New Action Stars: who will carry the mantle when the legends are gone?

Once Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Reeves, Cruise and Ford are done with the genre, who will be the new action stars?

Up on Variety, there’s an interesting interview with the German distributor of the Expendables and John Wick movies. Fred Kogel, who runs Leonine Studios, noted that all the top action heroes now, Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise,and Harrison Ford, are the same ones we had in the eighties and nineties. But with Stallone and Ford in their late seventies, who will be the new action stars when the icons are done with the genre? For his part, Kogel doesn’t believe distributors and studios have done enough to build up a new crop of action heroes, noting that for the older stars, there was “a great deal of identification with the type of the actor, with the physicality of the actor so that you could relate to that.” With CGI-laden superhero movies, Kogel believes that kind of identification is gone. “I think it’s on us to build up new stars again, with the physicality, with the looks and with the sympathetic, great-acting factor – you need that. It’s in our own hands.”

He has a point. Of the iconic action heroes he mentions, Keanu Reeves is the youngest by a long shot, being 59. With him looking to retire John Wick, will Reeves continue in the genre? It’s hard to say. If you look at Expend4bles, the movie is built around Jason Statham, who’s 56 and theoretically could keep doing action movies for decades, but judging by the grosses from his last few films, it seems audiences don’t identify with him the way they do with the older stars. For me, part of the issue with Statham is that his characters aren’t vulnerable enough, with him falling into the same trap Steven Seagal did, where his battles became ludicrously one-sided. One of the things people love about John Wick is how vulnerable he is emotionally, and he always takes his licks.

So, who does that leave? There’s Dwayne Johnson, but, like Statham, it feels like audiences are growing a bit weary of the fact that he plays the same character repeatedly. If you go back to Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Reeves and Ford, you’ll note that while they each had multiple franchises, you’d never mistake one character for another. Rocky and Rambo are entirely different, like The Terminator and Conan, or Indiana Jones and Han Solo (or Jack Ryan). The same thing goes with Neo and John Wick. But is there a huge difference between Johnson’s Luke Hobbs (from the Fast & Furious series) and the characters he played in Red Notice, Rampage or San Andreas? There’s still Tom Cruise, and arguably, he’s the most iconic of everyone, given that he does his own stunts, but at 61, how long will he be able to keep punishing himself physically? The silver lining for Cruise is thatTop Gun: Maverick, which didn’t have any major physical action scenes, was his highest-grossing movie ever, so maybe he’s not as reliant on stunts as people seem to think.

One interesting up-and-comer is Ryan Gosling, who dipped into the genre with The Gray Man last year and returns with the new reboot of the old TV series The Fall Guy in March. There’s also Chris Hemsworth, who has the Extraction franchise going and, of the Marvel heroes, feels most likely to remain an action hero once he’s done in the MCU. Michael B. Jordan and John David Washington have potential in the genre, and Charlize Theron has become iconic in her own right, but can they all anchor global franchises the way the old-timers did? Theron’s Atomic Blonde was only a minor box office success, but then again, so was the first John Wick. Maybe they should give that character another shot?

Returning to Kogel’s comments, perhaps studios need to bank on actors with mixed box office track records, as you never know when the right vehicle might boost someone unexpectedly. Let’s not forget that before John Wick, Keanu Reeves was flirting with DTV material. As Kogel says in the interview, “See ‘John Wick.’ ‘John Wick’ really created a completely new kind of action genre. Who would have known 10 or 12 years ago, after ‘Matrix,’ that Keanu could pull it off again with his most successful franchise?” Maybe enough hasn’t been done to sell someone like Scott Adkins or Idris Elba as major action heroes.

Who do you think will be the next great action hero? Let us know in the comments.

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