They are the badasses of badass, Hollywood actors. But they are aging quickly–some well, some not so well. And while they should all still be kicking ass and not bothering to take names (because they just shoved their last pencil through a gangster’s eye) for twenty plus years to come, it’s getting late in the game to find the up-and-coming actors who can fill their shoes. Maybe it can’t be done in the era of Orlando Bloom and Shia Lebouf. It may be that once these icons of cinematic badassery are gone, we will be utterly bereft.
What follows is a list of of what I consider to be the most badass (or formerly badass) Hollywood actors still living. Whenever possible, I have tried to name a young actor who might be a candidate to step into his shoes. Rest assured, the latter was no easy task, and the pursuit of that goal left me marginally depressed. So I’ll be looking for feedback – any semblance of hope that these seven actors are not the last of a dying breed.
Stallone got cred as a tough mother playing Rocky Balboa in the Rocky films, but his reputation as a badass was cemented with his portrayal as a one man special forces battalion in First Blood. The body count rose in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and then Stallone painted the Afghan desert red with the blood of evil Soviet soldiers in Rambo III. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the sequels, Stallone brought a sense of menace and ability to his portrayal of John Rambo in the first film. That carried over, making even the most ridiculous stunts in the subsequent films believable in a way that a lesser actor probably couldn’t have carried off.
Is he still a badass? Much of Stallone’s former badassery is now greatly marred as a result of his overindulgence in steroid use, cosmetic surgery, and Botox injections. While the latest Rambo film was respectable, Stallone’s facial features these days make him look like an aging Beverly Hills housewife. Ironically, of all the badasses on this list, he has aged the worst.
Possible replacement: What we’re looking for here is a virtual wrecking ball of a human being, someone who is almost freakishly devoid of vulnerability. His thuggish line delivery makes him seem like a brainless hood rat, but he possesses a cunning and intellectual capability that belies his muscle-head persona. The closest match I can think of is Clive Owen. Even though he was born in England, he has a face that appears to have been molded in the back alleys of bad neighborhoods. Like Stallone, he seems most at home wearing comfortable clothes that allow him the utmost freedom of movement for killing, but he also looks perfectly at ease in a $5,000 suit. He brings the same sense of a man with ability to Sin City and Shoot ‘Em Up that Stallone brought to the Rambo role in First Blood.
Samuel L. Jackson
Cool to the point of being ice cold. A reserve that rises to the level of stony aloofness. A man of so few words he’s practically non-verbal. These are some of the traits that describe the classic American Hollywood badass. These traits do not describe Samuel L. Jackson. While for many action heroes it’s all about the eyes and body language, for Sam Jackson it’s about the menace he exudes when he has unleashed the full force of his very vocal, operatic rage. Appearing stiff and out of place for most of the running time of the Star Wars prequels, the preeminent “badass mother fucker” is finally unleashed during his climactic lightsaber fight with Darth Sidious in Revenge of the Sith. After having his hand cut off by Anakin, he lets out a scream of pain and fury that for a split second gives you the idea he’s preparing to beat both Anakin and Sidious to death with his cauterized stump.
“Say ‘unlimited power’ again, mother fucker! Say that one more goddamn time!”
It would have been a far superior conclusion to the film, in my humble opinion.
Is he still a badass? Absolutely. But he’s pushing 60 now and appears to be concentrating on branching out a bit from his persona as “Superfly TNT.”
Possible replacement: I can’t think of a single actor who can appear to totally lose control of himself and still be cool. Mostly, that type of acting just makes a guy look like a brat. I’m afraid when Sam is all done with Hollywood, there will never be another like him.
After seeing The Road Warrior, Roger Ebert predicted that Mel Gibson would soon be a major star. He was right. Gibson was introduced to mainstream American audiences with the Lethal Weapon films and became enormously popular. It’s easy to forget those first impressions of Gibson in light of recent episodes painting a portrait of an anti-semitic son of a Holocaust-denying father. When an actress who worked with him commented that his politics were “just right of Attila the Hun,” her assessment was dismissed as a reaction by a typical Hollywood ultra-liberal to Gibson’s conservative views. His political views would soon eclipse his work as an actor and director shortly after the release of his Jesus film and his tirade against Jews after being arrested for drunk driving.
Is he still a badass? He is currently the most non-badass actor on this list. He’s only in his fifties, but he has not aged very well. Balding and with features informed by alcohol abuse, at this point Gibson seems old beyond his years. Furthermore, badasses don’t get picked up for drunk driving and then blame the Jews for their problems. At no point would a true badass feel the need to validate his waning sexual attractiveness by referring to a woman he’s never met before as “sugar tits.” Nonetheless, his former onscreen badassery cannot be denied. I was recently reminded of this while watching the director’s cut of Payback.
Possible replacement: Take any role Gibson has ever played, insert Russell Crowe, and the film is just as good if not better. Hugh Jackman also comes to mind if we’re limiting our candidates to Aussies.
He was the first action “everyman,” and he’s still the best. Most Hollywood badasses do what they have to do, personal relationships and worldly entanglements be damned. Ranging from the Die Hard films, to Pulp Fiction, to Sin City, Willis is primarily motivated to action in pursuit of precisely the types of interpersonal relationships eschewed by characters like Dirty Harry and John Rambo. The aforementioned characters battle evil forces for the sake of the larger cause, and the victims they rescue more often than not merely get in the way. There’s no such distance between the characters Willis plays and the potential victims he defends.
Is he still a badass? Judging by the latest John McClane outing, the answer is a resounding “yes.” In fact, of all the actors on this list, Willis has probably best maintained his believability as an action movie badass. There’s not a single moment in Live Free or Die Hard where you worry about him breaking a hip. Furthermore, he has not undergone any obvious cosmetic surgery in a vain attempt to stave off the ravages of time. I predict that Willis will be a badass well into his seventies.
Potential replacement: Willis’ ability to be a smug smart-ass and maintain his likability is something that I have not spotted in any up and coming actors so far. Some have named Jason Statham as Willis’ heir apparent, but I’m not sure I agree. The potential is there, but Statham lately has demonstrated a predilection for the type of superhuman action roles that Willis’ John McClane portrayal repudiated. Before we can be reassured that Statham can fill the future Bruce Willis void, we have to wait for the writers to catch up to his potential.
The man who brought Han Solo and Indiana Jones to life is obviously a badass. In my opinion, though, he is also the best actor on this list. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, he’s the greatest actor alive. The subtle distinctions between his performances is so slight as to be indistinguishable to the casual viewer. But consider the differences between Indiana Jones and Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard. There’s an element of “Boy’s Life” to his portrayal of Jones–the kid who never grew up. This is a distinct contrast to his brooding, world-weary, and borderline desperate turn as Deckard. No matter what part he plays, when he’s onscreen, your eyes are drawn to him, even when he’s doing nothing. He has what Kiefer Sutherland would call gravitas–a very unmanly word to describe the magic Ford brings to the screen with every role.
Is he still a badass? If we’re judging by the latest Indiana Jones film, the answer, sadly, is “no.” While he has his moments, it’s impossible to watch Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and distance yourself from the fact of Ford’s advancing years. The collared shirt and dungarees that made him look so cool in Raiders of the Lost Ark make him look like grandpa headed off to the fishin’ hole in KOTCS.
Possible replacement: Anyone going to movies today looking for the next Harrison Ford had better have a high tolerance for disappointment. Ford shares a quality with Sam Jackson in that he’s cool without being cool. There’s nothing reserved or overly masculine about Indiana Jones or Han Solo. In both roles, Ford is frequently vexed, not immune to panic, and usually gets the worst of it in a fistfight. He is brains over brawn (or brains over blaster) at every turn, and he sells it in a way that no actor before or since has duplicated. I have almost completely lost hope that the next Harrison Ford will emerge in our lifetime.
After the role of Dirty Harry was turned down by Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra, Eastwood met with one of the film’s producers. The producer was not convinced Eastwood was right for the role. He commented that Eastwood had a funny nearsighted squint, and that his voice was a little high and whispery. Eastwood’s response was to pick the man up one-handed and dangle him upside down by his right ankle. He then shook him so hard that the poor, misguided producer forgot his own first name. The rest is history.
Is he still a badass? If you’re talking about old school, with Eastwood, you picture a tiny schoolhouse on the plains of the post-Civil War western frontier. Thoroughly unmoved by adversity, with a stoicism to rival the men who conquered those mid-western plains under the constant threat of Indian attack, Eastwood embodies our most misty-eyed fantasies about the American character. He might make a great President of the United States if it weren’t for the fact that doing so would require him to speak at length about himself and his accomplishments, something he would consider immodest, and therefore decidedly unmanly. The high, whispery voice that carried him through The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Dirty Harry is now a gravelly rasp. That near-sighted squint is now framed by a sea of leathery wrinkles. But, as Jon Stewart commented on a recent episode of The Daily Show, you have no doubt when you look at him that he could kick your ass using only the last two fingers of his left hand. So yes, he is most assuredly still a badass. At the age of 78, however, he has proved himself a director of distinction, and seems to have no further interest in action roles.
Possible replacement: In an unrelated article I wrote a while back, a commenter suggested that Josh Brolin could be a candidate to fill Eastwood’s action shoes. If you think of Dirty Harry, and insert Brolin in the main role, it’s not hard to imagine that the film still holds up. But I’m not convinced that Brolin has the goods to equal Eastwood’s greatness.
He’s the only man on the face of the planet I could imagine kicking Clint Eastwood’s ass. I recall an interview with a stunt coordinator on one of the early Bond films. He pointed out the slight grin that comes across Connery’s face whenever he’s fighting someone onscreen. It was a revelatory observation. Connery gives the impression that there’s nothing he enjoys more than beating the snot out of someone with his bare fists. While the badassery of Ford, Jackson, and even Eastwood is apparent despite various anachronisms, Connery is badass while being pure, one-hundred percent all man. Some might count the fact that Connery has condoned slapping a woman “once in a while” against him, but the fact that he admitted this with no shame whatsoever to Barbara Walters is pretty badass. And let’s face it: Sean Connery slaps a woman and she probably falls right into bed and melts between the sheets. If we slap a woman, she’s going to rub her cheek while calling the cops. And then throw our shit out onto the lawn. Including our entire Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers action figure collection. Sean Connery doesn’t own action figures.
Is he still badass? Like Eastwood, Connery is also pushing 80. And he is officially retired from acting. Nevertheless, he is absolutely, indisputably still a badass. If you don’t believe that, find him at a pub some day and say something like, “The Scottish National Party is full of Nancy boys who couldn’t govern their way out of a wet paper sack!” Be prepared, however, as from that point forward your wife and kids will be known as your widow and orphans.
Possible replacement: Daniel Craig is the new James Bond, but is he the next Sean Connery? I’m not sure. Craig is very good, and even Connery has acknowledged that he is an excellent Bond. But I don’t think he is up to walking in Connery’s footsteps. Let’s see Craig star in a film like Zardoz and maintain his badass cred, and then I’ll be convinced.