Today’s stars keep themselves in better shape than ever before, and audiences seem to like that. In fact, box office receipts for recent flicks featuring some of our favorite aging action heroes are so encouraging that studio execs are practically rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the new Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Sylvester Stallone (Rambo) vehicles. Stallone certainly didn’t hurt himself when his more famous screen persona—Rocky Balboa—earned critical acclaim and a respectable $70 million in last year’s titular blockbuster, chasing doubts that the actor-director was simply giving himself a starring role in order to slow a career slide.
Likewise, last year’s Live Free or Die Hard, starring 50-something Bruce Willis, raked in $134 million, and the oft-delayed Rush Hour 3 earned nearly $140 million despite its own 50-something star, Jackie Chan.
Patricia King Hanson, a film historian and executive editor of the AFI catalog, says audiences must suspend their disbelief “an awful lot” to buy someone like Ford saving the day at this stage in his life. But Ford has a helpful precedent in the Indiana Jones series; Sean Connery was in his late fifties when he starred as the senior Jones in the franchise’s last feature, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in 1989.
Ford also has an advantage yesterday’s stars didn’t have: Access to the best physical trainers his wallet can afford. If an actor took off his shirt during a movie made in the 1940s, the audience stood a better chance of seeing a spare tire than a six-pack. “John Wayne in his prime was in great shape, but he didn’t have the sculpted, muscular look,” says Hanson.
Stallone looked more fit than about 99 percent of the U.S. population in Rocky Balboa, with a physique that hearkened back to his glory days. Yet Stallone didn’t hide his or his character’s age in the film, all but flashing the Italian Stallion’s AARP card to get us to root for his character all the more. In Live Free or Die Hard, Willis’ John McClane is called “an analog watch in a digital age.”
But is it wise for aging stars to bring up a potentially sore subject?
Hanson predicts both Rambo and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will make some concessions to the aging process. “It’s one thing to act like a really fit 50-year-old and another to be a fit 50-year-old who acts like he’s 30,” she says.
Clint Eastwood’s 2000 film Space Cowboys wrung laughs out of the cast’s advanced years. “They weren’t trying to act like they were young. The joke was they were geezers,” says Hanson. So she wouldn’t be surprised to hear a saw like “I’m too old for this stuff” come out of Indiana Jones’ mouth this spring. “America can be in on the joke,” she says.
Screenwriter Jack Epps, Jr. (Top Gun, Legal Eagles), associate professor and chair of the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts’ Writing Division, isn’t so sure that approach will work. “As a writer, I would stay away from drawing attention to age,” states Epps. “It’s all about illusion and creating a new reality.”
The Indiana Jones character itself, Epps says, may help Ford’s mission to bring the franchise into the 21st century. On-screen, “Harrison Ford really felt like one of us, as opposed to someone on the edge of super powers,” observes Epps. Credit the actor for some of that perception. Recall Ford getting slugged a few times in Blade Runner or any previous Indiana Jones installment and you’ll know what Epps means. Few stars grimace with gravitas like Ford.
“Indiana Jones wasn’t infallible; he bled a lot. If he’s older, he’ll have more bruises,” he notes.
As unfair as it may be to bring it up, it’s hardly news that Hollywood is kinder to aging men than women, Epps says. “A male star can play much deeper into his career. Actresses have a much shorter life span.”
Dolph Lundgren can commiserate with his Rocky IV co-star about life as an older action hero. Lundgren’s role in the Rocky franchise started a 22-year film career in which he used his hulking size to break heads on-screen.
Now 50, Lundgren recently wrote and directed Missionary Man, a modern Western in the spirit of Shane. He says older action stars may not do as many crazy stunts as their younger peers, but creatively they can add a depth to their performances that neophyte Rambos can’t.
That’s important, he says, since today’s action fans demand more complex storylines than what passed for plots in the 1980s. Lundgren still works out every day, whether he’s prepping for a new film or not, but he understands that no amount of pushups can bring back his youth.
“As you get older, you have to change a little bit physically. You can’t be as crazy,” Lundgren says, who adds he does just as many of his own stunts today, if not more, than he did in his heyday.
As for Stallone, Lundgren thinks the new Rambo will click with fans based on its hyper-violent trailer. “That will set it apart,” he says.
Age certainly plays a part in the marketing of these projects. Look at Ford, who hasn’t had a box office hit since 2000’s What Lies Beneath and looked bored in busts like 2003’s Hollywood Homicide and 2006’s Firewall. Visit IndianaJones.com, the official Website for the upcoming flick, and you’ll instantly see an image of Jones’ whip and iconic hat—but no Ford. The poster for the forthcoming Rambo shows Stallone from the back, highlighting his muscular frame, not his aged face.
Brandon Gray, president and publisher of Box Office Mojo, says the strengths of the respective franchises mean much more than any crow’s feet or gray hair.
The Rambo series only had one blockbuster—Rambo: First Blood Part II—while all three Indiana Jones films hit the commercial mark.
Gray dismisses the age factor, assuming the films offer a tasty blend of storytelling and action. “I don’t think the audience cares that much, as long as it’s believable,” he says, but later adds, “and the actors don’t look too haggard.” Besides, today’s adult audiences grew up watching Stallone, Willis and Ford in action movies, whereas an older actor who hasn’t broken a few bones on-screen might be difficult to swallow. That track record “keeps this from being a major issue in audiences’ minds,” says Gray.
Some of the recent aging action stars have hedged their bets by injecting their casts with younger stars. Live Free or Die Hard featured Justin Long (the Mac guy) to banter with Willis’ hero, and Ford will have teen sensation Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) to pal around with this spring.
Hanson says today’s stars in general tend to shine longer, if not as bright, as their cinematic peers from earlier eras. Actors who ruled Hollywood in the 1940s all but disappeared as major attractions 30 years later.
Yet the actors who broke through in the 1960s and ’70s, like Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro, still command above-the-title respect today. Maybe it’s just that today’s actors are savvier about the roles they choose and how they navigate the press gauntlet to keep their names in the public’s mind. Or, offers Hanson, it could be that audiences realize the older stars look more and more like they do.
“I do believe that the demographics of the U.S. population help people accept older stars in action roles,” Hanson says.