Most actors these days need to know how to take a punch. That’s because, as superhero franchises dominate the box office and high-octane action continues to sell out theaters, Hollywood is banking on the “tough guy,” the hero who can save the day and also, kick a ton of a**. The only thing that sells more than sex is violence, and cinema has found a way to perfect the formula, giving us muscled masculinity coupled with a hint of morality and snarky dialogue. We like to see these bros beat the bad guys to a pulp, save the world, land the girl, and crack a few jokes along the way to keep things light.
For men, these characters represent an idyllic, if unattainable, form of machismo with their hulking frames and fighting prowess. For women, they play into a fantasy trope, the strong noble white knight, the modern form of chivalry — just with more muscle tees and steroids. But, because our idea of masculinity continues to evolve, we’re now questioning if these “tough guys” really make for the most realistic idols.
A recent article from the Wall Street Journal took a look at the contracts of three action stars who’ve become household names — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason Statham, and Vin Diesel. All three men have shared the screen in the Fast & Furious franchise with Johnson and Statham headlining the latest installment, Hobbs & Shaw. That film sees the two former enemies teaming up to defeat a new villain in Idris Elba’s enhanced mercenary, Brixton, which is a good thing because it seems neither of these A-Listers enjoys losing, especially to each other.
The article details how Johnson and Shaw negotiated previous fight scenes involving their characters, nitpicking everything from how many punches were thrown, who was shoved through which drywalls and glass windows, and, most importantly, which man would come out on top. Diesel, who’s grown the franchise from the ground up, once suggested a point system to ensure he’d never seem the weaker of his two co-stars, while Statham has put contractual limits on how badly he can be beaten up on screen, and Johnson employs fight coordinators to guarantee he appears to be the most technically proficient fighter of the group.
It’s diva behavior, to be sure, and it’d earn nothing more than an eye-roll from those amongst us who have already recognized how exhaustingly childish the effects of toxic masculinity can be, but there’s another reason these revelations matter — besides confirming that, unlike the brutish men they play on-screen, these stars are fussy, vain, and just a bit fragile.
As the Fast & Furious franchise as worn on, the explosions have gotten bigger, the chase sequences more thrilling, and the fight scenes more absurd. We’ve seen men thrown from buildings, leaping over lanes of traffic, and trading blows with blunt objects and scrap metal, emerging relatively unscathed with no clear winner. It’s the kind of hollow, low-stakes action that’s come to define the series, action that’s on full display in Hobbs & Shaw. We know none of these men are going to seriously injure or kill the other — their box office draw is too great to waste — and now, thanks to this report on their lengthy fight clauses, we know we’ll probably never have a clear winner should they once again face off against each other.
And that’s the most concerning consequence of letting these men, who have crafted acting careers largely based on their physical prowess and overexaggerated manliness, have the final word in how “unmanly” they’re willing to be seen in a fistfight. If no one can win, if beloved characters aren’t at risk if these dudes aren’t willing to get knocked down every now and then, why should we be invested?
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking — who cares when the action’s this extreme? I mean, do we really need an emotional throughline when watching Johnson and Diesel shove each other through walls like human wrecking balls or Statham’s Shaw ripping off part of a car to wield against Dom in a Matrix-style street fight?
Well … yes, because fight scenes are about more than well-choreographed blows and explosions that level buildings but leave heroes unscathed.
Which is why we want to recognize the films that have done them right, and the actors who aren’t afraid to get their a**ses kicked if it means delivering a heart-stopping, believable brawl that balances action with equally gripping storytelling.
Sylvester Stallone — Rocky
The final fight scene in Rocky is a masterclass in how actors can spend most of their time on-screen getting their a** handed to them, yet still emerge the victor. Stallone endures nearly ten minutes of constant pummeling at the hands of co-star Carl Weathers’ Creed, getting his eye split open when it swelled too much to see out of, and scrapping for every punch he could land to defeat the heavyweight. In the end, he didn’t win, but that wasn’t the point of the movie to begin with and Rocky never lost any tough guy points for losing the match.
Keanu Reeves — The John Wick Trilogy
The entire John Wick trilogy is an experiment to see how badly a studio can beat up its leading man. Reeves’ Wick, a highly-skilled assassin seeking revenge for the death of his dog, goes up against all manner of similarly-trained villains, sometimes in boxer briefs, sometimes in custom-made suits. He takes as many blows as he gives, even when fighting women like Adrianne Palicki’s Ms. Perkins, and even when he wins those battles, it’s never clean and it’s rarely pretty. Watching a John Wick film, you get the sense the anti-hero could die at any second, which makes his knockabouts all the more thrilling.
Clint Eastwood — A Fistful of Dollars
Clint Eastwood almost definitely lacked a “tough guy” clause in his contract for A Fistful of Dollars. One of the climactic action scenes, and perhaps the most memorable scene of the entire film, is just a montage of Eastwood’s character serving as a punching bag for a group of thugs intent on torturing him as much as interrogating him. He’s bloodied to a pulp, mocked, humiliated, and burned but the scene serves to show how futile his fight is, how the odds are stacked against him — not to prove his machismo.
Harrison Ford — Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Harrison Ford is another Hollywood heavyweight who’s never had a probably having his a** handed to him on screen. He’s suffered some cringeworthy beatings in the Star Wars Trilogy and Blade Runner, but his Indiana Jones often finds himself outmatched, forced to rely on his wits and good luck to emerge victorious. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy goes toe-to-toe with a beefy Nazi in an airfield, taking hit after hit, and looking down for the count a handful of times before a propeller blade saves the day. The film uses the mismatch — Indy’s opponent is considerably larger than him — and his sloppy fighting technique to comedic effect, poking fun at the character’s inability to defend himself, but never doing it at the expense of his overall swashbuckling vibe.
Chris Evans — Captain America
Perhaps one of the best examples of the power of knowing how to take a punch — and not being too concerned with how it looks on screen — is Chris Evans in his role as Captain America. The character’s whole schtick is a man who transforms from a seemingly weak wannabe soldier to a reluctant war hero willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. Just because Steve Rogers gains a few pounds worth of muscle doesn’t mean he’s safe in a fight though. Over the course of Evans’ career in the MCU we saw him take licks from superpowered assassins, otherworldly gods, and a purple-tinted genocidal maniac. He would’ve lost a number of those fights if he didn’t have the Avengers as back-up, but watching him get hammered by unbeatable villains never caused us to question his “manliness.” If anything, the fact that Evans was so willing to sacrifice his body, to get knocked down and then get back up again, was a defining characteristic of his character, and why people idolized him so much.
There are other examples of Hollywood A-listers who don’t suffer from “tough guy” syndrome — people like Logan’s Hugh Jackman who don’t mind getting impaled on trees and having little girls rescue them, or Bruce Willis, who spent a fair amount of his time in Die Hard learning how completely ill-equipped his character was at taking on German terrorists. Then there are the female action stars, Charlize Theron who wears bruises like a badge of honor in Atomic Blonde, Uma Thurman whose Kill Bill character must will herself back to life after a gang beating lands her in a coma, and, oddly enough, Michelle Rodriguez, who also stars in the Fast & Furious franchise, and has taken a beating by real-life brawlers like Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano to up the stakes for her character, Letty.
So getting hit, getting knocked down, hell, even getting beaten, doesn’t make you any less of a man, any less of a hero. Maybe someone should tell that to Johnson, Statham, Diesel, and the rest of the action bros with fragile egos?