John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis
They say that age is just a number, but that's never really been the case in Hollywood. Every actor seems to come with an expiration date (if you're a woman, it tends to creep up even more quickly) and a star must learn to adapt, or become obsolete.

For one genre in particular, though, that's no longer true. What was once an unassailable bastion of glistening, chiseled masculinity in all its sweaty glory, the epitome of cinematic style over substance and escapism over monotony, has latterly become the place where stars who failed to evolve come to die. I'm talking, of course, about the action movie genre.

The men who defined said genre (and a cinematic era) were young and vital, at the peak of physical perfection -- Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Gibson, even Cruise. Those men are still defining a genre, even if they're a decade (or two) past their prime. Where are the young bucks, the fresh blood, the guys that women want and men want to be now? Have they hung up their handguns and tossed out their wifebeaters? Did they ever show up to the fight at all? Or have we truly reached the age of the last action hero?
Once upon a time, we believed that Arnold Schwarzenegger's rippling abs could stop a freight train in its tracks, but now he's lucky if he can keep his belly from spilling over his speedo.

Arnold SchwarzeneggerAnd yet the news came earlier this week that Arnie was done with politicking and wanted to return to acting -- and lo and behold, no sooner had the announcement been made than the Internet came alive with rumblings that Universal wanted to kick-start Schwarzenegger's star-making 'Terminator' franchise once more. Never mind that "the Governator" is 63 and in no condition to be kicking futuristic robotic ass -- the only mechanical device he should be tussling with at this point is a walker (okay, we still wouldn't want to arm-wrestle him, but you get the point). We can think of a lot of reasons why such a return is a terrible idea.

Meanwhile, hot off the back of the geriatric spy caper 'Red' (also in line for a sequel), Bruce Willis (55) is apparently set to reprise his role as disgruntled cop John McClane in 'Die Hard 5' at 20th Century Fox ('Die Hardest'?), because clearly that well isn't completely dry yet ...

After the (frankly baffling) success of 'The Expendables' -- which was billed as every action fan's wet dream (and featured cameos by Willis and Schwarzenegger just to get audiences frothing) -- Sylvester Stallone (64) has announced plans for at least one sequel, if not two. He's shown no sign of retiring his guns any time soon, even if he shelved a continuation of his hit '80s 'Rambo' franchise to focus on being part of the muscled ensemble.

Tom Cruise (48) isn't quite as long in the tooth as the aforementioned trio (though after the failure of 'Knight and Day' domestically, someone should probably revoke his movie star card), but he's still mining where there's no more gold to be found; 'Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol' is already in production for a December 2011 release. 'M:I 3' did turn a profit and was fairly well received -- unsurprising, with J.J. Abrams at the helm -- but I'm pretty sure that no-one was really begging for Ethan Hunt's return.

Mel GibsonAnd the less said about Mel Gibson (55) and his recent career suicide, the better. He's dismissed the suggestion of a 'Lethal Weapon 5' return in the past, but he might be begging to slip back into the fan favorite role of Riggs if his upcoming and long-delayed comedy, 'The Beaver,' flops this Spring ...

Even Harrison Ford (68) was lured back three years ago to brandish Indiana Jones' whip one last time in the ill-advised 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,' but with recent comedies like 'Morning Glory' to offset the action of 'Cowboys and Aliens,' he at least seems more willing to diversify his resume in his golden years.

I'll admit, it sounds as though I'm being unnecessarily critical of a number of actors and franchises that have given audiences countless hours of pleasure over the past few decades (and contrary to my tone, 'Die Hard' is still one of my favorite movies of all time) but sometimes you've got to be cruel to be kind.

Action movies in their heyday -- the testosterone fueled '80s -- were a joy to behold; fantastical, rollicking tales of good vs. evil, where the good guys were brawny, bad-mouthed and impervious to bullets. No matter how much of a beating they took, they kept on coming, determined to stand for truth, justice and the American way against those evil Europeans/Vietcong/killer robots from the future. Nowadays, those noble heroes stand for little more than a quick buck, the last vestiges of a once-beloved franchise milked dry for every last cent; but that's a critique for another day.

The point of this article is not to wag the finger at the plague of Bruce Willis "sequel-itis" sweeping Hollywood, but to ponder why it is that actors and studios seem so reluctant to let these characters go, why it seems impossible to make a modern-day action movie that can replicate the success of 'Die Hard' or 'Rambo' or 'Predator,' with an iconic male lead that can command a box office smash with his presence alone.

Sure, there have been attempts -- Vin Diesel came close in the last decade, but Jason Statham is perhaps the only memorable example of a contemporary action hero who is still making successful action movies, having headlined 'Crank,' 'The Transporter' series, 'Death Race' and 'The Bank Job,' not to mention his involvement in 'Expendables'. Yet ask a random passer-by on the street if they know who Jason Statham is, and you're as likely to be met with a shrug as with a nod. No movie star of the '00s has yet attained the same level of name recognition and box office clout as those iconic heroes, nor defined themselves purely through involvement in a single genre.

Is that because actors no longer want to be pigeonholed? Unlikely -- Statham, Diesel and their action compatriot, Dwayne Johnson, certainly know that it's wise to stick with their niche (or suffer the critical scorn, for example, that resulted from 'The Pacifier' and 'The Tooth Fairy'). Many stars are content to continue with romcoms or action adventures until they're deemed too old and irrelevant to carry on, so typecasting isn't a concern.

Is it simply because audiences don't buy into the action genre the way they used to? Are we bored of seeing the cartoonish action, often flimsy plots and archaic movie clichés about damsels in distress and not trusting Eastern Europeans? Are movie studios too concerned with keeping the PG-13 rating to give audiences the gore that used to be commonplace in action (but now has taken a far more disturbing turn with the advent of 'torture porn' horror movies)?

Jason StathamIf that were true, 'Expendables' wouldn't have raked in over $100 million domestically. If anything, the success of such a mindless, by-the-numbers retreading of everything that action fans enjoyed in the '80s (presented with less wit, innovation and energy) only serves to prove that audiences are desperate to recapture the glory days, even if has-been heroes with craggy faces and deflated muscles are the only form of nostalgia on offer. That success certainly doesn't explain why 'The A-Team' flopped. Neither 'Expendables' nor 'A-Team' showed much originality, but both traded on familiar faces -- I assume the fan-service of seeing so many legendary action stars on one screen was the deciding factor in the success of 'Expendables,' but who can say?

But wait, you may cry -- what about the new genre of action movies? The one that always features guys at the peak of physical perfection, with robots, explosions, exotic locations and enough special effects to make your eyeballs melt? I say, comic book movies don't count.

There is certainly crossover between the audiences who would see 'Iron Man' and 'Thor' and those who go to see 'Expendables,' but there are also plenty of fans of movies like 'Die Hard' and 'Predator' who would turn their noses up at the sanitized violence and spandex of the superhero genre. (I'm fairly obsessed with the comics craze, for the record, but to concede that something like 'Spider-Man' could fit into the same niche as 'Rambo' is letting the action genre off too easily, in my opinion).

Even within said genre, there's been a recent surge in using older actors that the audience has a fondness for to boost ticket sales; the aforementioned 'Red' (based on a comic) was wholly focused on spies of retirement age, and earlier this week, it emerged that 'Kick Ass' director Matthew Vaughn plans to develop a new comic book movie featuring retired superheroes who have to help their grandkids save the world because their parents haven't been up to the task. Maybe audiences just dig the oldies?

Willis, Stallone et al., were in their thirties/early forties when they first got the action genre in a headlock, so I figured we could take a brief look at whether any of the current crop of thirtysomethings have the chops to become the next action hero.

Matt DamonMatt Damon
The most qualified of all our contenders, having made the 'Bourne' series of movies and 'Green Zone', Damon has certainly proven that he can kick ass, take names and look damn good doing it. But the fact of the matter is, Damon is just too versatile to become the herald for a new wave of action heroes. He's as much at home in dramas, character pieces and thrillers as he is behind a gun, and while we should admire his crossover appeal, he's never going to put all his eggs in the action basket, nor should he.

Chris PineChris Pine
Few men epitomize action like James T. Kirk, and Pine certainly filled that iconic command chair. After the success of 'Star Trek,' Pine beefed up his hero credentials with 'Unstoppable.' His next movie, 'This Means War,' sounds like a strange mix of action and romance, which could either be fantastic or terrible, and with a 'Star Trek' sequel on the way, Pine looks set to be surrounded by stunts and explosions for a good few years to come.

Sam Worthington
Sam Worthington
After the success of 'Avatar,' it seemed as though Hollywood might have found its new action golden boy -- 'Terminator: Salvation' and 'Clash of the Titans' were critically panned, but that hasn't dissuaded studios from investing in Worthington's star status. With high profile roles in two 'Avatar' sequels planned, along with a 'Clash of the Titans' follow-up and the lead role in the remake of Schwarzenegger's 'Commando,' Worthington is probably best positioned to become an action mainstay ... as long as audiences keep showing up.

Tom HardyTom Hardy
My fondness for Moviefone's Breakout Star of 2010 is well documented at this point, but Hardy's current career trajectory means that his inclusion isn't just a case of tokenism. He's co-starring with Pine in 'This Means War' as one of two spies who falls in love with the same girl, and his dance card is already filling up with action roles. Not only will he play the villainous (and musclebound) Bane in Christopher Nolan's 'Dark Knight Rises,' he'll also assume Mel Gibson's mantle in the long-awaited 'Mad Max' remake, and echo Stallone's 'Rocky' turn in 'Warrior,' about a mixed martial artist fighting for a championship against his older brother.

Gerard Butler
OK, so he's technically in his forties now (as was Arnie when 'Terminator' hit it big), but for a while, Gerard Butler seemed like he was heir apparent to the action throne, with adrenaline-fueled roles in '300,' 'RocknRolla,' 'Gamer' and 'Law Abiding Citizen' helping to cement his status. He's slipped a little thanks to ill-advised romantic roles in 'The Ugly Truth' and 'The Bounty Hunter,' but his upcoming movies could help bring him back to his brawny best, with 'Coriolanus,' another historical ass-kicker, and 'Machine Gun Preacher,' bizarrely classed as an action biopic, about a former drug-dealing biker who finds God and becomes a crusader for hundreds of Sudanese children who have been forced into warfare.

We think that Daniel Craig also deserves an honorable mention for 'Cowboys and Aliens' and his involvement in the James Bond franchise, but since that brand is dependent more on the name of the hero than of the star playing him, he just missed out on our top five.

Do you think that the action genre needs to evolve to survive, or do you miss the mindless fun of the '80s? Share your thoughts on the state of action movies below!

Follow Laura on Twitter @LauinLA.
categories Features, Hot Topic