The James Clayton Column: Old crinklies kicking ass

As movies like RED and The Expendables prove, age is no barrier to becoming an action star. So, James asks, will we see Dame Judi Dench as the next RoboCop?

Old people kicking arse every which way we turn! By ‘eck! It wasn’t like this in the good old days.

Look to your elders, kids. We are experiencing a cultural moment where the age gap and social expectations are being blown apart by action movies. Realise the terrible truth: while we were too busy playing violent videogames and listening to that newfangled hip hop, the geriatrics snuck in and assumed control.

We all thought that these fogies had one foot in the grave but – “I don’t believe it!” – they are actually very much alive, kicking and ruling the movie marketplace as action heroes with balls and bravado.

Stereotypically, they should be semicomatose in a corner beneath a cosy blanket waiting for Antiques Roadshow to start. Instead, they are wild-eyed and showing their collective war face, grabbing the globe by the gonads, forcefully shoving it aside and then, with a spit and a snarl, assertively commanding, “Get off my lawn!”

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We can’t even argue with them either, because they’re armed to the (false) teeth. Plus, you should respect your elders, especially if they have Academy Awards on their mantelpiece.

You don’t argue with Helen Mirren. You especially don’t argue with Helen Mirren if she has a sniper rifle and is showing signs of a secret killer streak. This, thanks to the film RED, is what we are dealing with now. Mirren is now an ex-CIA Dame of Death. Ladies, gentleman and subjects of the realm, Her Majesty will now proceed to maim you.

RED, which stands for Retired: Extremely Dangerous, is an interesting proposition in that it’s a story of ex black-ops agents who are violently forced back into action. In adapting the Warren Ellis/Cully Hamner comic series, the movie machine has consequently got veteran actors, given them high tech spy gear and allowed them to get gung ho and play hard.

Thus, we have experienced adrenaline icon Bruce Willis (55), renowned kook John Malkovich (56) and revered narrator and nice old fellow Morgan Freeman (73) as active military heroes in the line of fire and enjoying it. We also have Mirren (65) and so, altogether, the picture presented by RED is a bit radical.

Or is it really that radical when you look around the multiplex and see ‘old men on a mission’ movies like The Expendables doing the business? As long as he can still walk and has access to steroids, Sylvester Stallone will keep rebooting the Rocky and Rambo series and stitching together more actioners for mass consumption.

These old people just don’t die any more. The baby boomers just keep banging on and on, demanding Pink Floyd reunion concerts and disembowelling Southeast Asian dictatorial regimes if they feel they aren’t getting enough attention.

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Nevertheless, aside from the aging population issues, at the cinema we’ve got something unusual that film historians might one day refer to as ‘The Rise of Violence and Fantasy Role-Play Amongst the Community of Respected Thespians Not Hitherto Known for This Sort of Material’.

I mean the ‘serious’ actors who have enjoyed a late career revival by starring in ‘geek cinema’, comic book adaptations, fantasy and action flicks. They used to only really touch straight-faced drama or tread the boards on the theatre stage, but now they are heroes to a new generation of cinemagoers, because they are characters in cult and franchise flicks.

See how Alec Guinness went from the stage, Ealing comedies and grand David Lean epics to infamy with younger viewers as Ben Kenobi thanks to Star Wars? In recent years, many experienced actors have undergone similar re-appreciation. Ian McKellen, for example, is now hailed and loved more for being Gandalf and Magneto. There’s a whole generation of veteran Brit performers who are riding the Harry Potter wave and being rewarded with the affection of today’s children.

Once the world has seen him wearing a golden eyepatch in Thor, chances are Sir Anthony “Odin” Hopkins will achieve the worship of a younger audience untouched by Hannibal Lecter and The Silence Of The Lambs. Similarly, I wouldn’t bet against Helen Mirren, post RED, becoming a silver surfer superstar on the comic book convention circuit.

Actors over the age of 55 not in on this action are missing out. There are a lot of powerful personalities out there who could still kick arse and who’d benefit and get a tremendous buzz out of the metamorphosis into big franchise, action-adventure blockbuster material.

If they follow what we shall call ‘The Patrick Stewart Path’ then the future is full of promise, performers taking on challenging new personas and pleasantly surprised audiences.

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Here are a few established actors who I’d urge to consider their character types and push for some changes now that they are older, before they grow stale and sad in the ‘serious’ roles and die without having embraced the chance to have a lot of fun as superheroes and supersoldiers…

Robert Duvall

After a lifetime of excelling as a supporting actor, Duvall reaches his late-career renaissance and comes into his own as an action warrior in his own right. Building a franchise on his Commander Napalm character, Duvall finally gets to dominate and go wild as a burning petrol-flinging surfer dude whose ultraviolence makes Rambo look like Bambi.

Judi Dench

She’s been M and managed MI6 in James Bond movies, but now Dench gets to dish it out herself as RoboDame, everyone’s favourite classy psycho android law enforcer. (They wanted to call it ‘Judge Dench’, but there were legal issues.)

Peter O’Toole

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The movie is ‘Tooled Up’ and it’s all centred around a soldier of fortune who, in spite of his frail form, rides through the desert on a wisecracking talking camel. Old age is no obstacle to our hero, who annihilates insurgents with a trusty sawn-off shotgun that he affectionately calls “Larry”.

Meryl Streep

Having built up an impressive awards collection, Streep now sets about building her body to became a muscle-bound blockbuster lead. Alongside crowd-pleasing projects like ‘The Devil Wears Lycra’, Meryl the Peril goes on to launch her own box office-smashing comic movie crossover in the shape of ‘Iron Woman’.

Julie Andrews

With charm, grace and poise, the woman who was Maria Von Trapp, Mary Poppins and the lovely royal grandmother in The Princess Diaries becomes NunChuck, the singing Christian crusader in a habit, who fights the forces of Hell. Think a dark Sister Act with superheroes.

And, thus, the old fogies kick arse. Much more fun than Antiques Roadshow.

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