20 Great Action Heroes: Defending the indefensible (Part One)

Coffy action heroI have a problem: an inescapable attraction to a breed of cinema that would seem to run counter to my self-proclaimed status as a cinephile. The beginnings of this problem are easy enough to trace – liberal parents with a penchant for Friday night TV screenings of American movies loaded with endless depictions of entertaining brutality. Die Hard (1988). Aliens (1986). Death Wish (1974). Under Siege (1992). The good stuff.

Over time my tastes have developed and the demands I make of cinema have changed. But it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I ever really outgrew my earlier passion for the raw visceral impact of hardcore action cinema. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it were simply about qualitative evaluation – I can comfortably make an argument that many great action films are formally impressive, and should be appreciated within their own generic context. My issue has always resided with the politics of these films, many of which have always seemed so outrageously fascistic that I don’t know exactly how to best approach them. On the other hand, action heroes are so infrequently viewed without irony these days that I’ve found myself wondering whether or not this is something that should concern me less than it does.

Some recent research into Clint Eastwood has led me to this train of thought, most particularly my attempts to fully explore Eastwood’s final Western, Unforgiven (1992) in all its ideological complexity. Eastwood himself has made it clear that this film is some kind of a meditation on his own status as an icon of American masculinity and a deconstruction of ideas of violence within the myth of the west. But he’s also made it clear that the film is not an apology – he is not ashamed of his cinematic legacy, only striving to move beyond it. And so, I think I’ll take a leaf out of the Eastwood book and – without apology – look at my own fascination with action cinema and the iconic figures that populate it. Without further ado, here in no particular order, are 20 action heroes that have long fascinated me (even if some of them horrify me at the same time). Stay tuned for another twenty in the coming days.

1.Arnold Schwarzenegger

Why not start with the obvious? Depending on the audience, Schwarzenegger is celebrated as an iconic representative of the American Dream; an appalling performer who found inexplicable success within the basest of genres; or simply as the definitive American action hero of the eighties and nineties. For my part, I grew up watching the movies of ‘Uncle Arnie’ (as my father called him), and subsequently have a strong bias towards the latter. But I still think that I can say, with at least a modicum of objectivity, that Schwarzenegger’s collaborations with John Milius, Paul Verhoeven, John McTiernan (ignoring Last Action Hero) and James Cameron have resulted in one of the more diverse and impressive action movie resumes of his generation. For me, Predator (1987) is still the film that distills the Schwarzenegger experience down to its purest form.

2. Sigourney Weaver

Weaver has had a diverse career and proven herself as an actress on countless occasions, but her addition to this list is, perhaps obviously, entirely to do with her role as Ripley in the four Alien films. It had never occurred to me as a child that these movies represented some kind of progressive (if problematic) step in the representation of women within mainstream Hollywood, but that’s certainly something that she can hang her hat on. Of course, whenever this series come up in conversation, the same debate continues to arise that has been going on for almost three decades – Alien (1979) or Aliens (1986)? I’m willing to wrap this one up, once and for all. Aliens.

3. Bruce Lee

A genuine athlete whose rhythmic energy introduced an entirely new syntax to the martial arts genre, and a man with a truly charismatic screen presence – Bruce Lee is an obvious addition to this list. Enter the Dragon (1973) may represent his most cohesive project, but anybody who has seen this surviving 39 minutes of unbastardised martial arts footage he shot for Game of Death (1978) will know that it would have been a truly incredible piece of cinema, were it not for his untimely death. Too bad about the exploitative mess that they cobbled together in its place.

4. Bruce Willis

Another Bruce – this time the one best known for (amongst other things) his iconic role as John McClane in the Die Hard movie series. Sure, they might be getting worse each time he decides to take the franchise for another spin, but nothing can take away from the sheer perfection of John McTiernan’s original action masterpiece. Yeah, that’s right – masterpiece. If Schwarzenegger represented a kind of impenetrable masculinity in the nineties, incapable of suffering, Willis’ role was almost the inversion of this. His job was to take a beating for two hours and still stand up at the end of it. Admirable? Maybe. Entertaining? Absolutely.

5. Rajini Kanth

You may not have heard of this guy, but he is one of the most popular Indian actors of all time – which based on sheer numbers makes him one of the most popular actors on earth. In some quarters, this South Indian celebrity is literally worshipped, with temples erected in his name. But what does he do? Imagine a fusion of Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan and Charlie Chaplin. Best just to watch the clip…

6. Sylvester Stallone

It’s very popular to bash Stallone these days, and there are some very good reasons to do so – but I can’t help but admit to having a soft spot for the Italian Stallion. Putting aside the occasionally impressive performances he’s delivered over the years (Copland comes to mind), this is a man who really has managed to battle on long after his use by date. The Expendables series may well be a disgrace, but I’m willing to stand up and declare that the Stallone directed Rocky Balboa (2006) is a surprisingly powerful (sixth) entry in the Rocky series. In fact, I’d be inclined to consider it the second best film in the series. Oh, and Rambo (2008), the fourth entry in the John Rambo series, is an abominably backwards piece of cinema, but there is no denying its visceral impact.

7. Rachel Ticotin

Rachel Ticotin really should be a household name. Her solid performances in films like Total Recall, Falling Down and Con Air are certainly worthy of more attention than they received, but in each case she was expected to play second-fiddle to the film’s respective leads. Remember the name – Rachel Ticotin.

8. Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune, one of the great Japanese actors of his generation, has delivered a diverse array of performances, but for most of us it is his work with Kurosawa for which we know him best. For me, his most striking contribution is his role as ‘The Samurai’ in Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), a lackadaisical ‘hired gun’, who has always got his lazy eye on the bigger picture.

9. Chuck Norris

What to do with one of the most iconic action heroes of all time, when even a brief glance at their resume reveals that this reputation is almost entirely unearned? From the cheap Rambo knock-off, Missing in Action (1984), to the banal competency of The Delta Force (1986), Norris’ primary contribution is an ironic one. As such, his greatest moment is probably the above, a small but significant role as the hairy-chested henchman in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon (1972).

10. Linda Hamilton

Linda Hamilton can comfortably take a seat at this table, almost solely off the back of her role as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) . Sure, she was in the first film, but it wasn’t until the second that her character went from being a typical damsel in distress to a combat-ready survivalist, ready to take on the apocalypse.

11. Tony Jaa

One of the most impressive martial artists working in film today, Thai kick-boxer Tony Jaa has yet to find a project that can successfully tie his skillset to a convincing narrative. But for anybody remotely interested in this sort of thing, Ong-Bak (2003) is the closest he’s gotten so far. Impressive stuff, free of CGI and wires.

12. Clint Eastwood

Ever since Eastwood appeared in the Don Siegel directed classic, Dirty Harry (1971), he has been held up by many as the archetypal symbol of fascistic action cinema. On the other hand, many have seen in his oeuvre an increasingly sophisticated examination and deconstruction of his own cultural position as a representative of American masculinity. I tend to fall in the latter category. Either way, Eastwood is a significant director whose career has left an indelible mark on contemporary culture – from the Western to the war film. But personally, I’ve always been most fond of the first Western Eastwood ever directed, High Plains Drifter (1973). Within its text lies the operatic amoral nature of the Spaghetti Western, the revisionist method that Eastwood would later perfect, and a great deal of genre history. When this film was released, John Wayne contacted Eastwood to inform him that it was an insult to the genre and the history it represented. What Wayne didn’t understand was that Eastwood and Leone had long since relocated the Western from its roots in the myth of American history to a nightmarish myth of masculinity itself.

13. Charles Bronson

If Eastwood was initially proposed to be a representative of fascistic cinema, Bronson would ultimately rip that title from his fingers with his appearance in the five, increasingly grotesque, Death Wish movies. In each film, Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a deeply disturbed man with the bad habit of establishing a family, watching them all get murdered, then taking revenge. Frankly, the biggest plot hole in these films is the fact that Kersey hasn’t had a nervous breakdown many times over. It is the first film, however, in which the series’ politics are developed. Kersey is a simple man who believes in human rights and gun control. When his whole family is murdered, his politics… change. Incredibly watchable and reprehensible stuff.  Of course, Bronson is a prolific actor who has contributed greatly to cinema – but in this list he’s the Death Wish guy.

14. Jet Li

One of the finest martial artists to ever grace the screen, Jet Li is a true artist. But in my modest opinion, his two most interesting films are historical films of sorts, their narratives bound together by the relationship between each film’s respective protagonist – Fearless (2006) and Fist of Legend (1994).

15. Mel Gibson

Understandably, Mel Gibson’s name is a dirty word these days. It’s easy to forget that this is the man who starred in the Mad Max trilogy and the Lethal Weapon series before becoming obsessed with films more about self-flagellation than anything else. Stoicism and strong comedic delivery made him something special for a time – until it became clear that the mental fragility of his ‘Martin Riggs’ character was more than just an act.

16. John Wayne

A Western icon who took the genre from its earliest sound beginnings through to the 1970s, John Wayne’s place in film history is more than assured. Along with his regular directorial partner, John Ford, Wayne represented the pulse of the genre – and the nation – throughout this period. From early performances in relatively optimistic films like Stagecoach (1939); to the skeptical The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); to the downright scathing The Searchers (1956), Wayne always delivered. But for a young cinephile who came in long after this great had already hung up his hat, The Shootist (1976), his final role, was probably the Duke’s finest hour.

17. Uma Thurman

Uma Thurman’s addition is entirely the result of her exceptional performance as ‘The Bride’ in the audaciously entertaining Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003) and Kill Bill Vol.2 (2004). Carrying on the (possibly problematic) tradition of the action heroine as maternal killing machine, Thurman delivers on all counts in this highly physical role, oscillating between moments of raw suffering, cold-steel and comic brilliance. I’ve seen this more than a few times on a lazy Friday evening.

18. Jean-Claude Van Damme

Perhaps more than anybody else on this list, Van Damme’s success in the world of action cinema seems largely to be the result of ironic appreciation rather than genuine respect. Stilted dialogue and punch lines that fall flat have always been his trademark, and recently these have been interspersed with poorly shot and edited action sequences that tend to undermine rather than accentuate his considerable martial arts abilities. But when the guy breaks down in JCVD (2008), lamenting his own personal fall from grace, I couldn’t help but go back and watch Bloodsport (1988) with newfound respect.

19. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen is a problematic figure, a troubled human being with a long history of domestic violence and substance abuse, so it is no surprise that discussing his work has become fairly unfashionable. But, of course, there is no denying the significant role he played in action cinema during the 1960s. Films like Bullitt (1968), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Great Escape (1963) would have been very different productions without his dominant presence.

20. Pam Grier

Long before appearing in Jackie Brown (1997), Pam Grier was one of the leading stars of the Blaxploitation films coming out during the 1970s. Grier spent much of this decade beating the life out of drug dealers and other assorted scum bags in classics like Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and ‘Sheba, Baby’ (1975). These movies weren’t sleek or shiny, but they were a lot of fun.

I’m just getting started. Stay tuned for another twenty action hero greats in the coming days.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

18 thoughts on “20 Great Action Heroes: Defending the indefensible (Part One)

  1. Pingback: 20 Great Action Movie Heroes: Defending the Indefensible (Part Two) - CURNBLOG

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  3. James, i want to comment on this, but first, since you mentioned a hesitancy among writers to take on Steve McQueen, here is a link to a two part piece i did on him when a retrospective tribute was given him by the Seattle Art Museum.

    http://seattlepostglobe.org/2010/01/04/king-of-cool-the-films-of-steve-mcqueen-at-the-seattle-art-museum-part-one/

    http://seattlepostglobe.org/2010/02/07/steve-mcqueen-film-retrospective-continues-at-sam-with-five-more-big-ones/

    Re: Mel Gibson. Being Australian,you probably have heard this story but I’ll repeat it for the benefit of those that havent. On his way to audition for madmax, he was reportedly beat up and his roughed-up appearance so impressed the director him that he cast him on the spot. had this not occurred, i doubt whether pretty boy Mel would have been offered the part.

      • Rereading your piece and giving it more thought, it struck me as significant that half of your twenty action heroes are well-entrenched as non-genre actors in addition to their work in action pictures. Not surprisingly, they are the ones that i favor.

        • A good point. Looking over my notes, it’s likely there will be a similar breakdown in the next piece. It’s probably a result of my attempting to get together a good mix of people from both genders; a diverse range of nations; and from quality and trashy cinema.

  4. A list of awesomeness.

    If we put could build fantasy film casts the way people build fantasy footballs team, I personally would want Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver, Steve McQueen and Toshiro Mifune all on my film (a good version of Starship Troopers? A film version of Game of Thrones? Gotta think about this).

    Damn good post.

  5. Glad to see Mifune in there James, and also the mention of Rachel Ticotin, sadly neglected as a rule. I didn’t come late to John Wayne, but agree that ‘The Shootist’ is undoubtedly his most complete performance. Not so sure about that Indian guy though…
    Looking forward to the next batch. Best wishes, Pete
    (PS, you ‘liked’ your own post- good move!)

  6. Wow, James. So many figures, both iconic and obscure. No need to offer apologies for liking any genre as far as I’m concerned. A few quick thoughts:

    1. I think the key figure in Unforgiven is Saul Rubinek’s “journalist.” Preening and smarmy when standing next to a potent man, I think Eastwood holds W.W. Beauchamp in extreme contempt.

    2. After seeing Sigourney Weaver’s name on another recent list of con artists (for Heartbreakers), I’m reassessing her position. She might be among the more groundbreaking of American actresses over the last 25 years.

    3. Schwarzenegger and Willis, as befits their solid a Republican credentials, seem to me to have an excellent knack for selecting material that fits their range and has commercial appear.

    4. Maternal Killing Machine would make an excellent name for a metal band.

    Eagerly awaiting the rest of your list.

  7. A brilliant list from a brilliant writer and thinker, James–but we shouldn’t expect any less from you. 😀 Might I add that if we’re including (and rightly so) Mifune on this list, should we also include Tatsuya Nakadai, who played the main adversary in both Yojimbo and Sanjuro, as well as the “protagonist” in the violent Sword of Doom, which CURNBLOG’s main pictorial motif takes inspiration from? I think a lot of people forget about Nakadai in comparison with Mifune, but he was a great actor and provided lots of derring-do in many great chambara and jidai-geki films. Just wondering. Fabulous list, James–looking forward to seeing more. 🙂

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