In the crowded field of Netflix original programming vying for viewer attention, it’s difficult to stand out and be noticed. There has to be something that causes the endless scrolling to stop for a moment, for the potential viewer to linger on a title in hopes that it will intrigue enough to warrant a press of the play button — a hook.
The latest original film from the streaming giant, Lou, about a desperate mother’s attempt to rescue her kidnapped child from the wilderness with the aid of a mysterious hardened tracker, certainly has an intriguing hook. The grizzled hero with a mysterious past aiding the mother is portrayed by the unconventional choice of Allison Janney (I, Tonya). People might scoff at the idea of the 62-year-old Oscar winner playing an action role for the first time in her career. But cinema has often placed older people at the forefront of action films. From John Wayne in True Grit all the way up to Keanu Reeves and Bob Odenkirk decimating Russian gangsters in John Wick and Nobody, there is a long tradition of the older action hero.
So, to coincide with Lou dropping onto Netflix, we have compiled a list of movies and one show (that you can stream rental-free) filled with stars who prove that when it comes to laying beatdowns, age is just a number.
Ip Man: The Final Fight
The “wise old master” is a common trope in martial arts films. Usually, their purpose is to aid the main character in their journey by teaching them secret techniques and ancient wisdoms needed to vanquish a powerful foe and save the day. These character mainstays of the genre are rarely the focus of an entire film. Which is why 2013’s Ip Man: The Final Fight is both noteworthy and interesting. The film started as an unrelated spinoff born out of the immense popularity of the Ip Man film series featuring acclaimed action star Donnie Yen, about the exaggerated adventures of the real kung fu master who famously taught a young Bruce Lee. Ip Man: The Final Fight is one of a glut of Ip Man movies and TV series that appeared in the wake of Yen’s successful franchise, attempting to cash in on the popular trend. It is the only one that successfully places a unique spin on the concept.
The film’s director, Herman Yau, and star, Anthony Wong, are known for some of the wildest exploitation films to ever come out of Hong Kong (like The Untold Story), but here the pair turn in a restrained look at the martial arts teacher near the end of his life as he initially opens his school and begins to train students in the Wing Chun style of kung fu. The film, of course, is still embellished in many ways. There are rain-drenched street brawls with expertly performed action choreography, melodramatic side plots, and the prerequisite dastardly villains to overcome. But Wong’s elderly take on the modern-day folk hero never feels dishonest or exploitative. His subdued approach and commitment to performing all of the physicality it required help make Ip Man: The Final Fight a satisfying folk tale of the mythic real-life figure’s twilight years.
Ip Man: The Final Fight is available to watch on Hi-Yah!, for free with ads on Peacock, Tubi, Plex, Crackle, and YouTube, or for free with a library card on Kanopy and Hoopla.
The worldwide success of RRR has caused a lot of new interest in the world of South Indian genre films. Anyone adventurous enough to dive into that world has likely discovered one of the mainstays of that region’s cinema is action films with older leads. While it is common to see actors move into different roles as they age (as shown by other examples on this list), many stars in India buck this trend fully. They still engage in all the fisticuffs, gunplay, adventure, and romance their audiences expect well into their twilight years.
The finest example of this phenomenon is the 71-year-old actor known as Rajinikanth. Nicknamed “Superstar,” he has been at the very top of the Tamil-language film industry for decades. His 2019 film Petta is a good introduction to why he has endured as an action star for so long. The enjoyment of it may initially seem steeped in irony as the viewer watches Rajinikanth, with his paunchy physique and obvious toupee, fight and dance his way through the film’s many wild action scenes and bombastic musical numbers. As the film’s nearly three-hour run time passes by, that cynicism will likely melt away under its epic tale of decades-long revenge and the unique charisma of one of India’s most enduring cinematic icons at its center. Also, it’s likely the only movie to feature a senior citizen fighting off a gang of hoodlums, in the middle of a basketball court, using a pair of nunchucks.
Petta is available to watch on Netflix.
Having already taken a contemplative look at aging with one of his classic characters in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone returned two years later with a decidedly different approach for the other character he has come to be most identified with, John Rambo. The fourth installment of this film series (released 20 years after the previous installment) finds the reluctantly heroic Vietnam veteran tasked with saving captured missionaries from the war-torn country of Burma. That simple setup is the barest of threads on which Stallone constructs one of the most nihilistic and brutal action films ever to come out of Hollywood.
The film, titled simply Rambo, pays lip service to the idea of aging and regret. But in its single-minded pursuit of on-screen carnage, it quickly moves past that so it can revel in an aged but still imposing Stallone mowing through countless amounts of nameless enemy soldiers in a variety of outlandishly gory ways. John Rambo is less a character here than he is the very concept of militarized violence made flesh and bone — an unstoppable golem of bloody wartime conflict. For those who can stomach its bleak outlook and excessive amounts of grisly death, they will be rewarded with one of the strongest films in Stallone’s long career, and certainly the most action-packed.
Rambo is available to watch on Netflix.
It’s easy to forget due to all the lackluster sequels, parodies, and the glut of similar films that appeared in its wake, but 2008’s Taken remains immensely entertaining. This film, about a retired spy trying to rescue his daughter from human traffickers, was so successful, both financially and creatively, that it completely altered the viewing public’s perception of Liam Neeson as a performer. Cast mostly in prestige dramas like Schindler’s List and Rob Roy at that point in his lengthy career, this slice of European action exploitation reimagined the acclaimed 6-foot-4 actor as an unstoppable destructive force of parental fury. This reinvention from serious dramatic lead to “older man of action” became the de facto on-screen identity for Neeson and still defines the roles he finds himself in more than a decade after Taken first hit the multiplexes.
Taken is available to watch on Hulu.
For the majority of his career as a leading man, Jackie Chan was incredibly protective of how he was portrayed in films, rarely letting himself be seen as anything but a happy-go-lucky everyman who just happens to be able to flip, tumble, and kung fu fight his way out of any physical altercation with astounding grace and agility. This steadfast commitment to his on-screen persona and what constitutes a “Jackie Chan film” is what makes his turn in 2017’s The Foreigner so compelling. Here, Chan is sullen and haggard, and any fighting he engages in is presented with the urgency and viciousness of a real struggle. More Death Wish than Drunken Master II, this radical departure for Chan is a great example of subverting audiences’ expectations to deliver something truly compelling. It also cleverly handles the fact that all the years of dangerous stunt work and the physical toil of being a Hong Kong action star have finally caught up with him.
The Foreigner is available to watch on Netflix.
The Last Stand
As Arnold Schwarzenegger was transitioning back to being a full-time actor after the end of his political career, a lot had changed for the man who was once considered the biggest action star in the world. The type of testosterone-fueled “one-man army” films he was known for had fallen out of favor with audiences. And being in his mid-60s meant he could no longer rely so heavily on his impressive physique to wow viewers. His awareness of these changes is readily apparent in 2013’s The Last Stand.
Here, Schwarzenegger plays the sheriff of a small border town that is forced to reckon with a fugitive drug lord who is trying to flee to Mexico. This modern-day neo-Western still has elements of the megastar’s early days — comedic sidekicks (Luis Guzmán and Johnny Knoxville answering the question, “What if we gave the Three Stooges guns?”) and copious amounts of bad guys being blown away in a hail of gunfire. Yet, the aura of invincibility that previously surrounded the Austrian actor’s on-screen persona is nowhere to be found here — replaced with a sense of world-weary experience, a willingness to share the spotlight, and plenty of self-deprecating humor. This humble approach matched with practical, squib-heavy action directed by visionary South Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil) helps The Last Stand work as a fitting emotional coda to Schwarzenegger’s career as an action star.
The Last Stand is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi.
This tale of an elderly British career criminal (Terence Stamp) traveling to California to find the truth behind his daughter’s mysterious death and to make those responsible pay for it might, at a glance, seem formulaic. But in the deft hands of writer/director Steven Soderbergh, The Limey becomes a visual kaleidoscope that perfectly illustrates how fleeting memories and lasting regret can weigh heavy as we grow older. The film’s unconventionally structured visual approach is anchored by an all-time tough guy performance from Stamp and a subversively charming turn by the great Peter Fonda as the person waiting at the end of Stamp’s mournful rampage. There are many films that share similar story elements with The Limey, but none that quite capture its unique blend of anger, intense melancholy, and sudden violent rage.
The Limey is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi, Vudu, Pluto TV, and Plex or for free with a library card on Kanopy.
The Old Man
In the lead-up to FX’s The Old Man (the one TV show on this list), the advertising painted the prestige television series as being akin to the John Wick films. While the plot does indeed involve an older badass being pulled away from a peaceful retirement and unwillingly dragged back into a life of violence, it offers more than just well-crafted thrills. With the kind of breathing room that only a series can provide, The Old Man thoughtfully broaches topics of identity, responsibility, and the cyclical nature of violence. This measured approach is perfectly suited for the man on which the entirety of the series hinges — Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges. Here he gets to show all the range that has made him one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors. At 72 years old and having just recently survived a bout with cancer, the series feels like a celebration of him as a performer and a victory lap on a storied career. The fact that The Old Man also features a compelling story, a strong supporting cast (including Alia Shawkat and equally legendary character actor John Lithgow), plus a return to smaller-scale character-driven work for Spider-Man: No Way Home director Jon Watts are all just a wonderful bonus.
The Old Man is available to watch on Hulu.
This hard-boiled 1974 film from director Sydney Pollack (The Firm) and writers Paul Schrader (The Card Counter, and whose brother Leonard supplied the story) and Robert Towne (Chinatown) about a retired private eye (Robert Mitchum) returning to Japan to help an old war buddy rescue his child from Japanese gangsters was deemed shockingly violent at the time of its release. While the action sequences here would no longer register to any modern viewer as excessively gruesome, they still manage to thrill with their remarkable execution, whether it’s Mitchum blasting his way through a gangster’s hideout with dual-wielded firearms or Japanese film icon Ken Takakura skillfully brandishing a katana against multiple armed attackers. Outside of the film’s impeccable noir vibes and timeless action beats, The Yakuza’s engrossing story of betrayal, lost love, and the heavy burden of obligation make it one that shouldn’t be ignored by younger generations of movie fans.
The Yakuza is available to watch on HBO Max.
It’s fitting that this list concludes with Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood’s 1992 unsentimental farewell to the Western genre features every element touched on by the other entries in this list. A renowned actor (Eastwood) returning to the type of action roles that made him famous after decades away, performers not known for physicality (Morgan Freeman) stepping into that world to get their hands dirty, an unflinching portrayal of violence, and a melancholy tone steeped in regret are all present here in this somber story about a retired gunslinger’s inability to stay away from a life of conflict. Unforgiven is arguably the pinnacle of Eastwood’s career as an actor and filmmaker. In trying to deconstruct the Western, he gave it one of its finest entries with this multi-Academy Award-winning film.
Unforgiven is available to watch on HBO Max.