Old franchises never die; they just fade away

NOW THAT INDIANA JONES has officially demonstrated he can still flex his muscles at the box office, don’t be surprised if a new wave of crusty old action heroes are summoned out of retirement. Indeed, studios are probably champing at the bit for California’s governor to give up that silly second career, eager to re-deploy “Commando’s” John Matrix and “Predator’s” Dutch back into action.

Yet after sitting through fourth visits from Indy, Rambo and “Die Hard’s” John McClane — as well as a sixth round of Rocky Balboa — the lingering image is hardly one of demographic progress. For while there’s a familiar adage about age preceding beauty, this latest flurry of comebacks has consistently put age before reality.

Sure, jokes are made here and there about all that wear on the tires, but when time comes to kick butt, all these heroes can still party (and punch) like it’s 1989.

THE OBVIOUS GOAL is to replicate the thrills associated with earlier installments in these franchises, but given that nostalgia is a big element of the kick, it’s a wonder additional wisdom hasn’t slipped into the formula. If anything, afflicting these venerable heroes with some of the creaky effects of aging — oh damn, that arthritic knee is acting up — would only serve to make their feats of derring-do appear more heroic.

Acknowledgement of time’s passage, however, is fleeting at best. Watching “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (and this qualifies as the smallest of spoilers), what stood out was how the 60-ish archaeologist hasn’t missed a beat when it comes to beating up guys not only twice his size but now half his age, including a hulking Soviet soldier who brought to mind the heavy in “Rocky IV.”

Actually, presented this obstacle in his wittier youth, a young Indy might have dispensed with the macho B.S., drawn his pistol and shot Boris, the better to facilitate chasing Natasha.

A brief personal note here: At 45, I still play basketball, in part to avoid letting a physique that already requires easy-fit jeans lapse into Jabba the Hutt territory. Even so, I can’t imagine regularly going toe to toe with college-age hoopsters, inasmuch as I frequently need an aspirin the size of a grapefruit after competing against guys in my demo.

Translating that into movies, it’s hard to imagine punching it out with a Russian stud 25 years my junior.

LEST ANYONE INSIST that such movies demand a suspension of disbelief, that hasn’t always been the case. Consider Richard Lester’s 1976 classic “Robin and Marian,” in which Robin Hood (played by Sean Connery) returns to Sherwood Forest after two decades of swashbuckling and discovers he can’t pull it off as gracefully as he once did — huffing and puffing through a final duel with Robert Shaw’s Sheriff of Nottingham. It remains a beautiful, lyrical film, and no less adventurous and exciting for its touch of gritty realism.

On the flip side, one can argue that exhibiting even a modicum of respect for elders is welcome, especially in a media environment that bends (and frequently stoops) in the headlong pursuit of youth. Think of it as belated recognition that people are living longer and more robustly than ever — including John McCain’s bid, at 71, to become the oldest person elected to a first term as president.

Look closer, though, and mainstream movies work harder at avoiding issues of aging than addressing them, from the dearth of substantial roles for women over 40 to the fact that once the music blares, any signs of maturation are largely ignored. “Rocky Balboa” dealt the most directly with the implications of its grizzled boxer stepping back into the ring, only to have him absurdly hold his own against a reigning young champion, proving that the character wasn’t alone in taking too many blows to the head.

Given the corrosive impact of ageism, anything that contributes to undermining Hollywood’s “Logan’s Run” impulse to eliminate anyone over 30 is doubtless a good thing. Yet since it’s been established that audiences will still love Indiana Jones when he’s 64, must he keep pretending that he’s 32?

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