Last Action Hero

The king of pumped-up bodies is back with a new film. But now that gym culture is commonplace, asks Mark Simpson, has movie muscle had its day?
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The Independent Culture

Guys! Do you worry that your body isn't sufficiently lean and muscular? Do you frequently compare your muscles with other men's? If you see a man who is more muscular than you, do you think about it and feel envious afterwards?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions it used to mean that you should send a postal order to Mr Charles Atlas to ask for advice. Nowadays, if the myriad articles about the latest "disease" to afflict men are to believed, it means you may be suffering from "bigorexia" – the delusion that you're not beefy enough.

On the other hand, it might just mean that you go to the movies.

These days we expect all our male leads to have perfect pectorals, bounteous biceps and corrugated steel stomachs that speak of hours of sweat, tears and neurotic dieting. "Brad Pitt" is now Esperanto for "six pack". What, after all, is the point of being a film star if you can't hire the most sadistic personal trainer in town and feast on egg white omelettes and rice cakes? More pertinently, why should we puny punters pay good money to gaze up at men on the big screen who aren't themselves bigger than life, but sport waistlines that speak of no life at all?

It wasn't always thus. In fact, until the Eighties muscles were so few and far between on screen that the man bashing the gong at the beginning of Rank films was as all you were likely to get. It was of course an Austrian former Mr Universe who changed all that, banging a gong for bodybuilding in Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Terminator (1984), introducing us to the spectacular body and changing forever the way we see the male physique.

True, all those steroid-pumped chests look excessive now, "tittersome" even, and screen muscles have tended to come in a more human size for some years, but a male Hollywood star who doesn't work out is as unthinkable now as an American who doesn't floss.

And Arnie, like the cyborg he played in his most famous movie, keeps coming back. This week sees the opening of his new movie Collateral Damage, in which he plays a fireman seeking to avenge the murder of his wife and son by terrorists. Next month he begins filming Terminator 3, quickly followed by Total Recall 2 and True Lies 2. Single-handedly, and Promethian-like, 55 year-old Arnie, who had major heart surgery five years ago, seems to be trying to haul the Eighties back. (Not least because his political ambitions seem to promise Reagan 2.)

Meanwhile, his former arch-rival Sylvester Stallone is currently trying to get funding for yet more sequels to his Rocky and Rambo films. Also 55, Sly hasn't had a hit movie for a decade. Post 11 September he hopes America is ready again for a muscle-bound, if slightly wrinkly hero and that Hollywood will buy the idea of Rambo parachuting into Afghanistan. So far his attempts to get funding have been unsuccessful, but if the Austrian asshole succeeds in making a comeback, who will be able to stop the Italian Stallion? Next week's dose of snickering nostalgia TV – When Muscles Ruled the Earth – about Arnie and Sly's rivalry in the Eighties, looks in danger of being contemporary.

Of course, Arnie and Sly weren't the first muscle men to make it in movies – just the first to succeed in making it "big" business. Back in the 1930s there was Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller, Olympic swimmer turned jungle vine swinger. By the 1940s and Fifties Sword-and-Sandal epics starring people like Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and body-builder Steve Reeves, legitimised the display of more naked, shapely male flesh. Russell Crowe revived this genre in 2000 in Gladiator and went out of his way in interviews to claim that his brawny physique had been formed not in the gym but in "practising sword fights" (in a leather skirt).

In the Fifties and Sixties Rock Hudson epitomised the "All-American" clean-cut hunk. He had a body, but was not sexual. His masculinity was pleasingly superficial and unthreatening. But it was that other Fifties phenomenon Marlon Brando who inaugurated a new era – the male as brazen sex object. His tight-T-shirted, sweaty muscularity was openly erotic. Clift and Dean were faces, but Marlon was a face on a pouting body. There was something androgyne yet virile about the Wild One's most physical roles. Perhaps as a kind of revenge on the industry, Marlon famously developed an eating disorder (something usually associated with women) and later became notorious for his "work outs" with gallon tubs of ice cream. In an odd way, Brando's weight-problem is a kind of "bigorexia", and probably even harder work than staying trim in the way that, say, Clint Eastwood has.

In the Fifties-come-around-again Eighties, Tom "Risky Business" Cruise somehow managed to combine Brando's erotic narcissism with Hudson's clean-cut sterility, this time in a pair of Y-fronts. Later, in Taps he played an intense right-wing recruit with an obsessive interest in bodybuilding and showering. In Top Gun, the definitive Eighties movie, he legitimised the new male narcissism as something patriotic and Reaganite. Most of Tom's oeuvre since then has stuck to the same theme of boyish vulnerability mixed with determination; passivity and masculinity; sensuality and respectability – and the identity problems that this creates (eg Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky). By the same token, his muscles, with the exception of those seen in Taps – and his preposterous forearms in Mission Impossible – have never been huge, but they have always been definitely there if needed. Or desired.

The Eighties "roided" bodybuilder action heroes such as Arnie, Sly, Bruce Die-Hard Willis (who for most of the Eighties seemed to be wearing Brando's vest from Streetcar) and the Muscles From Brussels, Jean Claude Van Damme were less happy to be sex objects. True, these were film stars whose claim to fame rested largely on their willingness to display their bodies, but there was also slightly desperate disavowal of any passivity – hence the emphasis on being action heroes. Arnie and Sly were offering their spectacular bodies for our excitement. Like the explosions and the stunts, their bodies were special effects – in a pre CGI era they were perhaps the most important special effects of all.

Since then the mainstreaming of bodybuilding, the increasing sophistication of CGI and the reconciliation of a new generation of young men to their ornamental role has left their Eighties action heroes' antics looking rather embarrassing. Today's male stars work out, but the compensation of hysterically massive musculature, hard-on vascularity and single-handedly wiping out entire armies isn't needed. Aesthetics have become more important than arm-aments. Arnie may have succeeded in getting Hollywood down the gym, but it is (early) Marlon and Tom who have inherited the world. Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ethan Hawke, and all those close-ups on hunky-but-pretty Josh Hartnett's long-lashed eyes in Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down prove this. Even Will Smith in Ali doesn't look heavyweight.

However, that's not to say that the new relationship to the male body is any less pathological. When for example we see Brad smoking or eating a hamburger in Ocean's Eleven, we can't help but wonder how much it cost in CGI. (Reportedly he and his wife don't keep any food in the house and have all their meals calorie counted and delivered to their door). It's difficult to imagine any of today's male stars finding anything they'd actually swallow at Planet Hollywood.

Meanwhile Arnie and Co, the "bigorexic" heroes of yesterday's big screen, seem unlikely to bring back the outsized Eighties not just because no one really needs them, but because they are looking their age. In Collateral Damage Arnie has a touch of Herman Munster about him. The steroids he began using at 14 to produce those "special effects" tend to hasten the ageing process and may well have contributed to other "collateral damage", like his heart problems (they have also become mainstream – seven per cent of High School boys in the US admitted to taking them). Having been convinced by Arnie to put so much faith in working out, the world does not want to be reminded that it can't keep you young forever or even have the opposite effect.

Yes, his Panzer body is still there, trundling beneath his pill-box head, but it is faintly embarrassing now. He plays a fireman, which is nice and practical and human scale. But we know, post-11 September, that most American firemen do not look like male masseurs. As one of the characters complains when Arnie turns up unexpectedly: "You order cheese pizza and you get German sausage".

'Collateral Damage' (15) is out on Friday. 'When Muscles Ruled the World', BBC1, 10.35pm, Weds. 'The Queen is Dead', by Mark Simpson, is published by Arcadia