Actors can act lots of different things. They can act happy, sad, horny, drunk, even Irish. On queue, they will laugh, cry, dance, shout, smoke cigarettes (can they sue if they later get cancer?) and even take their clothes off (if you pay them enough). They pretend to play pianos by moving their hands up and down in time to the music. Actors can adopt limps, and stammers, and will even change their weight if the part demands it. They act at being great doctors and lovers and sharpshooters and even politicians (the last of which is essentially the same as acting). Many actors claim to do their own stunts. But no matter how talented an actor is, there is one commonplace activity that they often have to perform on screen that cannot be acted. They just have to do it as best as they can, the same way they always do it. And if they are no good at it, they cannot disguise the fact. In the heat of the action, many an actor needs to stop pulling faces and get on with some basic plot-driven footwork – by doing some old-fashioned running.
There must be many a thespian who, tired of taunts and jeers at their limp-wristed flouncing during Physical Education class, turned to the sanctuary of Drama for love and respect. Imagine their horror, as, years later, they land that big movie part, only to find it involves lots of running about. Instead of just humiliating themselves in front of their classmates, actors allow the whole world to see their awkward attempts at athleticism. With some artful use of editing and camera angles, even the flattest of foot might appear gazelle-like. But not all editing is artful enough. And in the competitive world of big screen acting, an actor that can really run is going to justify one or two extra exciting action shots – and maybe some more money in the process. So here, in no particular order, is my personal roll call of some of the great, the good, the mediocre and the downright ludicrous running performances of actors over the years.
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky: 8 out of 10. The big guy never had the right frame to be a good runner, but he still impresses because of how truly fit he was, with a decent sprint and those famous bounds up the steps in Philadelphia. This Italian Stallion can really gallop.
Harrison Ford in Star Wars: 8 out of 10. Ford shows himself a decent runner, despite adopting a silly head-down style which would only improve speed if you were running into a gale-force headwind. But as this video makes abundantly clear, anyone looks fast compared to a guy stuck in a stormtrooper outfit.
Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man: 6 out of 10. Apocryphal stories abound over how Laurence Olivier would tell the method actor Hoffman to ditch his attempts at being authentic, and just to act instead. Hoffman may have worked hard on his running method, but the end product is as ragged as it is energetic. It is exhausting just watching Hoffman run ten yards, never mind a marathon.
Matthew Broderick in Wargames: 7 out of 10. A fine effort by Broderick, but we never see his full running potential. Had this early film about a computer nerd involved more running, Broderick may have saved many a code jockey from teasing about their lack of physical prowess. In the pivotal running scene, Broderick effortlessly keeps pace with his colleagues as they run before the nuclear bunker door snaps shut. Hmmm… possible nuclear war… big door to the shelter is closing… only seconds left… got to run for your life… Would you hold back and be polite, keeping company with the goofy-running girl and the old guy with the strange staccato stride pattern? Not me! They would be eating my dust!
Tom Cruise in… everything he has been in: 10 out of 10. Cruise control? Tom is supersonic. Cruise has done a lot of top (gun) running during his career, and he showed he still has the fastest pair of sneakers in the West of Hollywood with some excellent long sprinting shots in MI:3. Here is a montage that shows no matter what the film, Cruise is a proven running talent who has consistently delivered over the decades.
Michael York in Logan’s Run: 2 out of 10. In this 70’s science fiction classic, York plays Logan, a ‘sandman’ who chases ‘runners’. What a terrible piece of casting. I doubt York’s toes-pointed-outward style would enable him to catch a bus, even if it waited at the stop for him. Maybe he should shake the sand out of his shoes before he starts. If I was running after Jenny Agutter in her prime, I think I would move a darn sight faster.
John Cusack in Con Air: 1 out of 10. He is a talented actor, but Cusack runs like a total dork in this movie. If this is how fast Cusack moves in a life-or-death situation, I would hate to be stuck behind him in the queue at the Post Office.
Simon Pegg in Run Fatboy Run: 4 out of 10. It may be a comedy, but I doubt Pegg had to make an effort to look funny whilst running. As far as this movie was concerned, it is just a shame there were not more laughs in the script.
Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: 7 out of 10. Patrick has an upright running style, but it works well for the part and made for a memorably disconcerting image of a determined robot assassin from the future. If this guy was running in my direction, I would not be waiting to find out what he wants…
Orson Welles in The Third Man: 3 out of 10. Even before Orson got fat, he was obviously no speedster. This is one of the all-time great movies and the chase scene through Vienna’s sewers is a classic, but artful editing cannot hide just how slow Orson was. Running across rubble, over cobbles and through water is far from ideal, but all those quick edits are designed to mask how slow Welles is. As Welles points out in the film, it took 500 years for the Swiss to invent the cuckoo clock. Given that he is being chased by the police, Orson’s character must have been wishing they had spent that time devising faster running shoes…
Leslie Neilsen in And Millions Die!: 8 out of 10. A truly awful TV movie, I recommend you watch it if you ever get the chance. Sadly, I have no video to show here. Imagine Leslie Neilsen when he was still playing straight roles in B-movies, before he made Police Squad. Then imagine a 20-minute chase scene, all on foot, through the streets, the slums and even over the junks of Hong Kong. It has to be seen to be believed. Includes such classic ‘Wacky Races’ clichés as stopping to knock over obstacles in the way of the people chasing you, and, when it looks like you finally give them the slip, leaping out from your hiding place and whacking them over the head before doing yet more running and chasing. A great example of unintentional so-bad-it-is-good, and arguably a template for Neilsen’s later spoof-oriented career. But to be fair to Neilsen, he did a lot of running, and all of it was fast and convincing. In fact, it was the only believable thing in the film.
Kirsten Dunst in Wimbledon: 0 out of 10. Whatever Dunst’s talents, running is not one of them. Instead of running, she does that bouncy up-and-down thing that may look cute but basically gets you no further then jogging on the spot. Dunst’s character is supposed to be a top tennis player – it is no wonder you hardly see any scenes of her playing tennis and in the few there are the ball is hit straight to her. Pity her co-star Paul Bettany, who was very convincing in his extended tennis scenes, and looks like he might have a decent top speed with those long legs of his, but who clearly had to hold back when running with Dunst.
Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films: 5 out of 10. Weaver by name, weaver by nature, as Sigourney runs up and down the twisty turny corridors you always find in deep outer space (it is called ‘space’ – so why is everything so narrow?). She kicks alien butt and handles both action and acting with equal ease. But if you watch closely, Weaver has an awkward elbows-out running style. My guess is she would be banging them each time she turned a corner…
Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man: 3 out of 10. Majors is a beefy guy and hence not an elegant runner, and does not adequately compensate through a Stallone-like commitment to physical fitness. Speed up the film, slow down the film, but you cannot hide the fact that the only thing less convincing than Major’s wobbly running is his acting. Remember this was the man who tried to keep Farrah Fawcett at home to do his cooking… no wonder this leaden-footed and leaden-acting star ended up losing the girl and playing The Fall Guy. Fact followed fiction when several years ago, the bionic man had his knee replaced in real life.
Michelle Ryan in The Bionic Woman: 7 out of 10. As a tall woman, ex-Eastender Ryan looks slow off the mark, but when she gets going, she can really shift. In this reprisal of the 70’s show, she puts the star of the original series, Lindsay Wagner, to shame. Three cheers for an unexpected British acting and running success…
Keanu Reeves in… everything he has been in: 5 out of 10. Reeves looks like he should be a jock, and he has done plenty of running in plenty of action movies. But has there ever been anyone who runs so much with his shoulders? And his arms flail all over the place. If you see him running through a crowd, give him a wide berth, as he needs it. Take a look at what I mean with this montage:
Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump: 6 out of 10. Upright, and using a high action for both hands and knees, this style looks slow and tiring. But in a movie about a man who spends most of his life running, Hanks wins us over with persistence and stamina – much like his character.
Hugh Grant running for Wedding #1 in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The hair is floppy but the gait is straight.
Christian Bale zipping up steps and racing down corridors like a bat out of hell in Equilibrium. Bale is my tip to take over Cruise’s crown as running action hero heartthrob.
Will Smith did some lanky but highly impressive alien chasing during the opening scenes of Men In Black.
Daniel Craig deserves a mention for his running in Casino Royale. Bulky Craig does not look fast, but his running is direct and purposeful – and hence it is totally believable when he runs through a plasterboard wall.
Harrison Ford (again) for several decades of running from boulders and natives as Indiana Jones. The last Indie flick may have been dire, but Ford is still fleet of foot in his mid-60’s.
I could go on. Like actors in action movies, this topic will run and run, with more outings as new actors show their strides on screen. It would also be great to hear your reviews of how actors move in motion pictures. When it comes to measuring the quality of acting legwork, there is only one rule. To paraphrase Yoda: run or run not, there is no act.