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'The Last Action Heroes,' by Nick de Semlyen, focuses on 8 action stars

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In the 1980s, the action in action movies went to a whole 'nother level. There were big blockbusters that really leaned into a lot of things, including the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

NICK DE SEMLYEN: I think a lot of it was to do with the climate at the time, with America just had Vietnam, Watergate. It was a very uncertain time. And then these action stars arrive, and they were bringing something else to the table. They were so confident. They were so indestructible. And you have Chuck Norris recreating Vietnam but actually winning.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Nick de Semlyen, author of a new book called "The Last Action Heroes." In it, he focuses on eight action stars - Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM MONTAGE)

SYLVESTER STALLONE: (As John Rambo) They drew first blood, not me.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As The Terminator) I'll be back.

BRUCE WILLIS: (As John McClane) Welcome to the party, pal.

MARTÍNEZ: But Sly and Arnold are clearly the straws that stir this alpha male movie star cocktail.

DE SEMLYEN: They're kind of the titans who are still yet to be surpassed in the genre, and they're still at it. You know, they've both just starred in their own TV series, which is the first for each. But yeah, they were really the guys who started it all. Sly kind of started the whole one-man army thing, in a way. And then Arnold came shortly afterwards - "Conan The Barbarian" and "The Terminator." And they just became instantly iconic. The absolute impact that those two had on pop culture - I just don't think we've seen it since.

MARTÍNEZ: If they wrote the playbook, what is the playbook for what they wrote?

DE SEMLYEN: Well, one-liners, body counts, the whole kind of one-man army model. I mean, people were doing it beforehand. You'd had Clint Eastwood, and you had, you know, Charles Bronson in "Death Wish." Bruce Lee was doing his thing. So people had done it before, but I think they just perfected the formula.

MARTÍNEZ: How did some of the others in your book find their places in this testosterone Tinseltown?

DE SEMLYEN: Well, Stallone and Schwarzenegger kind of blazed the trail, like I said, and they just came charging into Hollywood and were just two insanely powerful forces that kind of changed everything. And then in their wake, you had people coming in, Chuck Norris - not the best at acting, but he kind of carved out this niche for himself as the - kind of the karate guy. And then you had Jean-Claude Van Damme. You had Steven Seagal. Both had very different personas but kind of variations on the theme. And then you had Bruce Willis, who arrived kind of fully formed with "Die Hard," which he wasn't really meant to be in. They kind of put him in it as a last minute, you know, we haven't got anyone else 'cause so many people were turning down that film. But "Die Hard" turned out to be such a phenomenon that it actually transformed the whole action genre.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, Bruce Willis is the one that really sticks out to me of the eight in your book because he doesn't have that massive, muscle-bound physique. He doesn't have world-class martial arts skills. He's just kind of this wisecracking bro. So how is he able to make that into an iconic action hero persona?

DE SEMLYEN: Well, that was kind of it. That was kind of - the thing that was seen as a weakness at the time turned out to be the biggest strength because, you know, he wasn't a gym guy. He was, you know, a guy who had a deal with Seagram's wine coolers. And he was, like, the party guy.

MARTÍNEZ: I remember that. (Singing) Seagram's golden wine cooler, it's wet, and it's dry. My, my, my, my.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIS: (Singing) Seagram's golden wine cooler. It's wet, and it's dry.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Golden wine cooler.

WILLIS: (Singing) My, my, my, my.

DE SEMLYEN: It's a great ad. It's hard to get out your head once you hear it. He was slimmer than those other guys. He wasn't a Schwarzenegger. He wasn't a Stallone. He was, like, kind of a regular looking guy, more or less. It changed the game, really. It kind of opened up the action genre when that became a big success because he was playing a character who was not only kind of relatable in physique but also vulnerable. You know, there's a scene in "Die Hard" where he cries, which is unimaginable for a Schwarzenegger or Stallone at the time. They just wouldn't have gone near that role. In the wake of "Die Hard," you saw all of these films where the heroes suddenly were more vulnerable. And then you saw Keanu Reeves. You saw Wesley Snipes. You saw these more regular guys who weren't always in the gym bodybuilding become the new wave of action heroes.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So this new wave - how are action heroes that came after different or the same? Because outside of Jackie Chan, the names on your - in your book, Nick, are all white dudes.

DE SEMLYEN: That was kind of the Hollywood of the time. There were people there who definitely had the talent but didn't get the opportunities. I'm a huge fan of Carl Weathers, obviously, Apollo Creed in the "Rocky" films, but he's also in a really fun '80s movie called "Action Jackson." He did that, but then he didn't get any other opportunities, so he kind of went to TV. And it was - unfortunately, it wasn't a time of diversity and inclusivity. It was the white guys. And Jackie Chan - I kind of chart it in the book, but he tried to get into Hollywood, like, three times, and he's - just absolutely incredible action. The stuff he could do, for real, was mind-blowing. And it took him so long to really get the breaks that he deserved. Since the era when these guys kind of ruled supreme, as great as they were, I think it's great that people have got more opportunities now, and you have much more diversity. You've got Michelle Yeoh last year in "Everything Everywhere All At Once," who was around at that time but certainly not given a break in Hollywood. And it's great that last year, she finally got one.

MARTÍNEZ: Nick, I was a very small, scrawny teen when these action heroes were pumping out their movies. And they all really deeply influenced how I felt about my lack of muscles and also what society deemed to value about masculinity. How much responsibility do you think they should have for the images that they spawned?

DE SEMLYEN: I mean, it's hard to pinpoint with any specificity what impact they had pumping out these movies where you can solve all your problems just by punching people in the head and, you know, firing a gun at them. Probably does have some kind of impact. I talked to one of the makers of "Commando," which is one of Arnold's most insanely violent films of the '80s. In fact, they pumped up the body count in that film to compete with one of Stallone's "Rambo" films. They wanted to have a higher body count. So they went and counted how many people die, added more. "Commando" ended up being watched in Africa by - it was shown to child soldiers to kind of pump them up for battle. So, I mean, it definitely - you know, they had an influence in some ways positive, probably in some ways not so positive. And certainly, some of these movies veer into what you'd call toxic masculinity. I think you look at Seagal movies, what the director of "Die Hard," John McTiernan, calls, you know, fascist movies. And they probably don't have a great impact on pop culture. Some of them do. Some of them don't.

MARTÍNEZ: Nick de Semlyen's new book is called "The Last Action Heroes: The Triumphs, Flops, And Feuds Of Hollywood's Kings Of Carnage." Nick, thank you very much.

DE SEMLYEN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKY ORCHESTRA SONG, "GONNA FLY NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.