The Expendables and the ageing action hero

Today’s action stars live fast, die hard and collect their pensions, says Andrew Collins

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The combined age of the seven biggest stars in action franchise The Expendables – Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis – is 459. That’s an average age of 65.5, with Norris the granddaddy at 74. But as Ford, playing Indiana Jones, says: “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”

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Whippersnappers Jet Li, 51, and Jason Statham, 47, help to bring the average down, but the overall message of this $790 million brand is clear: older male action heroes in 21st-century Hollywood are definitely neither shy nor retiring.

It was Danny Glover, as LA cop Roger Murtaugh, in 1987’s Lethal Weapon, who famously uttered those arthritic words, “I’m too old for this s***.” It’s a recurring theme across the hit series, with the senior detective telling his younger partner, Mel Gibson (a future Expendable himself): “You can’t beat the clock, Riggs.” The killing joke is that in the first film, Murtaugh has only just celebrated his 50th birthday.

How times have changed since the late 80s, when your youth still constituted the best years of your life. In that ageist age, 50 was clearly not yet the new 40, never mind the new 30. (Incidentally, Glover was only 40 when he made the first Lethal Weapon, and Gibson a sprightly 30.) Another action-packed franchise that started life in the 80s is Die Hard (Thursday Sky Christmas), in which Bruce Willis plays NYPD cop John McClane, who defies a similar weariness to save the day.

In his early 30s when he made the first film, he’d turned 40 when he made what was intended as the last, Die Hard with a Vengeance (Sunday Watch). But box office is the ultimate antiageing cream in Hollywood, and in 2007, Willis was back in Die Hard 4.0, aged 52.0. It turns out you can beat the clock, Riggs.

While it’s long been a sexist studio truism that the decent lead roles dry up for actresses the moment they turn 40, male stars have always had a smoother transition to bosses, captains and dads. But action hero was once essentially a younger man’s game, and it’s been a fascinating development to see 1980s and 1990s beefcake go anything but stale.

John McClane may now always be partnered up with a younger model – Justin Long in Die Hard 4.0, Jai Courtney in part five A Good Day to Die Hard – but it would once have been unthinkable that an actor pushing 60 would be saving the day in a major blockbusting thriller. Gary Cooper was 51 when he played the retiring marshal in High Noon; Bogart 52 as the grizzled boatman in The African Queen. (Charles Bronson bucked this trend, starring in Death Wish in his 50s and Death Wish V in 1994, aged 73.)

Times have changed, and for the better. I grew up with Logan’s Run, in which citizens were vaporised at 30, but the future has turned out quite differently. Life expectancy is going up, we’re enjoying longer retirements in better health, hip replacements are increasing and Liam Neeson is having more fun with guns in his 60s than he ever did in his 40s, thanks to action hits like Taken, Unknown and Non-Stop.

The Expendables, developed from an existing script by Stallone himself and directed by him for prolific Israeli action producer Avi Lerner, quickly proved the less restful equivalent of a rest home for elderly actors, packing in audiences keen to see John Rambo, the Terminator, John McClane and Ivan Drago (Rocky’s Russian foe in Rocky IV) defeat Somali pirates, a Mexican dictator and a profiteering ex-CIA man with maximum firepower and many years’ experience. In the sequel, with added Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they’re in Albania after five tons of plutonium, and in this year’s Expendables 3 (welcome, Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammer and Wesley Snipes), it’s a pensioners outing to Romania to bring an arms dealer to the Hague for war crimes.

Lerner has announced plans for an all-female spin-off, The ExpandaBelles (ouch), and is after Meryl Streep, 65 to star. She would be treading in the shoes of Helen Mirren, 69, who starred with Willis and septuagenarian Morgan Freeman in graphic novel adaptation Red (an acronym for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”). Earning $186 million, Red 2 was green-lit, and Anthony Hopkins, 76, came aboard. 

It’s all a far cry from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Song for Marion – which have their own, more sedate merits, of course. But who would deny this sprightlier and young-at-heart grandparent generation a lungful, not of oxygen but of high octane?

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The Expendables and the Expendables 2 are on Channel 5 tonight and tomorrow respectively, at 9.00pm