When the Minister of Silly Walks talks, attention must be paid. Recently, John Cleese told Radio Times:
“I did two James Bond movies, and then I believe that they decided that the tone they needed was that of the Bourne action movies, which are very gritty and humourless…Also the big money was coming from Asia, from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, where the audiences go to watch the action sequences, and that’s why in my opinion the action sequences go on for too long, and it’s a fundamental flaw. The audiences in Asia are not going for the subtle British humour or the class jokes.”
Cleese said a mouthful. And it’s not just 007, and it’s not just because of Asia. We don’t really have funny action heroes anymore, even though no one’s talking about it. (For example, Bill Simmons just got through 20,000 words on action heroes since the 60s without mentioning it.) Yes, there are a few outliers, like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, but the overwhelming trend is toward dourness and an absence of smiling, as typified by Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on 24, the Jason Statham sub-genre, the current Liam Neeson cycle, and even The Fast and the Furious films (you’d think they could be funnier). It’s striking to note the difference in humor and wit between the first Star Wars trilogy and the second, or between the first two Spider-Man films and the reboots, or even Wolverine in the first two X-Men films (“What do you teach?” “Art.”) and the more recent ones. And while Cleese is onto something, one can’t just blame Asia: there’s also an increased sense of duty/moral seriousness after 9/11, as well as a more corporate-driven film industry that doesn’t wish its products (and product placements) to appear ridiculous, especially when re-mixed on the internet a hundred different ways. Also, in this century, animation has basically stolen the funny-action thing. Really, it’s a shame for him that Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson didn’t come along ten years before he did.
We’ve reached a point where fans weaned on the billion-dollar-earning Skyfall must find any previous 007 ridiculous, must wonder why the Austin Powers films (and in the 60s, three dozen full-length parodies/rip-offs by the likes of David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen) were ever considered satire…aren’t they just more of the same? But yes, kids, there was such a thing as the funny action hero, and he didn’t always imply that bullets aren’t to be taken seriously…at times, he made the lonely aggression of our society’s vigilantes more understandable and more relatable, so that we’d get the humanity behind our necessary protectors. It’s true that every great action film has a hero trying to resolve an internal crisis by entirely resolving an external crisis, but if said hero never smiles or says anything funny, as audiences we come close to losing interest in both crises.
Hollywood once gave us swashbuckling pirates like Douglas Fairbanks (and Jr.), but those older films tend to be too inert in the non-action scenes. John Cleese is right to direct us to 007; it’s hard to over-estimate the influence of the James Bond films over Hollywood. During the 60s, each one made more money than the one before, leading the industry to believe in sequels; as Mark Harris put it, they “exemplified UA’s strategy of bringing in strong independent producers, letting them make their movies their way, and splitting the profits when the money rolled in, and their immense success was a major factor in the erosion of the studio system by the end of the 1960s.” As went the independent producers, so went the film’s stars: tough, no-nonsense, but with a dry whimsy that was perhaps a little too emphasized when Roger Moore replaced Sean Connery as 007. Anyway, as the sun sets on a particular kind of man (to make way for more women, let’s hope), today we take a look at the Top 10 Funny Action Heroes 1959-1999, forty years of relative, pre-9/11 innocence that we can’t really get back. Read the choice lines below and picture Matt Damon or Liam Neeson or Kiefer Sutherland saying them…that’s right, could never happen. 9 out of 10 are non-fantasy, non-sci-fi, and that speaks to 007’s influence as well as what they really meant…these men weren’t just jokesters, but tour guides for contemporary survival of the body and soul.
Top 10 Funny Action Heroes 1959-1999
1. Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), North by Northwest (1959) – It’s time to acknowledge who was Bond before Bond, and to finally recognize that Hitchcock’s tone – never less than Freudian anxiety, but never without a certain gallows humor – had as much influence over the action genre as it did over horror. Here, he hit upon a pulse-quickening perfection thanks to Cary Grant, who deconstructed The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit way before Matt Weiner and Jon Hamm were even born. Hitchcock could do fear-inducing noir when he felt like it, so it wasn’t nothing when he used the Cary Grant persona – which some have called the greatest in Hollywood’s history – to point to a more playful (if still alienated) 1960s. It’s not really surprising that users have driven NxNW to #61 on imdb’s Top Movies list (ahead of Citizen Kane and many, many other great films): the more you see it, the more you see it’s the template.
Choice line: “Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”
2. James Bond (Sean Connery), Goldfinger (1964) – It’s hard to choose just one 007 film, but it’s only fair – and the third film is when Connery really hit his stride. No longer feeling any of the slight stage fright one can sense in Dr. No, no longer feeling any pressure to out-Cary Grant Cary Grant, Connery walks, jumps, dives and shoots through this film like he’s owned the franchise forever. And here the franchise feels less bound by the dour Ian Fleming source books (presumably, John Cleese isn’t a fan of them), and more into whiz-bang gadgets, car chases, and Hugh Hefner-esque sexcapades. Or maybe it’s just the way Connery says “Poo-sayy.”
Choice line: “Now, Pussy, you know a lot more about planes than guns. That’s a Smith and Wesson 45, and if you fire at me at this close range, the bullet will pass through me and the fuselage like a blowtorch through butter. The cabin will depressurize, and we’ll both be sucked into outer space together. If that’s how you want to enter the United States, you’re welcome. As for me, I prefer the easy way.”
3. John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), Shaft (1971) – 1971 was the annus mirabilis (or annus horribilus, depending on your perspective) of violence in films: Dirty Harry, The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Billy Jack…but one man was funnier and cooler than all of them, and I think you know his name? You’re damn right. Richard Roundtree as Shaft made you believe a man could be funny and street-wise and lethal, a trifecta that’s not as easy as it looks. The film is not consistently as excellent as its premise – who could really live up to that Isaac Hayes song and that oh-so-symbolic name? But when it works, which is often, it’s a restorative tonic to all the wiseacre cop and spy movies that were – well, let’s face it, considering their whiteness, a little too convinced of their coolness.
Choice line: “Warms my black heart to see you so concerned about us minority folks.” [Vic: “Oh come on Shaft, what is it with this black shit, huh?” Vic holds a black pen up to Shaft’s face. “You ain’t so black.” In Shaft’s reply, he holds a white coffee cup next to Vic’s face:] “And you ain’t so white either baby.”
4. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Star Wars (1977) – People forget how many major science fiction films came out in the 70s pre-Star Wars: Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes sequels, Soylent Green, Rollerball, The Man Who Fell to Earth…by comparison, Star Wars certainly didn’t have more clever concepts. It’s better for only two reasons, those being special effects and humorous humanity, the latter only crystallized in the moment that Han Solo first appears in that cantina bar, smiling, shrugging, even a little mugging. Luke was like a dozen other bland sci-fi leads, but Han was suddenly what seven leads on Star Trek all failed to be: the funny, capable skeptic of the entire, uh, enterprise. George Lucas might have been thinking of the swashbucklers of the films of his youth, but Ford took them to a whole new level.
Choice line: “Well, you can forget your troubles with those Imperial slugs. I told you I’d outrun ’em. [nobody is listening] Don’t everyone thank me at once.”
5. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – It’s not really fair that current grouch-in-chief Ford gets two films on this list, but greatness is greatness. (It’s also not fair that on Ford’s recent reddit AMA, the questioners went on and on about these two films, but have apparently never seen The Fugitive.) Why does everyone know and love Indiana Jones, but no one knows his many antecedents from the cliffhanger adventures of the 1950s, which are just as easy to rent nowadays? It’s the direction, it’s the script (hey, George Lucas used to be funny!), but it’s also Ford, who knew just how to balance the gravity and levity of the proceedings. With Dr. Jones, America finally had a (white) 007, a hero for every kid who wanted to be as quick with a rider’s whip as with a whip-like tongue.
Choice line: “Meet me at Omar’s. Be ready for me. I’m going after that truck. [Sallah: “How?”] I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go!”
6. Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy), 48 Hrs. (1982) – Blame the Hollywood script gods or simple racism, but Richard Pryor, perhaps the funniest man of the century, never quite played a funny action hero, and yes we’ve seen Silver Streak. Instead, in his debut film, Murphy suddenly did everything Pryor only hinted at, and a movie star was born. Like Ford in Star Wars, Murphy doesn’t actually show up until after a long expository half-hour, but the minute he’s there you can’t take your eyes off of him. Like Roundtree in Shaft, the role could never have been played by a white man (better not to count how many times the film uses the n-word), and also like Roundtree, somehow Murphy represents yet transcends all the danger and humor that whites have associated with black men, making 48 Hrs. more of a thrill than it ever should have been.
Choice line: “Oh, you’re gonna kick MY ass now? I think you lost your mind, Cates. Just put your gun back in your holster and get in the car and let’s go. I’m serious. I’m not in the mood and I’m just gonna end up fuckin’ you up out here and it’s gonna be an embarrassment to you and the police force.”
7. Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy), Beverly Hills Cop (1984) – Unlike Ford, Murphy has every comic right in the world to have two of the ten films on this list. Thanks to Saturday Night Live and his comedy specials, then-23-year-old Murphy in 1984 was everywhere, successfully symbolizing both the black hostility to Reagan’s America as well as the funniest possible takes on it. In a time before man-splaining was known by that term (but when it happened even more often), Murphy was the first to be tirelessly black-splaining things to whites, whether it was about how ridiculous they danced or how exhausting their mansplanations were. And he was dangerous, or Beverly Hills Cop wouldn’t have become the biggest film of an already big-film year.
Choice line: “Don’t you think I realize what’s going on here, miss? Who do you think I am, huh? Don’t you think I know that if I was some hotshot from out of town that pulled inside here and you guys made a reservation mistake, I’d be the first one to get a room and I’d be upstairs relaxing right now. But I’m not some hotshot from out of town, I’m a small reporter from Rolling Stone magazine that’s in town to do an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson that’s gonna be picked up by every major magazine in the country. I was gonna call the article “Michael Jackson Is Sitting On Top of the World,” but now I think I might as well just call it “Michael Jackson Can Sit On Top of the World Just As Long As He Doesn’t Sit in the Beverly Palm Hotel ‘Cause There’s No Niggers Allowed in There!””
8. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), Lethal Weapon (1987) – What did Mel Gibson have that Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, and the rest of the Expendables cast never had? Why is he on this list and they, despite a few noble efforts at being funny, aren’t? For one thing, Gibson had producer Joel Silver, who was determined to make a white, American, contemporary (read: not fighting Nazis) Indy Jones/007-like cop figure who would begin a new franchise and win America’s heart by beating the bad guys on Christmas in L.A. (Silver managed to really perfect this formula on the next film on this list.) Gibson also got a great script from newcomer Shane Black (who, after this, became Hollywood’s highest-paid scribe) and terrific support from Danny Glover, who, in a clever reversal of the Roundtree/Pryor/Murphy type, played the beleaguered family man who must bring the white spitfire to heel. In a post-Murphy era, Gibson knew that to be funny/dangerous, he had to seem crazier than he ever did as Mad Max, and he was.
Choice line: “See this key? Bye-bye…Now you can jump if you want to, but you’ll be taking me with you and that makes you a murderer.”
9. John McClane (Bruce Willis), Die Hard (1988) – If this list were in hierarchical and not chronological order, I think we all know that this would contend for the top spot. Critics now say that Bruce Willis made the movie hero human, but that’s a telling error when you look at the rest of this list. The real innovation was to make a genuine blue-collar man into a wisecracking crime-stopper: finally, a hero who actually looked like his most passionate fans. Entertainment Weekly has already ranked this the #1 action film of all time, and there’s not much more to say…but one reason Die Hard holds up so well is that unlike 007 or Dr. Jones, it’s so post-Cold War, so racially diverse. It anticipates a world where terrorists are both the main threat and somewhat misunderstood (“who said we were terrorists?”)…and the tongue-in-cheek John McClane, God love him, gets all this, even if he’s not so great at getting his wife to love him.
Choice line: “That’s pretty tricky with that accent. You oughta be on f*ing TV with that accent. But what do you want with the detonators, Hans? I already used all the explosives. Or did I? [Hans: I’m going to count to three.] Yeah, like you did with Takagi? Ooops. No more bullets. What do you think, I’m f*ing stupid, Hans?”
10. James Carter (Chris Tucker) in Rush Hour (1998) – You could make a case for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, but her drama scenes are so effective/harrowing, you almost forget she ever made any jokes. You could make a case for Will Smith, but Smith is a naturally decent Tom Hanks-like guy who’s less into being funny and more into occasionally ribbing his co-stars, while Tucker – at least in the Rush Hour films – is naturally hilarious, grabbing the Murphy mantle for a new generation. Jackie Chan has said that he doesn’t find the Rush Hour films funny, but considering how often he played his own films for laughs (unlike Bruce Lee), this comes off as sour grapes, or like Paul Newman when he said he originally thought he’d be playing the fresher Sundance Kid, not Butch Cassidy. If Chan resists the humor, then Tucker plays brilliantly off of that resistance. Every loudmouth lead in a well-written film gets his/her eventual comeuppance, but Tucker plays the whole film so breathlessly that his eventual apology doesn’t seem fake.
Choice line: “This is the LAPD. We’re the most hated cops in all the free world. My own mama’s ashamed of me. She tells everybody I’m a drug dealer.”