In Honor of 'Machete Kills': The 12 Most Unlikely Action Heroes in Movies

In Honor of 'Machete Kills': The 12 Most Unlikely Action Heroes in Movies

Oct 08, 2013

What do we look for in an action hero? At one time, it seemed like bulging muscles and an incomprehensible speaking voice got the job done. In another era, it was all about square jaws, lean bodies and the ability to squint really well. These days, we seem to like our action heroes to come with just enough snark and self-awareness to keep them relatable. However, one thing has remained the same over the years: we all know what a movie action hero looks like when we see one.

And that's why it's so delightful when they emerge from a different mold altogether. Here are some action heroes who, on paper, have no right to be action heroes but pulled if off despite having few (if any) of the seemingly required traits.


Danny Trejo

The Movies: Machete and Machete Kills

Why It's UnlikelyAt the risk of disrespecting a man who could kick the ass of just about every movie blogger on the Internet, there is no logical reason for Danny Trejo to be headlining action movies. He's tiny, grizzled, moustached and, believe it or not, 69 years old. Sure, he has a recognizable face and undeniable screen presence and that initially led to a career as a character actor, popping up in countless movies as a tough guy or criminal. However, Robert Rodriguez casting him in the fake Machete trailer in Grindhouse led to a new era for one of cinema's most iconic screen toughs. Now, he has the Machete franchise under his belt and a busy career as a direct-to-DVD B-movie king. It may not be the most glamorous action stardom, but it sure is unexpected.


Walter Matthau

The Movies: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Charley Varrick

Why It's UnlikelyMost people immediately think of Walter Matthau as the lovable slob Oscar from The Odd Couple. For many modern audiences, he was a lovable older gentleman, a great comedic actor and the kind of guy who could make you smile just by showing up. These people need to check out the darker corners of Matthau's career, though. In films like the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the massively underseen Charley Varrick, Matthau's hangdog face and deadpan delivery are used to create blue-collar badasses -- heroes who look and feel like real people. You'll never find a better Matthau performance than his work in Charley Varrick, were he plays an expert bank robber with a thing for seducing women 10 times more attractive than him. Yes, there was a time in his career where Matthau played a pistol-wielding, getaway-driving sex god and it was glorious.


Matt Damon

The Movies: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and Elysium

Why It's UnlikelyWe've come to accept the fact that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have essentially swapped careers. Affleck has made directing (and sometimes starring in) artistic and personal projects his motivation (except for that whole Batman thing) and Damon has transformed into one of modern cinema's greatest action heroes. No one saw that coming. With his baby face and gentle nature, Damon seemed like left field casting for the role of amnesiac superspy Jason Bourne, but he was a the key in creating one of the century's strongest action franchises. Throwing all preconceived notions to the side, Damon managed to convince the world that he wasn't just a nice guy, he was a nice guy who could also f**k s**t up on-screen. So when he played a tough former convict turned sci-fi action hero in Elysium, no one even batted an eye.


Saoirse Ronan/Chloe Moretz

The Movies: Hanna and Kick-Ass

Why It's UnlikelyThere is still an inherent amount of shock value involved in watching teenage girls become action heroes and that feels like the point with Hanna and Kick-Ass. In the former, Saoirse Ronan plays the daughter of a spy, trained to be the ultimate killing machine. In the latter, Chloe Moretz plays the daughter of a cop, uh, trained to be the ultimate killing machine. To be fair, both films diverge at that point, with Hanna being a slick but eccentric thriller and Kick-Ass being a violent cartoon, but both performances are terrific, allowing us to buy that these young girls could shoot and stab their way through armies of grown men. What's most unlikely about these characters is that, prior to their casting, Ronan and Moretz were hailed as two of the best up-and-coming young performers out there; actresses primed for future Oscars and critical acclaim. Watching them become action heroes is as bizarre as it is thrilling.


Geena Davis

The Movies: The Long Kiss Goodnight and Cutthroat Island

Why It's UnlikelyWho doesn't love Geena Davis? People without souls, that's who. Even in her worst films, she radiates a likability that lets her survive whatever nonsense surrounds her. You watch her on-screen and you just like her. That's why her mid-'90s action streak is so surprising. In Renny Harlin's The Long Kiss Goodnight, Davis plays the female equivalent of Jason Bourne, an amnesiac housewife who learns that she used to be a deadly assassin. It's a role that allows her to play both sides of her persona -- the goofy housewife with a comedic edge and the surprisingly grim action heroine who lurks within. It's a combination that works like gangbusters and one of the key reasons The Long Kiss Goodnight is one of the most underrated action movies of the '90s. Davis also pulled off an action lead in Cutthroat Island, but the less said about that, the better.


Liam Neeson

The Movies: Taken, Taken 2 and The A-Team

Why It's UnlikelyThere was a time when Liam Neeson was a thespian. You know what we're talking about. He starred in historical dramas and prestige films, playing soft-spoken gentleman and dignified characters with an effortlessness that screamed Oscar. Although he occasionally stepped outside of this box (like in 1990's Darkman), he continued to play to these strengths for years, often tasked with bringing class to genre projects like Star Wars: Episode I and Batman Begins.

All of this changed in 2008 when Neeson starred in Taken, which became one of the biggest hits of his career. Suddenly, Neeson was an action hero. Suddenly, his height no longer made him a gentle giant, but a physical specimen who could break you in half. Suddenly, the years on his face no longer expressed general life experience, but a lifetime of killing people. Suddenly, the intensity that he brought to every role became mean and violent, making his on-screen action persona one of the nastiest and most brutal out there. No one saw this one coming.


Robert Downey Jr./Michael Keaton

The Movies: Iron Man and Batman

Why It's Unlikely: The Internet can have a short memory, so you may not remember the outcry when Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark in Iron Man. You could taste the fanboy rage on every forum and comment thread. After all, this was a role that was, at one point, intended for Tom Cruise  -- and they gave it to a washed-up has-been?! Well, the rest is history.

The entire ordeal feels highly reminiscent of the furor surrounding the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton's Batman. Without the Internet, comic fans had to actually complain to each other in person and everyone agreed that the casting of a comedian like Keaton implied that the film would be a big, goofy joke. This was only the start of good actors and clever directors proving that they know what they're doing when it comes to geeky properties. Although great comics have been screwed up on the big screen, the best movies are those that think outside of the box, especially when it comes to casting the lead.


Sigourney Weaver

The Movies: Aliens

Why It's UnlikelyIn James Cameron's Aliens, Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley becomes one of the greatest action heroes of all time. A symbol of motherhood and alien ass-kicking, Ripley is one of the most important figures in both the action and sci-fi genres, a tough woman who stands up and fights while so many men lay down and die. It's a remarkable (and Oscar-nominated!) performance, but who saw it coming after Alien?

Sure, Ridely Scott's first film in the series is one of the best movies ever made, but it's a horror movie -- a haunted-house flick in space. Ripley may be the sole survivor at the end of the film, but she's a victim; the typical "final girl" of a slasher movie. Her transformation into a full-blown badass in the sequel is not only surprising, but totally believable. There was never any doubt that Sigourney Weaver could pull the whole action-hero thing, but you would have been right to have your doubts about Ellen Ripley.


Bruce Willis

The Movies: The Die Hard series and too many more to list here

Why It's UnlikelyHere's the funny thing about Bruce Willis: he may be one of the most popular and iconic action stars ever, but there was a time when the thought of him pulling off something like Die Hard was laughable. Get in your time machine and journey back to 1988. Bruce Willis wasn't Bruce Willis! yet. He was just Bruce Willis, the well-liked star of TV's well-liked Moonlighting. He was a funny guy, a charming guy and, most importantly, a losing-his-hair guy. In other words, you can't blame anyone for being completely and totally shocked by his portrayal of John McClane and how it catapulted him into one of the most successful Hollywood careers of all time. TV actors with receding hairlines aren't supposed to make the jump into the realm of Arnold Schwarzengger and Sylvester Stallone, but Willis pulled it off and has been at it ever since.


Simon Pegg

The Movies: Hot Fuzz

Why It's UnlikelyIt's impossible to not love Simon Pegg. He's great. He's wonderful. We want to be his best friend! But after seeing Shaun of the Dead, the last thing we imagined was him playing an action hero. He seemed too nice, too geeky and too frail. Which is why we're glad Hot Fuzz came along and made us eat our words. Although it's a very funny comedy that riffs on action movies in general, Pegg's performance as police officer Nick Angel is as on point and badass as any "real" action performance. With his tough demeanor and growling voice, Pegg drastically remakes his nice-guy persona, creating a character who actually seems capable of leaping through the air while firing two pistols. In the context of the film, it's a remarkable deadpan performance, a near-perfect re-creation of what an action hero should be.



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