The Last Action Heroes
'Nobody' and 'Fatman' Face the Twilight of the Genre Star
Spring 2021 belonged to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It will belong to Godzilla vs. Kong until the next Marvel or DC entry finally ends its release-date limbo. Amid the domination of such multiverse blockbuster properties, the critical raves and respectable box-office performance of a Bob Odenkirk action vehicle didn’t quite register with the American public when Universal Pictures released Nobody in theatres a month ago. In decades past, Nobody would have been prime summer moviegoing—a Bruce Willis/Harrison Ford/Mel Gibson must see. Now, those former stars haunt the realms of direct-to-VOD or reassume their iconic roles with a generous dose of self-parody. Theatrical action movies that do find wide releases face dwindling budgets, forced to get by on the cachet of cult actors and prestige cable-program stars. Yet, while the action genre has entered into a managed decline, its ability to mirror the state of America remains as potent as ever.
In Nobody, Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) receives a pity-filled pep talk from his father-in-law Eddie (perennial tough-guy Michael Ironside). “I’m rooting for you,” the elder man says the morning after a home invasion leaves Hutch humiliated in front of his family. Hutch’s greatest obstacle isn’t coming to terms with the limitations of his domestication, but preventing that identity from eroding who he really is: a retired mercenary for the U.S.'s three-letter organizations. Showy and lean, Nobody knows the current state of the genre well enough to rely on Odenkirk’s Better-Call-Saul energy and finely honed comic-timing to elevate it above a typical popcorn-and-fireworks action flick.
An outgrowth of film noir, the action movie saw its first iteration during the New Hollywood of the 1970s when spaghetti-western staples Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson starred in the canonical Dirty Harry and Death Wish vigilante franchises. Their success led scholars such as Robert Ray to divide the period’s films into a Right and Left cycle in which lone-wolf, tough-guys in the Eastwood/Bronson mode served as scions of the silent majority while works like The Graduate, M*A*S*H, and Cool Hand Luke explored alienation and the oppressive hand of American institutions.
As the action film entered the blockbuster era of the 80s and 90s, its stars transitioned into what Susan Jeffords deemed the “Hard Bodies'' of Reaganite entertainment: primarily Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Wesley Snipes, but also eventual A-listers Willis and Gibson as well as martial artists Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Jeffords’s postmodern feminist lens positions such stars as extensions of Reagan’s toxic foreign and economic policies. Yet, the era’s action films also exhibit a rarely discussed pro-immigrant stance in which both first-generation actors like Stallone and foreign stars Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and Australian prodigal son Gibson interrogated their adoptive country’s role in the Cold War while espousing its core values as they embodied the heroic American ideal.
By the eve of the Obama Era, the superhero film displaced the shoot-em-up as the quintessential blockbuster. Consequently, the action hero underwent a process of outsourcing that mined the nation’s economic anxieties. That the Taken franchise became a zeitgeist property to audiences pining for American exceptionalism during the Great Recession comes as little surprise; that it led to the rise of esteemed Irish actor Liam Neeson as the decade’s dominant Hollywood action star appears fitting as does the consistent success of his closest rival, the British Jason Statham. Not coincidentally, their ascent occurred at the same time as the onscreen debuts of a Welsh Batman (Christian Bale) and an English Superman (Henry Cavill).
In the aftermath of Trump’s rise and contentious fall, the action film has seen its own rifts. Though still emerging, films like Nobody and John Wick, which share screenwriter Derek Kolstad, come at the genre armed with idiosyncratic, yet respected actors like Odenkirk and Keanu Reeves and stitched together by filmmakers who may well read Guy Debord while waiting in line to geek out at Comic-Con. In contrast, the recent surge of direct-to-VOD movies featuring ageing actors keep the 80s approach alive while acknowledging the weathered appeal of their stars for better (Gibson’s Dragged Across Concrete) or worse (Willis’s Survive the Night).
What one can glean from these less-reputable actioneers is an exploration of Reaganite hard bodies softening in this historical moment, a theme vital to Gibson’s most recent VOD venture, Fatman. Ostensibly nothing more than a good idea for a fake trailer, Fatman finds Gibson as a working-class Santa with a flailing business decimated by a lack of faith in the age of entitlement. Begrudgingly accepting a U.S. military contract to keep his elves employed, “Chris” must also contend with a soulless yet cherub-faced preteen (Chance Hurstfield) and his on-retainer hitman (Walton Goggins) seeking revenge for the gift of coal.
However, dismissing the film as the latest ebb of Gibson’s career overlooks the movie’s refusal to succumb to its B-movie trappings. Chris’s wife (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) responds to his laments that he has lost his influence and should have charged royalties for his image years ago with the terse rejoinder, “That’s not who we are.” Like Hutch’s father-in-law, she’s rooting for him. Yet, what she’s rooting for is not the rediscovery of his inner violence; it is a realization that, despite Chris’s predilection for self-pity and alcohol, his ethical code is a liberating force he must defend at all costs. Gibson could have just cashed his checks. Instead, he uses the genre to come to terms with both himself and the public’s perception of him, confessing to his failures and seeking to live up to the values he—and the America his soft body serves as an extension of—aspires to.
At their core, the sincere genre deconstructions of Nobody and vehicles for ageing icons like Fatman substitute the restoration of order innate to action films of decades past with a fierce desire to combat the crushing influence of a culture that would rather kill its idols than assume responsibility for a dearth of imagination rarely rising beyond grandstanding polemics and lazy nostalgia. The anxious 20s may ultimately prove the culmination of action stars not willing to don spandex in front of CGI, but like the best aspects of post-Empire America, these heroes hang on, hoping the next last stand is not the final one.
🎅 Catch Fatman on Amazon, Apple TV, or YouTube
🔪 Catch Nobody in theatres or pay top dollar to rent at home on Amazon