Why do action heroes always take themselves so seriously? One of the things we liked about Lockout, on DVD and Blu-ray July 17th, was that Guy Pearce's hero had an actual sense of humor. Not just a series of cheezy quips, but an actual outlook on life that was based on wry observation and a spirit of fun, even in the face of danger. It got us thinking about how few action heroes we've had who were really, genuinely funny, so we made a list of our favorites to share with you. We're leaving out plain old-fashioned action comedies. These are guys who are faced with genuine danger from beginning to end but manage to keep their wits and wittiness about them.
"It's not the years, honey. It's the mileage."
Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, comes from a long tradition of witty good guys, dating back to the pulp heroes of the 1930s and 1940s. He rarely has a one-liner, he's just a funny character. Think about it: before Indiana Jones, if anyone told you they're making a movie about an "action archaeologist," you'd laugh them out of the studio. But it works, thanks to Ford's raw charisma and hilarious solutions to familiar action movie problems. Remember the guy who brandishes a scimitar in an impressive display of deadly prowess? Jones just shot the guy.
Roger O. Thornhill
"I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself 'slightly' killed."
Alfred Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest might not be the non-stop explosion-fest that audiences expect these days, but for 1959 it was a thrillride of the highest magnitude, and it still holds up today thanks wonderful action sequences involving a rogue cropduster and a climactic chase across the faces of Mount Everest. Oh yes, and thanks to Cary Grant, who plays the film's protagonist, Roger O. Thornhill as a perpetually annoyed victim of mistaken identity. When dangerous spies mistake Thornhill for an American spy (who doesn't even exist), he's thrown from one absurd Hitchcockian suspense sequence into another. A little too old for this, utterly out of place and saddled with a snarky mother who doesn't believe a word he's saying, Roger O. Thornhill is your typical everyman… only funnier.
"Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho."
That's the message John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, sent to the villainous Hans Gruber in 1988's Die Hard, attached to the dead body of one of Gruber's thugs. It takes balls to do something like that, and a sense of humor to boot. John McClane was a normal guy stuck in an impossible situation, but unlike the other action heroes of the 1980s, he actually seemed to be aware of how ridiculous the whole thing was. He took his predicament seriously, but met each challenge with a kind of "You've gotta be kidding me" expression that didn't just make the audience laugh, it reminded them that the film's over the top heist scenario is the kind of thing that would only happen in a movie. If it didn't, we'd all have that expression on our faces too. Wonderfully human and deliciously funny.
"One things for sure, we're all going to be a lot thinner."
That's a pretty optimistic viewpoint for getting stuck in a running trash compactor, but that's Han Solo for you. Making his second appearance on our list, Harrison Ford played the cocky smuggler in George Lucas's original Star Wars franchise, and it's the very ironic detachment that made Han Solo such a delight. Star Wars worked because George Lucas took the space opera seriously, and part of taking something seriously is not ignoring the fact that the world is a pretty funny place. Han Solo has nothing invested in the rebellion, and that makes him the perfect foil for the earnest Luke Skywalker and the deeply invested Princess Leia, who might even love the guy if he actually gave a damn about something. Eventually he does, and to Leia's annoyance, it's her, making The Empire Strikes Back the funniest film in the series, even though it's also one of the darkest.
Well, there's a loophole for you: after promising the young John Connor (Eddie Furlong), and by extension the audience, that he wasn't going to kill anybody in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the Terminator shoots a security guard in the kneecaps. Unlike the rest of the characters on our list, The Terminator isn't funny because he has a sense of humor. He's funny because he doesn't, taking the rest of the heroes literally and attempting, mostly without success, to act more "human." The part played beautifully to Arnold Schwarzenegger's strengths: he can be sincere, but playful? Take a look at Last Action Hero and Batman & Robin to see how that turns out.
Mike Lowry & Marcus Burnett – (Tie)
"We're your new neighbors!"
"Don't be alarmed… we're negroes!"
"Naw, man, naw. There's too much bass in your voice. That scares white folks. You got to sound like them. (High-pitched) – We were wondering if we could borrow some brown sugar?!"
A common ingredient in most buddy cop movies is "the funny guy;" the hero who doesn't take his job too seriously, exacerbating the deadly serious straight man. In Michael Bay's first movie, Bad Boys, that got twisted around since Will Smith and Martin Lawrence were both funny guys. It makes sense, since their roles were originally written for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz (which also explains the film's ridiculous mistaken-identity subplot). But Michael Bay decided to take the rest of Bad Boys utterly seriously, making the film the straight man to their fun-loving but ass-kicking heroes. Bay might not be known for his comedy, but for one film at least, he showcased two of the funniest action heroes around. (We're not the biggest fans of Bad Boys II. Sue us.)
"Everybody relax. I'm here."
Another common action movie trope: the funny minority sidekick. You'll usually find this uncomfortable character tagging along with a heroic, white and brawny type. You know, kinda like the muscley Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China. Note that we said "kinda." John Carpenter's action classic turns the genre on its head because in this film, the heroic, white and brawny type is actually the goofy minority sidekick. The fact that he thinks he's the hero in his own story is the funniest part of all. In fact, the real hero is the dashing Denis Dun, whose fiance has been kidnapped by the evil wizard Lo Pan. Jack talks a big game but actually does almost nothing right throughout the entire film, onetime spending an entire action sequence knocked unconscious because he fired a gun into the air and the roof caved in on him. Despite it all, Jack Burton is so damned charming that you almost don't even want to tell him what an idiot he is. Almost.
Chan Ka Kui
It's hard to quote Jackie Chan's Police Story, and not because it's in Chinese. It's because Chan's action classic derives most of its humor from the incredible action sequences, and the hilariously cartoonish way that Chan's hero, Chan Ka Kui, deals with them, like hanging onto a runaway bus with an umbrella, or getting tied up in an impossible knot while answering a series of ringing telephones. Chan's character comes right out of a silent comedy (like a lot of Jackie Chan's characters), but the life-or-death situations he faces are as hardcore as they come. It's too bad that physical humor is so hard to describe, but trust us: he's one of the funniest action heroes in history.
"Give me a scotch. I'm starving."
A narcissistic alcoholic weapons manufacturer? That's an odd mix for an action hero of any kind, let alone one you would normally call "super." But that's Tony Stark for you. Played beautifully by Robert Downey Jr., Stark is at the height of playboy hubris when he's kidnapped by terrorists and comes face to face with the devastation and suffering his technology has wrought. Knocked down a peg, but still at heart a cocky bastard, he sets about his path of redemption on his own terms: still narcissistic, still an alcoholic, still a kind of a dick, but at least he's using his dickishness for good instead of evil.
"You're supposed to be dead!"
"Am I not…?"
The funniest action hero of all time also happens to be the most unexpected. Like, seriously… nobody expected this. Come to think of it, nobody expected Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to be any good at all, considering it was based on an amusement park ride. But then out popped Captain Jack Sparrow, an untrustworthy failed pirate barely capable of standing on his own two feet when he's sober. Or is that just a clever ploy to lower people's expectations? A perpetual underdog despite mad pirating skills, and one of the zaniest creations Johnny Depp has concocted to date (boy, that's saying something), Captain Jack Sparrow was such a uniquely hilarious creation that Depp earned his first Oscar nomination for playing him. Just to be clear: snubbed for Ed Wood, snubbed for Dead Man, snubbed for Donnie Brasco, Oscar-nominated for a boozehound pirate based on Keith Richards. Now that's funny.
Full disclosure: This article has been sponsored by Sony.