Home Movies Movie Lists

12 Most Unlikely Action Movie Stars

Cindy Crawford, Michael Cera and other actors who we didn’t expect to become ass-kicking heroes

Everett Collection.

Michael Keaton as Batman.

Everett Collection.

Can Chris Pratt become the next Harrison Ford? Armies of geeks thundering out of screenings of Guardians of the Galaxy would have us think so. In James Gunn's adaptation of the Marvel Comic, out this week, the affable, comic actor has the lead role as Peter Quill, a.k.a. Starlord, a sort of wisecracking, Han Solo-esque renegade hero. Many of our greatest action movies are about ordinary characters doing extraordinary things, but off-beat casting choices can add a whole other meta-dimension to this idea, showing us actors we'd previously not thought of as action heroes stepping up to play big parts. We've combed through the action movie past and come up with a few of our favorites – some due to their sheer inappropriateness and others their sheer brilliance. Here are 12 of cinema's most unlikely action heroes. By Bilge Ebiri

Seth Rogen Green Hornet

Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

12. Seth Rogen, ‘Green Hornet’

Perched somewhere between the relentless goofiness of 21 Jump Street and Starsky and Hutch and the slightly more serious-minded Spider-Man and Batman franchises, Michel Gondry's decidedly odd take on the radio/TV/comic classic mixes dark vigilante justice with candy-colored irreverence. In that light, the idea of pudgy, awkward Seth Rogen playing the millionaire publisher turned masked crime-fighter doesn't seem so odd, especially since a lot of the heroics come from his infinitely more gifted sidekick Kato (Jay Chou). But Rogen gets a decent number of badass moments here as well, several of them involving his tricked-out crime-fighting Chrysler Imperial, the Black Beauty. It's a fun comic transformation that becomes increasingly convincing as the movie goes on.

uma thurman kill bill

Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

11. Uma Thurman, ‘Kill Bill’

Let's get one thing clear: Kill Bill was not the first action movie Uma Thurman starred in. Indeed, she had played Emma Peel opposite Ralph Fiennes in 1998's abortive attempt to turn the classic British spy show The Avengers into an F/X-laden blockbuster. And who can forget her bizarre turn as Poison Ivy in the nutty, awful Batman & Robin? (Let's hope at least Uma can.) Those films had plenty of problems, but it didn't help that Thurman herself was wasted, having to rely on posturing instead of performance.

Quentin Tarantino didn't make the same mistake when he cast her as the Bride, a deadly assassin out to avenge the slaughter of her wedding party and retrieve her stolen child. Indeed, she helped create the role, as Tarantino based his script on an idea he and Thurman came up with while they were shooting Pulp Fiction. Now, Thurman got to show her ridiculous range, veering between vulnerability and ruthlessness, maternal kindness and driven fury. It's that combination that makes the Bride such a great action hero: We connect with her on a deeply emotional level, even as we watch her physical feats in awe.

Tyler Perry

Sidney Baldwin

10. Tyler Perry, ‘Alex Cross’

Tyler Perry is known mainly for his very unique brand of sentimental comedy, a mixture of cross-dressing humor, faith-based sincerity and awkward symbolism. And while he has made his share of serious films, the idea of him playing the straight-up lead in this 2012 action thriller seemed completely bizarre. Why? Because when he's not playing the loud, obnoxious grandma Madea in his popular comedies, Perry is quite soft spoken. Even here, playing a more action-y, supposedly more bad-ass variation on James Patterson's psychologist/cop/FBI agent, he seems incapable of raising his voice above a certain level or even really asserting his presence. He makes the avuncular Morgan Freeman, who played Cross in two earlier films, look downright unhinged. The result is genuinely incongruous: a surprisingly dark, nasty little movie with a guy who seems totally out of his element at its center.

Keanu Reeves Point Break

Mary Evans/20TH CENTURY FOX/LARGO ENTERTAINMENT/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

9. Keanu Reeves, ‘Point Break’

Remember when nobody would take Keanu Reeves seriously? Even though he'd done plenty of serious roles (River's Edge, hellooo?), so many viewers still saw Keanu as Ted, the lovable stoner from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, when he got cast in Kathryn Bigelow's iconic 1991 action thriller Point Break. It turned out to be a perfect role. As a rookie cop going undercover among a group of bank-robbing surfers, Reeves was able to harness both his stiffness and his "Whoa, dude" fogginess. He had a physical intensity, too: There's a reason that scene where he fires off his gun into the air after failing to catch up to a fleeing Patrick Swayze resonates so much. Three years later, Keanu showed up again in Speed and then, of course, in The Matrix, thus cementing his status as a dreamy, sensitive action hero for a new generation.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Inception

Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros.

8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, ‘Inception’

Gordon-Levitt had played the lead in some genre stuff before this (Brick, The Lookout), and he'd even played a major role in a big action tentpole, as an American soldier-turned-Mad-Doctor-turned-Cobra-Commander in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. But in Christopher Nolan's sci-fi mind-fuck classic, JGL got to perform real action heroics, firing comically big guns and kicking kung-fu ass in a hotel that was slowly losing its gravity. And what's amazing is how at ease the actor seems in the part. He has a skinny frame, so he puts his litheness to good use, turning his fighting scenes into a dance of sorts. He's such a credible action hero here that it's now easy to imagine him playing any number of superheroes. It seems like only a matter of time before he gets his own franchise.

Cindy Crawford

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

7. Cindy Crawford, ‘Fair Game’

Billed at the time as the film debut of international modeling superstar Cindy Crawford, this relentlessly dreadful but somehow riveting action flick featured Billy Baldwin as the tough cop assigned to protect a lawyer being hunted down by renegade Russian agents. Watch as Cindy flies through explosions! Marvel as she dodges machine gun fire! Chuckle as she swerves through traffic in a tow truck pulling a burning jeep! ("It's just a woman driving the car! Shoot her!" yells one of the bad guys yells). Technically speaking, Baldwin has the action hero part in this movie, but Crawford seems to get most of the physically demanding stuff.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Everett Collection.

6. Daniel Day-Lewis, ‘Last of the Mohicans’

By the time Michael Mann cast Day-Lewis in this breathtaking adaptation of the James Fenimore Cooper classic, the actor had already shown his versatility: He'd garnered acclaim for his roles as a gay punk in My Beautiful Launderette and a stiff, upper-class twit in Room with a View and had even won a Best Actor Oscar playing a severely disabled writer in My Left Foot. But this new part was something altogether different – a chance to prove both his box-office value and his badass hunk potential.

The posters that advertised Day-Lewis's Hawkeye as "The First American Hero" did not lie: The actor, sporting a heroic and wild mane of long hair, got to wield an ax, mow down small armies of Indian raiders, expertly fire long rifles, jump off waterfalls and breathlessly romance Madeleine Stowe. And, being Daniel Day-Lewis, he threw himself into his work. The action scenes in Last of the Mohicans are remarkable for their authenticity and fluidity, in part because the actor clearly isn't relying on stunt doubles to do all that fighting. It's one of the all-time great action movies, and it's one of the all-time great acting transformations.

Michael Keaton

Everett Collection.

5. Michael Keaton, ‘Batman’

This seemed like such an odd choice at the time – the guy from Mr. Mom as the Caped Crusader? But Keaton was the perfect fit for Tim Burton's offbeat vision of the superhero: His likable goofiness informs the role of Bruce Wayne and stands in sharp contrast to the character's nocturnal heroics. You can really believe that nobody would ever suspect this guy of being an all-powerful vigilante superhero who goes around dressed as a bat. There has been some debate over the years as to whether Keaton or Christian Bale made the better Batman, but it should probably be a draw, as they're effectively playing different characters. If Christopher Nolan's Batman films played up Bruce's struggle, Burton's films play up his ordinariness. Both have value, but the chasm between Keaton's easygoing persona and that of the tormented action hero is something else.

Jimmy Fallon, Queen Latifah.

Everett Collection.

4 and 3. Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah

She plays a brilliant driver with a pimped-out, futuristic taxicab; he plays a hapless cop who's had his license revoked. Togethere, they're … two of the least likely actors you'd ever find in an action movie, even one that's as much a comedy as it is a fast-driving action thriller. That incongruity is of course part of the joke: The film's opening has an obvious stunt double careening through heavy city traffic on a bike, doing impossible tricks, only to comically reveal herself to be the significantly more stout Queen Latifah at scene's end. But still, Tim Story's wan remake of Luc Besson and Gerard Pires's French action-comedy hit could probably have used a little more of that kind of goofiness.

Michael Cera

Everett Collection

2. Michael Cera

Of course, the mismatch between protagonist and action is one of the key ideas behind any Edgar Wright movie – whether it's the mousy-loser-has-to-fight-zombies set-up of Shaun of the Dead or the drunken-blokes-ward-off-alien-body-snatchers plot of The World's End. But in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright found his greatest mismatch yet, casting Michael Cera as the shy, anxious young rocker who had to fight each of his new girlfriend's seven evil exes in a video game-infused universe. The result was a stylized little pop marvel, a demonstration of the wish fulfillment power of action movies and video games, as well as a curiously melancholic romance.

Bruce WIllis

Everett Collection.

1. Bruce Willis

You may not remember this, but Bruce Willis was not thought of as an action star when Die Hard first came out. He was largely considered a comic actor, having gained fame as the funnier half of the private eye duo from the hit TV show Moonlighting. Theatrically, he'd made a couple of Blake Edwards comedies that did little, and he'd even released an album. But an action movie? Bruce Willis? Needless to say, John McTiernan's legendary hit about a no-nonsense New York cop who's stuck in an L.A. building during a hostage takeover changed all that, turning Willis into a bankable action star. Of course, comic timing was an essential part of the role. Between the wisecracks and the bits of physical humor, Willis turned out to be an inspired choice for the part. He seems so ordinary, even as he does extraordinary things. It's the ultimate example of an offbeat casting choice changing not just an actor's career, but the very nature of the action genre itself.

Show Comments