They Don't Make Actors Like They Used To
By Johnny Apocalypse September 1st, 2005
Since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of filmmaking, there have been great actors. The best of them had a wide range of performances, a trait which has carried over to many of today's fine young thespians. But where Lee Marvin succeeded in the role of the tough guy, the present day's breed fail miserably. The "tough guy" was a no-nonsense character who would rather shoot you between the eyes then let you polish their shoes. Ever since the "Golden Age of Hollywood", tough guys dominated the screen, played by the masters like Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood. Sadly, the days of the tough guy are drawing to an end, and the nation is left with actors who couldn't kick an ass to save their life. I'm talking about the new generation, men like Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Luke and Owen Wilson. And let's not forget those schmucks who do only comedy, and lousy comedies at that: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jason Biggs.
No doubt there are thousands of readers who are crying out "What about Damon as Jason Bourne? And Owen Wilson in Behind Enemy Lines?" Sure, Jason Bourne could easily be considered a tough guy, but he has a lot of heart and too many emotions. And while it definitely takes a tough man to make his way through a war zone without any weapons like Wilson did in his war movie, but what about the good ol' one man armies?. These men can't hold a candle to some of the greatest roles played back in the day.
Let's begin with the roughest of the rough. Lee Marvin. In classics like The Dirty Dozen and The Killers, Marvin was the quintessential badass, a man who didn't screw around and got what he wanted through brow-beatings and ass-kickings. Marvin reached his tough guy pinnacle in Point Blank, as a professional thief who gets screwed over by his wife and crime partner, and goes on a violent rampage issuing new assholes to anyone who looks at him wrong. I'm sure that this movie sounds a lot like Payback with Mel Gibson, and that's because they're both based on the same book, The Hunter by Richard Stark. Sure, Gibson was pretty harsh in the film, but he cracked jokes whereas Lee Marvin played the character straight out of the book¾ no jokes, a minimum of talking and plenty of hard-hitting action. That's because tough guys don't crack jokes.
Charles Bronson made just as many marks in the world of hard-asses. While Death Wish was his biggest role, that character wasn't the nastiest motherfucker around. It's when he took up the movies Hard Times and Mr. Majestyk that you knew that it wasn't a good idea to piss of Chuck Bronson. I'd rather be tossed in a pit of cobras with only a rusty spoon to save myself than rumble with Bronson in the boxing ring for a round or two.
Of course, these actors wouldn't be anywhere without the classic hard-hitting sons-a-bitches from the black and white days. Men like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Richard Widmark. These men started the true movie tough guys, everything from the private investigator to the mobster. I can just see Jason Bourne trying to take on Jim Cagney.
Bourne: I'm gonna kick your ass with my fancy CIA kung-fu!
Cagney: Myeh, bring it on, you dirty rat!
Whack! Myeh! Whack! Myeh!
Bourne: Oh, god, have mercy! Please stop!
See that? Today's rough and tumble actors are pussies compared to the masters. Clint Eastwood could beat Ben Affleck with both hands tied behind his back, blindfolded and while singing "Jingle Bells". Of course, Clint would never be caught singing "Jingle Bells".
Now before we move on to today's actors, there's one more tough guy that I have to mention. Kurt Russell isn't a name often brought up when you think of the hard cases, but when he portrayed the sociopath and war-hero turned armed robber Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, this really signaled the end of the tough guys. Once EFNY hit the theatres, every cheesy post-apocalyptic B-movie in the world tried to rip off Plissken, like in Escape from the Bronx with a character named Trash. That movie, that character and all the namby-pamby tough guys that came after 1981, that's the real trash.
And just for the record, Russell's comedy Used Cars is a thousand times funnier then anything Ben Stiller has done, is doing, or ever will do.
Now then, what about today's actors? Is anyone fit to play Mike Hammer? Could they rumble their way out of a wet paper bag with a baseball bat? If Affleck put an eye patch on, would he be the next Snake Plissken, or the next Jack Sparrow instead?
Sadly, the age of the tough guy is truly gone. While we sometimes get a solid action movie featuring one of the young crowd, the essence just isn't the same. Let's start with Matt Damon. By all means, a good actor. His current blockbuster duo, The Bourne Identity/Supremacy, certainly showed that he has the possibilities to be a tough guy. He kicked some ass, didn't take 'no' for an answer and made sure the bad guys knew not to fuck with him. But Bourne had something that the other bad-asses didn't. Heart. Can a tough guy fall in love? Sure, just look at Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. But Damon takes the emotion past love into longing to know who he was and why he became such a martial-arts master. And while he takes the motive of revenge under his wing in Supremacy, he doesn't carry revenge to the fullest extent (Spolier: He should have blown that assassin prick's head off in the end, dammit!) If Steve McQueen woke up from a coma and found out that he could kick everybody's ass, do you think he would question anything? Hell no. He'd just walk down the street, leaving a path of destruction in his wake and start a new life as either a superhero or a supervillan.
Next, we come upon Ben Affleck. Sure, in Daredevil he kicked lots of ass and was a generally pissed-off guy, but when he took the costume off, he was an everyday Joe, with a sense of humor and a wide range of emotions. Then you hit Paycheck, where he has a solid fight scene and plenty of awesome chases (yeah, I know lots of people didn't like that movie, but the action scenes were cool, and it was based off of an awesome short story). My sources even tell me that Affleck did his own fight scene work in Paycheck, but they could be wrong. Both films left a lot open in the qualities of a tough guy; he cared more about everything around him then just himself, he cracked jokes and he just isn't damn convincing as a tough guy. He needs an acting coach like Clint Eastwood to show him how it's really done.
I would like to touch on Vince Vaughn before I conclude this little article. He has actually shown some range in his career, believe it or not. I thought he was great as Norman Bates in the remake of Psycho, rivaling the classic performance of Anthony Perkins back in the day. And he's really not too bad in comedy. He's even gotten a laugh out of me from time to time (which is rare for most of the comedy movies that come out anymore). But could he be a tough guy if a script called for it? No, no, a thousand times no! First of all, his looks just aren't right. Second, his voice doesn't quite fit the characteristics of a tough guy. Lastly, his looks just aren't right. Can you imagine Vince Vaughn as Batman? Or how about Dirty Harry? "Go ahead, make my day" with his voice would really get a laugh out of me. Hats off to Vaughn for filling the shoes of a nut-bar in Psycho, but for the love of God, never ever cast him in a movie as a bad-ass.
Lastly, I would like to pose one final question to my readers; is there hope? I like to think there is. Case one, Viggo Mortenson (Aragon to all those Lord of the Ring fanatics). Decent scruffy looks, a solid voice and good in action scenes. I recently caught a preview where he plays a Jason Bourne type character, solid fighting/gun skills with an amnesia backdrop. It's been done, but I think Mortenson has a chance at pulling it off. Since a movie based on the Max Payne games is in the works, Viggo is one of my top picks (next to Kurt Russell and Thomas Jane).
Oh yeah, Thomas Jane. You know, the guy who played The Punisher. Once again, great pissed-off voice and good work in action scenes. Lots of people hated this movie, but I think T.J. did a damn fine job, it was the script that had the problems.
Matthew McConaghey is my final choice. While I never would have picked him as a tough guy, catching him in Sahara gave me hope. He was a good fighter, a smart tactician and had some decent jokes. It may be blasphemy to say it, but he reminded me of Indiana Jones (and no, that's not my way of saying that he should take the part from Harrison Ford).
Sadly, the great American tough guy is in short supply. With the steadily aging masters, including Bruce Willis and James Woods (tough as hell in Vampires), it's safe to say that many of those still alive won't be retiring any time soon. Hell, I'd definitely drop seven fifty at the theatres to see Clint play Dirty Harry one last time. Sure, he's getting long in the tooth, but he's in better shape then most Olympic athletes and can still squint like nobody's business.
Let's all raise a final toast to the tough guys of yester-year, the Bogarts, the McQueens, the Bronsans and the Willis's'es. Here's to the hopes that those passed away will live forever in out hearts. Here's to the prayers that those still around happen to be immortal. Raise your glass in optimism, that Bruce will come back as John McClane, that Kurt Russell will play Snake a third time, and that great parts like Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and John Shaft will always be around.
And finally, here's to dreaming that Hollywood will wake up and find us another great tough guy. A guy who could win us the war, show men how to be men and never stop whomping on those who deserve it most.
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