Brawny stars replaced by 'normal guy' types

Sunshine. Paparazzi. Mussels in white wine. Muscles from Brussels.

Cannes used to be pretty predictable when it comes to certain things — weather, food and well-oiled action stars glaring down on the Croissette from yacht-sized billboards. But some things change. People eat more salads. Take fewer steroids. And modestly proportioned thespians top action franchises: Tobey Maguire is Spider-Man. Christian Bale is Batman — and now he’s also charged with pumping up the Arnold-free “Terminator” franchise.

Can he do it?

Producer Mario Kassar, who has a longtime association with the “Terminator” franchise and is an exec producer on “Terminator Salvation,” says yes he can. “Take ‘Iron Man’ and Robert Downey Jr.,” says Kassar, whose Carolco Intl. was the company behind many early Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger actioners. “He’s a normal-looking guy; he doesn’t have the body, but he invents that Iron Man thing, and what the audience likes is the normal guy who can fly and beat the bad guy. It’s hard to relate to the other (types). You have to spend your life at the gym.”

Action pictures are certainly “a different world from the days of Schwarzenegger and Stallone,” says Peter Hoffman, CEO of Seven Arts, who was the chief financial officer of Carolco in its mid-’80s heyday. “But action is still great. Jason Statham is fantastic — ‘Crank’ didn’t do so well over here (in the U.S.), but it’s going to be big overseas. Just about everything Luc Besson wants to do works.”

But for all the success of a Statham or a Vin Diesel, the iconic action star has simply become less iconic. In the days of the ’80s action boom, “superheroes were fighters, bodybuilders,” says Cannes regular Marla Halperin of Magic Lamp Releasing, citing the big three — Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme. “This year we have an animated character named Carl, who’s voiced by Ed Asner,” she adds, referring to Cannes fest opener “Up.”

At last year’s Cannes, Van Damme did show up on a Croisette billboard. But it wasn’t to tout his usual brand of action pic. It was for “JCVD,” a Belgian indie in which Van Damme (who is JCVD) gave a soul-stripping soliloquy, saying things action heroes never used to say: Like that they are sensitive and misunderstood. And you don’t need steroids to be sensitive … or misunderstood.

Action stars of yore have tried different projects to varying degrees of success, only to see the action-hero roles be taken over by less brawny thesps who don’t make action their genre of choice. Maguire, Bale and newbies such as James McAvoy (“Wanted”) act in a range of films, not just action.

“There are not a lot of bankable or marketable stars who’ve stepped into the realm like the guys who were successful in the ’80s and ’90s,” says Berry Meyerowitz, president of Phase 4 Films, the new company spun out of the home entertainment division of “JCVD” distributor Peace Arch. “There are always a couple who do a bunch of projects, like Vin Diesel. But they don’t typically ascend to the next level. There is a hole in the market.”

If the hole is to be filled, it won’t be by names but by substance, according to Avi Lerner, the prolific producer whose action films include 2008′s “Rambo” and a slew of other titles in the genre that have sold like hotcakes, mainly to ancillary outlets all around the globe.

“When you make an action movie now, it’s not enough to have action,” Lerner says. “You need a good story, good motivation, good character — it’s not only action, it’s how the story works. It’s all the things you need to make a good movie.”

Lerner will be making good use of the Cannes billboards to tubthump his new productions, which include “Rambo V” and remakes of “Conan” and “Red Sonja” — the last of these to star Rose McGowan, who is among a small group of women capable of propping up an action thriller, according to Lerner.

Thesps such as Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale rule the she-side of the he-man genre, which is fast being populated by smaller men — and bigger machines.

“People are increasingly fascinated with the technology,” Kassar says. “It’s out of control. In fact, it’s going to get to the point where all you’ll want to see is ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’”

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