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The Lost Action Hero
Strong, Stoic, Feared: Alas, Hollywood Doesn't Make 'Em Like It Used To

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Fifty years ago, the reigning American action hero was a onetime college football player with hands the size of ham hocks and the sweetness of a drill sergeant with a hernia. In his greatest role, he shot the eyes out of a dead Indian, scalped another, called his young mentee "Blankethead" and not only didn't get the gal, he didn't get a damned thing. He ended up exiled, alone, to wander between the winds. Our last shot of him shows the door of civilization slamming shut, and he's still on the outside.

That was, of course, John Wayne in John Ford's great "The Searchers" of 1956, and how long ago it seems. There's no one on the scene now who can stand next to the Big Guy, but at the same time, few would want to. Wayne was, in words not invented for him by D.H. Lawrence but so appropriate: "hard, isolate, stoic and a killer." That sort of tendency toward destruction has all but left the screen now, though it had a long run. As late at the '70s, Clint Eastwood could build a major career out of a stoic, lonely killer named Dirty Harry and become iconic for his willingness to shoot to kill.

He had something else as well, and it's the missing ingredient from today's movies: He knew it was all right to be hated. Hollywood historian David Thomson once called Wayne "the crown prince of difficult men." The stars of his generation knew that the price of heroism, of domination, of certitude, of command, was loneliness -- or possibly, since they were so disconnected from their emotions they'd never acknowledge such a thing -- aloneness.

Look at Gregory Peck in, say, "Twelve O'Clock High" or Clark Gable in "Command Decision," two movies of leadership agonistes set against the strategic bombing missions of World War II. In both cases -- you could add dozens more -- they were men who made decisions that cost other men their lives; they were hated, even loathed; they lived and drank alone. Their courage wasn't physical, it was almost metaphysical. They had the strength within themselves to ignore (though not really; underneath it cut bad) the will of the consensus and pleadings for such shady attributes as "compassion" and "humanity." They knew the job came first.

That certitude had vanished from many places, but nowhere more vividly than the top of the guy star pile in Hollywood.

Mel Gibson, who played an action hero, seems to have morphed into director, producer and madman, melting down in a pool of seething angers and resentments. Then there's Tom Cruise, recently dumped by Paramount for (1) personal oddnesses and (2) delivering a movie that may only make $400 million worldwide when everyone knew it should have made $500 million. Down but not out, each actor, you can bet, will hasten to a film highlighting redemption, earnestness, decency and love of fellow man. Don't bet on either guy's next movie to co-star a submachine gun. In short, they're no longer going to be John Ford heroes but Frank Capra heroes. Mel in "Mr. Goldstein Goes to Washington." Cruise in "Meet Tom Doe, Episcopalian Social Worker."

So who's left? Almost nobody. Eastwood is too old to kick you know what, Arnold is too Republican. Harrison Ford is ancient, Sylvester Stallone too kitschy as well as too old.

Let's look at a younger generation: Matt Damon? Folks, folks, I was only joking. Good God, Johnny Depp? Well, possibly his potential as an action hero was summed up when no less an important cultural figure than John Mark Karr revealed he had hoped Depp would play him in the movie. Ben Affleck? Too pretty, really. Leonardo DiCaprio? Again, I joke! Mark Wahlberg? Hmmm, we'll have to wait and see.

Where have all the action heroes gone? They certainly haven't gone to be soldiers; no, they've gone to be sensitive, not so much in the touchy-feely way, but in that way that strikes at their essence.

They no longer dominate.

That's really what the action hero had in spades, and, according to the script, it made other men fear, respect and obey him; and it made women fear, respect and obey him. (You'll note that love had nothing to do with it.)

In one sense, he was abusive. Look at "The Searchers" through a lens of modern revisionism and you see quite a bit of ugliness in Wayne's great Ethan Edwards. He was racist, he was a bully, a tyrant, the father a son could never impress. Quick to anger, slow to forgive, given to spasms of violence. Perhaps Ford's last best message to us was the ferocity by which, through Ethan Edwards, he de-idealized the hero. It was as if, like Wayne, he sailed into a mellower old age parodying and sweetening the rage that had made him so great, yet so distant, but not before he told us: These guys were great. And they were necessary. And they were heroic. But they were also mean sons o'guns, cruel and masterful and dominating, and if you got on their wrong side, they made you pay.

Today's stars need love. They don't want to be feared, they want to be hugged. They want to be told, "It's okay, big fella." They don't want to shoot anyone, if possible; they certainly won't beat a confession out of a suspect or verbally rip the head off a kid who's new to the unit and trying hard. Their anger is well managed. They never get even, they don't punish, they see the folly of vengeance, they inflict pain only on special occasions. (Last year's "Sin City" was one such occasion, where the point of the film was its removal from a moral spectrum, thus allowing its brutish heroes the freedom to torture, as each did.)

Only a few boys seem to have the man-junk that can get them through the heavy lifting of a hero's role. Chief among these, and currently barking orders and taking names in bijoux nationwide, is Samuel L. Jackson. He's in the one with the snakes. In fact, he is the one with the snakes, for without his anchoring presence in the lighter-than-air "Snakes on a Plane," the whole thing blows away like a broken kite. In the film, Jackson seems to have beamed in from the '50s. I think the Duke would approve. Jackson is discovered with a gun in his hand and if we don't get the point, his first action, before opening his mouth, is to pop three bad guys. The gun is never far from him throughout.

He doesn't talk, he growls. Great basso profundo. "If you want to live, stay by me." See, it's just not guns. It's also a kind of certitude, a kind of sublime, inbred sense of knowing what to do next.

Denzel Washington is almost always given nice rational roles where his handsomeness, debonair manner and brilliant dentition can dominate -- but when called upon, he can unleash a serious junkyard dog of rage. He was the bad dude in "Glory," remember, shaven-headed, ugly as a bullet, full of rage and ready to go off. In the long-forgotten "The Siege," he played an FBI team leader with exactly the right mix of Harvard Business School management smarts and some alley-style true grit, again of a sort that would have made John Wayne all to bust with pride.

Another guy with that talent and presence: George Clooney. He's got a film noir coming out called "The Good German," in which he's investigating huggermugger in postwar Germany, under the assured direction of Steven Soderbergh. In black-and-white, no less! Clooney has the presence and the strength it takes to play a man who doesn't mind being hated. His best performance came in David O. Russell's "Three Kings," where he played a disgruntled Green Beret officer in the Persian Gulf War who finds a shot at a fortune, presses it hard and ruthlessly, but then encounters that terror known as duty, and performs heroically. That's the kind of weight up top that's missing from so many movies these days.

But let's try and construct the perfect action guy by combining the best of old and new. We don't want too much subtext, because nobody wants a leader with issues. You just want pure grit, true-blue dedication, toughness but fairness, and you want him to convey the idea that he'll be the first man up the hill and the last man off it.

Let's give him John Wayne's eyes. That's how you entered the Duke. His weren't big, booming, expressive eyes, like some of our more womanly movie boys today, but narrow -- hooded, you would say. They were wary eyes. They were always crinkled from the sun bouncing off the desert or the arroyo wall or the A-camp watchtowers. They'd seen too much; they were quick to register anomalies or vibrations of discontent. They were also wise eyes -- they could crackle with fire at a young'un melting down under duress and they could beam ever so briefly with love.

Let's give him Clint Eastwood's dim little jot of a mouth. He didn't have a booming voice, probably his biggest flaw as an actor (he had to pretend to be all gravelly when he talked, else we'd notice how banal he was when he spoke), but his mouth was just a pucker of distaste. He kept it bunched up like a coin purse, the lips always dry from the desert air. It was the prime signifier of his disdain for what was going on. That stoical, grim, quiet mouth made two pronouncements: I am death, and do not mess with me. It was advice well heeded, but rarely did any heed it, else there would have been no movies.

For voice, let's go with Samuel L. Jackson. What an instrument: He can make you laugh or cry with it, feel his indignation or pain, or just plain scare the bejeepers out of you. In "Snakes," its authority carries him through all the movie's nonsense. There comes a time when it's the moment of retribution. Jackson has reached his tipping point. "I am sick," he says, "of all these [expletive] snakes." Hmmm, in his mouth the word [expletive] sounds like such poetry! And you believe him. (Minor spoiler alert.) Within moments, he has ordered the few survivors to bolt themselves to something, shot out the jet's windows and watched as the atmosphere itself purges the plane of the reptile phyla, to the cheers of audience and fliers alike. No other voice could have sustained such absurdity.

Intensity: This would have to be Mr. Cruise's contribution. Though far from a great actor, Cruise has the movie star ability to manifest one overwhelming attribute. In his case, it's a blazing intensity; his eyes become laser beams, his muscles tighten, his mouth becomes a vise clamped into absolute rectitude. Somehow, if you feel nothing else, you feel his total will. Let us hope in his new deal with Daniel Snyder, the two can come up with stories best served by this rare and impressive gift.

Jaw? This one has to come from Randolph Scott. Anyone remember him? Anyone else beside you Cary Grant fans? Well, Randolph Scott had the squarest jaw on the planet. It was carved from pure granite, and when set, it was as imposing as the Grand Tetons. Flipping to Turner Classic Movies recently yielded Randy in the classic revenge melodrama "Seven Men From Now," where he tracks down the boys who murdered his wife. His opposite number here is Lee Marvin, back when he played bad guys, which leads us to a real conundrum.

From whom do we take cool? Oh, this is a tough one. Lee Marvin was ultra-cool. Ever see him in "Point Blank"? What about "The Dirty Dozen"? With his untroubled demeanor and the sudden economy of action, nobody was cooler than Lee Marvin.

Except, maybe, Steve McQueen. Now he was cool. Icy blue eyes, blond hair but blond in a scruffy okay way, not a beach boy coif. He had a jazz-riff, white hipster's vibration going on that you can see a little of in Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, but nobody has ever been as cool as McQueen in "Bullitt" or "The Great Escape."

So for cool we declare two winners. Hey, it's my story, I'll make the rules.

And finally: grace.

The movies love it. A man has to move with confidence and sleekness when he walks, to be an action hero. He has to do everything with style and force and yet there can be nothing forced about it. You might think I'd go for John Wayne, because nobody, nobody , expressed more than John Wayne in the simple act of moving from here to there. But there was this other guy. Moved like a leopard. Had power to spare but a smoothness and precision in his body as if he'd been an acrobat or something. He blew everybody off the screen when he moved, and even when he didn't move and wore a suit -- I'm thinking of the great "Sweet Smell of Success" -- the poetry of his containment expressed enormous power. The camera loved him and a new generation would discover him. And guess what, he was an ex-acrobat: Burt Lancaster.

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