The Expendables looks like a bullet-ridden Who’s Who of the past, present, and future of action movies, with well-armed musclemen of all kinds: icons like Sylvester Stallone, contemporary ass-kickers like Jason Statham, and newcomers like Randy Couture. Such an impressive assemblage of shoot-first-and-ask-no-questions-later talent is enough to get any action maniac thinking about who would be the All-time Action-Hero Team. (We’ll get to that at a later date.) Today I’m wondering who’s on the All-Underrated Action-Hero Team, a squad of men who aren’t expendable, whose contributions to action movies must not be overlooked any longer — because they can kick your ass. If we learn anything from action flicks, it’s that, somehow, someone’s got to pay — in this case, homage to underrated action stars. So who are my players for the underrated action squad? The following gentlemen, ranked from toughest to least tough (but still really tough).
1. Kurt Russell
Russell’s my personal favorite, in large part because he’s given us the most underrated action-movie badass, Snake Plissken of Escape From New York. (Don’t hold Escape From L.A. against him: everyone wants a victory lap.) Yet Russell’s name never comes up when people talk about action legends. This is Snake Plissken we’re talking about here, an anti-hero with an eye patch and a mullet, the only man who ever made Kansas City and Cleveland sound cool. Russell’s a five-tool action hero with the looks, charisma, and man power to hold his own against aliens (The Thing), action royalty (Tango & Cash), and mustachioed outlaws (Tombstone). And, like any good eighties action hero, he can seamlessly incorporate the occasional comedy curveball (Overboard) into his repertoire. He’d be my No. 1 pick in an action-hero fantasy-team draft. You don’t tussle with the muscle of Russell.
2. Liam Neeson
The Irishman is a close second to Russell, as he’s laid out a blueprint for how you go from master thespian to master of disaster. Neeson merely dabbled in action flicks early in his career but of late has improbably emerged as a leading man of action. After scratching the surface of his potential with The Phantom Menace, he’s reached the height of action glory during his current run: Taken, Clash of the Titans, and The A-Team. And he’s one of the world’s finest actors. And he’s in his fifties. I’m just hoping to be able to retrieve the paper with only minor pain in my fifties. Truth be told, he’d make this list just for saying, “What I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.” Sometimes I like to hop under the bed, hoping to get Taken, just to get rescued by Neeson. Is that so wrong?
3. Tom Cruise
Yeah, I said Tom Cruise. At No. 3, no less. Deal with it. Whatever his flaws, Cruise has an old-school eighties glam and glitz that still works. C’mon: we’re talking about Maverick from Top Gun. Admit how much you love him. This is a judgment-free column. Nobody’s going to bust your chops if you say you wanted to be Mav more than the Terminator for Halloween two decades ago (or last year). Cruise is the original mix of cocky and cool, and, even though his star burned brightest as Mr. Hollywood, he knows his way around an action flick. Yes, revealing himself as a crazy person hurt his action cred, but, in my book, Minority Report and the bridge scene in Mission: Impossible III are more than enough to keep him smack-dab in the middle of this squad.
4. Christian Bale
No, this is not just because I have a fan crush (fanboy man crush) on Bale for his bombastically Bat-tastic portrayal of the Caped Crusader. Bale is more than just Batman. Everyone thinks of him as a very talented, very intense (“Oh, good for you!”) actor. Which he is. But he’s also a tremendous action hero, cut from the same cloth as other dramatic leading men (Neeson, Denzel Washington) who carry emotional and literal firepower in equal measure. Whether in Batman Begins; Public Enemies; the wildly underappreciated Equilibrium and 3:10 to Yuma; or the most recent Terminator offering, Bale brings it. It’s time to start thinking of him as more than just a handsome leading man. Swear to me!
5. Patrick Swayze
It’s a rare and great man who can lead the Wolverines against the Ruskies (Red Dawn), kill a man with his thumb (Road House), rob a bank after surfing (Point Break), and still pull baby from a corner (Dirty Dancing). Swayze was almost as pretty as he was tough, and, thanks to the latter, nobody could give him a hard time about it. Perhaps the most graceful, artistic, and handsome action hero, Swayze, like Russell, deserves to be called the ultimate throwback action-hero word: he’s macho. You’ve got to appreciate a guy who seems just as comfortable blowing up Commies as he does showing off his dance moves. This group needs a pretty boy, and Swayze’s the guy to round out the team.
And for a swing guy off the bench, I’m bringing in the Drunken Master himself.
6. Jackie Chan
Just rent some of his pre-Stateside work (Police Story or Supercop, anyone?), and you’ll see why it’s easy to look past the Pele-comes-to-the-States version of Chan most people know. The guy simply does things in his martial-arts movies that nobody else matches, period. Forget The Karate Kid; Chan’s for real.
That’s the All-Underrated Action-Hero Team. I’ll put this squad up against any team of legends or the Expendables any day. Sure, I left a lot of firepower on the table (Van Damme, Cage, Seagal), but the fun’s in the debating. My guys got some serious game. Who you got?
Nick Stevens, co-host of AMC’s Action Pack (Wednesdays, at 8pm | 7C), tries to make funny about movies, pop culture, and sports as often as possible. He lists John McClain, Batman, and Tom Brady as the people he’d most like to have beers with. For more of his grown-up nonsense, visit his Tumblr page or follow him on the Twitter.