14 Jun 2014

Should Hollywood abandon the action movie old guard?

As veteran Star Wars actor Harrison Ford recovers from a broken ankle sustained on set, is it time for the film industry to reconsider its reliance on ageing action stars?

Harrison Ford is recuperating in hospital after reportedly breaking his ankle on the set of the new Star Wars film at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.

Production company Lucasfilm has said the filming of the Star Wars VII sequel will go ahead as planned, but the incident may raise questions about the industry’s unwillingness to take risks on new talent to lead its biggest films.

Ford, 71, is just one among a crowd of mature Hollywood stars who still attract the big pay cheques for carrying blockbuster movies through the box office.

In with the old

The new Star Wars cast certainly features a bevvy of new talent, and acclaimed British actor David Harewood says Hollywood is still the place to be if you’re a black actor wanting to find decent roles and the kind of success that has become hard to button down in Britain.

But the long list of ageing action heroes appears to reflect Hollywood’s obsession with the sure thing – a reliance on tried and tested actors and ideas which can help reduce risk when pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a new production.

From Tom Cruise to Bruce Willis and even Sigourney Weaver, Hollywood’s A-list reads like a roll call of stars from yesteryear, even though they still help bring in the biggest bucks for new productions.

Studios have been plundering the comic book genre for years to help churn out a chain of surefire hits, but fewer new concepts are hitting the screens as certainty in the outcome becomes the main priority for massive production companies focused squarely on their balance sheets.

Tried and tested

Ford shot to fame with the first instalment of the original Star Wars trilogy in 1979, then donned his famous hat for the Indiana Jones in 1981 before playing the lead in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

He has enjoyed leading roles in big action moves ever since, and his current role marks a renaissance for his career after his fourth Indiana Jones film, released in 2008, was poorly received by critics, even though it did well at the box office.

Reprising the role of Han Solo in Star Wars makes sense for Ford, and of course for the film makers who want to ensure continuity with one of the most successful film series to date.

In 2001 George Lucas learnt to his cost that making a clean break from the established cast made Star Wars hard to resurrect when making the first of three prequels, which were panned by critics and fans, but yet again proved that recycled ideas often make huge returns at the box office.

At 51 Tom Cruise is probably the most obvious example of an action star showing little sign of slowing down, and still holds huge appeal to studios and film fans.

He remains the cornerstone of the Mission Impossible series, which is about to embark on its fifth film, and has a string of major action films on his resume.

Sequel sensations

He first gained stardom as the star of Top Gun in 1986, another film which is about to receive a sequel – but would Cruise have made anywhere near the same impact as a young wannabe in today’s industry?

Liam Neeson accompanies Ford in the pantheon of wisened thespians, and at 62 has taken a belated shine to action movies such as Taken after critical successes in the likes of Schindler’s List.

At 64, Sigourney Weaver is one of the few actors who can claim a genuine record as an action heroine, following her appearances in the Alien series and James Cameron’s Avatar, another big hit set for a couple of sequels, at least one of which is set to include her.

Even James Bond incumbent Daniel Craig has moved into middle age at 46, while his US counterpart and lynchpin of the Bourne series, Matt Damon, is also closing in on his late forties.

Only rising star Shia LaBeouf can stake a genuine claim to Hollywood youth in the action genre, having just reached his 28th birthday.

Hollywood has taken to producing tongue-in-cheek montages to flaunt the talents of its oldest action stars, establishing the Expendables series starring Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren and stalwart Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ford may yet star in two more Star Wars films after a successful recovery for his current role, but should he and fellow members of the old guard consider moving aside for a new generation?

While the big roles keep being offered and Hollywood’s appetite remains strong, that seems unlikely. That may mean fewer chances for the new crop, and a reliably uninspiring chain of blockbusters for several years to come.