10 favorite unlikely action Stars
The Fresh Prince got his start rockin’ the house in one corner of his homebase back in the late 1980s before getting his own TV show (styled, of course, after his stage name); he also showed up on the ABC Afterschool Special and – believe it or not – hosted a 1990 documentary about Alvin and the Chipmunks.
So Will Smith isn’t the type of guy you expect to go two-fisted, with guns blazing against a backdrop of explosions and mayhem. But then 1995 rolled around and he linked up with Michael Bay for the first time with Bad Boys – and in every subsequent year up to 1999, Smith used his considerable star power and charm to nail down leading parts in everything from Independence Day to Wild, Wild West.
He’s kept up his action chops to this very day. Maybe he still shows up in a Winter’s Tale or a The Pursuit of Happyness every once in a while – and no matter what, he’ll always be Uncle Phil’s troublemaker nephew. But to this day, Smith insists on padding his filmography with the likes of Men in Black 3 and I Am Legend. Bad boy for life.
Whoa! Starring in Speed, The Matrix and its subsequent follow ups made Keanu a fixture in action iconography forevermore; try thinking of him as anyone other than Neo, and you might be surprised at how hard it is to break away from that image, even years after those films had their heydays.
Before all that, though, we knew Reeves for his laid back surfer dude persona, and his early history with teen films, dark comedies (like Lawrence Kasdan’s I Love You to Death) – and perhaps most famous of all, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This was not a guy who looked, acted, or sounded like an action hero – and yet after Speed in 1993, he wound up assuming that mantle anyways, expectations be damned.
Damon blew up 1997 with Good Will Hunting, a movie that immediately crystallized him as awards-level talent and made him into a big star overnight. That Oscar win overshadowed his roles in Chasing Amy (arguably Kevin Smith’s most accomplished film), and The Rainmaker (arguably Francis Ford Coppola’s last great film), in the same year.
So 1997 treated Damon well, and he parlayed his success into roles in high-profile movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Talented Mr. Ripley. But then a funny thing happened: 2002 rolled around, and Damon decided to try something outside his comfort zone. Thus did Jason Bourne arrive at the multiplex, kicking butt with gusto.
Funny enough, the once and future Black Widow first drew wide notice for her talents in another comic book movie: the low-scale indie film Ghost World. Years later, after being menaced by giant arachnids in Eight Legged Freaks, she earned even more praise for her performances in Lost in Translation as well as The Girl with the Pearl Earring.
Somehow, her visibility only got her so far as a couple of Woody Allen movies midway through the aughts; after 2003, Johansson popped up in more support-focused roles, and in films that (with exceptions) never quite drew the same love for her that she became so accustomed to so quickly. She all but stole The Other Boleyn Girl, and she did well in Nolan’s The Prestige, but something was missing. Maybe all she needed was a reinvention?
You may be given pause at seeing Willis’ name here; the man is practically the definition of “action hero,” having established himself as one of the biggest action stars of all time through the Die Hard franchise and a slew of films ranging from The Fifth Element to The Last Boy Scout to Last Man Standing (to say nothing of The Expendables and Red).
But when the first Die Hard film came out, Willis had credits on comedies like Look Who’s Talking and Blind Date; TV shows like Moonlighting; and dramas like In Country. Even after Die Hard 2 hit theaters, Bruno starred in comedies like Death Becomes Her, Look Who’s Talking Too, and Bonfire of the Vanities.
It’s easy to imagine an alternative timeline where Nicholas Cage never stars in The Rock and devotes his whole career to making comedies like Raising Arizona, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Guarding Tess, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Vampire’s Kiss (among many, many others); he’s probably closer to Chris Pratt than anyone else on this list, just for sheer volume of comic titles on his resume.
10 favorite unlikely action Stars