The action heroes of our youth were hard, noble men with no patience for authority. Soon they will also be really, really old. Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, Indiana Jones, and John McClane have all been gone for so long that it's been safe to assume they'd died the deaths their grueling lifestyles and advanced years seemed to guarantee. Yet, amazingly, these macho Methuselahs are making comebacks—going one more round for the title; firing that last shot at the terrorists; taking one more piece of biblical symbolism literally, despite all that higher education.

When Rocky Balboa opens this December, Sylvester Stallone will be well into his 61st year. That makes Sly and his alter ego Rocky a good 15 years older than George Foreman was when he became the world's oldest heavyweight champion. Stallone was 42 when he last donned the sweaty headband in Rambo III—18 years ago. With Rambo IV tentatively set for a 2007 release, the ancient Green Beret will prove his First Blood dialogue to have been prophetic: "Nothing is over! Nothing! You don't just turn it off!"

Yet behind that blind persistence lies the same force of will that made us fall for these slabs of meat in the first place. As kids in the eighties, we learned what a man was supposed to be by watching McClane break a terrorist's neck, take his gear, and return the corpse to its comrades with a note reading, NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN. When threatened by some hotshot Egyptian swordsman twirling his scimitar, you shrug, draw your revolver, and kill him almost as an afterthought. Men were not subtle. Masculinity was not ambiguous. Those ideas, however, have been progressively worn away in pop culture in the years since our icons filled screens. It's hard to imagine how they'll appeal to today’s over-groomed, Abercrombie-loving youth.

Whenever we glance back at the eighties, we're tempted to go on and on about Reagan and the nation's “recovery” from Vietnam. At the time, though, none of us were conscious of anything beyond the development of our own pubes. We naïvely believed we could still become those movie men—men without doubts, men who would never lose. But by 1993 both Sly and Arnold were already goofing on the images they had constructed—Stallone as an unfrozen nineties-style cop in Demolition Man; Schwarzenegger as himself, more or less, in Last Action Hero. When Quentin Tarantino cast Bruce Willis as a man with a fatalistic code and no sense of irony in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, he named him Butch. The resurrection of those fictional lions made us realize that it’s better to remember them fondly than to meet them again as grizzled cartoon versions of their former selves.

But try telling that to the studios that are betting that these icons have enough power at any age to trump our disbelief. “These movies have more heart than a lot of the newer franchises,” says MGM COO Rick Sands, whose company is behind Rocky Balboa as well as the 21st James Bond offering, Casino Royale. “A great movie can become a phenomenon almost instantly nowadays . . . but it takes time to become emotionally part of the culture.”