Back in the 80s the action movie was king (well, that and family adventure movies about groups of children), and top of the pile were the movies featuring explosions, car chases, and gargantuan man-mountains who seemed capable of anything. We sat glued to the screen as they effortlessly dispatched the bad guys we loved to hate, punctuating their work with glib witticisms that proved to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was all in a day’s work for them.
With the rise of bodybuilding throughout the seventies, and Arnold’s transition into movies gaining momentum as the eighties progressed, it truly seemed like a time where anything was possible. It seemed as though the world held limitless potential for any man with sufficiently large biceps. It was a time that forever changed how we thought about the physiques of the people we saw on screen.
Admittedly, as time has gone on and subsequent decades have passed, some of the representations of masculinity we saw in these movies seem like absurd caricatures. That doesn’t mean, though, that these days they have nothing to offer. First of all, in amongst the plethora of offerings there were just a few that continued to stand up as great pieces of moviemaking, and are worth viewing even today as important pieces of cinema. Secondly, though, everyone who loves the gym wants occasionally to sit back, chill out, but still inspire themselves to achieve more and greater things with their program. This is where two hours of imposing celluloid physiques running around doing cartoonishly violent things in the name of perpetuating an absurd parody of masculinity can actually be a virtue.
With that in mind, here are my eight go-to action movies for physique inspiration:
Conan The Barbarian
Sure, Arnold had a couple of outings prior to this (if the nerd in you wants to hunt them down, check out Stay Hungry, Hercules In New York, The Villain, The Jayne Mansfield Story, and Pumping Iron, of course), but this time was the first time he scored a role that perfectly blended the best of his physique with his capacity to convey his presence beyond just his body. During his time training for this movie, he was also secretly training to compete as a bodybuilder one last time, but unlike previous stage outings he had to master sword-play and horse-riding as part of that schedule. What stands out about this movie is how visually spectacular it is, it’s the kind of thing I would happily put on silently in the background just so it can act as a sort of animated oil painting. Unless you are an obsessive completist I would skip the low-rent sequel.
His turn in Conan The Barbarian actually opened Arnold up as a casting possibility to a lot of studios, mostly because it had proven his box-office pulling power. Director James Cameron originally wanted him to play Kyle Reese in this movie, and believe it or not, OJ Simpson was going to be The Terminator. Fortunately, everyone saw sense, and whilst Arnold’s acting skills were still very much in their infancy, we saw him do a few things very well here indeed. His stiff presence and delivery of dialogue was perfectly suited to the character of a robot, he meticulously trained all the movements he had to perform on screen to remove any appearance of humanity from them, and whilst he was a little trimmed down compared to his outing as Conan, he still brought a physique we had no trouble believing belonged to an unstoppable killing machine. What was originally meant to be a low-budget B-movie ended up spawning one of the most successful franchises of all-time, and it was all down to this character.
Predator got some pretty lousy reviews when it was first released, but in retrospect it’s easy to spot that at this point, Arnold’s career was seeming like it was at its peak and serious critics just loved to hate him. Sure, the plot is simple, but it’s carefully made, doesn’t try to be anything it’s not, and does what it does very well indeed. What I love about this movie is the fact that it isn’t just about the character of Dutch Schaefer. No, at this point, a good action movie needs an ensemble of biceps, so the likes of Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura were also drafted in.
Although there are a few laughably cliched moments (such as the gratuitous and completely meaningless biceps shot when Arnold’s and Carl Weathers’ characters meet again for the first time in years, made more absurd by the fact that it followed hot on the heels of the line “Because some damned fool accused you of being the best…”), to me the movie works well as a parable about fear. We fear the other-worldly villain in the movie not because of its mandibles, but because our unstoppable heroes fear it. We see them fear it in spite of their biceps. One by one it picks them off, until only the hero is left, and he steps up to the source of his fear, strips it back to what it truly is underneath, and realises he can beat it, it is fallible underneath it all. It seems that way to me, but perhaps I’m overthinking a movie about a bodybuilder, a wrestler and Apollo Creed running round the jungle with machine guns…
Speaking of Apollo Creed… It’s probably about time we let some other leading men have a bit of space in this list, right?
Okay, for physique alone you might want to pick Rocky IV over the first offering, both Sly and Dolph Lundgren were at their absolute peaks at that stage (an argument could be made for Masters Of The Universe, but that’s such a bad film I can’t bring myself to include it on this list). The first film, though, unlike the sequels, had it all. It’s actually a great movie in its own right. It’s not about boxing, it’s about a man exploring his own limitations and concluding that the best thing you can ever do is just be the absolute best you personally can be. It’s not inspiring because Rocky wins against all odds, it’s inspiring because he goes in and gives it all he’s got knowing he can’t possibly win, and comes out having achieved a greater personal victory as a result.
Yes, Stallone got bigger as his career went on, he had to if he was going to compete with the guys being cast in the films that competed with his at the box office, but here we saw an awesome physique being carried around by a relatable character. It’s ninety minutes well spent.
Long before the character of John Rambo reached the stage of seemingly-bulletproof superhero (remember the scene in the third movie where he jumped in a tank and managed to operate it single handedly, which would have meant simultaneously doing the jobs of three different men sitting in three different seats?), he was the reluctant protagonist trying to avoid a conflict being escalated around him. Once again, just like in Rocky, the humanity of the character is all too apparent to us, but everyone remembers the scene where Stallone first gets stripped down in the police station and every cop present stands back for a moment and regards his ripped torso with undisguised awe.
As Rambo descends to ever-greater depths of PTSD-induced animalism, we don’t cheer as he dispatches the impeccably-cast collection of cannon fodder around him, we sit wanting them to stop, relent, rethink their actions before it’s too late. An unusual film in this regard, and one that spawned too many sequels that sadly didn’t follow its lead.
In a time when the mindless muscle-and-action formula seemed like it was dead, there was a small torch still burning in the form of Vin Diesel. Unlike many of the actors that had dominated in the previous decade he was an actor first and a physique second. That’s never made him any the less impressive in his action roles, though.
For the role of Riddick he has comparatively little dialogue, but he has presence and charisma in abundance. As the movie progresses, we learn that perhaps his character is a little more complex than we were initially told. As he wins the trust of those around him he also wins the trust of the audience.
None of this, though, is really the reason I included this movie on the list. Vin could have just bulked right up for this character and no-one would have been surprised or thought less of him for it. However, he took the time to assess the physical requirements of the role, and ask himself what a character who did this sort of stuff might look like. In preparation he built a more lean, streamlined body, still packed with muscle, but sleek enough to seem capable of fast-and-deadly movement. This sort of physique-based method-acting had rarely been seen to this extent before, and makes this movie a stand out for me.
That and the fact that it’s pretty awesome.
I don’t know too many people who don’t think Die Hard is a great movie, but what a lot of people don’t appreciate is what an unusual movie it is. To begin with, did you know that in the beginning, when it was first going to be developed from the source material, Frank Sinatra was expected to star? The book it’s based on is actually the sequel to a book that was adapted into a Sinatra movie over a decade previously, so everyone naturally anticipated him reprising his character. Obviously this didn’t come to fruition, and as it developed it turned into a more action packed spectacle than the early drafts had ever been. A number of the usual suspects for this sort of film were courted, but when Bruce Willis was eventually cast it was considered to be an outside-of-the-box casting choice. Bruce was best known at this time for romantic roles, had a slightly receding hairline, and had launched an abortive singing career. His body may have benefited from time spent in the gym, but he didn’t look out of the ordinary. Every last guy sitting in the cinema watching knew he could look like that. Hell, everyone could relate. John McClane was the everyman, he was someone just like us, stuck in the kind of situation you normally saw Sly or Chuck Norris gunning his way out of.
And this is where we come to what makes Die Hard so different. In a time when larger-than-life he-men seemed to be the only solution to abundant bad guys, here was a man just like us using nothing but his tenacity and guile to achieve the same end. If the physiques of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone sent men to the gym hoping one day to look like a tenth of them, Bruce Willis stepped up and gave them not just an achievable goal, but a great reason to be like it. After all, who was going to save Nakatomi Plaza from the scourge of Alan Rickman and his clan if not them?
I love this movie and I force my wife to watch it every Christmas. You got Die Hard? You never need another Christmas movie.
The Expendables Part 2
The big problem with the first Expendables movie was that it sucked. All these giants of action cinema stepped out of mothballs to get on screen together, and everyone was so impressed than no-one remembered to write a story. It’s a common problem with ensemble casts, they get used to cover deficiencies in other areas.
The second instalment, however, is different. It’s got everything the first one had, but this time it’s also fun to watch. Also, they write in a Hemsworth just to kill him off within the first few minutes, which I thought was pretty funny. Not only is it rip-roaring good fun, it’s a reminder that getting older doesn’t mean you should stop looking after your body, or start behaving yourself.
As you can probably tell from the entries above it’s a genre I take pretty seriously, but if you think I’ve missed out a gem or included a dud, then don’t be shy about getting on our Facebook page and telling me so. Or you can pick one, settle down with it one Friday night, relive every moment and hit the gym re-energised the following day, inspired by the golden age of movie physiques.
Are you not achieving the results you want? Have always struggled with your nutrition? Training hard but still not losing that stubborn belly fat?
Do you want your personal nutrition and training blueprint to epic results? What about losing 5kg of fat in 28-days…guaranteed. Simply fill out the form below to register for our upcoming transformation challenge and lets get you those awesome results!