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Aging ungracefully: Are returning action icons past their prime?

Let us now praise famous old men, playing at a theater near you.

Only a few demigods remain from the Golden Age of Action, dating from, approximately, The Guns of Navarone (1961) to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). That’s three decades of live-action stunts, wisecracks and swagger ending, decisively, in the more plasticine era of computers that can draw dinosaurs (Jurassic Park, 1993).

Human survivors of that mass extinction event are few but include — each with movies that are out now or soon — Bruce Willis, who will be 58 this year; Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will be 66; and Sylvester Stallone, who will be 67. Recall what a thunderclap all three stars were in their day: Willis in Die Hard (terrorists seize skyscraper, 1988); Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (killer droid from the future, 1984); and Stallone in Rocky (lug goes for the brass ring, 1976).

Perhaps the most emblematic of the three is Stallone. The Rocky theme, “Gonna Fly Now,” is still feel-good shorthand. Tourists still have their pictures taken at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Rocky Balboa raised his arms. Stallone is part of a recurring meme in American film: the slow-witted triumphant, or at least sympathetic. Compare Ernest Borgnine as the unhandsome Everyman from the Bronx in Marty (1955) and Tom Hanks as the ubiquitous Everyman in Forrest Gump (1994).

So how is Stallone doing now? Truth to tell, just meh, because there’s not much you can do with a persona of Lunkhead, let alone Old Lunkhead.

It’s significant that Stallone’s movie, Bullet to the Head, was released by Warner Brothers in January, the graveyard month for the movie industry when studios release their weakest products as filmgoers catch up with Oscar contenders. The reviews are strained. “Like the amped up comeback tour of two rockers who had their heyday sometime in the mid-’80s,” wrote Jordan Mintzer in The Hollywood Reporter, “Sylvester Stallone and director Walter Hill (48 Hrs., The Warriors) join forces for a hard-hitting exercise in beefy, brainless fun with the New Orleans-set actioner.”

But how could a Stallone movie not be disappointing? He never broke away from Lunkhead in his acting. Among his cinematic contributions, the most memorable are Lunkhead roles: Rocky and Rambo. More recently, The Expendables (2010) and its 2012 sequel were more of the same. Cop Land (1997) won Stallone his strongest reviews, but that was a Lunkhead role, too. Stallone, wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, “put on 40 pounds to play Nowheresville, N.J., sheriff Freddy Heflin in Cop Land, but the big deal isn’t his gut — it’s his acting. There’s no flab in his portrayal of a deaf, dull-witted lawman — Freddy is a sweet slug — who rediscovers his moral conscience.”

With Schwarzenegger, his persona was Robot Lunkhead, even when he played a human. His iconic roles — Conan the Barbarian (1982), Predator (1987) and Total Recall (1990), and even his action-roles-with-a-wink, like Last Action Hero (1993) and True Lies (1994) — never really departed from Robot formula.

Alas, like Stallone’s, Schwarzenegger’s most recent movie, The Last Stand, was dumped in the limbo of January. But the film itself got some good reviews. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote, “Against all odds, however, The Last Stand, which represents the English-language début of the Korean director Kim Jee-Woon, offers a more stylish surprise.” Schwarzenegger himself did not fare as well. “This lonesome role,” Lane wrote, “might have been a better fit for Tommy Lee Jones, whose face is geologically suited to the local rockscape, whereas Arnold’s complexion resembles the rind of a rare, unpasteurized cheese.”

That leaves Willis, whose persona, Smart Aleck, has the word smart in it. Early on, Willis challenged himself with real roles in independent, tiny box-office films, like In Country (1989). The movie was panned, but Willis wasn’t. The New York Times’ Caryn James wrote, “Mr. Willis does all he can to make Emmett’s quiet tragedy believable. There is not a trace of his wise-cracking celebrity persona or his Moonlighting character.”

By the time of Pulp Fiction (1994), it was no real surprise that Willis could do more than fire two handguns while falling through a plate-glass window. Cannily, Willis has added brains to brawn. Janet Maslin, reviewing Pulp for the Times: “Mr. Willis, whose episode sags only slightly when it dwells on … his baby-doll girlfriend, displays a tough, agile energy when placed in the most mind-boggling situation.”

And, almost two decades later (after he put in strong performances in 12 Monkeys in 1995 and The Sixth Sense in 1999), Willis got strong reviews in last year’s Looper. He added still more shading to his no longer surprising reputation as an actor: regret, anguish, reluctance and humanity. Willis was cast as an assassin bent on revenge. But because Looper is a time-travel movie, Willis’ target is a child. When Willis pauses a tear-filled beat before stalking his young prey, it’s an unexpected moment in a science fiction movie. Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times wrote that the film’s plot is “way more complicated than you can imagine, and it couldn’t hope to succeed without strong acting by all concerned, starting with Gordon-Levitt and a very committed Willis.”

Another sign that Willis, unlike Stallone and Schwarzenegger, is a good actor, or at least a bankable one? Twentieth Century Fox is releasing A Good Day to Die Hard this week. In February. On Valentine’s Day.