9 Action Stars Who Have Also Directed Movies
Everybody knows Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, and Mel Gibson have made the jump from posing in front of the camera to working behind it. But did you know Arnold Schwarzenegger directed a made-for-TV Christmas movie in 1992? No? That, friends, is why we are here.
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger // CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1992)
It was 1992, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was coasting on a career high, having starred in Terminator 2: Judgment Day just one year before. So naturally he took some time off to direct a made-for-TV remake of a classic 1945 rom-com about a food writer who has to pretend to be the perfect housewife lest she lose her job. It just makes sense. Swap out original star Barbara Stanwyck for Dyan Cannnon, add in Kris Kristofferson as the love interest, and TNT’s Christmas in Connecticut is good to go.
Surprisingly, Arnie’s directing career didn’t really take off after this, though he does have one prior credit to his name: a 1990 episode of the horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt.
2. Dolph Lundgren // THE DEFENDER (2004)
Dolph Lundgren’s first movie as a director, 2004’s The Defender, is most notable for having none other than Jerry Springer play the President of the United States. Dolph's never been able to re-create that particular brand of magic, but he did direct five more films in the five years following The Defender, all of which he also starred in: The Russian Specialist, a.k.a. The Mechanik (2005), Diamond Dogs (2007), Missionary Man (2007), Command Performance (2009), and The Killing Machine (2010). Lundgren’s official website notes that he has three more directorial efforts in the works, one “a period-piece spy-drama about the German-Swedish involvement in WWI.” Get ready, Oscars.
3. Jean-Claude Van Damme // THE QUEST (1996)
Jean-Claude Van Damme’s directorial debut, 1996’s The Quest, has a head-scratcher of a plot: The Muscles from Brussels plays Christopher Dubois, a pickpocket in 1920s New York who is imprisoned and forced into slave labor by gun smugglers. He’s rescued by an aristocratic British pirate (Roger Moore) only to be sold to a kickboxing master, who trains him in Muay Thai. The only way Dubois can gain his freedom is by winning an international martial arts tournament—which, being JCVD, he does. Shockingly, critics did not hail The Quest as a modern cinematic masterpiece, even though it was a modest financial success with a $57.4 million worldwide gross. Van Damme’s second film—alternatively titled Soldiers, Full Love, and/or The Eagle Path—debuted as part of 2010’s Cannes Film Festival’s film market, but five years later it appears to be no closer to any sort of wider distribution.
4. Jackie Chan // 1911 (2011)
Since 1979’s The Fearless Hyena, martial arts icon Jackie Chan has directed more than a dozen films, though most of them—like the Hong Kong Film Award-winning Police Story (1985) and Police Story 2 (1988)—are not as widely known outside of Asia. In 2011, Chan busted out of his kung fu mold with 1911 (2011), an historical epic about China’s Xinhai Revolution, which ended imperial rule there and led to the founding of the Republic of China. Chan co-directed, starred in, and executive produced 1911, which was a passion project for him (in addition to being his 100th film). It screened in a handful of theaters stateside, where it was roundly decried as (paraphrasing here) a steaming pile of awful. (Or a “corny, preachy and tedious” film cursed with “stodgy dialogue [… that] sounds like reams of political treatises” and “toe-curlingly awkward tracts of English-language sequences”—see above.) It made only $135,759 in the U.S. and, even in China, ticket tales were “lackluster.”
5. Keanu Reeves // Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Keanu Reeves may have done his share of what he calls "Movie Kung Fu," but he'd be the first to admit that the real oomph of The Matrix trilogy's fight scenes comes from its stunt performers. One of them, "Tiger" Chen, got his turn in the spotlight with Man of Tai Chi, Reeves' directorial debut, about a martial arts student (Chen) lured into the dangerous world of underground fighting by an unscrupulous ringmaster (Reeves) who slowly begins to corrupt the soul (and fighting style) of his new protégé. Reeves spent years working on the film before deciding to direct it; basically, he just wanted to do a movie with/about his buddy Tiger. Critical reception was good-not-great, though reviewers almost across the board praised the film’s fight scenes, which Reeves entrusted to legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (Drunken Master, Kung Fu Hustle, Kill Bill: Vol. 2).
6. Steven Seagal // On Deadly Ground (1994)
Twelve years before Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, Steven Seagal had already attempted to make the definitive environmental activism movie with On Deadly Ground, his first—and so far only—directorial effort. Seagal stars as Forrest Taft, an expert at putting out oil rig fires whose (via the tagline) “battle to save the Alaskan wildlife and protect its people can only be won … ON DEADLY GROUND.”
As is something of a trend with this list, critics didn’t love the film, which ultimately failed to earn back its $50 million budget. Michael “Jaws: The Revenge” Caine, who plays the film's corrupt oil company CEO, later said he took the job because he was “desperate” for work, also quipping that the film’s title “was to prove apt.” Legendary thesp Bart the Bear, playing “The Bear,” has never commented on his involvement.
7. Tony Jaa // Ong-Bak 2 (2008)
No one on this list has had a tougher time directing their first film than Tony Jaa. The Thai action star gained worldwide prominence after 2003’s Ong-Bak and 2005’s The Protector. Subsequently, he was tasked with directing, producing, choreographing, and starring in Ong-Bak 2, which proved to be a bit too much of a challenge. Midway through production, money ran out and Jaa disappeared for two months, his family explaining that he had gone off to meditate in the jungle. A tearful Jaa eventually popped up on a television talk show and vowed to complete the film, which he did, with assistance from original Ong-Bak director Panna Rittikrai. By the time it was completed, Ong-Bak 2 had gone three times over budget, which prompted studio Sahamongkol Films to do some quick script revisions and split it into two films.
Ong-Bak 2 eventually became Thailand’s highest grossing film of 2008, but its $2.9 million domestic gross wasn’t close to what was spent on it, and worldwide it earned just $8.9 million. (The first Ong-Bak, by comparison, earned $20.1 million.) Legal problems between Jaa and Sahamongkol are reportedly a factor in why Jaa’s latest directorial effort, A Man Will Rise—an action-comedy starring Jaa and Dolph Lundgren—has now been delayed for over two years.
8. Bill Duke // Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993)
Predator's Sergeant Mac Eliot directed Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. That’s the takeaway here. A classic “that guy!” of the film and TV set, Bill Duke has popped up in Commando, Menace II Society, X-Men: The Last Stand, and that episode of Battlestar Galactica that everyone (including showrunner Ron Moore) hates … the man’s kept busy. Duke’s directing career has run concurrently with his acting one; over the past three-plus decades, he has helmed episodes of literally dozens of TV shows, including Knots Landing, Miami Vice, and Dallas, in addition to a handful of feature films. Only one of those, however, featured Whoopi Goldberg as a singing nun.
9. Nicolas Cage // Sonny (2002)
On Nicolas Cage’s IMDb page, buried underneath an increasingly offbeat list of acting credits (Left Behind, anyone?), you’ll find a sole instance of Cage-as-Director: the 2002 drama Sonny, starring James Franco as an ex-soldier who works as a gigolo for his brothel-owner mother (Brenda Blethyn). The film failed to impress critics, and even a cameo appearance from Cage as a gay pimp named “Acid Yellow” was somehow unable to bump its Rotten Tomatoes approval rating above 23 percent. Sonny’s gross topped out at a mere $30,005, and Cage hasn’t directed a film since.