Nerve’s Action-Star Acting Matrix

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We plot the ratio of machismo to acting talent in Hollywood’s leading action stars.

by Kristin Hunt and Alex Heigl

On Friday, Marky Mark will once again crack skulls and glare through a feature film, this time one called Contraband. Despite generally appearing in dumb movies, Wahlberg occasionally gives surprisingly nuanced performances in more ambitious work like The Fighter or Boogie Nights. That got us thinking about the spread of machismo to acting ability among Hollywood's action elite. For the convenience of the scientific community, we've presented our findings in this easy-to-read graph.

Michael Fassbender

Over the last few years, Fassbender has beguiled millions with his seemingly effortless blend of intense physicality and serious talent. He's both a handsome arthouse star, and a tough guy who doesn't insult your intelligence. Machismo: 6 Talent: 7

Liam Neeson

The actor once known for playing Oskar Schindler has decided to spend his fifties kicking your ass. As Taken demonstrated, he can single-handedly rescue his idiot teenage daughter and take down a sex-slavery ring without blinking an eye. And then switch to gravitas-mode to play Narnia's resident Jesus-lion, Aslan. Machismo: 5 Talent: 8

Christian Bale

He fights villains and growls in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but also wins Oscars for playing deadbeat druggies. You know you’re special when you can drop jaws for dropping pounds in The Machinist and then believably best a horde of mobsters and evil lunatics. Machismo: 7 Talent: 7

Clint Eastwood

He's still the scariest squinter in Hollywood, but as he aged, Eastwood began showing a tenderness and range that you wouldn’t have expected from the Man with No Name. But in a film like Unforgiven, Eastwood displayed equal amounts of acting talent and sheer terror-inducing menace. Machismo: 8 Talent: 7

Clive Owen

Clive Owen has done sensitive and nuanced work in films like Gosford Park (he is English, after all). But he’s also starred in the I-can’t-tell-if-this-is-a-parody-or-not Shoot ‘Em Up and the most over-the-top part of Sin City. Children of Men was probably his best middle ground. Machismo: 6 Talent: 8

Vin Diesel

No one who renames himself "Vin Diesel" will ever be the toast of the Screen Actors Guild, though he did turn in decent-if-stilted performances in Pitch Black and Boiler Room. Diesel’s legacy as an actor mostly seems to be that he managed to make Paul Walker look expressive in The Fast and the Furious.
Machismo: 8 Talent: 3

Ryan Gosling

RyGos had a hell of a 2011. He added “Murder/Driving Machine” to his list of roles, building on the solid work he’d done in indies like The Believer. But he was also unbelievably sensitive, breaking up fights on the streets of New York and playing the ukulele. Whether he’ll lean a little more action-heavy remains to be seen, but whatever he does will probably be watchable. Machismo: 3 Talent: 7

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

As an actor, DTRJ has revealed a self-deprecating charm as an actor not immediately apparent in his earlier, more elbow-centric work. Check out his funny turn as a fidgety neurotic in Southland Tales; it's one of the few bright spots in Richard Kelly's overstuffed disaster. Machismo: 8 Talent 4

Sylvester Stallone

With Rocky, it looked like Sylvester Stallone was posed to become quite the triple threat. Then came Rumble Alley and a string of increasingly self-parodic roles. (Over the Top, anyone?)Then came Demolition Man. Today, he's firmly in self-parody mode (see The Expendables…or don't). Machismo: 9 Talent: 5

Bruce Willis

Is Die Hard the best action movie of all time? That’s up for debate (side note: it is the best action movie of all time), but it did cement Bruce Willis as a bona fide action star: odd, given that just a few years prior he was starring in Moonlighting. One Sixth Sense later, people are suddenly talking about Bruce Willis in a movie where nothing got punched. Weird. Machismo: 7 Talent: 6

Jason Statham

Jason Statham’s early roles in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch displayed a kind of rough-edged charm (and baldness) that easily could have made him a British Bruce Willis. Then he graduated into full-on action porn with Crank, and by the time he was uttering lines like “Next time, I'll deflate all your balls” in The Expendables, it was clear he wasn’t going to display the versatility we’d hoped. Machismo: 7 Talent: 3

Arnold Schwarzenegger

He may have been Mr. Universe, but that doesn’t make him a thespian. Not even his nuanced work in Kindergarten Cop could earn him some credibility. Machismo: 10 Talented: 2

Matrix-Busting ManHugh Jackman

We just don’t know what to do with this guy. One minute he’s Wolverine, the next he’s the Boy from Oz. He defies any and all easy categorizations. A wild card if there ever was one.