Every era has its own particular brand of hero. The action movie has gone through several periods and had several different types of heroes. In the ‘40s and ‘50s it was the American soldier, generally in World War II, in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was the cowboy, in the ‘70s the inner-city cop, in the ‘80s the muscle-bound super-soldier, in the ‘90s there was a whole jumble of different types, though tending to emphasize the average guy in an extraordinary situation. In the first decade of the 21st century, a new trend has emerged--call him the post-9/11 super-spy, or the globalized killing machine. (Or don’t, I’m under no illusion that those are catchy names.)
That summary of hero-types is of course a one-sentence gloss on over half a century of movies, and even confined to a single type of film in a single country (America), it’s extremely reductive. But I’m only gonna elaborate a little more, so just go with it. The 21st century action hero I’m talking about here of course exists alongside plenty of contemporaries as well, both (relatively) new (the Superhero), fairly old (the Inner-City Cop), and various attempts at throwbacks (Ryan Gosling in Drive, everybody in The Expendables). So we should not consider this hero-type to be completely separate and unique, but bound up in and coexisting with dozens of concerns, trends, movie genres, available star personae, and various past hero-types, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting to elucidate the differences.
I see this hero-type as springing from two primary examples, who then influenced others: Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) from 24, and Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) from The Bourne Identity and sequels. Together, they are probably the most influential action heroes of the millennium. After them followed the new James Bond (why do they all have J.B. as initials? No clue) movies starring Daniel Craig, Liam Neeson (as Bryan Mills) in Taken, and Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, among others. (Others movies that might be related, but which I won’t discuss here: Shooter, Inception, The International, Colombiana, Haywire.) All of these characters actually have a lot in common, both in how they act and the conflicts they are involved with.
Bourne and Bauer are each defined by a sleek, Apple-and-Blackberry-era sense of style: short-cropped hair, functional-but-probably-expensive clothes, nearly always in black. No shiny leather or kung-fu in business suits, the emphasis is on efficiency all the way through. Their fighting styles are similar--highly adept at hand-to-hand combat, as well as any weapon close to hand, willing to use whatever force is necessary to subdue opponents. Their movements are highly trained, quick, and again efficient--they don’t go in for high kicks or shouting, no flamboyance, just killing. They prefer handguns and sniper rifles, definitely higher-end than a cop’s revolver, but refraining from Rambo-style heavy hardware like BARs or flamethrowers. They can take on anyone, but they are not gods--they can be hurt, tortured, though they are never killed. They do not slaughter with impunity, but generally fight one-on-one against other highly-trained killers. These characteristics are generally mirrored by the others that followed them, especially Neeson in Taken. Bond of course still loves his suits, and spends more time being a pretty-boy than any of the others. Hanna is more colorful, but then her under-size and unique qualities as a teenage girl rather require it. For all of them, though, there is an emphasis on sleek style, killing efficiently, and a preternatural sense of focus and intensity. Their movies are fast-paced, intense, with lots of chase scenes and sequences of bone-breaking violence.
None of this is brand new. Spies and assassins in the ‘70s were always focused and deliberate, John Woo’s heroes were always businesslike and in black (generally suits), sleek and cool have been prized qualities in a (anti-)hero since the noir period. A lot of these qualities could be sourced to Jean-Pierre Melville and his movies, especially Le Samourai. Perhaps most strangely about the new types is the way they are never allowed to love (romantically, at least). If they fall in love, their lover will almost certainly die, and knowing this they are likely to avoid deep relationships whenever they can help it. Noir heroes were often like this as well, but modern heroes before this would nearly always get the girl.
Luc Besson was already pushing heroes like this in the early ‘90s. La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional have much in common with Bourne and Hanna. There is also a probable influence of Michael Mann, especially in aesthetics. Mann loves that cool-but-not-unrealistic, man-with-a-certain-set-of-skills hero, and his movies are textbook examples of how to craft a “highbrow” action movie. But Mann’s heroes are always localized, limited, romanticized, and rather old-fashioned. Our new super-spy-types are the opposite.
The most notable thing about this new generation is their emergence in this globalized, post-9/11 world. This defines nearly everything about them--they are meant to be (anti-)heroes for our time, not romantic figures of the past like the cowboy, but existing now, immediate, relevant. They are defined by the world around them, its systems, networks, and geopolitics. What separates them most is their different stances toward the government and law and order. Bauer is the ultimate government employee/operative, the counter-terrorist expert and defender of America. Bond follows in his footsteps (though of course he greatly pre-dates this decade), but for Britain. Their stance toward superiors and elected officials may change and shift over the course of a film’s plot or a show’s 8 seasons, but ultimately we know they are always working toward the good of the country (whichever it is). Bourne, on the other hand, is a victim of government and a symbol of its guilt. Hunted by the same type of intelligence services Bauer and Bond work for, Bourne is just out for himself, to find his memory and place in this world. He does attempt to get justice for his dead girlfriend and shows mercy on a couple of those caught in the crossfire, but really he’s out to take down the system from a sense of personal outrage and revenge. Hanna is very similar. Geopolitics matter less to them than personal rights and wrongs, and they couldn’t care less what result their actions will have to the balance of power between countries. Nevertheless, they can’t escape the system; it’s all around them.
Neeson is less influenced in politics, but he’s still international, focused intently on rescuing his daughter, who has been kidnapped by sex slave traffickers in Paris and is being quickly moved through Europe along a network that extends through Eastern Europe and to the Middle East. Neeson used to work for the CIA, but intelligence systems never really figure in the plot--this is international crime, all underground, not spy agency stuff. Both he and Bauer torture their enemies to gain information. Bourne may psychologically intimidate someone, but he refrains from torture, possibly because he knows what it feels like.
Ultimately, it is the way they are located in this new world order that makes them most unique. Unlike most American heroes (and of course Bond and Hanna, among those I’ve mentioned, are not American), they are highly international, often ending up in Europe, always mobile. They are constantly using high-tech gadgets, but unlike past heroes--such as early Bond--these gadgets are often on the market when the film comes out, and never more than a generation removed--realism is a watch-word for these characters. (Hanna is the most science-fiction-ish, but even she is being held to standards of believability as much as possible.) While they are loners, constantly in motion, they find it very difficult to get off the grid--surveillance is everywhere, they can be picked up going through airports, using a credit card, even walking down a street. They are deliberately postmodern in their ethical and existential dilemmas. Where an older generation of hero--like the Cowboy--may be an enigma to others but understands his own aims and choices, the postmodern hero (as exemplified by Bourne or Hanna) either doesn’t know his own identity or is caught in a conspiracy he must try to escape from. In the postmodern world, identity is fragmented, there’s always a larger, more sinister picture, and they are indeed watching you. (And here The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies may have an intersection as well.)
These heroes are (or are intended to be) creatures of our moment, locating the tensions between security and freedom, surveillance and privacy. They are avatars of our modern anxiety, and our patronage of their entertainments suggest their concerns do indeed hit home.