The fictional tradition of a strong authority figure who can also throw down in a fight dates back to stories as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh. It might have made sense at one point in history, when kings regularly strapped on cumbersome armor and went into battle, but in the age of the firearm, putting your head of state at the head of an army regiment is a practice that’s been abandoned (mostly).
Despite his position as commander in chief of the U.S. military, the president of the United States has never taken up arms while actually serving as president. Fourteen of the nation’s 44 presidents never served in uniform at all (nor, it seems, will have the next president). Yet, if your specific desire is to see the president kick ass, there’s an odd film subgenre that’s just for you.
First, the real-life action heroes…
While they don’t feature sitting presidents, we could hardly talk about presidential action heroes without a quick run of honorable mentions to the hagiographic films celebrating the fictionalized exploits of some real presidents.
And, in the presidential pantheon, few men could reasonably be credited with ending more human life than 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who features prominently in Rough Riders, a 1997 docudrama miniseries, in which he’s portrayed by Tom Berenger. If you want four hours that include some bafflingly bloodless action from one of the most famous battles of Roosevelt’s career, then director John Milius—the man responsible for Red Dawn and other deeply silly jingoistic nonsense—was apparently happy to oblige.
Another of America’s fighting-est presidents, seventh POTUS Andrew Jackson, featured in two separate films, portrayed by Charlton Heston: The President’s Lady (1952) dramatized his long courtship of his wife, and 1958’s The Buccaneer, which dealt largely with the adventures of pirate Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) in the service of the United States, but also featured Heston’s Jackson fighting the British during the Battle of New Orleans. Heston’s Jackson snarls, “Let me make this very clear, gentlemen. Before I surrender this city, I will burn it to the ground.”
Released in 1963, PT 109 dramatized the naval adventures of 35th President John F. Kennedy, and is notable chiefly in that it came out while he was in office—and during the same year he was assassinated.
Presidents or other heads of state who don’t quite fight or aren’t quite president
We also must include a separate honorable mention category for action-packed films featuring pugnacious leaders who technically are in charge of America, even if we aren’t in our current democratic framework, and/or who might not heft a weapon but certainly throw themselves into wartime operations with too much enthusiasm.
The mostly forgotten 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House is widely regarded as portraying fascism in a positive light. The president, Judd Hammond (Walter Huston), suffers an automobile accident that radically alters his personality. Firing his big business cronies and dissolving Congress, he institutes a heavy-handed regime that hunts down criminals and cleans up the country. One of the pivotal plot points is the capture, court martial (not trial) and execution of an obvious Al Capone analog. All of this is played entirely straight. It isn’t that I think a movie about a strongman with dictatorial tendencies who promises a purge-like martial law has any immediate relevance in our current political climate or anything—I just thought I’d mention it.
President Snow (Donald Sutherland) of The Hunger Games, its one sequel and its two half-sequels sold separately, is a crafty, ill-tempered old despot who rules the dictatorship of Panem. It’s made fairly clear in the world of the original novels that Panem is a totalitarian technocratic nation that encompasses North America, and while Snow’s hands remain clean in a literal sense, they are figuratively soaked in blood—thus earning him a nod.
No such list could be complete without an honorable mention for the peerless action film Equilibrium (2002), a breathlessly silly shoot-’em-up in which a totalitarian government has conquered the whole world and imposed emotion-deadening drugs upon the populace to suppress dissidence. The film culminates in a “gun kata” kung fu gun battle between hero Christian Bale and dictator Angus Macfadyen. He’s technically a head of state, I assume his regime includes what was once America, and nobody who appreciates thoroughly implausible combat prowess in a fictional public figure should miss this film.
Lastly, Jack Nicholson’s turn as a grinning used-car salesman of a president in Mars Attacks! (1996) doesn’t really feature the president actually fighting, but he does preside over a disastrous war effort, and Nicholson’s last-ditch attempt at diplomacy—in which he delivers a greasy soliloquy imploring the Martians to set aside their warlike ways—ends so bizarrely (if predictably) that it deserves recognition.
Those exceptions given their due credit, whether thrust into an extended, slapstick assassination attempt or inexplicably leading a fighter wing against an alien invasion, here are films in which the commander-in-chief gets his own hands dirty.
In a future where the average human intelligence level has dropped precipitously, everyman Army test subject Luke Wilson awakens to find he is now the smartest man in the world. An unjustly overlooked and under-marketed film, Idiocracy is another gem that I bring up because of the eerie real-world resonance it may have today, especially in the character of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (porn superstar and five-time ultimate smackdown wrestling champion).
Camacho orders Wilson to use his world-class brains to end a food crisis. Played by Terry Crews with the same delightful, heedless, game physicality he brings to pretty much every role, Camacho may not fight or kill anybody in the film, but he does enforce silence during his State of the Union address by spraying automatic gunfire in the air. When the bar is so low that voters can’t even process concepts like delayed gratification, the glitziest candidate is bound to win.
Is it November 9 yet?
I have to hand it to this film in just one respect: having Zartan impersonate the president of the United States is the kind of plot you might see in the cheesy cartoon series. Unfortunately, not even Jonathan Pryce’s villainous swagger can save an otherwise terrible film, but his insidious presidency is notable for letting loose the highest payload to the least effect. In a climactic scene, Zartan, impersonating the president, fires off the country’s entire nuclear arsenal in a massive bluff to trigger mutually assured destruction with the other nuclear nations, then initiates the missile self-destruct sequences to call the whole thing off in a headache-inducing ploy to disarm the entire world for plot reasons I can’t be bothered to remember.
The Joes thwart Cobra’s scheme, with traitorous ninja Storm Shadow taking down Zartan by throwing a katana through his chest.
John Carpenter’s grungy B-movie masterpiece Escape from New York features none other than Donald Pleasence running the White House. A thwarted assassination attempt forces President Pleasence to air-drop over New York City—which has been converted into an enormous free range prison for the violent and other societal castoffs in this dystopian police state. Amoral convict Snake Plissken (the role that broke Kurt Russell out of his spotless Disney-kid mold) is blackmailed into a rescue attempt, but the president has already been abducted by a violent gangster known as the Duke of New York.
Pleasence turns the tables at the end, though, making it to a machine gun in time to gun down the Duke. The movie is worth Pleasence’s unhinged performance as he releases the anger and fear he suffered at the Duke’s hands earlier. It’s a great turn that shows you who this president really is: helpless and weak when he’s captive, but sadistic and vengeful when the tables are turned. In one moment, Carpenter shows us why we should be rooting for Snake to burn the whole system down.
Made at a time when people who wrote spoofs actually cared about deconstructing a genre instead of just vomiting out a bunch of pop culture references and uncomfortable sex jokes, this send-up of ’80s action fare like Rambo and Commando has Charlie Sheen infiltrating Saddam Hussein’s palace in Baghdad to perform one of the man’s many fictional assassinations. Dropping into the fight at the last moment is President Tug Benson (Lloyd Bridges), who engages in a lightsaber duel with Hussein. They’ll settle it the old Navy way, Bridges says: “First guy to die loses!”
Samuel L. Jackson has also inhabited the role of leader of the free world. In a 2014 film nobody seems to have seen despite the fact it also stars Jim Broadbent and Victor Garber, a turncoat Secret Serviceman conspires to have Air Force One shot down over Finland, stranding the president in the wilderness as part of an elaborate kidnapping attempt. Jackson meets a young Finnish boy and the two work together to outwit their adversaries. Unlike in other cases, Jackson’s president is more victim than fighter, but he does get a couple decent lines and learns how to cock a machine gun before firing it over the course of the film.
Never have two films released in the same year with the same general plot outline required so much effort to be able to tell apart. Both films feature thoroughly implausible scenarios in which hostile forces take control of the White House, imperiling the president. While I find theories positing that they are two separate movies highly dubious, I do acknowledge that Jamie Foxx’s POTUS is a firm mark in the White House Down column for those who argue over which is the better film (if there are such people). His somewhat nerdy president strikes up a sort of buddy-cop dynamic with Secret Serviceman Gerard Butler (wait, no … no, it was Channing Tatum, sorry).
Foxx kicks heavily armed bad guys in the face with his Air Jordans and pauses during a tense melee to put on his spectacles so he can see well enough to murder a mook with machine gun fire.
Barack Obama’s time in the White House has had its ups and downs, but give him this: He’s normalized the idea of a non-white president so much that casting one in a forgettable action film doesn’t cause the public to so much as bat an eye.
As for Olympus Has Fallen, credit must be given to President Aaron Eckhart, who manages to get in a climactic gun tussle with the head baddie.
This spoof of blaxploitation films is as much a love letter to the genre as it is a sidesplittingly funny viewing experience. Besides a typically intense performance from undervalued action star Michael Jai White, it also features not one, but two battle-ready presidents. Kung fu hero Black Dynamite (White) discovers that a drug conspiracy leads all the way to the White House itself. Black Dynamite fights his way into the Oval Office, where he faces 37th U.S. President Richard Nixon (James McManus). Initially seeming ready to weasel his way out of the “presidential ass-whooping” Dynamite promises him, Nixon sheds his reasonable demeanor and busts out a pair of nunchaku for the final ridiculous fight in a movie filled with them.
Black Dynamite is not only the sort of movie that would hang John Wilkes Booth’s derringer on a wall within convenient reach for Tricky Dick Nixon to grab at a pivotal moment in the fight. It’s also the sort of movie where a spectral Abraham Lincoln phases into reality just long enough to smack it out of Nixon’s hand with a kung fu strike.
In terms of sheer body count, this film should top any list of fighting movie presidents, but there are reasons few people still talk about it one presidential term later. Adapted from a novel, the plot recasts the history of Lincoln to posit that the 16th president was in fact a vampire slayer by night, using his rail splitter’s axe to deadly effect.
The very definition of a high-concept action movie, there isn’t much more to tell here beyond the title. It does speak to the enduring affection Americans have for the Great Emancipator that he so often turns up in hyperbolically silly action roles in other media. We’d all like to think Honest Abe could dance balletically through old antebellum houses, slaughtering the undead in slow motion with nothing but his trusty axe.
One of the last palatable action films of Harrison Ford’s career, this too-long movie casts him as a president with a military record who handwaves away any realism we might try to impose on a situation where a graying POTUS has to shoot a bunch of terrorists. Made in the strange period when people weren’t sick to death of Bill Clinton and when action films were also “Die Hard but in an X instead of a building,” the film’s plot brings a group of Russians led by Gary Oldman and aided and abetted by (wait for it) a turncoat Secret Serviceman onto Air Force One in a bid to kidnap the First Family and hold them for ransom.
Ford forgoes his presidential escape pod in favor of a tense game of cat and mouse, in which none of the wild sprays of automatic small arms fire seem to penetrate the hull of the aircraft and depressurize everything. It’s nevertheless worth a watch if Ford gets you weak in the knees. In addition to plenty of meaty fistfights and Oldman’s unhinged accent, the cast is also stuffed with no-nonsense character actors.
Landing as it did in the midst of a political era in the United States whose obnoxiousness has only just recently ever been eclipsed, it joins the TV show The West Wing as the most shameless paean to the Clinton years—when people could at least agree that the president had a nice hairline and wasn’t stupid.
Well, that’s strange: two hyped-up action presidents in movies that came out in the mid-’90s.
Air Force One was notable in that it gave Ford several chances to conscientiously look presidential. Not a lot of the other entrants on this list get that chance, and for most of Independence Day, Bill Pullman’s President Thomas J. Whitmore doesn’t really get that chance, either. The film’s pace doesn’t allow it: Aliens are positioning themselves over major cities and blowing them up in the first few minutes of the film, all while the movie sets up the character arcs of its various bit players instead of giving any one of them the necessary focus to become the film’s protagonist.
Pullman rasps out orders, quietly stresses about the fate of humanity, and orders an ineffectual nuclear strike, but he’s not a man who appears as if he has control of the situation—or even his snippy Secretary of Defense.
But then he gets up in front of the worn-out pilots about to launch the last-ditch air strike against the alien invaders, and secures his place in pop culture history with his pre-battle speech. I have friends who repost a YouTube clip of it unironically every Fourth of July, or who otherwise cheekily sneak it into things the same way you might rickroll somebody online.
Then, to cap things off, he climbs into an F/A-18 and leads the air strike against the aliens himself. I’m not even sure they put his dogfighting skills on the mantle in act 1. But neither I nor anybody else who watches this movie cares about that.
What presidential combatants will the 45th president’s administration inspire in screenwriters? To the dread of many, we come closer and closer to finding out.