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An Excruciating History of Macho Action Stars in Adorable Kids’ Movies

If John Cena as a tough fireman forced to watch three unruly kids is giving you a creeping sense of déjà vu, here’s 14 reasons why

When Barton Fink first meets Jack Lipnick in his office at Capital Pictures, he finds himself on the receiving end of an avalanche of bombastic pronouncements. Finally, the new-to-Hollywood writer gets his assignment: “Wallace Beery is a wrestler. I wanna know his hopes, his dreams. Naturally, he’ll have to get mixed up with a bad element. And a romantic interest. You know the drill. Romantic interest, or else a young kid. An orphan.”

Though the Coen Brothers’ comedy Barton Fink is set in 1941, it shows how some formulas still work! (Or maybe it shows that producers are dimwits and complacent. Either/or.) This John Turturro/Michael Lerner sequence came to mind the other day as I walked through my neighborhood and saw a poster for Playing With Fire on the side of a bus shelter.

Once I realized it was not a fake ad, I learned a little more about this motion picture. John Cena, the WWE star who, let’s face it, looks an awful lot like Mark Wahlberg inflated with a bicycle pump, stars as Jake “Supe” Carson, a “smoke-jumper” firefighter who somehow ends up taking care of three children (two moppety, one surly). There’s a dog, there are farts, there is use of the term “shenanigans.” If you haven’t viewed the trailer, you must, as everything about it — especially the trailer-before-the-trailer — is high art.

Playing With Fire, which I’m absolutely going to watch the minute it becomes available to me for free, is part of a long lineage of tough guys (usually from the world of professional sports) in kiddie pictures. As a service to cinephiles everywhere, we’ve assembled a number of examples through history that we heartily recommend. One caveat: Space Jam isn’t on the list, because while Michael Jordan may be a hell of an athlete, few would ever consider him a tough guy. (No #diss, Mike.)

Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931)

Beery didn’t actually have an athletic career prior to his time in movies, but he does have a quality rough-and-tumble background. Born in Missouri in 1885, he ran away from home and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus at the age of 16. While there, he worked training elephants, but he quit after he was clawed by a leopard. He then headed to Hollywood, or at least, the Midwest version of Hollywood: Chicago’s Essanay Studios. Eventually he did head West, and starred in the 1927 feature Casey at the Bat. But it was the 1931 boxing flick The Champ that made him a superstar. Directed by King Vidor, Beery was a washed-up alcoholic (beery, truly) and ex-boxer trying to put his life back together with the help of a ragamuffin named Dink played by Jackie Cooper, age 8. The Champ was remade in the late 1970s by Franco Zeffirelli with Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder, which played on TV a lot in the 1980s. 

Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (1937)

Tracy is remembered today either as a romantic counterpart in screwball comedies or as a lovable, grumpy grampa, but in the late 1930s, he was known for playing the heavy. His big break on stage was as John “Killer” Mears in the death-row story The Last Mile. On screen, his first leading man hit was in Fritz Lang’s Fury, which, just based off the title, doesn’t sound too friendly. So to cast him as Manuel, the salty Portuguese fisherman, in an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s boys’ adventure tale was quite a reversal. “Leetle feeesh,” Tracy adoringly calls the spoiled brat of an American businessman who soon learns how to live, truly live, thanks to being around working-class seamen. (The kid falls overboard and is rescued by a schooner, or something; it’s been a while.) Anyway, there isn’t a dry eye in the house at the end of this picture, and it ain’t just salt spray (or seamen).

Johnny Weismuller in Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)

Weismuller, born in the German enclave of Szabadfalva in what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today Romania), emigrated to the U.S. as an infant and won five Olympic gold medals for swimming. (And a bronze for water polo, but I don’t want to bring that up because I abhor animal cruelty!) His Poseidon-like physique got him a modeling gig for BVD in 1929, which then led to motion pictures. After a few false starts, he hit paydirt as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan in 1932. There were 12 Tarzan films, telling the ludicrous story of a wealthy English lad raised by apes deep in the jungles of Africa. 

Maureen O’Sullivan co-starred as Jane (of “Me, Tarzan, you” fame), and in the fourth film, Tarzan Finds a Son!, Tarzan, well, found a son. The son is called “Boy,” and two films later, Boy gets kidnapped by a circus that travelled to Africa to poach lions and whatnot. Tarzan and Jane must go to rescue Boy and reunite the family, which first involves a legal route. When this doesn’t work as planned (it’s never too early to teach kids that lawyers suck), Tarzan uses his jungle mojo to do what’s right: He inspires the unscrupulous circus’ elephants to take vengeance on their oppressors and a wild stamping begins. Honestly, I don’t know how you can still be reading this instead of watching Tarzan’s New York Adventure right now. 

John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972)


The alpha of cinema tough guys shall always be Marion Morrison, better known as John — make that Duke — Wayne. But imagine it’s 1972, and New Hollywood is in swing. You’re a hardcore conservative stuck with your grandson for the weekend, and he wants to go to the movies. Do you take him to see those longhair freaks and sissies they’ve put on the screen these days? No! You take him to see The Cowboys, in which rancher Wil Anderson (Wayne) finds himself stuck with no drovers, just as his herd of cattle need to be, um, droven. Everyone’s gone except for a class of no-good kids, all greenhorns, all wet behind the ears, all weak and worrisome! But that’s nothing a boot full of manure won’t cure! Spurs and saddles soon make men of ‘em, including a young Robert Carradine.

“Hey Kid, Catch!” (1979)

The sports giant-as-teddy bear took a big leap forward in late 1979 when NFL star “Mean” Joe Greene threw his soiled linen at a small child. Greene, who may or may not have actually been mean, was a key defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their Steel Curtain dynasty. Indeed, this ad played during Super Bowl XIV, in which the Steelers yanked the horns off the L.A. Rams, ground them into dust and smoked them (football was intense back then). The Coca-Cola ad, which presumes that young boys wandered around locker rooms with sugary beverages, played for years and has been parodied on everything from Newhart to Futurama. I can personally vouch for its ubiquity, and can hazily recall elementary school talent shows in which kids “re-enacted” this. The 1980s were one wild time. 

Diff’rent Strokes, “Mr. T and mr. t” (1983)

For eight seasons, America gathered round the electric hearth to learn life lessons from Conrad Bain. Diff’rent Strokes is so foundational to Gen X culture that one has to take a step back to remember what it was all about: How did Arnold and Willis end up with the Drummonds again? Ah, their mother was the housekeeper, but she died, so they moved from Harlem to Park Avenue to have adventures, like almost being molested and getting scolded to “just say no” by Nancy Reagan. In Season Six, the one-time wrestler Mr. T., already a superstar from Rocky III and The A-Team, met up with li’l Arnold (Gary Coleman) and coached him on believing in himself. The two then spat catchphrases at one another as we all drank New Coke, played Pac-Man and worried about Japan’s rising economy. 

Alex Karras in Webster (1983-1987)

For a few years, TV audiences could think, “Gee, I’d like to watch a show in which a very small African-American boy is adopted by wealthy whites” and have options. Emmanuel Lewis was already 12 years old when Webster started, but his diminutive stature (commonly misattributed to a kidney disease; that was Gary Coleman) allowed him to play as a five-year-old. Thus, lots of cutesy material between he and George Papadapolis, played by the four-time Pro Bowler with the Detroit Lions Karras.

O.J. Simpson in Hambone and Hillie (1984)

Yeah, you didn’t think we were getting through this without a mention of the Juice, did you? Hambone and Hillie is a feel-good road-trip movie about a lost dog who travels from New York to California to reunite with Lillian Gish. Hey, she’s a legend, you’d do the same! Along the way, the dog has many wacky, kid-friendly adventures, like hitching a ride with truck driver O.J. Simpson. The pooch also meets a “wanderer” played by Charlie X from Star Trek as well as Alan Hale, Skipper from Gilligan’s Island. Timothy Bottoms is the relative who tries to get Lillian Gish to “just forget ol’ Hambone,” so don’t show this to your kids unless you are okay with them hating T.Bot!

Kindergarten Cop (1990)

Finally, here’s the classic of the form. Adjusted for inflation, Kindergarten Cop made roughly 80 bajillion dollars, and earned every penny. How many kid films can make a cancer joke fly? Nary a benign biopsy in almost 20 years has gone by without quoting this motion picture! In case you missed it, Arnold Schwarzenegger, post-bodybuilding career/pre-Governating, is a police detective who has to go undercover as a kindergarten teacher for some reason. Sure, he can mow down baddies with a machine gun in his other movies, but can he handle the anarchic mayhem of six-year-old kids? The answer, of course, is SHUT UPPPPPPP!

Hulk Hogan in Mr. Nanny (1993)

The success of Kindergarten Cop sent hack producers into a tizzy looking for a copycat. (Kindergarten Copy! shouts my inner Gene Shalit.) They found it in Mr. Nanny, one of many Hogan vehicles that could have fit nicely on this list (we’re looking at you, Santa With Muscles). But Mr. Nanny is special in that it also steals from Home Alone. In it, the future Bubba the Love Sponge cuckold and Gawker litigator runs afoul of two prankster kids, who electrocute him and trip him down stairs because he makes them brush their teeth. Austin Pendleton is the rich dad who hires him, plus Sherman Hemsley and Buster Poindexter are in the mix, too. It’s a Goddamn masterpiece. 

Chuck Norris in Top Dog (1995)

The period between his Delta Force prime and becoming an internet meme was a little, ah, ruff for Norris. To wit, this motion picture, that I’m sure he’d like to bury like a bone out in the yard. Top Dog was far from a hit, and was Norris’ last film as a leading man to get a theatrical release. But forget all that! You think you’re too good for Top Dog? It’s got Chuck Norris and a dog, and they fight crime. And not even like a gritty, scary dog like a pitbull or Great Dane. Reno, the police pooch, is a big fluffy briard, a shaggy, floppety four-legged floop of fun! The best part is when his big, fuzzy paws pull a lever that drops a giant wooden crate on a suspect: He might be paralyzed for life — if he survives at all! Bwahahahah! Family entertainment.

Vin Diesel in The Pacifier (2005)

The title works on two levels! In this motion picture, Diesel plays a Navy Seal returned from stealth missions in Somalia, Serbia and Bosnia, but now it’s time to take on his toughest assignment yet: Suburbia! RECORD SCRATCH!!!!! Lt. Shane Wolfe may be a built-from-granite killing machine, but is he any match for a farting baby? As with Kindergarten Cop, a series of convoluted plot points puts our tough guy hero in charge of a bunch of kids. He may teach them discipline, but they will teach him love! There’s also a pet duck.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in The Tooth Fairy (2010)

Johnson had made some successful movies by this point, but this was his first family film as a headliner, and it clicked. The project was originally conceived as a Schwarzenegger vehicle back in the early 1990s, but you can’t keep a good idea like this down. I’m actually being a little serious here — this is a clever concept. Johnson plays a mean, nasty hockey player who, because of his general jerkishness and failure to believe in the Tooth Fairy, is sentenced (by Julie Andrews!) to serve time as a winged, fluttery agent of remunerative dental swappage. His co-stars are Ashley Judd, Billy Crystal… and MAGIC.