When you think action, you think John Krasinski, the lanky, goofy, aw-shucks actor who played Jim on NBC’s workplace sitcom The Office. Wait, you don’t? Well, refrain from telling that to Michael Bay, the maestro of supersized slam-bang spectacles, who enlisted Krasinski to be the buff, scruffy protagonist of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
Tasked with helping defend the U.S. diplomatic compound (as well as a nearby intelligence facility) in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack by Islamic terrorists on Sept. 11, 2012, Krasinski’s military contractor—and former American Special Forces stud—stands tall in the face of insurmountable odds, taking up arms with noble courage in order to mow down hordes of enemies that seek his (and the U.S. ambassador’s) head. You know, just like Jim from The Office.
Krasinski’s participation in such a rah-rah gunfire-and-explosions Bay-gasm seems, at first blush, to be one of the more unlikely casting decisions in recent memory—until, that is, one remembers that last year’s biggest film, Jurassic World, as well as 2013’s smash Guardians of the Galaxy, were headlined by that chubby doofus from NBC’s modeled-after-The-Office hit Parks and Recreation, Chris Pratt. This doesn’t exactly mean that NBC comedies are the new breeding ground for 21st-century badasses, but it does underline that we’re now fully, and perhaps irrevocably, in the age of the everyman action hero.
The new world order of non-steroidal He-Men has been dawning for some time, with only Dwayne Johnson opposing its total Hollywood domination. The Rock’s superstardom is at this point undeniable, yet he’s the anomaly in a landscape that’s mostly done away with the visions of Mr. Universe-proportioned masculinity, which, during the ’80s and ’90s, dominated the big screen. Long gone is the hegemony of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the rest of their diesel ilk, all of whose respective recent attempts at throwback-comebacks—from Stallone’s Expendables franchise, to his and Schwarzenegger’s 2013 team-up Escape Plan, to Van Damme’s underrated direct-to-video Universal Soldier sequels—have been relegated to niche entertainments.
That times change is, of course, undeniable. However, what’s surprising is that these bygone marquee stars have been succeeded not by similar larger-than-life figures—who, The Rock notwithstanding, simply don’t exist in Hollywood today—but instead by average Joes who’ve packed on just enough muscle to help them pass as tough guys.
Call it the Will Smith (or, for that matter, Bruce Willis) Effect: the idea that action heroes can be molded out of good-looking, sexually appealing comedic actors. In both Smith and Willis’s cases, they helped usher out—slowly, but conclusively—their bodybuilding-loving contemporaries (and predecessors) by lacing their brawn feats of derring-do with wry sarcasm and romantic appeal. What makes the Die Hard and Bad Boys series work is that they feature, at their center, charismatic men who are as amusing as they are imposing, capable of extraordinary things and also smart enough to self-deprecatingly smirk at their superheroism. Moreover, like Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones films, they’re the types of guys that women might actually want to bed—something that could never truly be said about Schwarzenegger or Stallone, neither of whom (save for the original Rocky) ever shared a romantic on-screen moment with a woman that didn’t feel uncomfortably forced and artificial.
This isn’t to claim that Krasinski, Pratt, Chris Pine (Star Trek) or the legion of fellas who populate Marvel’s various comic book properties are in quite the same class as Willis and Smith (though Robert Downey Jr. comes closest). Rather, it’s to argue that contemporary action cinema has done away with its old-school model of cartoonish biceps and macho attitude because it discovered that a more relatable, funny, self-conscious ass-kicker is, in the long run, a more sustainable one.
Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s habit of slaughtering villains and then delivering post-kill quips was, at the time, a novel wink-wink formula for success. Yet it soon devolved into a parody of itself (peaking with 1993’s The Last Action Hero), largely because acting like a Masters of the Universe character afforded so few opportunities for variety that it was destined to become monotonous. On the other hand, being charming and dashing, with a sense of humor, is an eternal recipe for movie longevity.
Further helping funnymen’s action ascendency have been the rise of two related modern cinematic techniques. The first is Michael Bay’s pioneering use of car commercial-glossy cinematography, fireball-heavy set pieces, and frantic editing—a style so often aped that it’s been given a name (“Chaos Cinema”), and now dominates the genre. By employing Bay’s filmmaking methods, an actor—any actor—can be made to look like a deadly human weapon, precisely because they mask stars’ physical limitations through incoherent sound-and-fury visuals that merely suggest “action.” It’s how Bay made Will Smith and Martin Lawrence (Martin Lawrence!) credible super-cops in Bad Boys. It’s how he got away with casting the at-that-point-comedy-oriented Nicolas Cage in The Rock. It’s how he managed to convince studio execs to let far-from-intimidating Ewan McGregor command The Island. And it’s now how he got Krasinski into 13 Hours.
Alongside Bay’s frantic aesthetics, the rise of CG has also allowed the Chris Pratts and Chris Evanses of the world to seize the action throne.
While Stallone himself blames 1989’s Batman as the turning point in the genre’s paradigm shift away from impressive physiques and toward special-effects, that transition was more radically prompted by 1993’s Jurassic Park and, again, with 2002’s Spider-Man, in which Tobey Maguire played the mild-mannered Peter Parker, and a team of tech wizards created, on a computer, his masked web-slinging alter-ego Spider-Man. Spider-Man showed that humans were no longer needed to even do their own stunts—a lesson subsequently reconfirmed, to the tune of billions, by 2008’s Iron Man, which required Downey Jr. to only be a face in a CG-crafted suit of armor, as well as by the countless superhero sagas that have followed in its wake, including rom-com charmer Paul Rudd’s recent ass-kicking turn as Ant-Man.
In a digitized environment that barely requires an actor to be present for a movie’s signature moments—as evidenced by Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk in the Avengers movies without ever having to throw a haymaker, much less turn green—Hollywood no longer sees a need to populate its action tentpoles with guys who spend half their lives in the gym. In one sense, that’s a tremendous loss for the genre, as flashy, deceptive filmmaking becomes a substitute for flesh-and-blood men doing amazing things (hence why seeing Tom Cruise literally hang off a plane in last summer’s awesome Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation was such a thrill). But it also means that today’s guy’s-guy efforts are able to infuse their action with the sort of witty, sexy personality that was so often missing from their brawny predecessors.
As 13 Hours makes clear: Jim the sarcastic co-worker good guy is dead, long live Jim the sarcastic kill-’em-all good guy.