Cheesy, silly protagonist names come with the territory in an action film. Like explosions, yelling, and temporary partnerships, they’re basically gospel.
This was particularly true in the 1980s and early 1990s, when it seemed as though Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters (and many who weren’t so great) were consistently trying to one-up each other in just how bonkers their script could get. Naturally, this translated over to the name’s of their crafted protagonists. Because why call a character Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signed on for Chip McGee when you could call him John Matrix?
15 John Matrix in Commando (1985)
One of the ultimate straightforward ’80s action movies, Commando is a blast. Or, rather, a whole bunch of them.
For the most part, those blasts are doled out by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix, an absolute wrecking ball of a man straddled with the typical action movie first name John. Then there’s his last name, which more or less makes Commando one action classic foreshadowing another that would come 14 years later.
14 Gibson Rickenbacker in Cyborg (1989)
While not the hit Timecop was, Cyborg still stands as one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s most recognized films. Albert Pyun’s film has an impressively memorable post-apocalyptic landscape for such a low-budget film (Cyborg was produced and distributed by The Cannon Group).
It also has a sort of inside joke when it comes to several of the characters names. Specifically, the names are references to musical instrument manufacturers. For instance, Van Damme’s Gibson Rickenbacker, which is a reference to Gibson Brands Inc. and Rickenbacker International Corporation.
13 Lyon in Lionheart (1990)
Bloodsport and Cyborg went a long way towards showing that Jean-Claude Van Damme could successfully lead a film. But it was really Lionheart that showed he was a financially viable film star, considering it quadrupled its $6 million budget.
He portrays Lyon “Lionheart” Gaultier, a French Legionnaire turned stowaway who travels to Los Angeles to avenge the life of his slain drug-dealing brother. To find the men responsible, Lionheart has to, in true Van Damme form, survive a series of brutal for-cash street fights against increasingly built brutes.
12 Mason Storm in Hard to Kill (1990)
To call Hard to Kill one of Steven Seagal’s best movies is to give the work a back-handed compliment, but it is still applicable. For one, it actually has a three act structure with a throughline related to personal stakes (the recovery of Seagal’s lead character and his quest for vengeance).
This makes Seagal’s grieving Mason Storm a bit more relatable (or worthy of empathy) than many of his other shoot-first-ask-questions-never characters. At most five percent of Seagal’s films have him play a character with a remotely believable name, and Hard to Kill‘s Mason Storm isn’t one of them. They were one rewrite away from calling him Mason Storm-The-Castle-Solo-And-Leave-With-Hardly-A-Scratch.
11 Detective Gino Felino in Out for Justice (1991)
Seagal’s earlier films are better than his later, and Out for Justice is one of the last ones to be remotely worthy of viewing. This is primarily due to a terrifying antagonist performance from the great William Forsythe, who elevates the movie far more than the dry Seagal and the crime against humanity that is his failed attempt at a Brooklyn accent.
All in all, though, Out for Justice is actually a good vehicle for Seagal, and the grimy early-’90s NYPD streets make for a wonderful setting. But, outside of Forsythe’s magnetic performance, the best aspect of the film is undoubtedly the name for Seagal’s character…Gino Felino has to be the best preposterously stereotypical Italian-American name of all time. That said, if it’s going to be attached to Steven Seagal and his temporary accent, it better not seem organic.
10 Johnny Utah in Point Break (1991)
Before Speed, The Matrix, or John Wick, there was Point Break. A heartfelt adrenaline-pumper with a note-perfect cast, including the sometimes criticized one from lead actor Keanu Reeves, it’s one of the ’90s most revered actioners.
Reeves and Patrick Swayze made for a wonderful pair, and each is absolutely perfect in their role. Swayze nails the free-thinking, peaceful (yet intermittently volatile), philosophical nature of Bodhi ‘Bodhisattva’ just as Reeves nails the film’s action sequences. What Reeves doesn’t get enough credit for are the scenes where he’s “playing” a surfer in front of other, real surfers. If another actor was in the role, it’d be inherently less believable when Johnny Utah snatches a single hair from a man’s head under the pretense of getting a spider, all with the perfect line of “I just saved your life, bro.”
9 Luc Deveraux in Universal Soldier (1992)
An underrated ’90s actioner if ever there was one, Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier is a fact-paced blast with two perfectly-cast leads in Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundren. They play former Army soldiers Luc Deveraux and Sgt. Andrew Scott, both of whom were killed in the Vietnam War.
But then they’re resurrected and enlisted in the “Universal Soldier” counter-terrorism unit. They’re blessed with elevated healing abilities and super strength, but the personalities they held in their mortal form have remained, even if buried deep. Unfortunately for Deveraux and the population in general, this means that Scott is every bit the murdering psychopath he was back in ‘Nam.
8 Forrest Taft in On Deadly Ground (1994)
The pairing of Michael Caine and Steven Seagal (in the latter’s directorial debut) goes about as well as one might expect. In other words, one person in the room has charisma and talent to spare, while the other is the film’s lead.
On Deadly Groundwas a personal project for Seagal, as evidenced by his environmental speech, which is so long it’s basically the film’s third act. And, with so much control over the project, it’s not surprising the star gave his protagonist yet another silly name. But, unlike his characters in Out for Justice or even Under Siege, his name in On Deadly Ground reeks of unintentional parody. It’s about environmental protection…his first name is Forrest…okay, time to write the next tonally unmodulated scene.
7 Jack Traven in Speed (1994)
Jan de Bont moved from cinematography to directing in just about the most impressive way possible. But, he’d never go on to replicate the critical and commercial success of Speed.
The film’s ace in the hole is Keanu Reeves (who is up for a Speed 3), whose Jack Traven is a cop who genuinely goes out of his way for others, even strangers. At no point does Reeves falter in making the audience believe this about Jack, and that’s crucial when he’s supposed to stay on a speeding, bomb-strapped bus in spite of having several opportunities to bail. There are sillier names than Traven’s, but there’s also just something about having the protagonist named “Jack” in an action movie. Then it becomes about how the surname flows with the first name, and Traven flows quite nicely.
6 Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock (1996)
Michael Bay’s best movie by a country mile, The Rock is heavily bolstered by commanding lead performances from Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris. Cage in particular carries the film as soft-spoken chemist Stanley Goodspeed, who is the perfect everyman for the extreme situation that is the capture of Alcatraz.
What’s great about Goodspeed (besides the “good” name, just so the audience doesn’t get confused about his preferred allegiance) is that he’s both incredibly bright and incredibly average. He wants no glory, no spotlight, and really he wants no responsibility outside of his lab (and this includes with his pregnant girlfriend). Yet, by the end of his trip on the “Rock,” Goodspeed has changed to become the exact type of man who’d make a heck of a father. After all, he’d throw his life on the line just to make sure a missile filled with nerve gas isn’t shot into a crowded populace.
5 Cameron Poe in Con Air (1997)
One of the best action films of the ’90s, Con Air is a blast from front to back. That said, it’s still the least effective of the 1996-1997 violent trifecta that was The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air.
That said, the things that technically don’t work about the film (namely, the script) also buoy it to a certain extent. For instance, “Put the bunny back in the box” is an inherently cheesy line, but it fits within the film’s established tone.
4 Memphis Raines in Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
As far as Nicolas Cage’s stretch of high-budget action films from the mid-’90s to 2000 go, Gone in 60 Seconds ranks dead last. A soulless remake content to use cliché repartee as its main source of humor, 60 Seconds does at least feature a decent (but arguably disinterested) lead performance from Cage as the hilariously-named Randall “Memphis” Raines.
But, to be fair, the 1974 original had a character named Pumpkin Chase. Pumpkin Chase. By the end of the day, “Memphis” doesn’t sound so bad.
3 Machete in Machete (2010)
Few would have expected the Grindhouse spin-off Machete to be one of Robert Rodriguez’s best movies, but it very much is. Along with creative uses of a small intestine, Machete is a film loaded with humor, self-awareness, terrific cast members, and savage one-liners. It also even manages to make Steven Seagal a presence, and for once a self-deprecating one. But, while Rogelio Torrez is certainly one of the most hilariously ill-fitting Seagal character names, it’s the title character who takes the cake. And then chops it into a billion pieces before driving over it with a chain gun-adorned motorcycle.
Almost everything that’s great about Machete is great because the title character is played by Hollywood legend (and general legend) Danny Trejo. This was the movie where he finally got his due after years of bit roles (even if those bit roles grew gradually more in-depth, mostly courtesy of Rodriguez). Trejo is Machete and Machete is Trejo, they just don’t live the same lifestyle. Trejo knows who he is in life (even if it took some time behind bars and subsequent impressive reformation) just the same as Machete knows who he is and what he’s good at. Heck, when everyone calls you by the name of the object you’re carrying whenever you’re not asleep, you better have a darn good sense of what you’re about. Machete’s about machetes…and justice.
2 Lee Christmas in The Expendables (2010)
Most of the characters in The Expendables franchise have goofy names, e.g. Terry Crews’ Hale Caesar, Jet Li’s Yin Yang, and Randy Couture’s Toll Road. But none of them beat Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas, who is almost never in a festive mood.
But he’s a great guy, stands up for what’s right, defends his ex-girlfriend more times than he can count, and even seems to have budding leadership skills as Barney Ross’ (Sylvester Stallone) number two. And, starting Summer 2023, a leader is exactly what Christmas becomes. That said, the best name in The Expendables franchise is still Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Vilain, just as it always will be (it helps that Van Damme is amazing in that role, to the point even some of his not-wrong detractors of the past heaped praise on his shoulders).
1 Orson Fortune in Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre (2023)
The combination of Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham is magic, but there’s little doubt Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre is an often muddled movie. That said, it’s decently-paced, glossy, fun, gives Aubrey Plaza (who received undue criticism) something new to do, and even gives Statham what is unquestionably his best goofy character name thus far: Orson Fortune.
Naturally, the movie itself even takes a few moments every now and then for some new character to raise a brow upon hearing it for the first time. Each time they do, Statham’s Fortune gives a half-mouthed grin (shortly before a punch or seven). Ruse de Guerre was a whiff at the box office, but hopefully with time it’ll develop a big enough audience to warrant some more Fortune.