CinemaBlend's Action Hero Hall of Fame: The 2014 Inaugural Class
The Expendables 3 hits theaters this weekend, presenting to the fans just about all the remaining action stars still around. The series has attempted to be a greatest-hits collection for the action movie legends in our midst, but they never feel complete as far as a collection of the all-time greatest tough guys and gals. The new one is even more egregious than the last ones: if you loved Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Expendables 2, you'll love Glen (who?) Powell!
So what if there was someone out there recognizing the legacy of great action stars, who respected the history and spotlighted the very best of the genre? And what if that person was us?
Presenting The Action Movie Hall Of Fame. Below, there are the 10 inaugural inductees -- performers who have shaped and crafted the action genre and emerged as stars, legends and icons. Some are in this weekend's The Expendables 3. And some are in your Netflix queue, at your local library, or even on YouTube, waiting to be discovered or appreciated. We tried to spotlight performers who had a single concentrated peak of their talents, while also addressing those who put a premium on action films over any other genres, even when the films would get disreputable. To be in the Action Hall Of Fame, you need b-movies on your resume as much as you need A-movies. It's also important that we spotlight practical action stars, guys and gals who played characters that fought other human beings in real settings. If you've spent your career punching special effects, you won't get in.
Here are the ten inaugural inductees.
Years Active: 1969-Present
Most Popular Period: 1982 (Conan The Barbarian) to 1996 (Eraser)
Best Movie: The Terminator
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Despite only standing 6"2', when Arnold Schwarzenegger stood onscreen, it felt as if you'd never seen a bigger movie star. Schwarzenegger took action films into the mainstream, as they went from disreputable time-wasters to our number one film genre. The former Mr. Universe didn't need to speak to grab your attention, as he began Conan The Barbarian nearly silent. But when he talked, that deep-bottomed timbre echoed as he said things like his first words in Conan, when asked what is best in life: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women." That comes from Robert E. Howard, one of the most influential pulp writers of all time, but when you hear Schwarzenegger say it, you can't imagine it coming from anyone else's mouth. Schwarzenegger's genius may have been in marketing: audiences feared him when he was the indestructible T-100 in The Terminator, and he was still an intimidating figure of awe by the time he dominated Commando or starred as the crafty prisoner in The Running Man. But when he reprised his role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it revealed an icon learning to be a man, a hero who wanted to be human like us. But he couldn't be: he was just too awesome.
Years Active: 1949-1999
Most Popular Period: 1960 (The Magnificent Seven) to 1986 (Murphy's Law)
Best Movie: Once Upon A Time In The West
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Bronson was not the most handsome actor, and everyone knew it. It's why he was reduced to supporting roles for years, zig-zagging between television and movies. But in bit roles, he brought a certain soft-spoken machismo that was undeniable to action fans. Somehow, he could give off the impression that he could beat you down, outwit you or even simply outrace you to the truth. This made him a perfect fit for westerns, where his weathered visage and sage delivery was right at home. Later in his career, age turned him into something of a brutal predator: he squeezed the blood of five movies out of the rock that was Death Wish, captivating a nation by becoming a geriatric avenger bound to clean up the streets. If Rambo was the 80's fantasy of a hero traveling overseas to employ brute force, Death Wish was the secretly more-attainable plan, where anyone could clean up the streets, as long as they had Bronson's scowl. In his later years, he basically became the face of b-movie factory Cannon, bringing gravitas and toughness to actioners like 10 To Midnight and Murphy's Law. He was still doing action films at 81 when he passed away.
Years Active: 1970-Present
Most Popular Period: 1976 (Rocky) to 1990 (Rocky V)
Best Movie: Rocky
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Stallone was the template for serious actors who make the decision to purposely pursue action films. As a leading man, he started taking on films that he could reshape in his image, making him look powerful as he began to live in the gym. Rocky is not an action hero, he's really nothing more that an everyday puncher from Philly who got lucky. But in Stallone's eyes he was Hercules, a musclebound gladiator who took on mythical dimensions as he ran through a series of improbable trials. This understanding of who Rocky became extended to other films: First Blood was about a disillusioned, harassed vet named John Rambo, but Rambo: First Blood Part II (note the title change) was about an unstoppable American superman bathed in the flag. Stallone openly admits to having a rivalry with Schwarzenegger at the time, which you can see in the films: Stallone restlessly experimented with new ways of making him look formidable. He was a renegade cop in Nighthawks, but an even more powerful policeman in Cobra. Stallone had a mini-resurgence in the 90's, but it did not last. However, he is singlehandedly responsible for giving life to the Expendables franchise and providing a showcase for the great stars of the genre.
Years Active: 1962-Present
Most Popular Period: 1978 (Snake In The Eagle's Shadow) to 1998 (Rush Hour)
Best Movie: Drunken Master 2
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Beyond action, Jackie Chan is perhaps the most skilled physical performer on film in the last fifty years. What Chan does onscreen, with minimal stuntwork and no doubles, is stunning. Chan's skill allowed him to pioneer a movement in martial arts films towards more humorous directions, poking fun at respected tropes while also respecting them with his considerable physicality. And as Chan's workload increased, you could see more of an academic effort to top oneself through his films – 1978's Drunken Master was a breakthrough in lightweight combat-oriented martial artst. But Drunken Master 2 is a dizzying adventure with dozens of extras and a stupefying final battle that possibly hasn't been topped since. Chan's efforts were not limited to fights, of course: cop film Police Story has some of the most dangerous and eye-popping stunts one could see, death-defying moments that Hollywood tried, and failed, to replicate. Chan, amusingly, was a rarity in action cinema: a star who tried his very hardest to make sequels that improved upon the original. He broke through to America not with an American vehicle, but with the dubbed Rumble In The Bronx, a breakthrough hit for a foreign film of any genre. While the success of Rush Hour provided him additional opportunities to succeed in America, he was displeased with the level of control he had on his own movies, and would often head back home, though as he aged his films became less bombastic and more focused on drama.
Years Active: 1967-1973
Most Popular Period: 1971 (The Big Boss) to 1973 (Game Of Death)
Best Movie: The Chinese Connection
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Bruce Lee changed martial arts forever, becoming the tool that bridged the gap between foreign films and American ones. His big breakout came from playing Kato in The Green Hornet, a role that tested his considerable skills as both a physical on-camera talent and actor. His on-screen career was short, but each film was its own masterpiece, and not just a showcase for a then-young fighter. The Chinese Connection relied on a jokey spy story, but it featured some of the most ferocious martial arts footage fans have seen. Way Of The Dragon was a diverse combat film that found Lee brawling with Chuck Norris. And his final film, Enter The Dragon was a rightful huge success, showcasing him in an ensemble alongside the likes of Jim Kelly and John Saxon. It would have been the beginning of a long and fruitful career: Lee was just getting very familiar with behind-the-camera work, and surely would have been directing more than just Way Of The Dragon.
Years Active: 1963-Present
Most Popular Period: 1964 (A Fistful Of Dollars) to 1990 (The Rookie)
Best Movie: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Like Bronson, Eastwood started with bit parts in westerns, graduating towards lead roles gradually. And like Bronson, he had a tough-talking macho appeal. Besides that, Eastwood is likely the definitive American badass, dabbling in action films every few years or so. But even though he's an Oscar-feted director today, you forget his name was once synonymous with violent throwdowns and shootouts. When he moved out of the western realm – much slower than others – he became a contemporary avenger with the Dirty Harry series, movies that celebrated the appeal of the unstoppable supercop who had no limits from the law. While Death Wish became a fairly harsh indictment of the taste of its audience, Eastwood's Dirty Harry movies eventually evolved into something of an American James Bond, and Eastwood's performance was always indicative of a man of boundless tough guy spirit. Later in his career, he even managed to make Unforgiven, which took to task the moral irresponsibility of some of his earlier western characters, while still being able to kick ass, showing that Eastwood knew the difference between analyzing and denigrating.
Years Active: 1976-Present
Most Popular Period: 1986 (A Better Tomorrow) to 2000 (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Best Movie: Hard Boiled/The Killer
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Chow Yun-Fat was, and remains, a versatile actor, capable of conveying gravitas and comedy in equal measures throughout a diverse career. But, more importantly, he's also an actor who elevated the genre as it, in turn, elevated him. He will forever be remembered by his collaborations with John Woo when the director was in his prime, starring in the double whammy of The Killer and Hard Boiled. Not only did he make two of the greatest action movies of all time with Woo, but he did it back to back. In both films he radiates a primal intelligence that never seems sharper than it does when he's handling weaponry. As such, the Hard Boiled quote is relevant: "Give a guy a gun, he think he's Superman. Give him two and he thinks he's God." Yun-Fat's particular brand of cool didn't translate to mainstream America, though re-evaluation is due for The Replacement Killers and especially The Corrupter, action-heavy noirs that introduce him to America as an avenging angel packing heat. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became his biggest film, allowing him to explore other genres, and so, with age, he's moved a bit slower, sometimes appearing in big budget wuxia films, but every fan in the world has been praying that he'd re-team with Mr. Woo once again.
Years Active: 1982-Present
Most Popular Period: 1991 (Once Upon A Time In China) to 2006 (Fearless)
Best Movie: Once Upon A Time In America
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Li is one of the all-time greatest martial artists in cinema history. But he was always more academic than his peers, mostly avoiding comedy until late in his career, preferring characters that spotlighted stoicism, contrasting with his size and baby-soft features. Li managed to avoid branching out too far, having one of the "safest" careers in the industry: he made three Shaolin Temple films early in his career, and stuck with Once Upon A Time In China until the end. And he was reluctant to come to America unless he had a legit lead role waiting for him, which he finally did with Romeo Must Die (the tradeoff was Lethal Weapon 4). Watching him in action, you're struck by just how smoothly he moves, and just how much savage brutality is encased in a brief shift from a standing motion to attack mode. He's compact and powerful, and onscreen it's allowed him to achieve feats no material artist ever has. It doesn't feel like Li ever compromised, even though his films in America have marginalized his talents. He knew when to stop, he knew when to pull back: in his films, his characters are ones of savage violence and brutality, but they are never murderers. But while others could fight almost as well as he could, he earns a special distinction for being possibly the most skilled wirework combatant in film history. No martial artist could fly, and yet he often came so close.
Years Active: 1987-Present
Most Popular Period: 1988 (Die Hard) to 1998 (Armageddon)
Best Movie: Die Hard
Reason Why He's In The Hall Of Fame: Willis went from, "Him?" to "Of course," within the blink of an eye. It might have been when he launched himself off the roof to Nakatomi Plaza where he cemented his reputation as the action star who went the extra mile to overcompensate. When he first played John McClane, it was the everyman as the hero, a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced to become John Wayne when he was really how audiences saw him: the wisecracking romantic lead of Moonlighting. A few muscles later, and a little bit of stardom, and Willis was able to shape his image as America's bitter, seen-it-all jerk. Die Hard became his bread and butter, and you can see his change in each of those films: in the second one, he's the plucky comic hero of Hudson Hawk, a charmer more than a killer who nonetheless knew how to take care of himself. And by Die Hard With A Vengeance, he's the bitter, seen-it-all jerk of The Last Boy Scout, the man who will wake up, face down, hung over, and demand a cigarette before headbutting a man to death. Willis had a short peak, abandoning the genre to become more of a straight actor. That didn't seem to catch, and in recent years he's shown a spectacular dedication to the genre: even though the movies have been a bit weaker, Bruce Willis' name on the tin is something of a guarantee.
Years Active: 1969-Present
Most Popular Period: 1971 (The Big Doll House) to 1975 (Friday Foster)
Best Movie: Coffy
Reason Why She's In The Hall Of Fame: Blaxploitation was a genre that existed because black people were becoming increasingly marginalized in mainstream cinema. While its roots were radical, it was also a movement steeped in inclusion and progress, which is how one of its faces was female, despite the "historic" mainstream American cinema of the era strongly preferring men. Grier was a stunner, a woman who wielded her beauty like a lethal weapon, who suffered no fools and did no favors. She wasn't "the girlfriend" or "the prostitute", common roles for women in that era in and out of blaxploitation. She was the mover and shaker, able to take up an opponent in fisticuffs as well as use a firearm. Grier's peak was small because the genre's was as well, and because Hollywood undergoes periods where they simply ignore women: she would return later to bring toughness to Fort Apache The Bronx and she teamed with Steven Seagal in Above The Law. But she had maybe the greatest latter-day role of any action star when she was brought back to the mainstream with Jackie Brown. Older, wiser and tougher, she's 50 feet tall in Quentin Tarantino's crime drama, as if the seventies never ended, that someone had merely turned the page.
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