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Irish maestro Liam Neeson busted a skull or two in his day before ever bringing his particular set of skills to the Taken series; he got his start playing Sir Gawain in Excalibur, and had a bit part in Krull, to boot. But Neeson defined himself as a dramatic actor through his work in projects like The Mission, Michael Collins, and Schindler's List. He had gravitas.
Now, he has a chip on his shoulder that he can only exercise by pummeling Euro thugs and parachuting a tank out of an airplane. Not that he doesn't have the odd Love Actually or Kinsey on his more recent filmography - but Rob Roy has gone from fighting English aristocrats to wrestling wolves. What gives?
Maybe it doesn't matter. Neeson still has time to lend his dulcet tones to The LEGO Movie, but more often he's up to his elbows in action fare, including Non Stop to A Walk Among the Tombstones. Whatever issues he's working out by participating in these movies, it's working; that rumbling Irish brogue makes him a fearsome action presence.
Remember when Uma Thurman first began her professional career as a model? No? That's probably because she cut the indelible image of Beatrix Kiddo into audiences' brains at the end of a Hanzo sword with both of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. Hard to imagine her on the catwalk when she seemed so at ease lopping off limbs and plucking out eyeballs.
Yet there was once a time when Thurman wasn't a vengeance-fueled martial arts master. Once upon a time, she played Venus in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, starred in Dangerous Liaisons with John Malkovich (and the aforementioned Keanu Reeves!), and helped Timothy Hutton get his life back on track in Beautiful Girls.
Admittedly, she also took a needle full of adrenaline to the chest in Pulp Fiction, and she appeared in both Batman & Robin and the The Avengers film inspired by the UK series, so she never let herself be pigeonholed into one niche or another. But none of that prepared viewers for her transformation into a hardened killer (and desperate mother) for Tarantino's violent homage to kung fu and Western cinema.
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 wasn't until the mid to late 90s that Willis really came into his own as a big-screen tough guy - not just in generic action films but also in films like Pulp Fiction. Today, it's almost impossible to distinguish him from his action persona, but there was a time when the very idea of putting Willis in such a film would have been laughable.
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.
But The Rock secured Cage's name in action annals, along with his follow ups, Con Air and Face/Off. Even today, he'll still show up in the odd Kick-Ass, Ghost Rider or Drive Angry; action films don't make up the bulk of his work, but considering where he got his start, the final tally is surprisingly high.
Of course, he still makes every effort to star in quieter indie films like Joe, eclectic offerings like Adaptation, thrillers like Matchstick Men, and oddball efforts like the very underrated Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But forget about designations like "action star" or "comic actor": truth is, Cage is an enigma, hard to nail down.
This list is about Chris Pratt and his Guardians fame, so putting him here would reek of being a cheap shortcut - but that doesn't mean we can't point to one of his many Guardians co-stars as a reference point. Zoe Saldana practically has the market cornered on mainstream sci-fi these days - chalk that up to her turns in Avatar and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboots. She also happens to be quite handy in an action capacity, too.
The Losers and Colombiana didn't set the movie world on fire, but in each Saldana shows how capable she is doing action; as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, she just reaffirms her penchant for instilling her often morally grey anti-heroines with a mix of fiery energy and vulnerability.
However, her early filmography betrays her contemporary badassery. Drumline, Center Stage, Britney Spears' Crossroads... these aren't early indicators of a late-stage turn toward swordplay and hand to hand combat. And yet, here we are...
There are a few honorable mentions worth bringing up to top off a list like this; after Zombieland Jesse Eisenberg's American Ultra (2015) will put him into an action mold, while Dan Stevens sheds his Downton Abbey persona in The Guest. Plus, guys like Adrian Brody will occasionally take part in films like Predators - movies far beyond their expected boundaries.
But even this list just scratches the surface. So when you're not lining up to see Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend, take a moment to think about your favorite unlikely action heroes and drop us a line in the comments!