Meat Cute: When Action Stars and Rom-Coms Collide

12 films celebrating the lighter side of some of our best known action heroes

Destination Wedding

The trailer for the film Destination Wedding is an interesting one, especially if you don’t know what the movie is called. Keanu Reeves is in an airport, his hair still long and beard still full, talking in his monotone drawl to Winona Ryder as they board a flight to San Luis Obispo. With the exception of his trademark black suit, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 3 has secretly been subtitled: John Wick Takes A Vacay. He even dons a suit later in the trailer, further cementing this fan-fic fantasy of Mr. Wick escaping New York City and taking an extended holiday while getting into hijinks with Ryder at a mutual friends wedding.

The fact that Reeves barely hides his action star persona in Destination Wedding is what I find most amusing, and frankly most endearing. In essence, Reeves has already done exactly what he intended with the film: to show himself in a fresh light after a spate of highly lauded action films. But even more: it looks like he’s plain having fun. And while I don’t doubt that Reeves is having a blast in the John Wick series, calling the films strenuous seems like an understatement. And from an actor who leapt onto the scene with the proto-stoner comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, can you blame him for wanting to go back to something bouncy for a change?

But Keanu Reeves is just the most recent star in a long lineage of other notable action heroes and heroines hanging up their guns to play in the gleeful sandbox that is the rom-com.

Rhinestone (1984)
Action Star: Sylvester Stallone

Rhinestone

Here’s how I imagine Rhinestone came to be: Sly Stallone loved My Fair Lady. And after he discovered that the musical was based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, it gave him the artistic license to loosely update it for his early 1980s musical rom-com Rhinestone, directed by Bob Clark and featuring country star Dolly Parton. To get out of her singing contract, Parton agrees to a little bet with her smarmy manager that she can turn anyone into a headlining singer in two weeks. And who comes skidding in outside the club doors in his broke down yellow cab but Sly Stallone’s Nick, who she flies down to Tennessee to learn the true meaning of “being country.”

This is Stallone on the precipice of global superstardom with three Rocky films and one Rambo under his belt, with a hot streak just ahead of him. Rhinestone is cutesy and forgettable, but the film is predicated on how much you enjoy Stallone and Parton as celebrities. And when you combine two of the most endearingly charismatic actors of the early ‘80s with the Can-Do-No-Wrong Richard Farnsworth, the film becomes far more fun than the sum of its parts.

Love & Friendship (2016)
Action Star: Kate Beckinsale

Love & Friendship

Kate Beckinsale, aside from having an acerbic sense of humor on Instagram, will always be associated with taking down clans of werewolves in the Underworld series. But right in the middle of her descent into vampire/werewolf relations, she surprised audiences with Whit Stillman’s costume drama cum rom-com Love & Friendship.

The film, based on a short Jane Austen story, follows Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) who with guile and unscrupulous cunning devotes herself to finding suitable suitors for herself and her daughter Frederica. The humor could be written off as dry or subtle, but in actuality is quite fresh and modern. The jokes are begged to be paid attention to (with slight emphasis aided by supertitles) but even if you don’t, you’ll still feel the comedic beats land.

For actors, with certain older texts, the best action is simple reaction; giving space for the written word to do all the work. In that Beckinsale excels by not overplaying the dialogue and allowing the humor to emerge, rather than be strangled out by shtick. Someone would see this as playing against the humor, but rather the actor is simply letting the comedy be heard. And the result is hysterical.

Why Did I Get Married (2007)
Action Star: Michael Jai White

Why Did I Get Married

Michael Jai White may be one of the most prolific, almost exclusively action actors on this list. His big break came when he was cast in the first African American led superhero film, Spawn, which despite being a flop deserves fresh appraisal! But right before Jai White was playing Black Dynamite and Jax in Mortal Kombat, he took a career detour with Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married. The film follows a set of four couples who come together for a getaway in Colorado where closely held secrets between the group come out in over-the-top, borderline caricaturish ways.

While the film has a strong undercurrent of openly discussing relatable issues surrounding marriage, the melodrama stands in the way of the messages sticking in a more impactful way. The film checks all the same boxes for every lover of the high dramatics of a Lifetime Original Movies. But that doesn’t mar the genuine connections each actors have on screen, especial Jai White who teeters between fuming at his comically boisterous wife and being a jovial dad to his two children. Jai White would reprise this role in the film’s sequel, Why Did I Get Married Too and for six seasons on the TBS/OWN show Tyler Perry’s For Better or Worse.

13 Going On 30 (2004)
Action Star: Jennifer Garner

Going On

In the midst of kicking ass in J.J. Abrams Alias, Jennifer Garner proved herself more than versatile playing a teenager who wakes up to find herself 17 years older but naturally not wiser. But, if I’m being honest, who wouldn’t want to be 30? Being a teenager is the worst! Sure bills and rent are bad, but at least you don’t have to deal with catty adolescence and the oppressive weight of teenage low self-esteem!

While she had some roles in light dramas like the Party of Five spin-off Time Of Your Life, 13 Going On 30 is Garner’s first step into this brand of comedy and her youthful exuberance and clueless charm is pitch perfect. But also her precise and strong action choreography definitely helped her with Jenna’s physicality, imbuing her performance with the awkward lankiness of a teenager while also creating tableaus like she was plucked from a Disney fairytale. In spite of itself, 13 Going On 30 is bemusingly delightful.

The Bounty Hunter (2010)
Action Star: Gerard Butler

Bounty Hunter

A side note on the evolution of rom-coms: it’s fascinating to see what was once broadly thought as benign awkward comedy take a predatory tone in a more aware society post the #MeToo Movement. Jason Sudeikis’s character in Andy Tennant’s The Bounty Hunter refuses to take no for an answer. From following Jennifer Aniston into a bathroom, asking to work on a story to rekindle a romance that isn’t there isn’t the “Oh, he’s hilariously unaware!” joke that was originally intended. It’s just skeezy. Creepiness aside, The Bounty Hunter fits Gerard Butler’s action skill set more aptly than his first rom-com foray The Ugly Truth by letting him chase down perps in his typical slightly-out-of-breath way that is all too relatable.

Gerard Butler’s charm I think resonates mainly because he seems to be having a genuinely good time not being in an action film. Rom-com’s don’t require the body changing workouts his turn in 300 did. Maybe Gerry Butler is just like us: he hates the gym, and is self-confident in being a bit schlubby! New Years Resolution: have the body positivity of Gerard Butler.

Junior (1994)
Action Star: Arnold Schwarzenegger

Junior

Despite Hollywood allowing more parity with women and people of color leading action film and television, it’s undeniable that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the preeminent action figure actor of the 1980s and 90s. His buttoned-up and bespectacled appearance in Junior is the textbook example of an actor showing that they may be known for punches and pistols, but they can also be suave or silly. And there really is nothing sillier than Arnie getting preggo.

Directed by Ivan Reitman Junior follows Arnie as a geneticist (because, duh.) who has developed a fertility drug, but in lieu of getting FDA approval his OB/GYN partner Danny Devito convinces Arnie to knock himself up to test the drug on humans. In spite of itself, what works best in Junior is when the ludicrous plot is taken earnestly, especially as Arnie is pretending to be a woman by the third act. The film is like a clashing color pallet on a piece of clothing. Nothing about it should work, but to certain keen eyes, they will find a coalescing theme that is both blithely inane and utterly ridiculous.

Set It Up (2018)
Action Star: Lucy Liu

Set It Up

Known for her iconic role in Kill Bill and as one part of the timeless trio in the 2000s reboot of Charlie’s Angels, Lucy Liu has surprisingly not been featured in many rom-coms. She has a quiet intensity while still being charmingly affable that is perfectly suited for the bait and switch nature of the genre.

Set It Up, about two assistants Cyrano-ing their uptight bosses is the definition of the word delightful, a light and bouncy comedy with a soundtrack of the best rom-com bangers this side of the mid-90s. While it may try a little too hard, that criticism simply reinforces its place as a quintessential millennial rom-com

Hitch (2005)
Action Star: Will Smith

Hitch

Like a reverse Cyrano de Bergerac, Hitch follows Will Smith as Alex Hitchens, a “Date Doctor” who helps hapless guys break from their shells so they can ask out the woman of their dreams. Only someone as charming as Will Smith could slightly elevate the eye-rolling trope of the bachelor who can get a girl for everyone but himself. Always the suave bridesmaid, never the bride!

Despite Kevin James’ interesting later TV career and the countless Paul Blart memes, we can sometimes forget how genuinely funny he is. James as the clown, Smith as the straight man play off of each other like a classic comedy duo in a way that counteracts some of the more cringe-worthy pickup artist traits Hitch’s methods are reminiscent of. To its credit though, it genuinely does feel like an antecedent to toxic masculine tropes at the time, subverting what you expect these pick-up artists to do.

Gorgeous (1999)
Action Star: Jackie Chan

Gorgeous

Written, produced, and starring himself, Gorgeous is clearly a passion project for famed action star Jackie Chan. After a career’s worth of martial arts films under his belt at such a young age, and breaking into the US market with his hit Rumble in the Bronx and Rush Hour, it makes sense that Chan would want something fun and breezy that maybe won’t leave him with a laundry list of broken bones.

At the height of his global stardom Jackie Chan plays C.N. Chan, a recycling business mogul (you heard that right!) who falls in love with Bu (Shu Qi) who follows a message of love in a bottle to Hong Kong from her Taiwanese fishing village.

Despite the inclusion of a handful of (excellent) fight scenes, it’s evident that Chan was wanting to do more than what was expected of him. There is very little reason for a billionaire tycoon to also be a talented martial artist, but luckily Chan doesn’t need to rely on his action skills to carry the film as his charm and natural charisma is more than suited for comedic romance.

Coming To America (1988)
Action Star: Eddie Murphy

Coming To America

One of the greatest comedic stars of the 1980s also is one of the best young action stars of his generation. Eddie Murphy’s screen debut was in Walter Hills 48 Hours (and its Another sequel), and he led the wildly successful Beverly Hills Cop franchise, but rightfully he is perhaps best remembered for Coming To America. To understand the cultural impact of Black Panther’s Wakanda is to understand the intention of Coming To America’s fictional nation of Zamunda. There is a regal elegance of its monarchy untouched by global bigotry and colonialism that is as comedically outlandish as it is a beautiful utopia.

But we’re swept quickly out of Zamunda to late ‘80s New York to showcase an early example of what Murphy would remake his name with in the late 90s: playing multiple eccentric, heavily made-up characters. And as stray blips throughout the film, it doesn’t lose any of its charm as you watch a full blown star make oddball artistic choices. And as a fish out of water story, Murphy’s blind idealism to being poor in New York and his earnest declaration of love towards the end of the film proves why he was perfectly suited for both action and romance.

Heartbreakers (2001)
Action Star: Sigourney Weaver

Heartbreakers

There is hardly a more iconic action/sci-fi role than Ellen Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, in the Alien franchise. A legacy that was almost muted by the character initially being cast as Tom Skerritt, until the studio’s decided to make their hero a heroine and buck perceived gender roles in sci-fi and horror at the time. Weaver blazed trails. And while she had dabbled in the rom-com scene before with Working Girl and Dave, her turn as a high concept con woman in Heartbreakers sometimes falls through the cracks.

Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt play a duo of con women looking for one last big grift to pay off the IRS and start anew in New York City. What works in the film is the skewing of the mother/daughter dynamic we see in stereotypical suburban family films, except replaced with devious divorce settlement schemes.

Weaver and Love Hewitt play wonderfully together, both leaning into their matriarchal dynamic while clearly having a good time with the zany material. Weaver may be having the most fun of all as she dons accents and disguises to con her cigarette smoking octogenarian mark, Gene Hackman, at his most W.C. Fields.

The Family Man (2000)
Action Star: Nic Cage

The Family Man

With some thinly veiled systemic racism disguised as good intentions, Nicolas Cage finds himself waking up to a day that isn’t like his normal day. Typically a workaholic Manhattanite in the fast paced world of Wall Street he wakes up on Christmas morning to a house full of the family he could have had, had he made a different decision a decade before. Was this the work of Don Cheadle, the man who Cage persuaded not to rob a bodega? Well, yes. Cheadle is the Clarence in this It’s A Wonderful Life riff.

But once the story moves through the cringe-inducing stereotyping, Nicolas Cage still gets to put on the manic pants that made him a superstar in Con Air, The Rock, and Face/Off navigating through a second chance on the life he never had. As a benign rom-com of a man falling back in love with the wife he almost had, The Family Man gets high marks for its strong performances from our focus family of Cage, Tea Leoni, and Makenzie Vega. As a Cage fan, his high theatrics are still on display here, but Cage knows his audience and reminds us that this isn’t his first time in the rom-com rodeo.

Actor. Writer. Available to host your next public access show. Find more of my writing at Rue Morgue, Ghastly Grinning, Diabolique Magazine, and Grim Magazine.