By: Daniel Reynolds
One of my favourite acting types in movies is the aging tough guy. You know the type: the actors that look like they just dragged themselves through a swamp, while drunk, only to eventually get flinty with their nemesis, while hungover. Think of them as the anti-Expendables. A true aging tough guy isn’t pumped full of steroids, or a preening body builder. The aging tough guy is of a rare quality and presence. He has the DNA of a loner, and anti-hero, but is usually a dedicated protector; you never quite know where you stand with him, but you always believe he’ll do the right thing. And, despite what Mark Harris will tell you about leading men in film, there is another acting epidemic on the way: who is the next true aging tough guy going to be?
There was once something of a holy trinity for the aging tough guy. Where does the lineage start? In the big time, you’ve got to start with John Wayne. Now don’t get it twisted, Wayne played a few dandies in his day, but he always got his shots in. You ever see Rio Bravo or the Searchers? The Duke is seen mostly shuffling around the sets, paunch not even a little bit hidden, with a certain economy of motion that suggests that you definitely didn’t want to mess with him.
So that’s our grandfather. From there, the early products (the son and holy ghost as it were) of the Wayne aging tough guy phenomenon trace to Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. We’re talking about guys who seemed invincible even when they were barely moving. These guys, along with Wayne, were in A-list movies, they were celebrities and they were movie stars. But that wasn’t entirely what sold them as film commodities; they could kick your ass. There have been more to mention over the years, but this is our baseline.
That brings us to today and to Liam Neeson. I got drawn into watching The Grey on a sunny Sunday afternoon recently, because, what the hell, why not watch an existential man vs. nature drama set in the Alaskan hinterlands. For those who don’t know, The Grey was a largely under seen movie that is known as the one with Neeson strapping broken bottles to his hands to fight killer wolves. You’re not going to believe this (no, really) but the movie is actually much more emotionally and philosophically engaging than that. Still, it all hinges on Neeson’s superhuman ability to (a) elevate some of the film’s more dime store pop philosophy elements up to a beautiful elegiacal tone and (b) be totally believable as an Irish sniper survivalist hired by a mining company to kick ass and hunt wolves. Spoiler alert: Neeson pulls it off.
This reinvention of Neeson, which really gained traction after 2008’s Taken, moved him to the forefront of a gang of actors that stand apart from the pristine halls of the leading man pantheon. I’m talking about guys like Viggo Mortensen, before he veered off into abject obscurity and Cronenberg-land, and Denzel Washington, who has dabbled in the aging tough guy persona but can still swing for those Oscar fences now and again. Bruce Willis gets an all-time pass into the club for John McClane, even if the last Die Hard movie was terrible. As before, I could rhyme off more names, but the bottom line is, where does that leave us? Who is next?
I worry we may be entering into a crisis in the future. This generation of “tough guy” actors (I’m using quote marks now; a bad sign) are lacking in everything from presence, to proper facial hair. We’re supposed to believe that Channing Tatum, who seems like a fun guy, should be the first in line to protect the president? There’s gotta to be a better way! As with the usual leading men, let’s talk about what these future aging tough guys have to master soon if they want to be the next in the line of the legacy of Wayne.
This is the quality that the old guys had in spades, even when they were getting beaten up or tripping on drugs. Unflappability was probably best personified by Humphrey Bogart, back in his Phillip Marlowe/Sam Spade days. Every one of his old gumshoe films would have contrasting moments of Bogart being supernaturally cool balanced against moments where some goon would slug him in the stomach a few times. It is easily the most lost of the tough guy aspects as films shade more and more into an uncomfortable self-awareness that connects stoicism with a glib brand of humour. The old guys may have made a quip before getting a blackjack to the back of the head, but it was because they knew it was coming (and they knew they’d get their revenge somehow). These days, the joke is more of a wink to the audience; it can be funny, but the menace is undermined.
Ironically, one of the actors with definite potential to age into the aging tough guy pantheon is Clive Owen. He’s got a history that suggests absurdity (Shoot’em Up) but also a reservoir of non-James Bond British cool that he exerts in films from Croupier to Children of Men to Inside Man. Probably just needs a bit more seasoning, a little more salt-and-pepper in the hair.
This category is also synonymous with intensity. And no, I’m not talking about wild-eyed insane method acting intensity. (Nicolas Cage and Klaus Kinski can see themselves out. Separately.) While unflappability usually plays best in a group – because you need something to not-flap against – the brooding presence is the quintessential solo element to the aging tough guy persona. It is what divides Irish actors Brandon Gleason from Liam Neeson. The former has an immense stature and can be a very threatening actor, but he is also adorably charming and cherub faced, even when about to lean in for some violence. Neeson, on the other hand, can stew with the best of them.
Reaching for new heights at a young age in this regard is the mute king, Ryan Gosling. For every moment he is not trying to convince you he’s a Lothario, the scripts of his latest movies give him, I don’t know, approximately 20 lines each. I don’t think he talks for a solid hour of Drive. He has shown a little too much razzmatazz in some of his performances (to say nothing of the irony he trades in) but he could get there, assuming he doesn’t become this generation’s Ryan O’Neal.
Now, this is a tricky thing to catalogue. We know what Sylvester Stallone thinks of his appearance and how important it still is to his roles (even though it is naturally impossible at his age). The problem is that with guys like him, or even an actor like Daniel Craig, who has the unflappable gene but appears to be hewn from granite, the sheer overwhelming physicality they exert works against the rambling tough guy persona. Bronson was the scariest dude back in the day and all he had was a wispy moustache. For God sakes, Wayne wore a girdle! Where do we draw the line here as every action hero actor is convinced that the first thing they must do to enter into a badass role is to bulk up to extreme degrees (e.g. the Rock, Christian Bale, even grinning Ryan Reynolds).
Ironically, I think Vin Diesel, of all people, has got it right here. He is definitely a guy who has spent a lot of time building himself into the stout keg he has become, but it matches his gravelly personality well. (This could also be because he is actually a fairly short guy. Or because I’m the world’s biggest Pitch Black defender). Another who excels here: Tom Hardy. And get this, he starred in a movie called, wait for it, Bronson! I’m not saying aging tough guys can’t be big dudes (Neeson is well over 6 feet), I’m just saying you have to pick your spots.
Here is where things get extra complicated. (Ain’t that always the case when sex is involved?) The aging tough guy is, by definition, a bit of a loose cannon which has an appeal beyond merely good bone structure and defined muscles. To be clear, what we are trying to define here is different from straight up physical appearance; it is about an attitude. Think back to Robert Mitchum, easily one of the most unique persona’s in film, as he trudged across films like Out of the Past and Cape Fear (to say nothing of the Night of the Hunter). There was an unnerving sexuality to those performances, a rakish sense of danger that kept Mitchum outside the mainstream but secured him as a tough guy of the highest order. He was not the most handsome guy (but he wasn’t ugly!), yet he oozed a saucy appeal.
Looking across today’s film landscape it is easy to count the handsome actors. It is an obvious prerequisites for the job after all. But, think again: is Matt Damon, who has the action acting chops from years of Bourne movies, too (for what I assure you is the lack of a better word) cute? Is it telling that George Clooney, in his most tough guy role as Bob Barnes the career CIA field agent in Syriana, grew out his beard, thinned his hair and gained a bunch of weight? Yes, sex appeal is a bit of an ineffable quality (especially when being discussed by me), but it is necessary to stoke any real emotion fires. That fire is danger and aging tough guys trade in danger.
There was John Wayne and Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. We had Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. We enjoyed Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson. Where can we turn to next? Is the future of the aging tough guy left in the hands of meme-irony with Gosling? Are we going to be juiced to the extremes with the Rock? Do we have to wait for one of the Hemsworths to have less spectacular hair than their female co-stars?
In another decade, the dinosaurs of the action movie age will be extinct. The tough guy characters of the 90s will be largely retired. With the rise of bigger and bigger action franchises in the new century, and more films that eschew the rough and tumble ways of the anti-hero, can there be any new tough guys left for the future?
 Clint Eastwood is another obvious choice as a legendary aging tough guy. He’s in a different, separate, singular league though. Eastwood stands as an institution in and of himself. I think he’d get mad if he thought I was over here trying to box him into a group.