role, Kilmer excels as an enigmatic professional who finds himself dragged into a larger drama he can barely comprehend.
Badass moment: Wounded and armed only with a small knife, Kilmer ambushes William H Macy’s slimy hatchet man to (barely) save the day.
Sharing the screen with Robert Downey Jr. in Black’s noir-flavoured buddy comedy, Kilmer is unforgettable as veteran private investigator ‘Gay’ Perry. Fast on the draw and faster with a quip, there is never any doubt that Perry is the toughest SOB in LA.
Badass moment: Tied up and seemingly helpless, Perry initiates an argument with a dangerously unhinged homophobe. Spoilers: Someone dies.
Sophie Marceau (Female Agents)
Marceau has had a long, varied career in both French and international productions. While she has had some experience with action films, she was never called upon to do much. So it is an unexpected pleasure to see her take so gamely to the role of a grizzled veteran of the French resistance, tasked with assembling a team to extract a British prisoner from from Nazi-occupied France in the days leading up to D-Day. As the Lee Marvin to this rather un-Dirty half-Dozen, Marceau is a natural. If Adi Shankar ever gets that female Expendables movie off the ground, Marceau should be on the cast list.
Badass moment: Even though it means Louise (Marceau) is doomed to torture by the SS, she forgives a comrade who has already turned traitor by letting her have her cyanide pill.
Helen Mirren (RED)
It’s a wonder Mirren’s potential as action lead took so long to be recognised. But then, did anyone really doubt that she could pull this off? She could read the proverbial phonebook and get a BAFTA. While the movie in this case is so-so, Mirren is terrifically blaise as a veteran assassin. As recently reported, Mirren is interested in being in the next Fast And Furious movie.
Heck, make her the Transporter, Bond, and Doctor Who while we’re at it.
Badass moment: Any movie that features Helen Mirren firing a 50 calibre machine gun is doing something right.
Ellen Page (Super)
Sure, Page was in Inception, but she was basically stuck as Basilina Exposition. In James Gunn’s offbeat Super, Ellen Page gets in on the action, in a particularly deranged take on the real-life superhero phenomenon. The flip side to Kick Ass’s Hit Girl, Page’s Boltie is a more deranged, somehow more real take on the superhero sidekick.
A closeted psychopath who coats her blood thirst in delusions of civic duty, Boltie comes on like a combination of George Zimmerman and a Girl Scout. Her stalker-like obsession with the film’s central character, the Crimson Bolt, is incredibly dark and goes places most superhero movies would never dream of. Page is erratic, incompetent, and (almost) unstoppable.
Badass moment: The (literally) die hard comic book fan gets her hands on some Wolverine-like claws.
Teresa Palmer (I Am Number Four)
Poor Alex Pettyfer — first Stormbreaker, now this. I Am Number Four was intended as the new young adult franchise to succeed Twilightand Harry Potter but did not end up making enough bank to get the green light for a sequel. Not only did the film not make Pettyfer a star, he had the movie stolen out from under him by Teresa Palmer’s turn as Number Six.
While Number Four and his guardian hide out and he struggles with his feelings for a girl at his new high school, Six has no trunk with the usual YA nonsense. Introduced as she blows up her house to divert the alien hunters on her trail, Six is a self-sufficient warrior in the mould of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. Only getting to show what she can do at the climax, it is a pity those sequels never happened — if only to see what other kinds of ass-kicking Palmer would get up to.
Badass moment: When Four and Six finally meet, Six doesn’t bother with introductions and just frappes one bad ‘un with a big gun and slices another off at the knees with a sword.
Brendan Gleeson (The Guard)
One of a series of great roles the veteran Irishman has had in recent years, his role as Garda Gerry Boyle is the best of the bunch. Contrarian and acid-tongued, Boyle hides a big heart beneath his crabby exterior. Whether he’s trading barbs with Don Cheadle’s FBI agent, chaperoning prostitutes, caring for his dying mother, or staring down a sociopath in his bathrobe, Boyle is the man for the job. While he pretends to be an uncaring asshole, Boyle does more to catch the bad guys than his gormless (and corrupt) superiors.
Badass moment: Facing off against a killer in his living room, Boyle lulls him into a false sense of security and outdraws him with a derringer.
Guy Pearce (Lockout)
Guy Pearce is an underrated talent. It is always interesting to see him onscreen, and he is always surprising in his choices. In the same year that he played the antagonist in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, he turned up in this cheap ’n’ cheerful homage to Escape From New York. Playing a cynical, witty anti-hero Pearce excels. He’s so good as Snow you almost wish the movie gave him more to do. Cracking wise and skulls with equal aplomb, Pearce makes it feel like he’s been doing this for years. While the likelihood of a Lockoutsequel is low, it acts as a great showcase for the potential of Pearce as an action lead.
Badass moment: “I’m being beaten up by a guy called Rupert?”
Olivia Thirlby (Dredd)
While the movie may be called Dredd and Karl Urban’s name is at the top of the cast list, this is Thirlby’s movie from beginning to end. As rookie Judge Anderson, Thirlby is tasked with carrying the emotional arc of the story, when the film is ostensibly about the titular character. Questioning her own ability to be a judge, while showing doubts about the arbitrariness of her first execution, Thirlby is excellent.
In a movie remarkable for its economy, Thirlby’s understated, minimalist performance compliments Urban’s to a tee. When she finally unleashes at the film’s climax, executing a roundhouse kick to a baddie’s head, Thirlby and Anderson have made the transition to action heroine. In an underrated movie, Thirlby’s is the most underrated performance. With its failure at the box office, the chances of Thirlby turning up in more action roles are sparse. Hopefully someone will take note of her work here, and come up with something that makes this underrated performer more well known.
Badass moment: Turning a prisoner’s horrific rape fantasies against him, Anderson uses her psychic abilities to even the playing field.
Daniella Kertesz (World War Z)
Who? One of those minor characters that pops up out of nowhere and immediately deserves their own movie, the bald, one-handed Segen is a delight. Whether she’s dragging Brad Pitt through the back streets of Jerusalem or blithely blowing away zombies on an airplane, Kertesz belies her youth and slight build with a stoic professionalism that makes her a believable body guard for Pitt. Hopefully she’ll be back in the sequel, or better yet, cast as Alter in the adaptation of Y: The Last Man.
Badass moment: A piece of background action that’s easy to overlook. At the climax, Pitt and his compatriots get ready to sneak into a zombie-infested lab. Despite having an arm in a sling, Segen picks up a baseball bat AND a gun. For sheer batshit confidence alone, this is her best moment.
Emily Blunt (Edge Of Tomorrow)
Like Helen Mirren, Blunt is money in the bank. Make her Queen Victoria or the greatest warrior on the planet, she will knock it out of the park. Her role in Edge Of Tomorrow was far more complex than just ass-kicking, but Blunt’s charisma and intelligence made for an interesting counterpoint to Tom Cruise. Having them in effect switch roles, with Blunt as the veteran warrior teaching Cruise’s spineless spin doctor how to fight, is an inspired piece of casting, and Blunt carries it off.
Badass moment: Making her entrance on the beach front, Blunt carves a path of destruction through a horde of alien foot soldiers.
Jack Davenport (Kingsman: The Secret Service)
While Colin Firth deservedly got most of the kudos for his against-type role as a latter-day super spy, spare a thought for the former Coupling star. While he is onscreen for only minutes, Davenport offers a glimpse of a different kind of secret agent. Taking Roger Moore’s schtick to its most braindead extreme, Davenport’s scene-stealing performance as Lancelot is the teaser for a Bond we may never see. Over-confident and sickeningly pretentious, Davenport sends himself up in great style, while also kicking ass in more convincing fashion than dear old Rog ever did.
Badass moment: Finishing off Professor Arnold’s captors (or so he thinks), Lancelot reloads and smirks for the camera.