Poor Roger Murtagh wouldn’t last long in Hollywood today. Played by Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, the cop was complaining about getting on in years at the tender age of 50 – which makes him a mere spring chicken when you consider that the average action star now has as much hair coming out of their ears as they have on their head.

Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson (whose latest film Run All Night is released this weekend) are both pushing 60, but they’re far from the eldest. Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger all have an extra decade of experience under their belts. They show no signs of slowing down, and audiences are flocking in droves to see them work. So what makes the ‘geri-action’ star, as they’ve come to be known, so popular?

Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

It helps that many of these actors have continued playing the roles that first brought them fame. Stallone, Ford and Schwarzenegger are all set to reprise their most famous characters – Rocky Balboa, Han Solo and the Terminator – in the next few years. And it also allows audiences to keep enjoying the heroes they love without the constant need for reboots. After all, there is no John McClane without Bruce Willis, and to try would only lead to disaster.

Nowadays that audience is both much wider and much more varied in age. According to producer Lynda Obst, foreign box office revenue can count for as much as 70 per cent of a film’s gross, and a significant percentage of the global audience is now made up of baby boomers that are the same age as the stars themselves. In 2012, for example, the British Film Institute reported that cinemagoers in the oldest age bracket (aged 45 and over) dominated the box office, making up 36 per cent of UK audiences. It’s hardly surprising that this new demographic would be eager to see people of their generation kicking some ass on screen, instead of just sitting about in stuffy period dramas or cracking jokes about Viagra in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox

Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox

But it’s also worth considering why those types of roles became popular in the first place. The 1980s were a peculiar time in American history; with the Cold War heating up and much of the public still bitter about the defeat in the Vietnam War 10 years earlier, the American people needed new role models to look up to. And that’s precisely the niche that stars like Murtagh and Riggs, or John McClane and John Rambo, came to fill. They were everymen – notice how many of them were called John? – and, more importantly, they were all-American. They were a way of connecting Hollywood to its glory days in the ’50s, dominated by heroes like Ronald Reagan and John Wayne (who was arguably the original geri-action star when he played Rooster Cogburn in True Grit at the age of 60).

Exactly the same thing is happening today – after a decade of wars in the Middle East, and with economies in the Far East exploding, America’s future position on the world stage is looking increasingly uncertain. Looking back to the films of yesteryear, and the people who starred in them, gives audiences a sense of familiarity. There’s something reassuring about watching a hero who’s saved the day countless times before jumping into the fray once again.  The fact that American Sniper was one of the highest-grossing films of 2014 is proof that Americans still want their heroes – the old (like Clint Eastwood) as much as the new (Chris Kyle).

Courtesy of: LionsGate Films

Courtesy of: Lionsgate Films

Why haven’t the like of Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson been replaced by the likes of Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans? Simple – why be a hero when you can be a superhero? The Marvel movies have been so phenomenally successful all around the globe because of their universality, which means the characters have come to eclipse the people playing them. Chris Hemsworth is a key part of the MCU, but you don’t watch the movies to see Chris Hemsworth; you watch them for Thor.

For geri-actioners, on the other hand, the reverse happens. Take Liam Neeson. Ever since his career got re-jump-started with Taken in 2008 he’s starred in a dozen different action movies. Can you remember the names of the characters he played in half of them? Probably not. But seeing Liam Neeson’s name at the top of a movie poster tells you everything you need to know about the character. He’ll probably be a divorced, bitter ex-cop recovering from alcohol addiction, and at some point in the proceedings he’ll get to mumble something badass down a phone because that’s what Liam Neeson always does. It’s a convenient shorthand; paint the character in a few broad strokes, then give them a gun and a bunch of bad guys to kill and sit back to wait for the fireworks.

Courtesy of: Universal Studios

Courtesy of: Universal Studios

Not to suggest that this indicates a lack of talent on the part of the actors – far from it. In fact, their weathered faces are a key part of their appeal. What elevated the truly great action movies of the ’80s was a leading man who looked like he was truly getting the crap beaten out of him. Think about how much you winced the first time you saw the brutal bar brawl in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or watched Bruce Willis picking shards of glass out of his feet at Nakatomi Plaza. Seeing that kind of pain inflicted on someone who looks like he should be getting a Winter Fuel Allowance has a brutal edge that just can’t be replicated by an actor young enough to be playing high-schoolers.

This trend won’t last forever – just because these action heroes don’t plan on stopping for death, doesn’t mean he won’t stop for them either – but for now, the geri-action subgenre is going from strength to strength. And long may it continue; age diversity is only ever a good thing, and it must be a relief for the fresh-faced youngsters in the film industry to know that they won’t be thought of as expendable for a long time yet.

  • percy blakeney

    Your perspective on the psychology of American film audiences in this period strikes me as a mis-diagnosis -getting near the mark without really understanding it. Navel gazing and guilt post Watergate and Vietnam remained strong tides -not so much bitterness or resentment. Suspicion of the establishment remained very strong which is why the heroes of the time were not really Everymen but talented outsiders and mavericks -who had often been betrayed or let down by that establishment. This they retain in common with their 70s forbears but 80s action is far more over the top and its heroes morally black and white. I think it’s somewhere in there that you’ll find the real meat in the journey from Harry Callaghan, Paul Kersey and Doc McCoy to John McClean and Martin Riggs. Simultaneously we see the demise of the counterculture geek as non-action hero caught up in a world of action and the likes of Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man go on the endangered list.

    There’s clearly a desire to see morally simple heroics on an epic scale but not at the behest of institutions but instead at the hands of loners.

    As for today’s geriactioners? There’s undoubtedly an appeal to baby boomers but I’m not convinced by the idea of a parallel with the 80s. The action is generally more low key and realistic than 80s stuff (and more in line with the 70s equivalents). The popularity of the older action hero suggests that these are people that audiences trust. This also raises the possibility that younger heroes are viewed as part of a generation perceived as too morally flexible, too willing to get on board to get ahead, and not trustworthy (ouch!). If so that raises some interesting questions about contemporary culture. After all, it’s all good fun for Chris Pine’s version of Jim Kirk to behave as irresponsibly as he does in outer space 200 years in the future but do we really want contemporary action heroes behaving like that in the real world? I suppose Bond, increasingly weathered in Daniel Craig’s incarnation, is the natural response to that but he displays none of the self-centred egotism and determination to scrabble to the top of the heap that Pine’s Kirk does in the single minded conviction that only he can save the universe.