We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
All your favorite ’80s action stars are back in this weekend’s The Expendables. It probably won’t introduce any new stars though. This week, I wanted to look at some of the movies that created an action star. These aren’t necessarily the best action movies ever, but rather the movies that really launched a promising career. Some great action stars don’t make the list, because there isn’t one great movie that launched them or created a star but the career didn’t really hold up. Here’s my personal, surely controversial, list.
7. Vin Diesel in Pitch Black (2000)
Recap: In the 27th century, a transport ship crash lands on a desert planet. There, the dangerous criminal they were escorting, Riddick (Diesel), escapes. But before long he joins back up with the crew when it becomes clear that no one will be making it off this planet alive without some serious team work.
Reason: The movie looked terrible, I remember laughing at the trailers. But then I saw Vin Diesel and fell in love. It’s not just the deep voice, the lack of hair on his head or body, or his mirror-reflective eyes. Diesel’s Riddick is such a badass he looks like he could take on all the crazy bug people on the planet on his own. Not only is he badass, but he’s totally creepy in a sexy way. I remember seeing this film in the theater and laughing at loud when I saw that the bald, bulked up star of the film was named Vin Diesel. However, he’s only at number seven because despite great promise, his career hasn’t been that exciting. But hey, he’s still young. Maybe Fast and the Furious 5 will turn things around.
6. Tony Jaa in Ong Bak (2003)
Recap: Ting (Jaa) lives in a poor village. But when his town’s Buddha statue’s head is stolen, he agrees to travel to Bangkok and attempt to find the thieves and get the head back, using his muay Thai boxing skills.
Reason: One of the few films in recent years that actually made me go whoa, Ong Bak reveals a star in Jaa. The film actually stops for some of the stunts, showing them three or four times from different angles before continuing on with the action. However, for once I didn’t mind because the stunts in question are pretty sweet. Whether he’s fighting in a ring or jumping over vehicles, Jaa’s physical skill seems to go beyond what the human body should be capable of. So far he’s only done three more films, but I could see a really amazing future for him. According to Wikipedia, Jaa joined a Buddhist temple at the end of May. Let’s hope he finds a way to make films soon because he’s one of the best talents out there right now.
5. Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988)
Recap: Det. John McClane (Willis) shows up in LA to try and reconcile with his estranged wife. Unfortunately, he chooses the day of the company Christmas party/hostile takeover by pan-European terrorists. Luckily, through a winning combination of kick ass action moves and world weary one liners, McClane may just be the man to save the day.
Reason: Willis was best known as a television actor and didn’t seem likely pick for stardom. But Die Hard pretty much turned that around for him. Willis is the best example on this list of an action star who combines hardcore attitude with devil may care charm and never ending one-liners. So despite the fact that he probably makes one film for every four turkeys (seriously, go to IMDB and add it up) when he’s good he’s very good.
4. Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967)
Recap: A bounty hunter (Eastwood) and con man team up to find some Confederate gold during the American Civil War. Unfortunately, a sociopathic mercenary is also after the gold and doesn’t plan to stop until he finds it.
Reason: Though this was the third film in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, it’s also the most successful. Though Eastwood had appeared on Rawhide before this film, playing “The Man With No Name” turned him from a TV cowboy into a badass star. His character is dark, ruthless and very quick on the draw. Though ostensibly the “Good” in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it’s only because there’s such slim pickings. Later he would solidify his tough on screen image in the Dirty Harry films, before damaging it by playing opposite an orangutan. But seriously, who thought he’d still be kicking ass in his 80s?
3. Sylvester Stallone in First Blood (1982)
Recap: Though remembered as a hardcore action flick like the other films in the series, the first Rambo film is a surprisingly nuanced film about the after effects of the Vietnam war. John Rambo (Stallone) enters a small town in Washington as a hitchhiker, looking for an army buddy. However, the local law enforcement seem less than pleased to see him and send him heading back for the hills. Too bad they didn’t realize that he’s a former Special Forces member who’s just a hair short of losing his cool, which he proceeds to do, going native in the forests outside of town. From there, things get ugly for the townsfolk but pretty sweet for action fans.
Reason: Stallone was a good actor, he had appeared in three Rocky films before this, but it didn’t seem likely that he’d really fit into a lot of other dramatic roles with his unusual speaking pattern and general punch drunk demeanor. Luckily, Rambo proved that he was a very engaging action star. I just saw this movie for the first time about a year ago and it wasn’t at all what I expected. Not only is the plot both coherent and interesting, even containing political undertones, but I really got why Stallone became a star. He’s really impressive in this film. Rambo’s more than a little crazy in the head but you still root for him. Few films actually have you cheering for the guy killing local law enforcement. It’s a strangely subversive and pretty fun American classic. It could also be argued that it’s the height of his career, to which I’m sure he’d point out that The Expendables hasn’t come out yet.
2. Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973)
Recap: Lee (um, Lee) is a Shaolin martial artist who is invited to join a super secret fighting competition on reclusive millionaire’s secret island. He’s urged to go by the British secret service official who believes nefarious activities are occurring on the island. So Lee agrees to join, and finds himself kicking ass in a serious way.
Reason: This is another one that I only saw for the first time in the last year and after watching it, I knew why Lee was a legend despite making so few films. Not only is he an amazing fighter, but he totally has a presence on film. I kept wondering why the other characters in the film were messing with him. He was not the sort of person you would want to upset. Seriously, he’s a thin guy, despite the major muscles, but he just has an intensity that suggests you would be a fool to mess with him. His death was tragic, not only to his family but fans all over the world.
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator (1984)
Recap: A cyborg (Schwarzenegger) from the future goes back in time to kill a woman in order to murder her son before he is born. Chaos ensues.
Reason: This wasn’t Schwarzenegger’s first film, or even his first starring film, he was in two Conan movies before this. However, this is the movie that made him a star. He really seems unstoppable as the titular Terminator, and that would be put to good use in dozens of other films, from Predator to Total Recall. More so than any other action star, he seems like he could take on anything and survive it. Despite the fact that he’s Austrian (before becoming an American citizen anyway) he’s the most American action star there is. His films, more than the work of any other actor in any genre defined the ’80s. No one else could be number one.