Getting in on the action
As classy roles grow scarcer each year, actors you wouldn't expect - Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Keanu Reeves - have made the leap into the sort of mindless adventure movies that were formerly the domain of Sly and Arnold. Sean Elder wonders if they're upgrading the genre or simply downgrading their reputations.
In 1989 I saw a coming attraction for Die Hard in a crowded Hollywood theater and the audience laughed at it. Back then Bruce Willis was still trying to make the transition from small screen to big. but the experiment wasn't going very well, In a pair of comedies that time has forgotten (Blind Date, Sunset), Willis demonstrated that the wiseass style he perfected on TV's Moonlighting didn't play so well in movies. It was understood that he had to do something to keep his career from imploding, but this? Suddenly he was rappelling down the side of a high-rise, flying through plate-glass windows, firing automatic rifles with one hand - and still with the wisecracks. Worse, he was all pumped up; he was Schwarzenegger. He was Joe Piscopo.
Several bejillions of dollars later, no one (in the movie business, at least) is laughing. Not only did Die Hard (and its sequel) wind up making a mint here and overseas, it pumped life into the action-adventure genre and provided a blueprint for other actors who wanted to jump-start their careers - and in the bargain create some clout. Bankability means more than just salary: It means the ability to demand (and get) roles as inappropriate as that of the besotted reporter Willis played in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and to make such over-the-top. overbudget action fare as, Hudson Hawk and The Last Boy Scout. For Willis, Die Hard provided another door to the Big Boys' Club.
"I'm not one of the boys yet," Ray Liotta moaned to the Chicago Tribune earlier this summer, while discussing his decision to make the action-adventure film No Escape. "I would love to get the roles that Harrison Ford gets. Or Nick Nolte, De Niro, Pacino. But to get to that level you have to be in movies that are hits, and a lot of times that has to do with violence and action." White it may seem that Liotta is stating the obvious, such straight shooting is rare from a star flacking a film; you're supposed to talk about how you always dreamed of working with the director, or the challenges your character presented. And Liotta is no Bruce Willis: Where Die Hard seemed to actually broaden Willis's range, Liotta is best known for a couple of edgy, complicated performances (Something Wild and GoodFellas) that made him an actor to watch,
In his decision to go the action route, Liotta kicked off what is fast becoming a bona fide movement: serious actors making action films. This summer, up against action master Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies are new converts to the genre: Keanu Reeves (last seen playing Prince Siddhartha in Little Buddha, saying things like "What is suffering?") in Speed; Jeff Bridges (last seen playing it whacked-out airplane-crash survivor in Fearless) in Blown Away; and, come September, Meryl Streep (last seen trying on a new accent - Spanish - for The House of the Spirits) in The River Wild. While what the actors get out of this crossover may be self-evident (money, a wider audience, a chance to jump from one moving vehicle to another), what advantages do casting a Ray Liotta or a Jeff Bridges afford the people making the film?
"I think first and foremost it expands the range of the character that you're capable of portraying in the picture," says No Escape producer Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens, The Terminator, and T2). And while her futuristic prison-escape film died an early box-office death, no one can fault Hard's intentions. As Blown Away director Stephen Hopkins puts it. "Action per se is not particularly interesting unless you feel something for the guy who's going through it."
This may explain Arnold Schwarzenegger's inability to connect in non-android dramas, and even the most die-hard fans or Willis and Sylvester Stallone might admit that their heroes are a tad wooden in the emoting department (though next to such kick-action counterparts as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Stephen Seagal they look like Tim Roth and Gary Oldman). But dropped into the middle of a cartoon, what's an actor to do? No Escape failed in part because it made the mistake of trying to get all serious on us: Instead of letting Liotta run through the jungle pursued by baddies with sharpened teethes, the story shifted to the middle an agrarian utopian community ran by a father figure called the Father (Lance Henriksen), who looked like Samuel Beckett on Prozac. Nothing fun about that. For pure mindless entertainment, you need something like Speed.
In Speed, Keanu Reeves plays a SWAT cop on a Los Angeles bus that's going to explode if it slows to less than 50 miles all hour. That's the plot. Of course there's a mad bomber (Dennis Hopper, playing against type), a buddy (Jeff Daniels, using the action movie as career rehab), and a babe (Sandra Bullock, Stallone's love interest in Demolition Man), but for all intents and purposes Speed is as fast and simple as its title.
What compelled Reeves, an actor whose roles have run the gamut from the high end (Dangerous Liaisons, Much Ado About Nothing) to the low (Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure), with significant stops in between (My Own Private Idaho, Parenthood), to go the action route again? (His first action film was Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break, in which as undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah, he surfed, shot, and jumped out of airplanes.)
"I was more interested in playing an element that I'd experienced hanging out on Point Break with some of the [real] SWAT guys," says Reeves. "That concern with human life, that almost mythic - I wanted to be that guy you look up to who cares about law and order. Not in a simplistic manner, but just in that feeling. I wanted to see what it would be like to play that guy."
Action films provide stars the opportunity to do something they couldn't get away in more realistic movies: play an unambiguous, straightforward hero, the person on whom civilization-as-we-know-it is depending. You don't have to wonder much about character motivation: When someone puts a gun to your head, or a bomb goes off in your general vicinity, instinct - and timing - rules. Reeves exuberantly describes a scene early in the film in which a passing bus explodes while he's buying his breakfast: "There's a rush to try to do that and get it to happen so that - brmmm! - you're doing it, you come out, you're eating your muffin, in your moment, everything is cool, and all of a sudden - boom! And then you run after the bus and you say [to the director and cameraman], 'What happened? Did you get it?' and they say, 'Yeah! Right on. The bus is on fire and it's cool.'"
Is this the kind of scene you need to get in one take?
"That's the pressure," says Reeves. "You're standing on the edge doing this dance. If you don't get it in this take, a lot of people will be concerned."
Thus another plus for producers hiring big-name stars for action roles: When something is exploding nearby, prima donna behavior tends to be kept to a minimum. "Yeah," Reeves agrees. "You can't say, 'Hold it, I didn't like the way I bit into the muffin.'"
There are lots of cool bombs going off in Blown Away, with Jeff Bridges left this time to bite the proverbial muffin. On the face of it, Bridges might not seem the most likely candidate to play the role of Jimmy Dove, the leader of a Boston bomb squad plagued by its own mad bomber (Tommy Lee Jones). Though Bridges has starred in a few suspense dramas (Jagged Edge, Against All Odds), they've tended to be noirish mysteries with Bridges playing more ambivalent, will-he-or-won't-he heroes - not exactly do-or-die guys. (In the largely unseen and underrated 1991 film Cutter's Way the entire plot rested on whether his surf-boy-type character would lift himself out of his torpor and deal with the evil around him.) Why Jeff Bridges, in what promises to he one of this season's biggest blockbusters?
"We've read in a lot of places lately that Jeff is Hollywood's most underrated actor," says Blown Away coproducer John Watson. "I think Jeff actually hates that description, but there is definitely some truth to it. He has rarely gone with mainstream kinds of roles; he tends to find appealing some fairly quirky, offbeat kinds of characters, which he delves into and consistently gives great performances. I would say the only two times he's really gone mainstream, Starman and Jagged Edge, they worked. So it's it very unfair rap that Jeff Bridges doesn't sell tickets. When he's been in a mainstream movie, he has. And this is clearly a mainstream movie."
In classic self-deprecating-actor fashion, Bridges spent countless hours giving every good reason why he shouldn't play Dove. "Jeff is a hard guy to get to do any film," says director Hopkins. "He always likes to talk people out of hiring him." Still, Bridges came to relish the role's dark side. "The character is interesting because he's a flawed man," says Hopkins. "He told lies and made mistakes and has to face up to them. It's not like your usual action film, where someone comes and rapes your wife and kills your kids in the first scene, and then you go on for the rest of the film, with the audience's approval, destroying everything that moves."
But what about the wife and family? In Blown Away, Bridges's wife (Suzy Amis) is a concert violinist, naturally, and there are countless opportunities for her and her blond-haired daughter to get, well blown away, with Jeff getting there just in the nick of... How do women respond to such fare? "It tested huge," says coproducer Watson, in that parlance Hollywood reserves for such matters. "One of the things that surprised the studios is that it tested even better with women than with men." Though Hopkins chalks it up to the sex appeal of the two male leads (with the qualifier "but his family life, his wife and daughter, is a strong element in the movie"), it helps to have plain old drama and a hero you can empathize with.
Still Hollywood likes to have a woman in the mix somewhere - for the image, you understand. Ask Hurd, who, in producing the all-male No Escape, was told by "interested parties that it would really be better for the movie if there were a woman in it so that we could put a woman on the poster."' Hurd stood her ground, remaining true to the story (based on the sci-fi novel The Penal Colony, by Richard Herley), and was, in some ways, justified. "The interesting thing is that in all the research screenings we had, not one woman complained that there were no women in it," she says. But "fourteen-year-old boys wrote in very big letters, 'Where are the babes?'" (When I laugh at this observation, she rejoins with an all-damning "Your gender.") She also notes that it was "one of the few words in the market questionnaire they didn't misspell: babes."
As the producer of two films that elevated women from babes into action-hero status (Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Linda Hamilton in T2), Hurd knows whereof she speaks when she says, "I think it's completely gratuitous and exploitative to put a woman in a film simply to appeal to that segment of the audience." And certainly the core audience of most action-adventure films is filled with fourteen-year-olds who have no problem with Sigourney/Linda greasing any number of aliens/androids.