- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

To paraphrase fading chanteuse Paula Cole, “Where have all the action heroes gone?” A long time ago in a Hollywood not so far away — the mid-1980s — the action hero ruled the box office. Be it Sly, Arnold, Steven or even Jean-Claude, the muscle-bound hero could do no wrong with audiences.

The less subtlety, the better. Just keep the bullets flying.

The old guard grew old, though, and before too long we were turning to some unconventional heroes to save the day. Whether it’s Keanu Reeves (the “Matrix” trilogy) or Ben Affleck (2002’s “Sum of All Fears,” last year’s “Paycheck”), the modern action hero doesn’t look like a steroid overload or grunt humorous tag lines meant to break tension.

Today’s action franchise is more likely to be headed up by a cerebral hero (Matt Damon in “The Bourne Identity”) than a muscle-bound lug.

Even in the superhero realm, audiences chose the spindly Spider-Man over the smash ‘em and break ‘em stylings of The Hulk.

Some of the best-known ‘80s action stars tried comebacks in recent years with middling to poor results. Talk of a “Mad Max 4” faltered over security concerns, leaving Mel Gibson to throw himself into some small-budget spiritual epic that couldn’t find major studio backing.

Rumblings of a “Die Hard 4” continue, but are audiences really hungering for it? Hearing Sylvester Stallone talk of a new “Rambo” or “Rocky” feature arouses pity, not anticipation.

In recent years, movie studios have tried mightily to restore luster to the notion of the action hero. When Vin Diesel’s “The Fast and the Furious” (2001) brought in fistfuls of cash, movie watchers granted him “Action Star” status via the box office.

Trouble is, his grip on the title is loose. Sure, Mr. Diesel’s “XXX” (2002) scored well, but the actor tanked with last year’s “A Man Apart.” And there’s talk Mr. Diesel may rejoin the “Furious” franchise, a sure sign that all isn’t well in Dieseland.

His latest film “The Chronicles of Riddick” is likely to attract more science fiction lovers than action fanatics.

Today’s other would-be action hero, wrestling star The Rock, is having an equally hard time carving out his own niche. The actor appears far more comfortable in the role than some of his predecessors, but the grosses on his films hardly inspire confidence in an eventual breakout. His next feature, the “Get Shorty” sequel “Be Cool,” suggests he’s already branching out into more sophisticated, comedic roles to prepare for a day when his fists alone won’t be enough to land him work.

The political climate sometimes plays a role in what kind of action hero we see on screen.

The left, remember, dismissed much of President Ronald Reagan’s muscular foreign policy during the action hero heyday as “Rambo”-esque, yet we the people gobbled up Mr. Stallone’s Vietnam-era hero and his unflinching fight for American values — much as the electorate twice opted for the president’s unapologetically exuberant celebration of American renewal.

Could reality television reinvigorate the action genre? NBC sure hopes so. It’s turning to action movie maestro Joel Silver (The “Matrix” trilogy, The “Lethal Weapon” films) with “Next Action Star,” which debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday (NBC runs a “Star” preview at 10 p.m. Monday).

Gary Benz, an executive producer with “Star,” says today’s action star can be the antihero, much like the roles Mr. Diesel selects. “They can have an edge to them,” he says. “It isn’t the good ol’ John Wayne kind of guy. It’s more complicated today.”

In a time of war, it might seem a no-brainer that audiences would rally around a warrior who sees evil and smites it without mercy. The anti-terror struggle, however, calls for a more subtle hero. In the murky underground of international terror, “You can’t see who the bad guy is,” Mr. Benz observes. Thus, we want a thinker who can outwit a potential terrorist, not someone who punches first and asks questions later.

Mr. Silver says that action pictures have been the mainstay of the movie business for decades. “It really hasn’t changed,” he says. What has is that a slip of an actor like Elijah Wood can save Middle Earth without popcorn munchers doubting it for a second.

Mr. Silver adds that movie stars could once be broken down into “rug actors” and “dust actors.” The former excelled in drawing room comedies, while the latter, such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper, could prove their mettle on a horse or with guns blazing.

Today’s action leads make the transition between the two better than in the past, he says.

It’s darn near impossible to imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to the acting business to star in a Merchant/Ivory prestige literary adaptation, but tomorrow’s action hero might look right at home on such a set.

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