When the first Taken movie, starring a then-56-year-old Liam Neeson, debuted Super Bowl weekend 2009 to $24.7 million en route to $226 million-plus in global box office, all of America was still reeling. Not from the result of the big game (it was close, but a Steelers victory was hardly a surprise) but from the global economic crisis, epitomized by the Lehman Brothers collapse that had shocked the country a mere three and a half months earlier.
Suddenly, a $25 million action movie straight out of the January dump pile gave birth to Hollywood’s most virulent and odd new genre: the transcontinental “geriaction” thriller. Taken would spawn two more Takens and a whole host of faux-Takens. Last year alone there was November Man starring Pierce Brosnan (61) and 3 Days to Kill with Kevin Costner (then 59).
The phenomenon is best typified (and perhaps calcified) by this weekend’s grim thriller The Gunman. This humorless, jet-setting neck-snapper concerns a security contractor in the Congo whose past double-dealings have come back to haunt him. The Gunman was co-written by and stars Sean Penn (54) and is directed by Pierre Morel—you guessed it—the guy behind the first Taken.
It’s no coincidence that a genre featuring take-charge killing-machines-over-50 has taken hold during a time when the non-lethal, work-a-day version of the same character has never been more economically vulnerable.
“In today’s economy, by the time you get to 50, you are closer to the end than the beginning of your work career,” says Dirk Mateer, senior lecturer in economics at the University of Arizona and co-author of Movie Scenes for Economics. “So there is a natural appeal to the idea of saying, ‘Hey, I can still be the guy.’ It is not as much ‘50 is the new 30’ as ‘Look, I’ve still got it.’ It’s an idea that resonates with an older audience obviously, but really with anyone facing an uncertain economy.”
In many ways, we can blame “geriaction” on many of the same downward economic forces that have led us or someone we know to be underwater on a house or filing quarterly taxes. But one of the chief reasons may be that even minor medical procedures can cost more than a midsize Mercedes: Baby Boomers getting old.
“A lot of this speaks to demographics,” says Mateer. “[Action] is a genre of film that has historically not been very popular with older audiences, with the exception being James Bond, and even that is a role that the actor eventually ages out of and is replaced by a younger version. These movies finally push that boundary past 50 and that appeals to a similarly-aged demographic that’s expanding.”
The films also call into focus America’s obsession with transformation, be it physical or otherwise. (By the way, have you seen Sean Penn’s arms recently?) What in the real world might be 50-somethings applying old-school business practices to the digital service economy—in Neeson-speak, these would be “… a particular set of skills… acquired over a very long career”—translates on screen to gratuitous shots of buff old dudes with their shirts off. In The Gunman, this includes but is not limited to an otherwise pointless scene where the titular badass goes surfing, as if Penn was still cutting fifth period at Ridgemont High.
“We have been saying for so long now that ‘60 is the new 40’ that it would be almost surprising not to see this put into action—pun intended,” explains Peter Lehman, director of Arizona State’s Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture and editor of Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture. “Americans are fascinated with the idea of body transformation, and in traditional gender terms this means men retaining their power as they age. The main stars in these films have created a new personae in them that seemingly manages to prove this cliché about the new middle age, while holding out the fantasy of such transformation for a segment of the male audience.”
Not to say that this is the only segment of the audience here holding out fantasies. Unlike their muscle-bound progenitors, this version of the action hero is both masculine and paternal. For the women attending these films in increasing numbers, these heroes could either bed them, or offer them that month’s student-loan payment.
“In the ’80s, these films were clearly aimed at teenage boys and that is no longer true,” says Chris Holmlund, a professor of film, women’s studies, and French at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and author of Impossible Bodies: Femininity and Masculinity at the Movies. “Action films have shifted to attract women. I don’t know if it’s just men who are most threatened. This is a complex time where everyone is constantly under threat.”
Homlund sees the rise of “geriaction” less as a response to shifting economic tides than to a nostalgic connection to a time when men with power didn’t need to employ a clever one-liner while wearing a bespoke suit to enthrall us. “It it cyclical,” she says. “We have turned back to this stolid inward avatar of a kind of masculine model who kills with dispatch. This goes back to Clint Eastwood and John Wayne before that—guys who did not spend their days in the gym. It was not always Arnold and Sly. These are guys who have more of a romantic edge to them.”
Which is to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Before the year is out, Rocky Balboa, still employable as a trainer to Apollo Creed’s boxing grandson, returns in Creed, and before that we get a visit from everyone’s favorite time-traveling cyborg. “This summer Arnold Schwarzenegger returns with another installment in what may be his signature role in Terminator Genisys,” says ASU’s Lehman. “So even as we see something new, maybe some are already starting to feel nostalgic for that muscle-bound body of the ’80s.”