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 MOVIES

Aging Action Stars Run Out Of Gas At The Box Office
July 2, 2003
By MALCOLM JOHNSON, Courant Film Critic

On July 30, Arnold Schwarzenegger will turn 56. In his return today as a T-101, a cyborg programmed to mouth cryptic deadpan humor, his weightlifter's physique displays definition and tone. His jaw is sharp, his hairline youthful. Only the flesh around his eyes shows signs of aging.

"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" may well be the one of the last action films for a star who is now more interested in politics than in impersonating a super-robot or Conan the Barbarian - to cite two of the roles that established his worldwide following. Like so many male stars who have specialized in action pictures, Schwarzenegger has seen his box office power decline as young audiences turn to pictures starring people closer to their age.

Already Harrison Ford, who turns 61 on July 13, has suffered a setback in playing a cop, even paired with Josh Hartnett, in Ron Shelton's "Hollywood Homicide." Ford has starred in more movies at the top of the all-time box office chart than any other actor, but since the late '90s, his star appeal seems to have slipped.

"T3," the third installment in the battle to save John Connor, leader of the humans' struggle against the machines, will surely weigh in big on this July 4 weekend, topping its competition, "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde," a sequel with Reese Witherspoon as star and executive producer, and the animated "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," with the voices of Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer. But of late, Schwarzenegger's pictures have fallen short of expectations. "Eraser," "Batman and Robin," "End of Days, "The 6th Day," "Collateral Damage" all failed to perform as muscularly as hoped.

When action stars face uncertain futures, they turn to the past. Thus Schwarzenegger is back as a robot, the role that showed his evil killing powers in "The Terminator," directed by the then-unknown James Cameron in 1984. He is also planning "True Lies 2" with Cameron, as well as a Conan sequel. Ford is talking about a fourth Indiana Jones picture with Steven Spielberg. He told Premiere magazine he will probably turn in his whip after that.

Unless George Lucas changes his mind and makes the final three "Star Wars" films (Episodes 7, 8 and 9), it is unlikely that Ford will reprise his role as Han Solo (which is what we wanted to see in Episodes 1, 2 and 3 instead of the boyhood of Darth Vader). He is through as Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy didn't want him in the first place). But he could make a sequel to "The Fugitive," bringing back Dr. Richard Kimble. (Tommy Lee Jones reprised his Oscar-winning role as Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard in "U. S. Marshals," but without Ford.)

There is also talk of Sylvester Stallone's going back to the part that made him, his self-created and much-perpetuated "Rocky." But as yet no project is underway. The action star of such hits as the Rambo cycle and "Cliffhanger" turns 57 on Sunday, and his recent projects have pretty much tanked. Consider the sad fates of "Driven" and "Get Carter." This summer, Stallone gamely tries something different, playing The Toymaker, the villain of "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over."

August usually brings a Clint Eastwood movie, but the director/star didn't take a role in his new film, already seen at the Cannes Film Festival, and coming Sept 19. "Mystic River," directed and scored by Eastwood, a jazz aficionado, features Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, Emmy Rossum and Eli Wallach, and is said to be the director's darkest film ever. Eastwood's last two late-summer releases, the grim 2002 "Blood Work" and the elegiac "Space Cowboys" (2002) fared indifferently with the public. Eastwood remained credible as an action hero well into his 60s, but as an esteemed filmmaker, the 73-year-old veteran of cowboy and cop movies has no plans to cock Dirty Harry's magnum ever again.

Another septuagenarian, Sean Connery, shows no signs of slowing down, even now. Next week, Connery heads the cast of Stephen Norrington's "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman," playing the great adventurer Allan Quartermain in a turn-of-the-century action thriller based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. But this is an ensemble film, with many much younger actors also playing fictional icons such as Dr. Jekyll and The Invisible Man.

Connery, arguably the outstanding movie action hero of the latter half of the 20th century by virtue of his James Bond cycle, excelled in the 1999 "Entrapment," co-starring with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Other old male superstars - Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, all in their 60s or on the edge, are not associated with action roles, and have rarely attempted them. But they all face problems of their own - except for Nicholson, who has the knack for choosing the right roles - as the audiences grow younger and less interested in seeing a man who could be their granddad slugging a suspect or wooing a hot young thing.

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