They’ll be back? A look at Hollywood’s trend of aging tough guys

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Action heroes are, by definition, meant to be young and athletic. But a curious phenomenon has developed in the second decade of the 21st century: ask any movie fan to name their favourite tough guy and they’ll almost certainly be in their 50s – if not older.

With the latest instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Rogue Nation, due to open on August 6 in the UAE – and its star, Tom Cruise, now 53 years old – we take a look at Hollywood's elderly action heroes (many of whom have mocked their status by appearing in The Expendables action-movie series) and discover that age is no barrier to wasting bad guys on the big screen.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Age: 67

Latest action-hero role: Terminator: Genisys (2015)

Role in The Expendables: Trench

Given that Schwarzenegger essentially built an entire film career out of the immortal phrase "I'll be back" in The Terminator, it is perhaps not so surprising that Arnie's hard-nut heroes have continued to wow audiences well into his seventh decade. He just won't go away.

Indeed, Schwarzenegger was probably the first of the 1980s action men to play on his character's slow advance into decrepitude in the frankly terrible 1993 movie Last Action Hero (although he was then, at 45, a mere spring chicken), and it's a schtick he has run with ever since – although showing off a ripped sixtysomething torso in his next film, a return to the Conan the Barbarian series, might be a bit much to bear.

Tom Cruise

Age: 53

Latest action-hero role: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Role in The Expendables: None. Cruise would never think himself expendable.

Cruise is the youngest of our ageing action heroes, but it's worth remembering that there probably aren't many fiftysomething actors happy to be filmed hanging off the side of aeroplanes as they take off, as happens in Rogue Nation, or indeed scrambling around the outside of the Burj Khalifa, as he did just before turning 50, in 2011's Mission: Impossible – Ghost protocol.

It's to Cruise's enduring credit that he not only does these stunts himself, but he still pulls off playing the dashingly cool action hero with considerable élan. And when he's not Ethan Hunt, he's fighting aliens as Major William Cage in Edge of Tomorrow or getting into scrapes as Jack Reacher. Impressive stuff – but let's see if he can still cut it in his sixties.

Harrison Ford

Age: 73

Latest action-hero role: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Role in The Expendables: Max Drummer

No, we can't believe he's 73, either. But then, Ford's enduring status as an action hero was always based on something more than pure brawn. Sure, Han Solo and Indiana Jones could certainly handle themselves against errant Stormtroopers and Nazi goons, but these characters also went down in film history as masters of the dry wisecrack – it is telling that the one line of on-screen dialogue in the trailer for the new Star Wars film comes from Ford, when Solo says to his old pal Chewbacca: "Chewie, we're home."

Still, elderly action heroes aren't always able to roll back the years as easily as they might wish – poor old Ford injured his ankle on the Star Wars set last year and ended up being hospitalised, though he did walk away relatively unscathed after the small plane he was piloting crashed on a golf course in Los Angeles in March.

Mel Gibson

Age: 59

Latest action-hero role: The Expendables 3 (2014) – although he plays the bad guy, Conrad Stonebanks

After his heroics in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series, now would probably be the time for Gibson to have a late-career, action-hero renaissance – were Hollywood still not put off by the memory of his anti-Semitic rant to a Los Angeles police officer almost a decade ago. After all, in the buddy-cop action film series, his sidekick Danny Glover's catchphrase was "I'm getting too old for this s**t". Still, he might yet be the next to "do a Liam Neeson" – five of the last six films he's made have been in the action genre and the next looks fascinating (if massively similar to Neeson's Taken): Blood Father is an American-French production with a daughter-in-danger storyline. To misquote Braveheart, you might take his life, but you'll never take his daughter!

Bruce Willis

Age: 60

Latest action-hero role: Vice (2015)

Role in The Expendables: Mr Church

The state of Willis's action career is up for debate – his last two action films went straight to video, but 2010s Red and the follow-up Red 2 did well – and there is apparently a Red 3 in the works. Die Hard (1988), surely one of the greatest action movies of all time, has spawned a long-running franchise that felt a little ridiculous on its latest outing, 2013's A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth in the series. Willis, however, did warn that he would continue to do them as long as he could "run and fight on screen". Although the painfully long fight sequences might take arduous physical training, everyone would love to see the quiptastic John McClane have one last hurrah.

Sylvester Stallone

Age: 69

Latest action-hero role: Creed (2015)

Role in The Expendables: Er, yes. He co-writes the films and stars as the team’s leader, Barney Ross.

If anyone is responsible for the surge in interest in elderly action heroes, it's the actor who did more than most in the 1980s to make ripped, dumb hardmen box-office gold. Rambo and Rocky have become poster-boys for a certain kind of devil-may-care, violent warrior – and it is to Stallone's credit that he spotted the affection for these characters that could be developed for comedic ends in The Expendables.

Say what you like about the enduring quality of The Expendables, the power Stallone, Willis, Ford and Schwarzenegger have as personalities makes the franchise nostalgic fun, if nothing else. Although, whether that should have encouraged Stallone to make a rumoured fourth episode in the series (or indeed return to the Rocky films with the upcoming Creed) is a moot point.

Liam Neeson

Age: 63

Latest action-hero role: Taken 3 (2015)

Role in The Expendables: None – but he was in the A-Team remake!

Of all the ancient action heroes wowing audiences, the case of Neeson is the most bizarre. This, after all, is not a man who had enjoyed a long career beating up bad men in blockbusting film franchises – before Bryan Mills began the desperate search for his daughter in revenge saga Taken, Neeson was probably best known for playing the quiet real-life hero Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List.

Nor does Neeson conform to the Stallone-style mocking of the action genre – Taken, initially at least, was just a very good action thriller with a compelling lead. But Neeson’s belated action-hero days may be numbered – time is catching up with him and he recently told a US magazine he’s only got two years left of running manically after bad guys. Shame.

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Age: 54

Latest action-hero role: Pound of Flesh (2015)

Role in The Expendables: Jean Vilain. This may suggest he was the bad guy ...

It's fair to say Van Damme is probably a level down from your Schwarzeneggers and Stallones. But – and it is a huge but – his cult status as karate champion-turned-star of slightly second-rate action movies such as No Retreat, No Surrender, Universal Soldier and Timecop has always made Van Damme a compelling action hero. And as you might expect from a man who will forever be known as "the muscles from Brussels", this Belgian still looks after himself. The perfect baddy for The Expendables, then, despite his advancing years – and the upcoming Kickboxer: Vengeance (out next year) suggests that Van Damme is not about to hang up his black belt any time soon.