In mythology, they were demigods. In everyday modern life, they might be firemen, soldiers or doctors. In cinema, they can be secret agents, super-beings in costumes, or ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The meaning of the word ‘hero’ is easy to grasp; the process of creating an unforgettable hero is difficult.
Over the past 50 years, the cinema action hero has constantly shifted with the times; to one generation, the faces of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood might spring to mind. To another, the tank-like warriors of the 1980s. To still another, the stealthy, cunning and often internally conflicted heroes of the present.
The faces and situations change, but what we look for in our heroes remains largely unchanged; we want to see strengths we’d like for ourselves – the ability to fight, bravery, skill – but enough humanity to make them recognisable as one of us. Just as Achilles suffered from a single point of weakness, so the heroes of the present need some form of flaw that separates them from the blandly godlike.
The heroes of detective fiction are often raging alcoholics. War heroes are usually traumatised or wracked with guilt. Sometimes, those flaws aren’t really weaknesses at all, but ordinary human emotions we all experience – the archetype of the gunslinger who wanted nothing more than ‘the love of a good woman’ was a cliche of the classic western (John Wayne frequently played these kinds of heroes in his films), and still survives in the present – modern examples include Drive or Taken, which we’ll return to later.
These flaws and human traits serve a dual purpose, of course. They give otherwise virtuous heroes a relatable dimension, and also provide the villain of the piece something to exploit; attempt to compile a list of the number of movies in which the object of the hero’s affection (lover, daughter, sibling, household pet) is attacked, killed or threatened, and you’ll soon run out of ink.
The typical action movie isn’t widely respected for the quality of its writing or characterisation, yet it’s perhaps one of the most difficult genres to get right. Unless the writer involved is being particularly subversive, we generally know in advance that the hero will achieve their goal in the end; their loved one will be rescued, or the death of their household pet will be avenged.
It’s vital, then, that we become invested in the character, and care what happens to them. We may know in the back of our minds that victory will be theirs by the end credits, but that thought’s eclipsed by their unfolding crisis. It’s during this crisis – the bit where the villain’s taken over the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, or kidnapped Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter in Commando – that the hero’s vulnerability (or lack of it) comes to the fore.
Finding the correct balance between a protagonist who’s strong enough to convince as a true hero yet not entirely invulnerable is hard to achieve. When the balance is right, we end up with Die Hard – one of the finest action movies ever made. Bruce Willis’ character, John McClane, is the perfect mix of laconic tough guy and flesh-and-blood human being. This is partly down to the brilliance of Willis’ performance; his arrogance and hard-nosed heroism is undercut by his cynicism, world-weariness, and the evident devotion he has towards his wife. John McTiernan’s direction draws the character’s humanity out further; he’s not afraid to put his hero through hell, as he crawls though ducts in little more than trousers and a (colour changing) vest, or runs along broken glass with no shoes on.
The more outlandish McClane’s feats of strength become – his leap from a roof and through a window, for example – the harder McTiernan works to show his frailty. McClane is shown exhausted, pensive, frustrated and sore.
Now compare Die Hard with, say, Above The Law, which was released the same year. This marked the screen debut of Steven Seagal, who made the transition from aikido instructor to movie star in this film and those that followed. In Above The Law, Seagal plays a tough Chicago cop who also happens to be a martial arts expert.
In his action scenes, Seagal acquits himself perfectly well, adept as he is at getting in close to his enemies and snapping their limbs or breaking their noses. He’s tall, imposing, and engages everyone with a stern, unblinking stare and maybe a hushed word or two. The difficulty Seagal has – and I type this as an avid viewer of his movies – is that he finds it impossible to invest a sense of vulnerability to whatever tough guy he happens to play.
At no point in Above The Law, Hard To Kill, Out For Justice, or any of the other movies he’s taken the lead role in so far in his long action career, is there a hint that he can be defeated, or even injured. He may take the occasional punch, cut to the cheek, or maybe a bullet to the shoulder in the final act (good guys always get hit in the shoulder), but we know he’ll save the day in the end. This is the reason, I’d argue, why Seagal was never as big an action star as someone like Sylvester Stallone.
On the surface, Stallone’s movies aren’t very different from Seagal’s. In the increasingly violent Rambo films, Stallone plays a soldier who can take on an entire army and only come out the other side with a few scratches or the usual bullet in the shoulder. The difference, though, lies in Stallone’s performance. Watch any Stallone movie, and you’ll see broadly the same persona: a put-upon underdog who’s always forced into hopeless situations. Stallone may have the body of a Greek demi-god, but when we look into his eyes, we see vulnerability and a hint of sadness.
The best action movies are the ones who introduce characters like McClane or, to a lesser extent, Rambo. There’s a reason why Indiana Jones is perhaps the classic action hero in the traditional sense; there’s a hint of darkness to his character, but a huge amount of humanity, too. In Raiders Of The Ark, in particular, we see a hero whose adventures leave their scars – his exhausted sigh of, “It’s not the age honey, it’s the mileage” towards the end of the film isn’t just a memorable line, it’s a perfect summary of the character’s cynical worldview.
Invincible action heroes can, of course, be entertaining in themselves, as Seagal’s movies prove. Taken, for example, introduces Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent with a formidable set of skills he often likes to talk about on the telephone. At no point in that movie do we think that Mills will die in the course of the movie, yet the charisma Liam Neeson brings to the character makes its events compelling enough in any case. Mills is also the biggest physical presence in the film, and it’s satisfying to see how imposing and capable he is.
It could be argued, though, that the quite similar 2004 action movie Man On Fire packs a heftier dramatic punch. In that film, Denzel Washington plays another ex-CIA operative, not unlike Taken’s Bryan Mills. The difference, though, is that his character’s physical prowess is undercut by his traumatic past and alcoholism. At first distant and morose, he gradually finds salvation in Pita (Dakota Fanning) a young girl who he’s assigned to protect. Their friendship brings his humanity back to the surface, so when the girl’s kidnapped, his subsequent rampage (again, not unlike the one in Taken) packs an emotional punch.
Look at any truly classic action movie, and you’ll see a hint of human frailty in the lead character: Ripley in Aliens, the nameless protagonist of Drive, Kyle Reese in The Terminator, Bruce Wayne in the best Batman movies (whose trauma and barely suppressed rage are barely concealed by his mask). We can admire power and strength, but we can relate to vulnerability.
This, I’d argue, is the vital element in any action movie. Take away their settings and explosive set-pieces, and their stories are often broadly the same. There’s nothing wrong with having an invincible hero in an action movie, but it’s the flawed, vulnerable characters we’ll remember and cherish, long after the last bullet’s been fired.