The nitty-gritty of reinventing the action picture

THIS IS THE WEEK WHEN EVERYONE airs their pet peeves about the Oscar nominations: Whatever happened to “Much Ado About Nothing,” for example? And does the name Martin Scorsese ring a bell? The omission I found most perplexing, however, is that of Andy Davis, who directed one of the five nominated pictures, “The Fugitive.” But my complaint is based more on historic than artistic grounds. For Andy Davis didn’t just direct a hit picture, he also managed to resurrect a genre — the action movie — that was once Hollywood’s mainstay, but has fallen into disrepute of late.

The signs of disarray among the action-meisters are all around us. Two high-profile films of this genre last year –“Last Action Hero” and “Demolition Man”– proved disappointing as both craft and commerce. Every week another wannabe action hit seems to waver or fall apart, such as Fox’s planned “Die Hard III.” This week will witness the opening of “The Getaway”– just two decades after the first OK-but-not-great “Getaway.” I’m not sure why we needed another OK-but-not-great version.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Hollywood depended on action films for instant cash. In 1973 almost half of the 50 top-grossing films were of the action genre, if you toss in a couple of Westerns. Last year only nine of the top 50 fell into this category. At a time when the international market offers bigger rewards than ever for action films, the studios seem to be lavishing money on bigger and bigger losers.

Talk to the studio mavens about the problem, and they all acknowledge that “the reinvention of the action film,” as Mark Canton puts it, is high on their list of objectives. While they’re wary about discussing their potential solutions on the record, the prognosis basically shapes up like this:

  • 1. THE ACTION PICTURE as a cartoon-come-to-life isn’t working. The big trick of “The Fugitive” wasn’t much of a trick after all: With all its spectacular effects, the movie was rooted in reality and the audience wanted Harrison Ford to survive.

    “It all boils down to emotional impact,” says Sid Ganis, president of marketing and distribution for Columbia, who has labored in both production and marketing. “You need emotion in action films just as much as in other genres.”

  • 2. SPENDING $15 MILLION on your superstar hero isn’t a ticket to success. In former years Hollywood’s bread-and-butter action films like “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Magnificent Seven” were exercises in ensemble casting. Harrison Ford wasn’t a big star when the Spielberg-Lucas factory first mobilized Indiana Jones. Significantly, it now looks like Columbia’s most ambitious action picture for 1994, “Money Train,” will star, not Stallone or Schwarzenegger, but Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, and the film will be rooted in the reality of the New York subway system — that’s down-and-dirty reality, by any definition.

    Similarly, Joel Silver intends to make his films for $ 20 million or under. One factor driving up the cost of action movies has been the outpouring of sequels, Silver notes. In the old days a John Wayne or a Bogart represented “the franchise,” while today a name like “Lethal Weapon,” with its complement of stars, is the franchise — a far more expensive proposition.

  • 3. VIOLENCE DOESN’T NECESSARILY equate with box office. The body count over the title sequences of contemporary action films is greater than the death toll in entire genre movies of a generation ago. Sure, Sam Peckinpah relished violence, but his action sequences were often surreal. Though the studios are under pressure from legislators to curb violence, the biggest pressure stems from the box office.

Interestingly, while the $ 60 million-$ 80 million action films have attracted all the attention of late, several substrata of genre films have performed well in their own right. John Davis’ company last year made an $ 8 million action film called “Fortress” that may end up grossing $ 65 million worldwide, and Christopher Lambert was the star.

Then there are the various nouveau noir films like “Reservoir Dogs,””Pulp Fiction” and “Killing Zoe,” which are making a mark. These films are self-conscious about their Hollywood roots. In Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” one character says to another, “I’ll bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” as though he, too, yearned to toss a cup of coffee in a bimbo’s face with the style displayed by Marvin in “The Big Heat.”

Hollywood’s studio chiefs are not only aware of the past but haunted by it. It’s tough enough to blow a movie, no less an entire genre.

That’s why I winced when I noticed the omission of Andy Davis’ name from the best director list. Sure, Jane Campion can conjure up a neat rain forest, and James Ivory did his James Ivory number yet again, but Andy did something especially intriguing. He reminded Hollywood of its illustrious past.

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