So this week’s been all about action movie icons for me at Vulture, where I did a slideshow/interview with Rutger Hauer about thirteen of his most memorable parts, and then a slideshow of the 16 worst ways to be killed by Jason Statham. I’m quite proud of both pieces. They were written at different times, but it’s kind of fitting that they ran back to back. Considering these two actors together, one notices some interesting things.
Hauer of course has been a lot more than an action star over the course of his career. One role I asked him about, but cut out of the slideshow, was his turn in Ermanno Olmi’s wonderfully sad Legend of the Holy Drinker; he seemed touched that I mentioned that film, but he didn’t have much to say about it except some stuff about how thanks to technology movies can now eventually find their audiences. (Of course, Holy Drinker hasn’t, really, and that’s a shame.)
But back to the action movie thing: Hauer and Statham make for nice contrasts. The Dutchman may have played plenty of heroes in films like Ladyhawke, but he seemed most effective as a villain – and a haunting, creepily poetic one at that. During our chat he brought up fairy tales a couple of times, and I think that is indeed part of Hauer’s appeal: Tall, and almost impossibly Aryan-looking, he seems like a character out of the Brothers Grimm or some kind of dark myth (or maybe just the nightmare of the 20th century). But he has range, too: He can be both the knight and the monster roaming the quiet countryside -- sometimes both at once, as in Verhoeven's awesomely nasty Flesh + Blood.
Statham is, needless to say, different. Balding and gruff, he has a somewhat Everyman-ish quality (despite his almost surreally musclebound physique and his supernatural talents). While Hauer has the kind of presence that can lend a certain depth to even his cruddiest films (and dear god that man made some awful movies), Statham has this weird ability to bring everything down to earth. Which is odd, because his films are way more cartoonish than just about any other action stuff out there: The Transporter films might as well be animated, and the Crank films are renowned for their ludicrously surreal one-upmanship. (The last one featured a scene where Statham and his foe turned into giant Japanese monsters, ferchrissake.)
And yet both these actors are adored by critics, even when they’re making subpar schlock. That they can act is one thing, to be sure. (Something that sets them apart from many other action stars, I'd say.) But I think it also has to do with the fact that they both seem capable of changing a movie’s chemistry by their very presence: They’re cinematic high-pressure points unto themselves. And that's a rare thing indeed.