Hollywood redefines action hero for a new age

As Schwarzenegger and Willis get older, other stars emerge

August 05, 2002|By Rick Lyman | Rick Lyman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES - The tag line for Revolution Studios' stunt-packed action flick, XXX refers to its tattooed, thrill-addicted hero, played by Vin Diesel, as "a new breed of secret agent."

In ads for this summer's successful thriller The Bourne Identity, Universal Pictures alerts audiences that in Matt Damon, the film's star, "a new action hero is Bourne!"

And there is a lot of Hollywood gossip these days about just who the director Wolfgang Petersen will choose to play his battling heroes in Batman vs. Superman, Warner Brothers' attempt to breathe life into two dormant film franchises by peopling them with action stars of a more contemporary hue.

Here's the deal: Charles Bronson is out of the game. Clint Eastwood is slaughtering at a slower pace. Chuck Norris is on television. And most of the superstars who helped transform the big-budget action film of the late 1980s and '90s into a lucrative summer staple - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme - have either seen their recent action efforts falter at the box office or gone on extended hiatuses between projects.

And yet not since Will Smith in Independence Day, a full six years ago, has a new male actor emerged who exhibits the star charisma, audience appeal and staying power to carry the action torch forward.

Since Rambo first strapped on his bandoliers two decades ago, the action genre has become so important to the bottom line of the mainstream studios that Hollywood seems, at the moment, to be casting about with unparalleled zeal for a new generation of action stars to keep the cash cow mooing. Some might even detect the whiff of desperation.

But others contend that all of this fretting about who the next Arnold will be simply misses the point - that it is not the action stars but the genre itself that is changing.

"It's true that there is an older generation of action stars," said Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, which includes the 20th Century Fox movie studio. "But it's just part of the evolution that's always there in the movie business. Every new generation gets their own screen personalities and, without a doubt, we are in the midst of one of these transition periods."

(Female action stars, a relatively recent phenomenon driven by Sigourney Weaver in the Alien series and Linda Hamilton in the Terminator films, form a category and a story of their own.)

The question has come to the fore this year simply because of the appearance of so many new stars in big summer vehicles - from a pure-action star like the Rock in The Scorpion King to serious-actors-turned-he-men like Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears - and because there are so many movies currently in production for future summers that promise to feature newer, younger action faces.

The next year alone will see Heath Ledger in a remake of the swashbuckling Four Feathers; a relative newcomer, Owen Wilson, pairing with a veteran Eddie Murphy in a big-screen version of television's I Spy; Affleck as red-costumed superhero Daredevil; Eric Bana morphing into The Hulk; and Colin Farrell joining the SWAT team. And that doesn't even count Batman, Superman and about a dozen other high-profile projects still on the drawing boards.

If most of the attention has focused on Diesel and XXX, it is only because that film's producers have admitted that they hope to spawn a new franchise series with it, and because it is such a self-conscious attempt to change the audience's image of what an action star can be. Like Diesel (born Mark Vincent), its brash and extravagantly confident star, XXX is demanding the attention.

Xander Cage, the hero of XXX, is an alienated, tattoo-covered misanthrope whose disdainful view of life has made him a thrill-seeking expert in extreme sports. When he is recruited by the United States government as a secret agent, Cage is able to use his skateboarding and bungee-jumping skills to thwart America's enemies.

The idea here is that young people - especially young males - who make up the bulk of the summer movie audience are finding it increasingly difficult to relate to the kind of black-tie, martini-sipping super-spy who has dominated the genre since Sean Connery first cocked an eyebrow. Xander Cage not only reflects the young audience's romantic image of itself - general indifference to authority mixed with contempt for conformity - but even personifies the multi-ethnic, multicultural face of current youth culture.

"He is a guy who every culture has adopted as its own," said Todd Garner, a partner in Revolution Studios who was responsible for developing the film. "You look at him on the screen and you listen to him and you cannot pin down what cultural group he fits in best with."

Is he Italian? Is he black? Is he Hispanic? Is he a mix of so many cultural strains that he belongs to none in particular? (Diesel refers to himself as "multicultural.")

"He is the Everyman," Garner said.

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