Holding out for a hero

Ben Affleck? Matt Damon? Johnny Depp? Those guys aren't action stars -- they're pussies! Next up: Moby does Dirty Harry and James Bond goes gay.

Published June 11, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Never mind those whooshing sounds you hear. They're just the sighs greeting another summer movie season fraught with rancid remakes ("Mr. Deeds"), sorry sequels ("Halloween: Resurrection"), tawdry teen comedies ("The New Guy") and the obligatory Freddie Prinze Jr. flopperoo ("Scooby-Doo"). Even the presence of literate, prestige pictures like Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition" and Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" redo isn't enough to redeem 2002's stale slate of studio-driven muck.

The only distinguishable thing about this summer's "event" releases is their utter inertness -- particularly those in the action department ("The Sum of All Fears," "The Bourne Identity," "Reign of Fire"). The problem is that not one of them has a real action star. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, two of the bigger names to appear in this season's blockbusters, just don't measure up.

Summer '02 marks a mournful turning point in Hollywood. Where once stalwart, middle-aged movie icons like Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson firmly ruled the action roost, they're now being phased out by a younger breed of screen heroes with twice the leg power -- and half the charisma. These days, Ford and Gibson find themselves relegated to bloodless roles in spectacle-free vehicles like "K-19: The Widowmaker" (a waterlogged submarine opus) and "Signs" (another pretentious paranormal thriller via M. Night Shamaylan) -- two films that almost make you forget about the bygone days of "Indiana Jones" and "Mad Max." And, in yet another unholy Hollywood alliance, the decidedly unheroic Johnny Depp just inked a two-picture deal with inveterate action whore Jerry Bruckheimer, effectively squandering the indie cred he earned on personal films like "Dead Man" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." What truly makes this overthrow of yesteryear's leading men so intolerable is that the actors leading the revolution possess none of the gravitas or virility of their predecessors. They're emasculated by comparison.

In probably the most heretical bit of miscasting since stiff George Clooney filled Batman's oversize codpiece, Paramount Pictures picked Ben Affleck to replace Ford as beleaguered CIA op Jack Ryan in "The Sum of All Fears," the latest techno-thriller from Tom Clancy. In the trailers, Affleck delivers his lines with the same phlegmatic, phoned-in nonchalance that characterizes most of his performances. My guess is that here he'll seem even more vanilla than usual since he's paired opposite a class act like Morgan Freeman.

Then there's Affleck's bosom buddy/screenwriting enabler, Matt Damon, who's toplining a spy thriller based on a novel by Robert Ludlum -- one pulled out of the TV vaults, where it featured Richard Chamberlain. While casting against type paid off for "Spiderman's" Tobey Maguire, I find it hard to believe that audiences will buy a diminutive slice of milquetoast like Damon as a studly, world-class assassin.

Sure, there's Vin Diesel, the pectorally protuberant star of the upcoming "XXX" (his mind-numbing follow-up to the equally mind-numbing "The Fast and the Furious"). But guys like Diesel and meatheads like the Rock are always going to be around. The problem is that the real action stars have all turned into sissies. Proof? Here are just a few films on the horizon guaranteed to make you steer clear of the multiplex:

"Superman Rocks"

Following the highly publicized defections of Nicolas Cage and Tim Burton, Warner Bros.' oft-delayed plan to restart their dormant Superman franchise is finally taking flight. In a desperate bid to pander to a younger demographic (i.e., indiscriminate teenagers with disposable incomes), W.B. muckety-mucks signed America's favorite nebbish, Jason Biggs, to don the Man of Steel's cape. This casting faux pas ignited such a storm of controversy among die-hard fanboys, a radical sect calling itself "S.O.S." ("Save Our Superman") even threatened to kidnap Biggs unless his part was recast with an actor whose claim to fame isn't having fucked a pie.

Not content to ruin one iconic comic character, hack director McG ("Charlie's Angels," those cheesy Sugar Ray videos) decided to round out the cast with fellow "American Pie" alums Tara Reid and Eugene "Mr. Overexposed" Levy (as Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, respectively). When asked why he put sandpaper-voiced ditz-pot Reid in the role of a hardened newspaper journalist, McG reportedly asked, "Did you see the ass on that girl?"

At press time, the producers of "Superman Rocks" find themselves locked in a fierce battle with the MPAA, which has branded the pic with a kid-spurning R rating. The bone of contention is a risqué scene in which Superman pops "a supersized stiffy" (as one character refers to it) while rescuing a buxom cheerleader from a falling goalpost. Also on the editing block are various and sundry gross-out references to "super splooge" and "Kryptonian carpet-munching."

"Dirty Harry: The Turntable Murders"

Given the indefinite retirement of big-screen badasses like John McClane and Martin Riggs, the "renegade cop" genre has gradually gone the way of Mariah Carey's acting career. Observing this void in the marketplace, Warner Bros. has set in motion plans to resurrect the granddaddy of rogue detectives, "Dirty" Harry Callahan.

After an exhaustive search to find someone who could do justice to Clint Eastwood's creation, the studio went outside the box and ultimately settled on omnipresent electronica pusher Moby. Bowing to pressure from gun-control groups and anti-violence advocates, studio boss Alan Horn promises "a more humane and tolerant Dirty Harry designed for these sensitive times in which we live."

At the behest of Moby, the screenplay underwent a complete overhaul, transforming Callahan from a Magnum-toting carnivore to a pacifistic vegetarian (not unlike Mr. Moby himself). "Vigilantism is so passé," opined the chrome-domed musician at a recent press conference. "We're gonna bring this prehistoric character into the new age, replete with a PETA card, an acceptance of minorities, a sunny disposition and a newfound appreciation for break beats."

Although much of the plot remains cloaked in secrecy, we hear that the central story line revolves around a fanatical Motörhead groupie who is systematically bumping off San Francisco's top nightclub DJs. "The filmmakers may consider that a crime ... I consider it a public service," said the jazz-loving Mr. Eastwood, who has since issued an injunction against W.B. to halt production on this cinematic travesty.

"Ebony and Ivory"

Having tackled just about every commercial genre in the book, from westerns to war films, iconoclast director Robert Altman is out to subvert the well-worn conventions of the interracial buddy flick. With his latest experiment in improvisation, Altman seems to be making a concerted effort to further alienate all those wayward Oscar voters who snubbed "Gosford Park." How? By casting two of Tinseltown's most gratingly obnoxious actors, Ed Burns and Chris Tucker, as a couple of mismatched secret agents out to expose an elaborate lip-synching scam orchestrated by none other than Enrique Iglesias (playing himself).

Between Burns' intolerable Lawng Island accent and Tucker's exasperating motormouth shtick, test audiences have fled the preview screenings in droves; many complained of permanent auditory damage.

Despite denials from all involved, rumors abound of a tumultuous shoot stemming from Burns' insistence that he rewrite his own dialogue. Of the final script by Academy Award-winner William Goldman, the would-be auteur whines, "It just wasn't up to the standards set by my films 'The Brothers McMullen' and 'She's the One.'" When questioned about the validity of Burns' on-set petulance, Altman said only, "The problem with that kid is that he fancies himself some kind of artist. Well, after seeing his last couple pictures -- all of which look and sound the same to me -- I can tell you that he's as much an artist as I am a goddamn Bush lover."

"The Magnificent Six"

A feminist "reinterpretation" of John Sturges' classic western about a ragtag group of gunfighters who join together to protect a Mexican village targeted by cutthroat bandits. This time around, the roles made famous by macho men Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner and James Coburn will be played by Tinseltown's A-list lesbians.

Top-lined by Sapphic poster girl Ellen DeGeneres, the film also stars Melissa Etheridge, Sandra Bernhard and a freshly out Rosie O'Donnell. In a major casting coup, ex-talk show yenta Kathie Lee (Epstein) Gifford stars as the head bandita, an upstart clothing entrepreneur named Coco who kidnaps unsuspecting immigrants and coerces them into working in her suburban sweatshop.

Initially envisioned as an estrogen-soaked shoot-'em-up, "The Magnificent Six" changed direction once übermom O'Donnell came aboard the project. Appalled by all the "unnecessary fighting" and "obscene dirty talk," the self-righteous queen of nice demanded that the pic be edited down to a PG rating so as not to offend her fainthearted fan base. As a result, all scenes involving blood, shooting and swearing were replaced with musical numbers from O'Donnell's favorite Broadway shows, "Cats" and "Funny Lady."

And as for the title change, director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") explains, "We only need six women to kick the kind of ass that seven men did in the first one. Ultimately, this movie is not so much about action as it is about the triumph and tenacity of the female will."

James Bond in "Die Again ... Twice"

Ever since Pierce Brosnan picked up the coveted mantle of 007, longtime producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson have taken great pains to neuter the world's most beloved martini-guzzling misogynist in an effort to "modernize" him. As if seeing Mr. Bond get in touch with his "inner spy" weren't blasphemous enough, now comes word that MGM has tapped openly gay actor Rupert Everett to replace the departing Brosnan -- a franchise-killing move that has many 007 purists clamoring for the return of George Lazenby.

In defense of Everett, star of "The Next Best Thing" and "Inspector Gadget," an MGM spokesperson says, "Rupert is an extremely versatile and talented actor whose sexuality has absolutely no bearing on his ability to play cinema's quintessential alpha male." Tell that to Internet film geeks like Harry Knowles, who are up in arms over one reputed scene in which Bond is captured by the villainous mastermind Hugo N. Blomee (Sir Ian McKellen) and tortured with a futuristic, overtly phallic contraption that discharges vibratory shockwaves of electricity up his posterior.

While the makers of "Die Again ... Twice" are quick to play down its latent homoeroticism, that still hasn't stopped them from releasing a teaser poster featuring Everett suggestively fondling the nozzle of his Walther PPK.

When reached for comment regarding this provocative change in James Bond's screen persona, devout heterosexual Sean Connery issued the following statement: "If they want to turn him into a f****** queen - what the f*** do I care? Those stupid f****** a******* can kiss my royal Scottish a** for p****** on my legacy."

By Ian Rothkerch

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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