From Charles Bronson to Bruce Willis: Hollywood's ageing male stars get a new lease of life as 'geriaction' heroes

Gautam Chintamani

Feb,01 2018 17:14:13 IST

Remember the way Hollywood treated its leading ladies, in terms of roles, once they crossed a certain age? The thing that strikes the most while watching the trailer of Eli Roth’s reboot of the classic Charles Bronson starrer Death Wish is how karma has come full-circle. Bruce Willis filling in for Bronson in the remake of a film where a 60-something white American male transforms into a vigilante after his wife and daughter are attacked is — on the face of it — a no-brainer; after all, Willis was once upon a time counted amongst the biggest action stars in the world but look around and you’d notice how most older male stars from the 1980s and 1990s simply don’t have anything besides playing one-note characters.

Bruce WIllis in A Good Day to Die Hard

Bruce Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard

The Charles Bronson-Death Wish template where an unlikely man fights the odds to become a hero following a personal tragedy has been the go-to formula for popular leading men in Hollywood for decades. The film was reportedly refused by the bigger stars of the day such as Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. In fact, the role was developed with Eastwood in mind but the actor felt that post-Dirty Harry, his casting might seem poor and also suggested Gregory Peck instead. It is said that Burt Lancaster, George C Scott and Frank Sinatra also refused the part. While working on The Stone Killer (1973), Bronson asked the film’s director Michael Winner what should they work on next and Winner replied that the best thing that he had come across was 'Death Wish', where a man whose wife and daughter are mugged, goes out and shoots muggers. Bronson responded, “I'd like to do that," and when Winner asked, "The film?", legend has it that Bronson replied, "No . . . shoot muggers."

Perhaps the formula existed even before Bronson immortalized it in Death Wish and one can see its origins in say, Cape Fear (1962) where a rapist (Robert Mitchum) returns to seek revenge on the lawyer (Gregory Peck) who sent him there forcing the latter to take the law in his own hands or Get Carter (1971), where a gangster (Michael Caine) who gets to know that his brother’s death wasn’t as accidental as he had been told, seeks vengeance. But what made Death Wish special was the surprise box office success that it gave aging male stars a second-lease of life as the lead. Bronson was fifty-two when he featured in the film and went on to feature in 4 Death Wish sequels and was 73 when he last played the character Paul Kersey in 1994.

By comparison, Willis is 63 and would happily do a Death Wish as it allows him to do what he’s good at — action films. Similarly, Michael Caine was just 38 when he did the original Get Carter and Sylvester Stallone was 54 when he featured in the remake that released in 2000. The same goes for Liam Neeson, who lately seems to have become the millennial Charles Bronson thanks to his Taken series where he portrays a retired CIA agent forced to take on the bad guys and often outside the purview of law. Once again, the surprise global success of the first film in 2008 gave Neeson a new identity and soon, Oskar Schindler or Rob Roy was forgotten. Such was the impact of the Taken franchise that Neeson is now readily associated with action genre so much so that some of his ‘other’ action films namely Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014) seem like unofficial Taken sequels.

Liam Neeson in Taken

Liam Neeson in Taken

It’s not like actors such as Stallone or Willis didn’t try to shift gears but every time they have experimented, it has failed. The most notable was Cop Land (1997), where Stallone played an overweight sheriff of a town infested with cops (Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta) and despite a convincing performance, laden with vulnerability, anger, admiration, fear and many other emotions that he rarely got a shot to display, the film barely had any takers. A movie like The Sixth Sense (1999) where a Bruce Willis could be someone else besides the tough guy is very rare to come along.

Ironically enough, it’s while reinterpreting some of their most iconic characters that actors like Stallone and Eastwood got a half-decent part past their prime. Stallone’s Rocky redux in Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2016) that rekindled Rocky Balboa but with the focus on Apollo Creed’s progeny was one of the few instances where he could play his most memorable character and yet be ‘different.’ The film even fetched Stallone an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Ditto, Eastwood whose Walt Kowalski, the Korean War veteran, in Gran Torino (2008) might have been a tad too close to an 80-year-old 'Dirty Harry' but it also became one of his most soulful characters and a great note to bid adieu to acting roles.

Would it be incorrect to think then that the ‘angry-old-man’ character somewhere offers hope to male stars to carry on even when the landscape has changed? Perhaps yes. Even Mel Gibson found that to be the ideal return vehicle to the mainstream leading man role in Edge of Darkness (2010) and Get the Gringo (2012), post his much public meltdown. What’s more, this is the template that somewhere inspired The Expendables series, which in other words could be described as the retirement scheme for male stars who were once young and angry.

Updated Date: Feb 01, 2018 17:18 PM