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‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ and the inexorable rise of the aging action star

Keanu Reeves as John Wick in "John Wick: Chapter 4." Reeves recently stated that, contrary to rumors, he is, in fact, mortal. "Yeah, man, I age," he said. "It's happening, man." (Murray Close/Lionsgate/TNS)

John Wick may appear to be indestructible, a ruthless assassin who takes a licking and keeps on killing. But for Keanu Reeves, playing him is no picnic.

Speaking to The Times in 2014, as the first installment in the “John Wick” action franchise was about to hit theaters, Reeves, then 51 years old, said portraying a character who is subjected to relentless physical punishment — punched, stabbed, kicked, shot, thrown down stairs, you name it — had taken a toll on his body.

“Being older, there were moments when it was really tough,” Reeves said. To recuperate from the rigors of shooting the film’s elaborate stunts and fight scenes, he would regularly plunge himself into frigid ice baths. “I’d get home from a day of filming, get the water to 37 degrees and lie in it up my neck,” he said. “Heaven.”

Seven years, three films and many ice baths later, Reeves, now 58, has helped propel the “John Wick” franchise from a cult favorite into a box-office juggernaut. Speaking to an adoring crowd earlier this month after the latest installment, “John Wick: Chapter 4,” premiered at the South by Southwest Film and TV Festival, Reeves said that, contrary to rumors, he is, in fact, mortal. “Yeah, man, I age,” he said. “It’s happening, man.”

In its opening weekend, “John Wick: Chapter 4” pulled in a whopping $73.5 million, the strongest showing yet for the series — and the latest sign of the enduring box-office power of the aging action star.

Fifteen years after then-55-year-old Liam Neeson showed off his particular set of skills in “Taken,” the trend toward older actors headlining action films — what some have come to term the “geriaction” genre — has only picked up steam. Whether it’s 59-year-old Brad Pitt playing an assassin in last year’s high-octane “Bullet Train” or 57-year-old Viola Davis as a fearsome warrior in “The Woman King,” it seems that AARP eligibility is becoming almost a prerequisite for headlining a major action film.

Earlier this month, Michelle Yeoh won the lead actress Oscar at age 60 for her turn as a laundromat owner who kung fu-fights her way across the multiverse in the gonzo sci-fi-action hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Tom Cruise, also 60, is set to follow last year’s blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick” with this summer’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” in which he rides a motorcycle off a cliff, among other death-defying feats.

In June, Harrison Ford, at 80, will reprise his iconic bullwhip-wielding archeologist in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” And in September, Sylvester Stallone, 76, Dolph Lundgren, 65, and Jason Statham, 55, will join forces in “The Expendables 4,” while Denzel Washington, 68, will star in “The Equalizer 3.”

Despite pop culture’s eternal obsession with youth, today’s moviegoers seem only too happy to embrace these older action stars.

“The success of ‘Everything Everywhere’ and now ‘John Wick 4’ proves that actors of any age — and regardless of gender — can kick ass and take names and if the movie is appealing and entertaining, audiences of any age enthusiastically want to go along for that cinematic thrill ride,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore Inc. “There doesn’t seem to be a bias by younger people against going to a movie where the star could be old enough to be their dad. Or even their grandfather.”

Granted, old age in Hollywood is not what it used to be back in less health-conscious times. Actor Carroll O’Connor was just 47 when he began playing the crotchety Archie Bunker on TV’s “All in the Family” in 1971. Wilford Brimley was only 51 when he starred in 1985’s “Cocoon,” about a group of elderly retirees rejuvenated by aliens.

Compare that with the likes of Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista and Vin Diesel, who are still flexing their muscles onscreen past the age of 50. Or, for that matter, 59-year-old Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, who has a breakout turn as a blind assassin in “John Wick 4.”

While some wear and tear is inevitable as we age, as today’s stars approach their senior years they can draw on the support of highly trained nutritionists and coaches — not to mention Botox and other cosmetic enhancements — to keep themselves in the game. Chris Hemsworth, who turns 40 this year, recently starred in the docuseries “Limitless,” testing out age-defying techniques like swimming in an icy Norwegian fjord and fasting for four days.

“These folks have trainers and physical therapists and all kinds of people with high levels of expertise that can help them keep them in really good physical shape,” says Jennifer Ailshire, associate professor of gerontology at USC. “When you have the resources to engage in regular physical activity, you’re going to age better across the board, whether we’re talking about cognitive functioning, psychological well-being or delaying the onset of disease and disability.”

While casting an older actor in an action film can lead to higher insurance costs for the studio, that extra expense is more than offset by the box-office drawing power of a star like Cruise or Reeves. Even as he was beginning to show signs of cognitive decline, Bruce Willis was still earning upwards of $2 million to make brief appearances in a string of low-budget action films. (Willis retired from acting last year at age 67; in February, his family announced he had been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia.)

The reality is, there are simply few younger actors coming up behind such established stars who can be counted on to carry an action movie — or, for that matter, any movie. Over the last two decades, according to an analysis last year by the Ringer, the average age of actors leading both film and TV productions has risen across the board.

“It’s not just that the business isn’t generating younger action stars; the business isn’t generating younger stars, period,” says Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s film school. “We’re seeing individual stars emerge, like Austin Butler in ‘Elvis,’ but there’s no track record to prove that simply putting their name on something brings in an audience. The more expensive the movie becomes, the harder it is to give a young star a break because that star isn’t tested.”

No matter how strenuous the on-set safety precautions or how rigorous the training, as actors age they can become more susceptible to accidents, and recovering from injuries can take longer.

In 2014, the then-71-year-old Ford suffered a broken leg while shooting “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” when he was knocked down by the hydraulic door of the Millennium Falcon, forcing shooting to be delayed for eight weeks. More recently, Helen Mirren, who is 77, broke her finger while performing her own stunts in “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” “I was incredibly brave and didn’t say anything or complain because I wanted to be a real stunty person,” Mirren told British talk show host Graham Norton.

Of course, a stunt double can always step in if things get too difficult or dangerous, as humbling as that may be. “You want to be able to do everything, but there were certain times during filming, when you’re in the 16th hour of the third day of shooting [a big action sequence], when I just couldn’t do something,” Reeves told The Times of the first “John Wick.” “That was depressing.”

Still, having devoted her own career to the study of aging, Ailshire applauds those older actors, men and women alike, who are out there trying to prove that age is simply a number. As Indiana Jones famously says in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”

“We have our stereotypes of what we think a 50-year-old or a 60-year-old or a 70-year-old should be doing,” Ailshire says. “When I ask college freshmen about aging, they often have very pessimistic views because they are picturing sitting in a wheelchair, staring at a TV all day. My hope is that seeing older actors taking on these roles helps people to understand that aging is variable and expands our understanding of what aging can mean.”


© 2023 Los Angeles Times

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