Every year, movie producers keep trying to force a successor to the 1980’s action Holy Trinity of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.
The Rock is trying, but it will take more than “Fast Five” to make us forget about his starring role in “The Tooth Fairy.” Last year, Sam Worthington and Jake Gyllenhaal didn't quite make the cut. This year, “Twilighter” Taylor Lautner gives it a go with “Abduction.”
Memo to Hollywood: Stop. Just stop. Your next big action star may already be here.
Jason Statham has been kicking butt and taking names for years. From “Crank” to “Death Race” to “The Transporter” franchise and “The Expendables,” the bald Brit has established himself as a go-to action man. He can take down guys with his hands, feet, even his Italian sweater.
His latest effort, “Killer Elite,” opens Sept. 23. He plays an assassin forced out of retirement to save his friend (played by Robert De Niro). Even at its most ridiculous — at one point, he tumbles out a window, tied to a chair, onto a truck! — Statham is all business.
But when you compare star power, he's closer in stature to Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme than he is to Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Willis.
Anyone who has seen “The Bank Job” or “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” knows Statham has acting chops.
So why isn’t he a bigger star?
“By this point in their respective careers, Stallone had tried serious drama (“F.I.S.T.”) and Schwarzenegger had already moved to comedy (“Twins”),” notes IFC film critic Matt Singer. “Statham has made some small moves outside the action genre — he made “London” and “Revolver” with Guy Ritchie — but he seems hesitant to move out of his comfort zone.”
Ed Douglas, editor for the website Coming Soon, agrees that Statham needs to expand his horizons. “Maybe Statham needs to do other things than action movies,” Douglas said.
How does Statham measure up to Bruce, Sly and Arnold? Let’s see:
Tough guy factor
Skinny dudes like Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire may work in superhero movies, but to be an action star, you have to look the part. Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s muscle-bound physiques oozed attitude. So does Statham. He looks like the kind of guy who can walk into a bar and get someone to give up his seat just by giving him the stare down.
“He's a good action star because he feels authentic,” said Singer, pointing out that “Statham's refusal to hide his baldness speaks to his appeal. This guy is not a pretty boy.”
“Statham works as an action star because you truly believe he's as tough as his characters,” added Douglas.
The over-the-top '80s were carried on the broad shoulders of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Statham is more a reflection of the current times: Leaner, meaner and faster. The guy’s a natural athlete and does most of his own stunts, which only adds to his "tough guy" aura.
Measures Up: Absolutely.
Willis had Bonnie Bedelia in the “Die Hard” movies, Arnold had Jamie Lee Curtis in “True Lies” and in the “Rambo” movies, Stallone had ... err, Richard Crenna?
OK, so it’s not mandatory that an action hero save a damsel in distress, but it certainly helps. In Seagal’s best films, “Under Siege” and “Hard to Kill,” he had Erika Eleniak and Kelly LeBrock by his side.
Up to now, Statham’s best opposite-sex partner has been Amy Smart in “Crank.” And If you’ve seen that movie, you know it doesn’t exactly scream classic screen romance (if you’re thinking of Googling, it’s definitely NSFW).
For the guy who played "Handsome Rob" in “The Italian Job” and who in real life dates “Transformers 3” babe Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, that has to be a letdown.
Measures Up: Not so much
Playing the underdog
It’s no fun cheering for a hero who can’t be beat.
Arnold was the exception to the rule, but most action stars need to take their lumps. As Det. John McClane, Bruce Willis was a bloodied mess in every single “Die Hard,” and we loved him for it. Even a one-man army like Rambo was beaten and tortured in all four films, making his big comeback that much more enjoyable.
It’s why Seagal movies quickly grew stale. The guy barely ever took a punch.
Statham isn’t quite as bad, but he may be too tough for his own good. Scenes like the one in “The Transporter,” where he shellacks a bus full of bad guys and barely breaks a sweat, are cool. But once we know the hero has no chance of losing, we lose interest.
Time to take a few more punches, Jason.
Measures Up: Not quite
The one guy against the world shtick isn’t as appealing as it used to be.
Even Rambo, Indiana Jones and McClane picked up sidekicks in their last adventures. We love our hero team-ups. We want “Tango & Cash,” “The A-Team,” “The Dirty Dozen.”
“Predator,” pretty much the manliest movie of all time, works because Arnold and Carl Weathers try to out-leader each other, and because Jesse Ventura “ain’t got time to bleed.”
Statham gets it, which is why he’s always mixed group outings in with his solo adventures: “The Italian Job,” the action hero buffet that was “The Expendables,” and even “Killer Elite” shows him working with a crew.
He knows how to play well with others.
Measures Up: Absolutely
To earn your membership card in the Action Superstar Union, actors need that one defining role. The one that becomes a part of every lazily written entertainment news story, i.e. ‘Arnold to Hollywood: I’ll be back!’
Schwarzenegger remains the Terminator; Stallone has Rambo; Willis will always be John McClane.
Statham is ... Frank Martin? Lee Christmas? Chev Chelios?? How many of you can match up those names with a Statham movie, without going to IMDB?
That's the answer to the question asked earlier: “Why isn’t Jason Statham a bigger star?” Statham needs that once-in-a-career part that will resonate with audiences and forever be linked with his name. Until he finds that role — and he may never find it — he won't join the ranks of Sly, Arnold and the rest.
Measures Up: Not even close
Michael Avila is a writer in New York; follow his random pop culture musings on Twitter.