Sunday, March 2, 2003

Movie muscle

Brawn is back as heroes and heroines ride to the rescue of large-scale action

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

After a year when Hobbits and Hogwarts and a web-slinging teenager ruled the box office, the musclemen are back in 2003.

Not a month will go by this year without square-jawed heroes (or high-kicking heroines) blowin' it up and makin' mayhem all over the screen.

In January, the octane-charged Biker Boyz roared across the screen. In February, martial arts icon Jet Li kicked high and hard alongside rapper-turned-action-hero DMX in Cradle 2 The Grave.

For decades, they made the action movies that fetched billions in box office gold. But now, the tough guys are growing old.

Clint Eastwood is about to turn 73. Harrison Ford is 60. Tommy Lee Jones is 56. So is Sylvester Stallone. On July 30, the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, will join them on the shady side of 55.

The streets of Hollywood are crowded with pretenders to action-hero status. Many strive, but few deliver the mysterious combination of brawn, looks and on-camera appeal that makes the difference between stardom and a string of roles as "Thug No. 3." Right now, the leading candidates for next-generation Arnold-hood are:

Vin Diesel - He's got the body, he's no slouch as an actor, and in the space of three movies (Pitch Black, The Fast and the Furious, XXX), he proved himself a box-office magnet.

Dwayne Johnson - Smart, handsome and already a super-star wrestler, the man called The Rock is taking a step-by-step approach to making himself a movie star, and got off to a strong start with The Mummy and The Scorpion King.

Eric Bana - A certified long-shot at least until The Hulk comes out, this Australian is a hot topic inside the business based on his strong, silent warrior in Black Hawk Down and psycho killer in the Chopper.

On Friday, Bruce Willis, Mr. Die Hard himself, pumps up the yearlong string of brawny, explosive action movies with Tears of the Sun as a hard-bitten soldier on an African rescue mission that requires him to fight off an army of thousands. Before the year is out, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and all three of Charlie's Angels will do their bit to perforate bad guys and blow out eardrums.

That is welcome news to action-movie fans like Matt Freudenberg, 24, of Eastgate, computer analyst by day and independent filmmaker on his own time.

"Guys just like to blow things up and see things happen," Freudenberg said. "This allows you to live vicariously through others and experience things you can't experience on your own, ... living in an alternate universe or something I really can't do at work."

As for the current crop of heroes, Freudenberg said, "What's interesting is a lot of these movies today don't have a big action guy; they have little dweeb guys, like Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man. It sort of helps dweeb guys like myself relate.

"Anyone in X-Men, aside from the special characteristics, they're like regular guys. ... Keanu Reeves (The Matrix), he's like the ultimate dweeb. These are like guys you could almost be."

Jay Herbert, a 24-year-old research professional from Oakley, said the right star can make an action movie irresistible. "If I see Bruce Willis, Vin Diesel, the Rock (starring in a film) ... I'm definitely seeing that the first night," he said. "Somebody like Ben Affleck (Daredevil), I can't stand him so I won't go see that."

Herbert is eager to see Terminator 3, "just because the second one was so good. I'm not really expecting it to be that good of a movie, but just to have closure. I just want to see how it turns out."

He has simple rules for what makes a good action movie. "It has to be based around a hero. I want a basic plot you can believe. As long as the stunts and the way it develops is over-the-top, that's good. You look at some of these things and you laugh at it, but at least for those two hours you can believe it. ... It has to be fun, not necessarily brainless."

Here is a month-by-month guide to the best that Hollywood has to offer action-starved fans:

March 14: The Hunted - Tommy Lee Jones is the hard-core good guy tracking very bad man Benecio Del Toro. William Friedkin (The French Connection, Rules of Engagement) directs.

March 28: Basic - A seriously buffed up Travolta plays a government agent investigating the disappearance of hard-guy drill sergeant Jackson and some Ranger cadets in Panama. John McTiernan (Die Hard) directs.

April 4: A Man Apart - Vin Diesel swings his fists in a power struggle over a drug cartel, in a movie that was shot before he hit Big Man status with XXX. Look for lots of fights and really loud music.

April 16: Bulletproof Monk - The mighty Chow Yun-Fat takes Road Trip's Seann William Scott, of all people, under his wing and imparts the sacred secrets of knocking heads, Hong Kong-style.

May 2: X-Men 2 - Mutants have feelings, too, and the chops to express them in hand-to-hand combat. As Wolverine, Hugh Jackman may be the meanest rompin'-stompin' bone-crusher who ever made his name singing in a Broadway musical.

May 15: The Matrix Reloaded - If you listen very, very carefully, you can hear the collective pounding heartbeat of all the rabid Matrix followers feverishly counting the minutes until the first of two - count 'em, two - sequels unleashes a high-tech frenzy.

June 6: The Fast and the Furious 2 - Tyrese steps in for the departed Vin Diesel as Paul Walker finds a new hyper-charged street-racing circuit to infiltrate, this time in Miami. John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) directs.

June 20: The Hulk - Maybe the wildest of this year's wild cards is the combination of director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Australian actor Eric Bana translating the great, green Marvel Comics monster/hero to the big screen. Nobody knows. Everybody hopes. Fingers crossed. Etc.

June 27: Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle - You want tough? In the trailer, they drive a tanker off a bridge and survive. In the next sequel, we hear they crush coal into diamonds with their bare hands.

July 2: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines - Arnold - the Arnold, the one and only Arnold among Arnolds, Arnoldissimo General Schwarzenegger. He's back. He said he'd be back. He promised. And here he comes! True believers never doubted.

July 18: Bad Boys 2 - The undisputed master of big-screen bombast, Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) directs the big-budget sequel to the surprise 1995 hit he put together with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Rest assured no car will be blown to bits with anything less than megaton force.

July 25: Lara Croft and the Cradle of Life: Tomb Raider 2 - Pillowy, billowy Angelina Jolie will deploy her pillowy, billowy assets, and some groovy sci-fi firepower, to save the world from something or other. (You think a true Lara Croft fan gives a rat's backside who the villain is?)

Aug. 8: S.W.A.T. - Sam Jackson - indispensable Action Man of the year - leads a team of elite cops who have to thwart a drug kingpin's escape. Written by, among others, the same guy who wrote Training Day.

Sept. 12: Once Upon A Time In Mexico - Another long-awaited sequel, this is the third chapter in the story of El Mariachi (the famous $7,000 indie that got Robert Rodriguez into the movie business). Antonio Banderas is back, in a plot too byzantine to explain. Probably fake rumor: They spent more on bullets than on actors.

Oct. 31: Texas Chainsaw Massacre - The most inexplicable remake of the decade is produced by Michael Bay and will feature music by Marilyn Manson. A tribute, perhaps, to the backwoods-cannibal community?

Nov. 7: The Matrix Revolutions - Hyperventilating. That's the other sound you're hearing. Seriously, some of these people might need medication to hang on until opening day.

Dec. 5: Last Samurai - Tom Cruise not a Big Action guy, you say? Think again, Mission Impossible-breath. It's Japan, it's 1870, and many people require personal whuppings.

TBA: Helldorado - This Peter Berg movie is still officially untitled, and may or may not prove to be an actual Brawny Action Spectacle. But it stars beloved ex-wrestler The Rock (Scorpion King) as a bounty hunter running around in the Amazon with - again! - Seann William Scott. Enemies are encountered, so the prospects are good that massive brawling will ensue.


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