H’W’D ASKS: WHERE’S THE ACTION?

It could only happen in this town. Nicolas Cage — who made his mark as the nerdy kidnapper in “Raising Arizona” and won an Oscar for his tortured drunk in “Leaving Las Vegas” — and Will Smith, the gangly, rapping fresh prince of Bel-Air and co-star of megahit “Independence Day,” are Hollywood’s newest action stars. Go figure.

With adventure stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, Michael Douglas and Harrison Ford all in their 50s, and formulaic, bullet-riddled action pics making audiences snooze, the public is crying out for new heroes, new stories and new thrills.

“Success in the action world is changing,” Fox production prexy Tom Rothman said. “Pure blow ’em-up, smash ’em-ups don’t work anymore. What works is when a movie has an emotional content and when you care about the people.”

Several industry observers noted that a lack of character depth and dimension, along with tired story lines, are the reasons that Seagal’s and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s star power have dimmed.

And it’s no wonder that films such as “Ransom” and “The Rock” — featuring less than traditional heroes and sharp dialogue — have succeeded, while “Daylight” and “The Quest” did not fare as well.

Some in town say that when it comes to action pics, stars these days are taking a back seat to hot directors, clever scripts and cutting-edge technology.

However, with action movies costing anywhere from $60 million to $80 million, studios over the years have been looking for recognizable names to ensure at least a strong opening weekend.

“What I have faced for many years is that there is no way the studio will make an action movie without a ‘star.’ They want someone who will open the picture,” said “Cliffhanger” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” helmer Renny Harlin. “International has become bigger than the domestic market, so studios want to make these movies. They need them badly as a tentpole.”

Still flourishing in the genre are Mel Gibson (“Ransom”), Tom Cruise (“Mission: Impossible”) and Bruce Willis, who next will be seen this summer in Luc Besson’s sci-fi actioner “The Fifth Element.”

The stars that now have Hollywood executives salivating to cast in action movies are Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey, although neither has really taken the plunge yet. Pitt stars with Ford in the action/thriller “The Devil’s Own.”

Other possible new stars are new caped crusader George Clooney and David Duchovny from TV’s “The X-Files.” Although the majority of these actors are known domestically, the key to an action film’s success is the recognition of an international audience — which Pitt has, while Clooney is well on his way to achieve that with “Batman and Robin.”

Studios have tried and failed over the years to fill that void, with such actors as Brian Bosworth, Jeff Speakman and Christian Slater.

“When Fox made the original ‘Speed’ and put in Keanu Reeves, many eyebrows were raised. Who thought of him as an action star? It was the same thing with Willis, who came from TV, and now Cage. Sometimes the risk pays off,” Harlin said.

Checking in sports

Sony and Fox are taking risks by dipping into the sports world to find the next big thing. Mandalay Enter-tainment cast basketball star Dennis Rodman opposite Van Damme in “Double Team.” In fact, the trailers focus more on the flamboyant Chicago Bulls guard than on the action veteran.

Fox is taking a risk with former NFL star Howie Long. The ex-Raider had a small part in Fox’s action pic “Broken Arrow” last year and now has the lead in the forthcoming “Firestorm.”

“Howie could evolve into the star of tomorrow, but you have to take a step-by-step approach,” Rothman said.

“There’s no point to hang from the rafters all your life,” Harlin said. “Take a look at the career of Sean Connery. He’s been able to continue in the genre. He became the older mentor in ‘The Rock.’ ”

Connery and Clint Eastwood have been able to find continued success in the action genre in great part because they are not afraid to age. And as “Bad Boys” and “The Rock” director Michael Bay said: “It’s about the acting. Audi-ences are too hip nowadays. You give them bad actors mouthing these lame-ass lines and they are going to roll their eyes. And I think there’s a desperate need for fresh blood. I’ve been a little worried about the action genre. I might drop out of the action movie genre altogether after my next film.” Bay next directs Willis in Touchstone Pictures’ “Armageddon.”

Studio executives agree. “You have to put credible actors in the action movies now. Look what happened when Daniel Day-Lewis did ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ ” WB co-president of production Bill Gerber noted. “You also have to make them less gory, because women are becoming more important to the success of the genre.”

Story, story, story

Many filmmakers point to “The Rock” as a model for future actioners. The pic, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam said, “was not original, but it was a fresh experience. It used elements we’ve all seen before, but it was put together very well.”

Filmmakers noted that a key to the new wave of scripts is character development — whether it’s slick villains like John Travolta in “Broken Arrow,” Eastwood’s aging protagonist in “Absolute Power” or morally challenged pro-tagonists like Gibson in “Ransom.”

” ‘Ransom’ is a very interesting film,” said director Phillip Noyce, who also helmed “The Saint.” “I think that the audience appreciated that the central character was flawed. It made him more human and they could identify with him.”

Noyce agreed with Gerber that the audience is looking for less violence. He also said moviegoers want intelligent heroes and stories outside the formula. “Often the audience is ahead of the storytellers,” Noyce said. “When that happens, you have a real problem.”

When Noyce previewed “The Saint” to audiences in Europe about three weeks ago, test auds rejected the final scene using explosions and a fight to the death between the villain (Valery Nikolaev) and the hero (Val Kilmer).

“In coming to our final cut of ‘The Saint,’ we dropped our biggest action sequence from the final movie because audiences were looking for something different,” Noyce said. “I labored over that scene, and I must admit I was really surprised with the results. It turned out that the finale, which invoked some of the cliches of the genre, was not in the best interest of the movie.”

Noyce also notes that the hero in “The Saint” has a dark side, which gives him more dimension. “The expectation of the audience is more depth of character and smarter plots and twists,” Columbia Pictures president of production Barry Josephson said. “They don’t want to see the same formula over and over again. You see a lot of buddy action scripts without the higher concept, the ‘Die Hard’ formula. That’s not going to work any more.”

“Time marches on,” said action producer Jerry Bruckheimer (whose films include Cage starrer “The Rock” and the Smith starrer “Bad Boys”). “Audiences are younger and they want to see people their age up on the screen. It’s the same thing in the music business. There is still room for the older stars because they still deliver worldwide, but there is a void to fill for the younger audience.”

Schwarzenegger and Stallone haven’t seen much action this year, but Bruckheimer is right: They have a strong following overseas. “Daylight,” for instance, made three times as much overseas as it did domestically.

However, these action stars — whose pics once were a rite of summer — are publicly coming to grips with the fact that they are getting past their muscle-flexing playing prime. Both have tried to invent themselves.

Immediately after finishing “Daylight,” Stallone beefed up to play a New Jersey wannabe cop in the upcoming “Copland,” in a yet-to-be judged attempt to expand his career.

Schwarzenegger, who has a keen grasp of marketing, has managed to repackage himself via comedies and, most recently, as “Mr. Freeze” in Warner Bros.’ summer franchise “Batman and Robin.”

“The great thing is the concept of reinventing yourself,” Josephson said. “Arnold as Mr. Freeze. Arnold as the Terminator. He’s played the hero and the villain, and he’s played the villain who has become the hero. How can you not admire that?” Schwarzenegger currently is in talks with producer Gale Anne Hurd and director James Cameron to do another “Terminator” film, a wildly successful franchise.

Helping to replace the muscle-bound heroes are computer-generated special effects. “We have an additional star (in the genre). It’s special effects,” one agent said. “And you don’t have to pay them gross.”

While effects have been stepped up, the success of action films still is dependent on warm bodies, not necessarily body counts. “I know a producer who told me, ‘I don’t understand why this movie bombed. We had more hostages and a bigger ransom demand than any action movie yet. Why did it fail?’ ” “Die Hard” screenwriter Stephen de Souza remembered.

New Line Cinema president of production Michael DeLuca — whose studio produced Harlin’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight” — said, “While we always look at the script first, and certain ones require special effects or casting, or both, the good news about special-effects-driven scripts is that you can then create young stars.”

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