The things action movie heroes get up to on their days off

What do the film characters of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Stallone, Norris et al get up to in the non-action bit of an action movie? Er...

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When asked what he did between acting jobs, Robert Duvall once said, “Hobbies, hobbies and more hobbies.” This is fair enough because, to quote James Bond, “everybody needs a hobby.” Bond himself has all kinds of things to do in his spare time: playing Baccarat and Poker, talking to exotic ladies and drinking Martinis. For all we know, Bond might also be into origami and bell ringing.

The question is, what do other action heroes get up to when they’re not shooting bad guys, blowing up trucks or rescuing their daughters from Val Verde? In most movies, we never find out. But in very, very rare instances, we do get to see what the toughest men of action do on their rare days away from the theatre of war. Things like these…

Arnold Schwarzenegger – Commando (1985)

Retired US army colonel John Matrix (Arnie, of course) may be a battle-hardened warrior, but he has a softer, cuddlier side, too. In the seminal 1985 anti-war drama Commando, we see what domestic bliss looks like to a walking gun cabinet like Matrix: he lives in a large wood-built house in the middle of nowhere, and likes to relax by carrying a 20-foot tree trunk around its rambling grounds. 

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You might be asking yourself why Matrix would be cutting up fire wood in what appears to be the middle of summer, but one shot reveals why: his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano) likes to have all the open fires blazing even when it’s sweltering outside. If you look closely, you can see the smoke billowing from the chimneys: 

Not that Matrix minds. When he’s finished deforesting his back garden, Matrix takes Jenny for an ice-cream, then forces her to work off the calories by doing some martial arts training. 

Then they go fishing, before Matrix makes an off-colour joke about 80s pop sensation Boy George (“Why don’t they just call him Girl George? It would cut down on the confusion”, he quips, awkwardly). 

By the time we see Matrix and Jenny feeding a deer together, we almost start to wonder whether what we’re watching isn’t really an action hero’s day off at all, but an early promo video for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Governor of California campaign. 

But maybe that’s us being cynical. The important thing to note is that, like just about everyone else in this article, Matrix likes to do tough, outdoorsy-type things: chopping down trees, carrying chainsaws and logs one-handed, and so forth. At no point do we see him fluffing cushions or Hoovering the dog or watching Homes Under The Hammer. Which of course we never do ourselves, either.

Sylvester Stallone – Rambo 3 (1988)

Following the unfeasibly bloodthirsty events of First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II, former Vietnam vet John Rambo’s understandably had more than his fill of war. Now living a quiet life in Thailand, he spends much of his time helping monks do up their ailing monastery. 

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But while Rambo’s turned his back on machine guns and hand grenades, he can’t quite resist the allure of sweaty one-on-one action, so when he’s not playing handyman at the local monastery, he’s engaging in illegal fights in a dingy warehouse. 

This allows Rambo to do what he does best: tie a sweatband round his head, strip to the waist and oil himself up for a spot of bone-crunching combat. It also allows Rambo’s old mentor and Vietnam war buddy Colonel Trautman (played with brilliant self-importance by Richard Crenna) to utter the single finest line in the entire film: “Yesterday I saw you stick fighting in a warehouse in Bangkok.” Poetry.

Like John Matrix, John Rambo reminds us through his hobbies that he’s both a warrior and a gentle soul at heart. Rambo may be a master of topless stick fighting, but he’s also sensitive enough to enjoy repairing far-eastern religious buildings. 

Sure, Rambo later shoots, blows up, tears his enemies limb from limb and then bathes, cackling in their blood (possibly – we might have made that last bit up) but he’s not a complete monster. Would a monster be friends with monks, live in seclusion yet still care enough about his appearance to perm his own hair? We think not.

Sylvester Stallone (again) – Rambo (2008)

After using his murderous abilities to help out the Taliban in Rambo III (a move we’re sure he doesn’t regret for one moment), John headed back to Thailand and laid low for 20 years. If you’ve been wondering what hobbies Rambo got up to in the two decades between adventures, this film provides the answer: he made a living from giving people rides in his boat: 

 …and catching wild serpents for a local snake show: 

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Again, these aren’t the kinds of hobbies ordinary mortals commonly indulge in, because action stars of the 80s like Arnie and Sly weren’t so much human beings as Greek gods in war paint.

Fear not, though: Rambo is still in touch with the artistic side he displayed in Rambo III. But where most people might take up a bit of Sunday painting or gardening, Rambo likes to sullenly sharpen huge knives in his workshop. 

Rambo’s unique skill set comes in handy when he reluctantly agrees to ferry a group of naive missionaries across the border into Burma. There, he ends up in another righteous battle, this time against an army of evil village raiders. This, we’re guessing, is only slightly more dangerous than picking up Cobras and shoving them in a bag for a living.

Chuck Norris – Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)

A chap with a name like JJ McQuade isn’t likely to be into badminton and pigeon fancying, especially when he’s played by bearded, side-kicking Übercowboy Chuck Norris. When McQuade, a Marine turned Texas Ranger, isn’t shooting Mexican bandits and getting into tussles with evil arms dealers, he enjoys relaxing in his caravan park with his pet wolf.

In McQuade’s case, ‘relaxing’ involves taking his shirt off and discharging firearms in the afternoon sun. 

When the appeal of that starts to wane, he pulls out a shotgun. McQuade’s neighbours in the next caravan are, presumably, quaking behind their marigold curtains by this point. 

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As if this entire extended sequence wasn’t awkward enough – a bit like the scene in Jackie Brown where Robert De Niro and Samuel L Jackson watch women in bikinis firing machine guns on television – we quickly realise that McQuade’s being spied on by fellow trooper, Ramos, who’s clearly enjoying the display. 

“Holy shit,” Ramos says when McQuade unleashes his shotgun. Like us, Ramos is probably wondering how much McQuade spends per week on bullets.

Just as Matrix and Rambo enjoy fishing or renovating old monasteries, McQuade also has a soulful, sensitive side. As if to prove McQuade’s not all gun oil and cordite, director Steve Carver is also careful to show us what the hero’s idea of romance looks like: 

Yes, McQuade enjoys having his love interest (Barbara Carrera) hose him down in his back yard. And because he’s McQuade, he also can’t resist wrestling the poor woman to the ground and giving her a proper, manly kiss. “My God that beard chafes,” Barbara’s probably thinking. 

Really, though, guns are McQuade’s first love. Even when he’s beaten up and shot fairly badly , he still can’t resist engaging in a bout of target practice. 

And when his ailments mean he can’t quite aim as well as he’d like, he relieves his frustration by kicking over his own shed. 

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“John Rambo?” McQuade asks, in the phone conversation that exists only in our minds. “Do you still have that hammer and set of chisels? I have a shed next to my caravan that needs fixing up…”

Jean-Claude Van Damme – Double Impact (1991)

So far, we’ve seen plenty of muscles, testosterone, sweat and ruined outbuildings. The only thing missing is a picture of Jean-Claude Van Damme in spandex.

Ah, that’s much better. In a contrast to the other heroes we’ve seen so far in this article, Van Damme’s hero Chad Wagner isn’t particularly interested in cutting down trees, stuffing cobras in bags or discharging shotguns in Texan caravan parks. Instead, Wagner likes to slip into his gym kit and give small groups of ladies flamboyant demonstrations of his physical prowess.

Few action stars could get away with casting themselves as pastel-coloured aerobics instructors, but Jean-Claude somehow manages it. His aerobics class clearly appreciates the display, even if we do wonder what the benefits are from sitting on the floor and watching a man performing the splits.

As a bonus, we’d also like to share an excerpt from the 1993 action drama Nowhere To Run with you. This film finds Van Damme’s way with the ladies at a slightly lower ebb, particularly in a scene where his character(escaped convict Sam Gillen) is shown sitting in a tent reading what we sometimes call in the UK a “jazz mag”. 

When his private reading session’s interrupted by a small boy, he threatens him with a pistol. 

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What does this have to do with the topic of this article? Not much really, we just found it childishly amusing.

Steven Seagal – Driven To Kill (2009)

In his lengthy screen career, which stretches back to 1991, Steven Seagal has most commonly played hard-hitting cops with a maverick sensibility, or lone ex-soldiers who play by their own rules. Seagal stretched himself a little bit by playing a ship’s cook in Under Siege, before it emerged that he was, like most of his other characters, an ex-special forces type who could break all your fingers as well as cook a decent Duck confit.

In the 2009 direct-to-video action epic Driven To Kill, Seagal really changed things up by playing Ruslan Drachev, a former Russian diplomat-turned novelist, who writes hard-boiled detective yarns under the pseudonym Jim Vincent. In an early scene a detective (Ingrid Torrance) reads Seagal an excerpt from his latest masterpiece, called Hades Half Acre:

“Frankie Jade trembled, his palm wavering across those last milkshake cups, thinking of that hidden spike. It was if it wasn’t just chance at play but cruel fate. His friend’s voice goaded him from across the table, ‘You wanna be a tough guy?'” 

It’s weird to think of Steven Seagal, hunched over a typewriter and licking his lips as he types out his latest pulp thriller, but it’s certainly a change of pace from being an action hero, and a good way of putting all those life experiences – breaking fingers, snapping necks on besieged navy vessels – to positive use.

Naturally enough, though, Seagal’s character is no ordinary novel writer. Rather than attend literary festivals and drink sparkling wine with Hilary Mantel, Drachev sits in diners and thrilling his fans with his party trick: smashing his hand down on a paper cup which may or may not have a spike sitting under it – a cross between Three-card Monte and Russian roulette, if you will.

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“The trick,” Seagal says, “is not to give a fuck.”It’s not exactly Lawrence Of Arabia, but it’s close:

Okay, so Drachev’s one-liners might not be quite what you’d expect from a best-selling Russian wordsmith, but would you see Tolstoy or Dostoevsky respond to a barroom insult by shoving a pint glass into a man’s face? Of course you wouldn’t. They’re dead.

Fun fact: all the fight scenes in Driven To Kill play out to the same jaunty accordion music you just heard in the clip above. It’s probably the music that drives an otherwise placid pulp fiction writer to kill with such vehemence, now we think about it.

Dolph Lundgren – The Mechanik (2005)

Ever since he leapt to fame as the imposing boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky V, Dolph Lundgren has appeared repeatedly as the kind of Russian man-mountain who looks as though he was assembled in a laboratory. 2005’s The Mechanik could easily be a belated sequel to the 1989 action banquet Red Scorpion, since Lundgren once again plays an ex-Russian special forces chap, except this time his name’s Cherenko instead of Radchenko.

In fact, if you wanted to create some sort of uniting theory surrounding Dolph Lundgren’s action film canon, you could also include the 1998 apocalyptic horror, The Minion, in which Lundgren played an ex-Russian special forces chap who’d left his motherland to become a priest. But because we’re talking about a priest played by Dolph Lundgren, he wore a skin-tight cassock and punched demons in the face with an enchanted metal gauntlet. 

But we digress. In The Mechanik, Lundgren has left both Speznas and the clergy behind to become a mechanic in a small Russian town. Although he isn’t the tidiest mechanic you’ll ever meet – he has a tendency to get oil and grease all over his clothes and his jaunty little hat – he’s liked by the locals and always finds time to stop and enjoy a beer or two. 

Then some bad guys kill his wife and child, and before you know it, Dolph’s cast his overalls aside, smeared grease on both cheeks and let rip with a machine gun. 

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The story then moves forward in time a couple of years, and on to Los Angeles, where Dolph’s moved because his tendency to shoot people has put his previous garage out of business. The garage he works for in the US is larger and far tidier, plus they even let Dolph wear his own, close-fitting pair of overalls with the sleeves removed. 

When we catch up with Dolph again, he’s just finished checking the brake calipers on a Vauxhall Vectra (or something) when a wealthy woman turns up at the garage with a rescue mission. Dolph therefore offers a range of services you won’t find anywhere else in action cinema: he’ll check your handbrake tension and wheel alignment, and then afterwards, rescue your daughter from a gang of sex traffickers in St Petersberg. 

An Expendables epilogue

We’ll conclude this article with the following thought. If you had the cast of the Expendables franchise around your house, you could hire them to collectively fight a fascist dictatorship in a far off land (something we’ve dreamed of doing since August 2010). Alternatively, you could get them to do all kinds of other useful things, if they’re willing: Arnold could chop some logs up for your wood burner. Dolph could do an oil and filter change on your Ford Anglia. Stallone could get his ball-peen hammer out and repair your guttering, while Jean-Claude could give you a quick aerobics class in the comfort of your own living room.

Meanwhile, Chuck Norris is out in the back garden, alternately hosing himself down, firing his shotgun and kicking in your potting shed. Effin’ Chuck Norris.

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