We’re all pretty excited now that Harrison Ford has actually reappeared as Han Solo in the latest Star Wars trailer. But this is hardly the first time an old-guy action hero has gotten back in the saddle only to declare in one form or another that he’s “getting too old for this sh*t.” Harrison Ford himself has made an action-comeback several times already (Hollywood Homicide, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and we all know that the Die Hard franchise has turned out to be even harder to kill than John McClane.
So, what’s the deal? Is there a bizarre cultural obsession with old guy comebacks?
Let’s start with Liam Neeson’s relatively new, grizzled tough guy persona. At some point in the last 20 years, Liam Neeson became a cold, hard badass. If you think about how we regarded Liam Neeson as an actor in the 1990s, this is a little weird. Around the time he was cast as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, Liam Neeson had a well-deserved reputation as a respected, classy actor. Someone who we thought was legit because he was in Schindler’s List and even recorded the audio book for The Polar Express (He doesn’t do the voice of the bell, sadly)—for every Krull and Darkman, he also appeared as the title roles in Ethan Frome and Michael Collins, not to mention his turn as the (non-singing) Jean Valjean in 1998’s Les Misérables.
Unlike Sean Connery or Arnold Schwarzenegger, Liam Neeson’s career didn’t really begin by playing a warrior or a badass assassin. Yet between the Taken films, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Run All Night, Liam Neeson on a Plane, Liam Neeson Versus the Wolves, etc., etc., this old-guy action hero shtick pretty much defines his career now. One could make the argument that he’s just sick of being broke and that these sorts of movies make more money than more respectable ones…but it’s still weird. Imagine it’s 20 years from now and Eddie Redmayne is doing movies where he catches guns in midair while growling clichéd one-liners. You’d be saying,“Wait. Isn’t that the guy who played Stephen Hawking?” Which is how we should all react to Neeson’s current career path. Isn’t that Oscar Schindler? Nope. It’s murder-death-explosion guy!
And what of Harrison Ford? If we’re really being honest, as much as we love and respect him as an actor, he’s always been an action film hero at heart. Sure, there are those who will say “What about Witness? What about The Mosquito Coast?” but those roles are the exceptions in his career, not the rule. Playing the President of the United States in Air Force One was already an “old guy comeback” and that movie was made in 1997! So if we’re being really, really honest, the late 90s was when we wanted Han Solo back. 2015 isn’t too late, necessarily, his return just feels delayed. From the moment he first unleashed his arrogant grin in American Graffitti, he was destined to return over and over again: an older, grayer, still-lovable rogue coming back to charm us all over again, one last time.
But why does it work? Why do all these movies with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson get greenlit and get made at all? A friend of mine insists that Neeson and other old guy action stars appeal to straight women as well as men. He seems like a safe, reliable guy because he’s a little older, a little wiser, but he’s also blowing things up—so, everybody wins? And of course, there’s the entrenched sexist bias underlying the entertainment industry itself: older male action stars have traditionally done well (in general), therefore studios think they always will. And this hasn’t been the case for very many female stars over the years; not only are there fewer action roles for women in Hollywood, but the chance of an older actress making a similar comeback is much, much rarer.
As a sideways example: when The Rolling Stones recorded “Gimme Shelter,” Merry Clayton performed the backing vocals. In the subsequent tour, Merry Clayton appeared on stage with the Stones for this song, but when Stones were touring again in the late 1980s they actually replaced her with a younger singer: Lisa Fischer. The point is, it’s okay for Mick Jagger to look older, but it’s not okay for Merry Clayton. So perhaps it wasn’t much of a surprise to see that the first returning cast member to make an appearance in a Star Wars trailer wasn’t an older Princess Leia, but Han Solo (along with his wingman, Chewie).
Don’t get me wrong: pop culture (consumer and creators alike) currently has an obsession with cool, smart, often snarky older actresses of the “tough old bird” variety, as well. Maggie Smith was a popular actress in the 1950s and 60s, but these days has arguably become more famous for her awesome-old-lady roles in the Harry Potter movies and Downton Abbey. This is also true of Helen Mirren in the Red movies, and Dame Judi Dench, who has actually been in seven James Bond movies. That’s more than Timothy Dalton (two) Pierce Brosnan (four) and Daniel Craig (soon-to-be four). She’s also tied with Sean Connery, although she actually beats his record if you don’t count Never Say Never Again—which really, you shouldn’t. Judi Dench has even appeared in The Chronicles of Riddick alongside Vin Diesel, but in terms of public perception, she still hasn’t transformed into an “action star” the way Liam Neeson has. Part of this might have to do with the amount of stunts or gunplay the characters are directly involved in—and while there is an all-female Expendables-style movie called The Expendabelles in the works, it’s not likely to star a bunch of older laides. At the end of the day, we tend to see these established actresses’ forays into blockbusters and action films somewhat differently than we see those of their male counterparts.
Speaking of which, there’s no greater proof of society’s obsession with old guy action star comebacks than The Expendables series. How have there been three of these movies? I mean, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…well, you get the idea. Unlike Last Action Hero or another Die Hard movie, or even the presence of “Old Spock” in the new Star Trek movies, the Expendables movies aren’t remotely nuanced or clever in terms of what they’re up to. This is an old-guy action-star orgy that unapologetically throws all of these dudes in our faces almost at random, context be damned. You could argue that structurally, there’s not a big difference between a musical supergroup like The Traveling Wilburys and The Expendables…except that The Traveling Wilburys actually had some good songs and a sense of humor.
Honestly, no one I know has actually seen more than one of The Expendables movies, while almost everyone I know has seen Furious 7—an action movie that also relies on its ensamble cast. Are stars like Vin Diesel and The Rock destined to become the next generation of aging action stars in 15 years or so? Or maybe over the course of the next decade we’ll see Vin Diesel doing more “serious” films and actually winning that Oscar he thinks he’s earned. In the meantime the old guy comeback cycle will no doubt continue even if it is getting, well, old.
Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths, forthcoming from Plume Books on November 24th. His writing has appeared with The New York Times, The Awl, Electric Literature, VICE and elsewhere. He is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and lives in New York City.