Long live the ‘Silver Age’ of action heroes

With Harrison Ford returning to cinemas this week as an octogenarian Indiana Jones, we celebrate the rising age of Hollywood’s lead players.

Who would you rather watch saving the world on the big screen, a twentysomething or a seasoned senior? If it’s the latter, you’re not alone: Hollywood is seriously embracing older action stars at the moment.

Harrison Ford has just returned as daredevil archaeologist Indiana Jones, while Tom Cruise is back in action as spy Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One this month. As it happens, both actors are celebrating their birthdays: Cruise turns 61 on 3 July and Ford will be an impressive 81 on 13 July. 

Indiana Jones sits on a boat in Indiana Jones and the Dial of DestinyCredit: Lucasfilm Ltd
Harrison Ford, now 80, in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

But it’s not just July babies getting all the action. Last year, we saw Jeff Goldblum, 70, Sam Neill, 75, and Laura Dern, 56, saving the world in Jurassic World Dominion. Months later, Michelle Yeoh, 60, kung fu-kicked her way to an Oscar for Everything Everywhere All at Once.

This love for the older action star is a welcome move in an industry that often favours youth, says Philip de Semlyen, global film editor at Time Out.

“Hollywood gets a lot of flak for ageism – and rightly so – so it’s been really encouraging to see more mature stars front and centre in big blockbusters. Liam Neeson, now 71, blazed a trail in Taken [he was 56 in the first Taken movie] proving creaky knees are no barrier to playing the action hero. Hollywood has been trying to repeat the trick ever since.”

He also points to Keanu Reeves, 58, who will likely play John Wick well into his sixties – the fourth John Wick was released in March and the next instalment is already in the works – and to Denzel Washington, 68, who returns as The Equalizer in September.

“Action movies are not the sole preserve of younger stars, they are now an older man’s game,” says de Semlyen.

One of the reasons for the trend is the power of big movie franchises. With tough competition from streaming services, cinemas are looking to draw in the punters with familiar faces they know and love.

Just mention the words ‘Indiana Jones’ and most of us of a certain age will break into a nostalgic smile, remembering the excitement the films gave us in our youth – and on the big screen. This tactic is working – Top Gun: Maverick, starring Tom Cruise, was the second biggest film of 2022 in the worldwide box office.

Tom Cruise on a motorbike in conversation with director Christopher McQuarrieCredit: Paramount Pictures
Tom Cruise discussing his next stunt with director Christopher McQuarrie for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

With the wonders of modern technology, you can even be transported back to the past along with your favourite actor.

“De-ageing technology is developing at pace, meaning that a younger Harrison Ford in the new Indy movie isn’t the creepy prospect it once was,” says de Semlyen. “It will give filmmakers more options to cast older stars and throw in fun, nostalgic flashbacks.”

Speaking about the new de-ageing technology at the premiere of the latest Indiana Jones film in Cannes, Ford said, “The technology has evolved to the point where to me it seems very realistic. That is my face. It’s not Photoshop magic. It’s what I looked like 35 years ago.

“I’m very happy with it. But I don’t look back and say I wish I was that guy. I’m happy with age. I love being older. It was great to be young, but I could be dead and I’m still working, so go figure!”

With or without visual effects, these older leading actors have to be genuinely skilled and dedicated to cut it.

Ford rides a horse at full pelt in the latest Indiana Jones movie, and is seen looking in great shape with his shirt off in one scene.

In the new Mission: Impossible, Cruise – famous for doing all his own stunts – is seen riding a camel, leaping over balconies while throwing punches, storming buildings with guns, racing down alleyways, diving, leaping off a cliff on a motorbike and, that old classic, scrambling on top of a moving train. And that’s just in the trailer.

“Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves and Jackie Chan are still knocking it out of the park,” says de Semlyen. “What makes them so good? An almost fanatical dedication, a willingness to do their own stunts, a sheer love of movie-making and probably a vast number of ice baths. Not many are cut from that cloth.”


Supporting cast

It’s not just older leading actors who are in vogue. We’ve seen active supporting turns from Michelle Pfeiffer, 64, and Michael Douglas, 78, in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and Pierce Brosnan, 69, in Black Adam. This fashion may have been going on longer than you think.

“Since Brando appeared in the 1978 Superman, Hollywood has loved to posh up its blockbusters with heavyweight thesps,” says de Semlyen. “Maybe it’s because superhero movies share some loose connective tissue with Shakespeare – elemental drama, big themes, lots of people in tights – that gilded stage actors fit so well. Helen Mirren in Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Anthony Hopkins in Thor…”

So, year by year, are action stars really getting older? Film data researcher Stephen Follows found that between 1996 and 2015, the average age of an ‘action star’ was 40, but that in the first six months of 2015, it rose to 48.4. 

It looks like that trend may have continued. 

According to the website Puck, an industry study recently asked moviegoers which stars they wanted to see most on the big screen. The average age of those voted into the top 20 was 57.5 years old. The article reasoned that, “real movie stars are throwbacks because the biggest movies themselves are increasingly throwbacks”. Topping this survey were Tom Cruise, The Rock, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Denzel Washington.

Actress Michelle Yeoh in an action scene in Everything Everywhere All at OnceCredit: A24
Michelle Yeoh won this year’s Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once

But there’s something missing here: women.

Older women still rarely take centre stage in any big-budget movies, and that includes action films. De Semlyen is concerned that Yeoh’s recent Oscar victory won’t have the impact it should.

“Sadly, Michelle Yeoh’s nimble Oscar-winning turn feels like an outlier – Hollywood still doesn’t seem as confident about an older female star opening an action movie.”

Nicky Clark, screenwriter, journalist and equality campaigner, who keeps a keen eye on age and casting in the movies, says women still suffer from more ageism than men when it comes to casting.

“As I say in my Acting Your Age Campaign, still too often on screen, men have a whole life and women only a shelf life,” she says. “Tom Cruise gets to run around with the weapon and the (younger) woman, promoting the ideal of virility of 60-year-old men.”

Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill and Laura Dern in Jurassic World DominionCredit: Amblin Entertainment The Kennedy/Marshall Company Perfect World Pictures
Co-stars Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern reunited for Jurassic World Dominion

But women in Hollywood are leading the way towards change.

“The big-name female actors of Hollywood, such as Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, are now taking on the role of producers as well as performing, meaning that in time we’ll see more older women in action on the big screen,” says Clark. “Distributors are actively seeking projects featuring older leading characters now because they know the numbers don’t lie.”

She also has a wonderful vision of the future of action movies. “I’d personally love to see Helen Mirren and Tom Cruise as a couple, take on the world and win,” she says. “That’s smashing the stereotype. It shouldn’t still be seen as a mission impossible.”

Indiana Jones and the Dial Of Destiny is out on June 28, and

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out on July 14



Written by Anna Smith