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Where Are All the Action Heroes?

Chris Pratt’s ‘The Tomorrow War’ is proof that the likes of Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson are a dying breed

20th Century Fox/Orion Pictures/TriStar Pictures/Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

In The Tomorrow War, the sci-fi/time-travel blockbuster hitting Amazon Prime on Friday, Chris Pratt plays a guy who wants more for himself in life. His character, Dan Forester, is a military veteran turned high school biology teacher trying to level up—he applies for a job in the private sector and is rejected because of a lack of experience. (You can sense the midlife crisis vibes creeping in.) But Dan doesn’t have much time to mope about the missed opportunity: Emissaries from the year 2051 arrive through a time portal to warn of an impending alien invasion that will wipe out the human race; soldiers from the past are required to save humanity’s future. In a strange twist of fate, Dan got what he wished for—and so did Pratt.

Since his breakout role in Parks and Recreation as the hilarious, lovable doofus Andy Dwyer, Pratt has fashioned himself as one of Hollywood’s next big action stars. To Pratt’s credit, he has the résumé to show for it, starring in a Magnificent Seven reboot, the Jurassic World films, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Guardians of the Galaxy series. (Not to mention crossing over into a couple of the MCU’s ridiculously stacked Avengers movies.) But a common thread among these projects is that they’re carried by the IP, rather than the actor. If you swapped out Pratt for another Hollywood Chris in Jurassic World, there’s little doubt the film would still make over a billion dollars at the box office.

Conversely, The Tomorrow War isn’t based on any preexisting IP: Its biggest selling point is Pratt fighting off a bunch of aliens from the future, if you’re into that sort of thing. Like Passengers, the 2016 sci-fi film that was largely a two-hander between Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, The Tomorrow War’s success hinges on its star. Of course, if Passengers has any legacy to speak of, it’s that it was a bizarre misfire for its A-listers—commercially and critically. It’ll be a little trickier to discern whether The Tomorrow War is a success or a failure because it’s being released on a streaming service, but consider the fact that it was originally going to be distributed by Paramount before the studio cut bait amid the pandemic and sold the movie to Amazon. (In terms of quality, The Tomorrow War’s late review embargo—the afternoon the day before its release—speaks for itself.)

It’s a rough endorsement for Action Star Chris Pratt, especially given the projects that Paramount elected to keep for a theatrical release, including the long-awaited Top Gun sequel. But perhaps it’s unfair to compare The Tomorrow War and Top Gun: Maverick; only one of them is a sequel to an ’80s classic. But the biggest reason Top Gun: Maverick is one of the buzziest blockbusters of the year is more about who’s going back into the cockpit. Tom Cruise might’ve hitched his wagon to franchises like Mission: Impossible (as well as Top Gun) but he’s the main reason hordes of moviegoers keep coming back for more of these films. Remember when Mission: Impossible tried passing the torch to Jeremy Renner and Cruise responded by scaling the Burj Khalifa and jumping out of an airplane? Renner was so thoroughly outclassed that his character didn’t bother showing up in Fallout.

Even at 58, Cruise has impressive staying power as an action star, and seems to be fulfilling some kind of on-screen death wish for our entertainment—the Fast & Furious series might’ve sent its characters “to space,” but my guy is literally trying to film a movie in space. As evidenced by Pratt’s latest stumble with The Tomorrow War, which in many ways feels like the actor’s own attempt at an Edge of Tomorrow–type hit, Cruise has few contemporaries in the action star space. Keanu Reeves is one of them, and Liam Neeson has carved out an absurd niche as someone constantly at war with various modes of transportation—his latest movie is, no joke, about the perils of ice road trucking—but those actors are 56 and 69, respectively. Even John Wick, Ethan Hunt, and [insert grumpy Liam Neeson character] have a shelf life. In an age of cinematic universes, A-list action stars who can carry their own movie are becoming an increasingly rare breed.

The evolving blockbuster landscape means that most traditional action hero roles have been supplanted by superheroes—some of whom, like Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, are certainly built in the same swole image as the action stars of yesteryear like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. But most superhero spectacles, with the exception of more grounded characters like Black Widow, defeat villains with feats of Herculean strength that are defined less by the actors playing them and more by the (usually impressive-looking, it must be said) CGI. There’s room to enjoy this kind of entertainment, but it often comes at the expense of more projects in the vein of Hemsworth’s Extraction, where the actor is throwing around stuntmen like rag dolls without the use of thunder and a magical hammer. And as this transition continues, it becomes increasingly less important who wields such a hammer.

Whether it’s Cruise’s death-defying stunts, the Bruce Willis everyman archetype epitomized in Die Hard, or the preposterous machismo of Schwarzenegger and Stallone single-handedly stopping international incidents with oily biceps and cheesy one-liners, the action stars of the past don’t have many modern equivalents to pass the torch to. And the actors trying to pick up the slack have their own shortcomings. Dwayne Johnson has built an admirable (and quite lucrative) career for himself as something of a modern Schwarzenegger—all the way down to teasing a future career in politics—but even his best roles lack the Governator’s sex appeal and penchant for humor. (Watching Johnson flirt with Vanessa Kirby in Hobbs & Shaw was hilarious for all the wrong reasons.) Jason Statham may be the platonic ideal of a modern action hero—I don’t think I’ve ever hated a movie he’s been in—but he’s also 53 years old, and if he’s going to headline a $100 million-plus blockbuster, he’ll have to share the spotlight with, say, a giant prehistoric shark.

There are still capable modern action stars if you know where to find them: Iko Uwais is a low-profile favorite among anyone who’s watched his gnarly collaborations with Gareth Evans; Milla Jovovich is a criminally underappreciated ass-kicker; and Scott Adkins is a direct-to-video action king. But no one is reaching the “selling a big-budget action movie just by slapping their name on the poster” mantle of Cruise—and in a way, that’s by design.

With a handful of exceptions, superhero blockbusters have highlighted the potential disposability of modern action stars. Hemsworth, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot were relative unknowns when they were cast as Thor, Superman, and Wonder Woman, which emphasized that the real draw was the heroes themselves more than the actors portraying them. This is why we can have multiple iterations of Batman and Spider-Man (and on the villain side, the Joker) within a few years of each other and audiences won’t bat an eye—if anything, studios are making even more bank because of it.

This might make good business sense for the Disneys and Warner Bros. of the world, but it also means the possible death of a treasured breed of Hollywood star. On the one hand, it’s great that a movie like The Tomorrow War—an original sci-fi conceit very much intended to be a star vehicle—is coming out of the major studio pipeline in 2021. But if these increasingly rare opportunities are given to actors like Pratt, who thrives more as a wisecracking ensemble player than as a leading man, the window to find the next up-and-coming star will continue to shrink. The day Tom Cruise actually goes to space to shoot a movie, it could mean that there are no more action stars on Earth.