Sean Penn, Keira Knightley, and Anne Hathaway Join the Mass Migration from Arthouse to Action

Sean Penn/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Sean Penn/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock

Of all the oxymoronic hybrids (think: scripted reality, fake news) populating today’s pop culture landscape, the highbrow action hero may be the most unlikely. Lately it seems as though the musclebound blockheads of '90s blockbusters may be evolving along with the rest of the species. Bourne has always existed on its own plane as the thinking person’s action franchise. But the gap between Robert Ludlum’s morally ambiguous spy and the monosyllabic brutes of “The Expendables” may soon narrow now that a wide array of Oscar-winning directors and actors have begun migrating into the adrenalized danger zones of suspense thrillers.

Earlier this fall, Keira Knightley vowed to shed her corset to play the female lead in the new "Jack Ryan" reboot. Last week James Cameron committed to tackle the movie adaptation of Taylor Stevens' Third World thriller, The Informationist, after he completes the “Avatar” sequels. And this week has already been action packed, with Anne Hathaway's confirmation of her plans to star in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thriller, “Robocopalypse,” sandwiched between headlines announcing the CW's adaptation of Thomas Perry's Vanishing Act and the bizarro news that Sean Penn has enlisted to star as an international operative marked for death by his own spy ring in an adaptation of The Prone Gunman, an existential policier by French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette.

Of course, there are several important factors at play here that could be compelling some of Hollywood’s most esteemed A-Listers to take action. The first and most obvious incentive is that crime (the prime mover of any decent action flick) does pay. And now that Hollywood is no longer the recession-proof haven it once was, arthouse stars like Knightley and Penn may be seeking to to refill their bank accounts after taking pay cuts to work with visionaries like David Cronenberg and Terrence Malick.

Seasoned performers also benefit from the onset of superhero fatigue, which has caused a shift away from the spandex-coated coming-of-age stories that have dominated the upper regions of the box office chart to the haunted mature anti-heroes and gritty verite approach to high-octane ass-kicking favored by recent "Bond" and "Bourne" iterations. And now that Javier Bardem’s 007 villain is rapidly becoming a worldwide obsession, don’t be surprised when the esteemed thespians who have long been recruited to play action’s scenery-munching arch-villains are suddenly presiding over their own spinoff franchises. Heck, the way things are going, it's only matter of time before the lauded likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and John Hawkes subject themselves to a diet of protein and pain in preparation for laying waste to the forces of evil and catching bullets with their bare hands.

We’re not there yet and hopefully never will be. But whatever happens, audiences stand to benefit. In fact, we can already think of several filmmakers and performers we’d like to see let loose with their bad selves, ideally with a high-quality adaptation of a literary thriller. First up, we nominate Danny Boyle for a tour of duty in the nuance-challenged genre. And now that Manchette will soon be formally introduced to American moviegoers (and readers), what other European crime canons should Hollywood next raid?