He's gotta be strong, and he's gotta be fast/ And he's gotta be fresh from the fight," implored Bonnie Tyler on the 1980s anthem "Holding Out for a Hero", and the leading men of Eighties cinema were, seemingly, all these things. They were movie icons with titanic, indestructible egos and Hollywood cinema was bursting with them: Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Gere, Patrick Swayze (R.I.P), Kurt Russell, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, most memorably. Their "names" sold films. But what has happened to these leading men, these beefcakes with their resolute, no-nonsense heroism? Men who never feared looking ridiculous: Cruise in Days of Thunder, Stallone in Over the Top. Men (usually Arnie) who said things like "I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I'm very hungry!" (Commando). Do they lumber around together in their mansions like a set of muscled, sag-fighting Norma Desmonds wailing "I'm still big; it's the pictures that got small"? Where have all the good men gone, indeed?
Watching the DVD releases of Knight and Day (Tom Cruise's clumsy actioner), Brooklyn's Finest (Richard Gere's grim policier) and The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone's dunderheaded thug-a-thon) in the past few weeks seems to have confirmed that the Eighties' leading man's appeal is in dramatic decline. The Expendables was a bold, loud attempt by Sly to bring back the sort of brutish action hero that once sold a gazillion cinema tickets. The film fails, the action men who star in it as ruthless mercenaries – Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham (the latest charisma-free action hero), Jet Li – flop. Brooklyn's Finest was an effort by Gere (always, to be fair, a more ambitious leading man) to bring some acting credibility to his waning star brand. However, he sleepwalks through Antoine Fuqua's dismal drama about crooked, compromised coppers. Ford, similarly, tries time and time again to show his depth (Extraordinary Measures, Crossing Over; maybe Jon Favreau's upcoming sci-fi thriller Cowboys and Aliens will revive him?) – but the world remembers him as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and he doesn't seem to have the acting chops to break loose.
Cruise has proved his "acting chops" in the likes of Magnolia, Collateral and Rain Man, but even this bundle of supernova energy is fading. Quite apart from the Scientology nonsense, Cruise's choice of action film, or any kind of film (Valkyrie, Lions for Lambs), has lent him a toxic quality, and even he is perilously close to "box-office poison". His latest, Knight and Day, is more creepy than thrilling, with Cruise's morally dubious secret agent (he, unforgivably, shoots a fireman) essentially physically and mentally abusing Cameron Diaz's sweet-natured June.
The likes of Cruise, Ford, Gere and Gibson played a huge role in my childhood. I am conditioned and programmed to watch every single one of their films. I suspect the rest of the world (a younger world) isn't similarly conditioned – and they're not missing out. These tough-guy actors don't appear to be growing old with dignity, with grace. It must be tough. Think of Cruise, Gere, Harrison or Gibson and you remember them in their beautiful, bright-eyed youth – Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, Star Wars and The Year of Living Dangerously – and these potent images are so terribly powerful. Maybe we can't bear to see them grow old on screen, particularly inhabiting yet more action-man roles.
And they don't appear to be quite good enough character actors to abstain from the action flicks and risk new, more interesting careers. They rely on their shtick, their overwhelming charisma to propel them through their film work.
Better actors, but not necessarily more charismatic ones, gradually took over leading-man status during the Nineties and Noughties; the likes of Russell Crowe, the excellent Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. And the most recent, quite uninspiring ones are Christian Bale (Batman, where he mainly grunts, and Terminator Salvation, where he shouts a lot) and the insipid Sam Worthington (Avatar and Terminator Salvation).
However, the upside is that a small band of exceptional character actors are currently enjoying today's less lavish, more tight-fisted film climate: Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and James Franco (Milk). They're subtler, more complex performers, playing more ambiguous male roles.
Cruise would baulk and no doubt grin maniacally at the thought that he's too old for action-man roles – and it would be ageist and absurd (he's clearly super fit, as proved by his leaping and karate-chopping in Knight and Day) to suggest that he is. But surely it would profit him to pursue roles like the gross egotist Frank T J Mackey in Magnolia, rather than spring into another potentially calamitous dollop of Mission Impossible (the fourth one is currently filming in Dubai).
In 1997, Stallone managed to stumble (and mumble) into a decent part, as a washed-up, hard-of-hearing and bent policeman in Cop Land. It garnered huge praise, it made him more interesting, but he simply didn't persist with these types of roles. Maybe the parts simply aren't there for him? But, frankly, his humourless The Expendables escapade was unnecessary (more worryingly, they're making a second one). Stallone seemingly doesn't feel the need to change, adapt. The fading leading man's not for turning.
And then there's Gibson. How do you solve a problem like Mel? His "issues" (alcohol, ripe remarks) have been well documented, but he was always more multifaceted than Mad Max and Lethal Weapon. Gibson is obviously more interested in directing (Apocalypto was astonishing) than acting (and Hollywood appears, understandably, to be shunning him) these days, but there is his upcoming role in The Beaver (directed by Mel's pal Jodie Foster) to look forward to. He plays a troubled husband who adopts a beaver hand-puppet as his sole means of communicating. That's more like it. Maybe Cruise and Harrison could try their hand at this type of film? Before, they too, become expendable.
'Knight and Day' and 'The Expendables' are out now on DVD/Blu-ray