New Hunks Move Over, Arnold. A New Bread Of Tough-talking Hero Is Ready To Take On The Bad Guys - And For Less Money.

June 6, 1991|By Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Move over, Arnold. A new breed of tough-talking hero is ready to take on the bad guys - and for less money.

They keep punching 'em out, like a factory punches out semis. Or, more to the point, motorcycles.

Over the last couple of years, a new breed of action movie stars has emerged - rough, tough, and most significantly, reasonably priced.

New action-adventure stars such as Brian Bosworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Brandon Lee are the direct descendants of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, two generations removed from Bruce Lee and Clint Eastwood, and the current species in an evolutionary process begun by silent swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks and the Saturday matinee cowboy heroes.

Action movies are big business. For proof, check out the cost of Schwarzenegger's upcoming sequel to The Terminator: Its producers price it at a whopping $74 million, and independent estimates approach the $110 million mark.

Not many production entities can afford to make action features with those kinds of price tags. But violent adventure stories draw a reliable core of filmgoers, both among young American men and in increasingly profitable overseas markets. If such movies can be made for a modest cost - and if cheaper, lesser-known stars can attract a loyal following - their profitability is all but guaranteed.

Steven Seagal, the young breed's older-brother figure, is the perfect example. The ponytailed, one-time aikido instructor, who's first leading role came in 1988's Above the Law, has made three almost inter HUNKS, E-6 fix dawson changeable, violent action movies over the past year and a half. Hard to Kill and Marked for Death each grossed around $40 million at North American box offices. Out for Justice, still in theaters, had taken in over $36 million after six weeks. All three should prove steady video rentals and overseas performers.

If they keep production costs below the $20 million mark (the industry average for studio films is now more than $25 million), Seagal's producers virtually will be minting money.

To make back even this relatively modest investment, of course, the new guy must have something more than martial-arts prowess or shirt-splitting muscles. Since practically all of the low-end action vehicles follow the same basic plot line - scum wipes out hero's friend/family/favorite innocent stranger, hero wipes out scum - the central fighting machine has to have some kind of charisma that distinguishes him from the pack.

In the fall, audiences will decide whether Brandon Lee has inherited the crossover magnetism of his late father, Bruce Lee. The younger Lee, who has been working in Hong Kong martial-arts productions, has two American movies on tap: Showdown in Little Tokyo and Moving Target.

But if anyone is taking a scientific approach to succeeding in this highly irrational genre, it is Brian Bosworth. The Boz, as he has been called since his University of Oklahoma football days, plays undercover cop John Stone in his first movie, Stone Cold. For the FBI, he infiltrates a vicious motorcycle gang that's about to take over the state of Mississippi.

Bosworth says he's not just another jock who turned to acting only after his playing days ended. (His were aborted by severe shoulder injuries after just three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.) Under the guidance of manager Gary Wichard, Boz has for years been following a strict course to extend his bankably outrageous persona beyond the football arena.

''As soon as I got out of college, I knew where I wanted to go and how I wanted to get there,'' said Bosworth, a polite, methodical Texan whose private demeanor seems the antithesis of the showboating, aggressive Boz persona. ''I was not going to play football for 10 years and hope that that was all I'd need.''

As soon as Bosworth was signed - to an $11 million contract - by the Seahawks, Wichard began spinning his image away from sports identification. He avoided interviews with sports reporters, had Bosworth photographed in hip fashions rather than playing uniforms and even gave the Boz a literary pedigree: The linebacker's autobiography reached the No. 2 spot on The New York Times' best-seller list.

True to form, Bosworth's action-movie debut differs slightly from the norm. Revenge is not a factor, it's based (very loosely) on a true story, and John Stone is not always victorious.

''You will never see me in a cliched action movie,'' Bosworth said. ''You'll never see me walk into a bar where there's 30 bad guys, then walk out a few minutes later dusting my hands off with my ponytail intact. You'll see realism.''

Stone Cold is the first film produced by Stone Group Pictures, a joint venture between Michael Douglas' Stonebridge Entertainment and an independent outfit, Epic Productions. Andrew Pfeffer, Epic's chief operating officer and president of production, is also on Stone Group's executive committee.

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