The Hollywood heros who refuse to act their age

Why won't Hollywood stars act their age and stop reprising the roles of their youth? Nick Hasted looks at the worst offenders

When Sylvester Stallone was arrested at Sydney Airport last year with 48 vials of the muscle-growth serum Jintropin in his baggage, the world of the ageing action star was laid bare. Watching the 61-year-old Stallone's silky, jet-black locks, bulging biceps and ham-hock forearms in Rambo is far more interesting than the moronic sadism of perhaps the worst film of the year. The arms are pumped up with the cartoon exaggeration of Pamela Anderson's breasts, and the hair recalls the wigs of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's delusional divas in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

The comparisons are apt. Great actors such as Jack Nicholson are allowed a craggy Bogartian machismo in old age. But action heroes are doomed to the undignified decline Hollywood forces on ageing actresses. The bulging physiques with which Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger muscled past older action stars in the Eighties have now, in Stallone's case at least, to be artificially maintained.

Lower down the Hollywood ladder, Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal also doggedly carry on making action movies, like punch-drunk boxers who know nothing else. Even those monuments of action cinema, Eastwood and Wayne, have not been immune. With Harrison Ford, 65, resorting to another Indiana Jones, too, here are ten superannuated superheroes.

Stallone has tried comedy, and serious acting (in James Mangold's fine Cop Land, 1997), where he acquitted himself well next to Robert De Niro). But all the public want is Rocky and Rambo. The nerve the unknown Stallone showed to insist on starring in his first, Oscar-nominated Rocky screenplay was beaten out of him long ago. Flailing attempts at variety – switching from boxing to arm-wrestling in Over the Top (1986), and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) – have ended in the spectacle of a 61-year-old with a face that looks battered by plastic surgery, and a body bloated with testosterone, machine-gunning hundreds of fiendish oriental soldiers. Stallone claims he's helping to bring down the Burmese junta. But his latest, bloodiest screen massacre is a dead end, leaving him nowhere to go.

Watch the Rambo 4 trailer.

Perhaps only George Lucas, 63, and Steven Spielberg, 61, really believe that the 65-year-old Ford remains prime action-star material. His last two films, Hollywood Homicide (2003) and Firewall (2006), saw him wearily look his age, needing propping up by younger stars. Reaching for the bullwhip instead of the bus-pass is his last chance at box-office redemption. He has insisted on bringing "the same physical action" by again performing many of his own stunts in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Ford can act. And the world loves Indy. He might just pull it off.

Watch the 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' Trailer

Hong Kong's biggest and most durable martial arts star built his career on bone-breaking balletic stunts that he's now forced to attempt in his fifties. His big US hits, such as Rush Hour 3 (2007), have seen Chan's stunt artistry emasculated by health and safety laws anyway. "I don't want to be an action hero any more," he railed in a despairing recent interview. "I mean, how long can I continue to do that? Of course, I know what everyone expects when they go to see a Jackie Chan movie. You can't do one stunt less..." He watched his films, he confessed, and felt "embarrassed". Still he keeps going, like a B-picture version of Nureyev's last, sad act.

Brosnan was 53 when he was unceremoniously dumped as Bond for a younger man, the sort of fate usually reserved for middle-aged actresses. "It was a body-blow," he said of the phone-call that removed his action-movie credentials. He'd still be willing to come back, he intimated, like a spurned, pining lover. The eruption of Daniel Craig's chiselled 39-year-old body from the sea in Casino Royale killed that. Brosnan's sly, Bond-baiting turns as the sleazy secret service agent in The Tailor of Panama (2001), and the cold-eyed assassin who becomes a pot-bellied, sex and drink-addicted nervous wreck in The Matador (2005) suggests he may find he has better things to do.

Watch Pierce Brosnan in 'The Matador'.

He's making a Mandela biopic now. But the Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby Oscars almost didn't happen, as Clint's vanity made him churn out tawdry knock-offs of his Seventies action prime when in his seventies himself. Right before Unforgiven (1992), he was directing and co-starring with Charlie Sheen in the witless buddy-cop bomb The Rookie. The arthritic last Dirty Harry movie, The Dead Pool (1988), and the senile second childhood of the flop crime-movies he retreated to with Absolute Power (1997), True Crime (1999) and Blood Work (2002) – in which he directed himself still effortlessly chasing down crooks with a shotgun, aged 72 – are the real Clint, just as much as the dark late classics of which other action stars can only dream.

The Duke was a big man, and out of shape, for the last of his four decades as Hollywood's greatest action star. Ambling through Westerns was one thing. But he lumbered into the Seventies like a dinosaur with Clint-aping contemporary cop-films such as McQ (1974). Seeing this fat, toupeed sixtysomething meting out shotgun frontier-justice on hippie-strewn streets, he looked like a man out of time. He pulled things round with a graceful swansong, when finally accepting age and death, as the cancer-ridden gunslinger of The Shootist (1976).

It's almost incredible to reflect that Steven Seagal was once a major box-office star. His decline from the heights of Under Siege (1992), and co-starring with the likes of Michael Caine, has coincided with the collapse of the market for old-fashioned action stars. Like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren, his later films always seem to end up in the DVD bargain bins. Unlike them, this 56-year-old, fat and puffy-faced, whispering non-actor exerts a strange fascination, as he wheezes through his old martial-arts moves, and expounds his Buddhist and green philosophies, in a tireless stream of not very popular movies (13 since 2003). A new book, Seagalogy, deconstructs the phenomenon.

Schwarzenegger's career may go down as the biggest con-job in Hollywood history. Recalling Ronald Reagan's political career, Schwarzenegger let himself be treated as a muscle-bound joke in the Conan films, only to sneak into a position of unstoppable power after finding his perfect role as the emotionless killing machine in The Terminator (1984). The other titles with which he defined Eighties action cinema (Predator, Commando, Raw Deal) leave no trace in the memory beyond Schwarzenegger's superhuman physique, and clunking catch-phrases Roger Moore would have rejected. By flops like End of Days (1999), the body was slower and heavier, and the non-acting, which never improved, naked. If California hadn't beckoned after Terminator 3, he would have gone back to Conan; like Stallone, stuck where he began.

Watch the 'End of Days' trailer.

Willis beat Stallone and Ford to the punch in going back to his action roots, in last year's fourth John McClane movie, Live Free or Die Hard. It was a hit, of course, following a string of aimless thrillers (who remembers Bandits, Tears of the Sun, Hart's War or Hostage?). But for Willis, more than anyone on this list, even Clint, it wouldn't have mattered if his old franchise had crashed. Though Willis can function as an action star, he is really in the tradition of Bogart and Mitchum, switching from witless beat-'em-up B-movies to mercilessly dark character acting (see The Sixth Sense, Nobody's Fool, Fast Food Nation). At 52, Willis could hang up his action hat tomorrow, and not give a damn.

This great name from Hollywood's past is a salutary lesson in why you shouldn't fight the ageing process too hard. While his friend and frequent co-star Burt Lancaster gave up his athletic pirate and Western films for character parts, climaxing in an Oscar nomination for his sad, small-time hood in Atlantic City (1980), Douglas stayed in shape to take action leads well into the Star Wars era. His last hit, Tough Guys (1986), with Lancaster, showed Hollywood's most virile actor still pumping iron and punching out street gangs at 70. Only a stroke in 1996 finally slowed him down. But no memorable roles resulted from this raging against the dying of his light. Ageing remains the toughest thing a tough guy can do.

'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' opens on 22 May. 'Rambo' is out now.