Movies: Spy vs. Spy: As the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers Get Longer in the Tooth, Hollywood Seeks a New Generation of Action Heroes. Muscle Guys like Vin Diesel Look the Part. but the Future May Belong to Such Counterintuitive Toughies As. Ben Affleck? Matt Damon? We Didin't Believe It Either
Ansen, David, Newsweek
Byline: David Ansen
These are strange times for action heroes. Unprecedented, really. Think about it: the superheroes du jour are all waifs. In "Spider-Man," the fate of New York City rests on the sensitive shoulders of Tobey Maguire, an actor best known for the spooked-out adolescents he played in "Wonder Boys" and "The Ice Storm." Who leads the battle against Evil in the most acclaimed fantasy film of recent times, "The Lord of the Rings"? Pale, saucer-eyed Elijah Wood, who barely looks old enough to shave. And we won't even mention the diminutive, bespectacled Mr. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)--too young to drive anything but a broomstick.
Arnold Schwarzenegger could lift all three of these superheroes with one overenlarged hand, and crush them like beer cans. Yet he can't hold his own against them at the box office, any more than Sylvester Stallone or Steven Seagal can. It's not news that these once mighty behemoths are becoming an endangered species. Hollywood has known for some time that a new generation of action heroes must be found to take their place. That's why Universal took a big bet on muscle-bound Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock), who steps into the genetically enhanced shoes of Arnold in "The Scorpion King." But The Rock is an exception--a throwback. The new action star is more likely to be recruited at the Actors Studio than Gold's Gym. He's as likely to be brainy as brawny. He may even be a woman, to judge from the whopping success of "Charlie's Angels." Which of the new generation of actors is going to be equally convincing foiling spies, hammering villains, romancing the Sharon Stones of the future and Saving the World for Democracy? In other words, where's the next Harrison Ford coming from?
Funny you should ask. While Ford himself has the thriller "K-19: The Widowmaker" coming out this summer, his ghost hangs over Ben Affleck's head in "The Sum of All Fears, " in which Affleck plays Tom Clancy's hero Jack Ryan--who's been played by both Ford and Alec Baldwin. Since Affleck is 30 years younger than Ford, Ryan has been reconceived as a fledgling CIA desk jockey. His intellectual expertise on the new Russian leader, President Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds), hurls him into the middle of the action in this doomsday thriller. Talk about high stakes: the United States and Russia are on the brink of annihilating each other with nukes--not because they are real enemies, but because they have been tricked into thinking so by the true villain, a rich, wine-sipping Austrian neo-Nazi played by Alan Bates.
Poor Affleck. He doesn't just have to singlehandedly save the world from nuclear destruction, he has to erase our memories of Ford and Baldwin. That's a tall order for any actor, and Affleck, an expert at playing cocky, callow yuppies, just doesn't have the heft. He's a middleweight fighting above his proper weight class. But "Sum" director Phil Alden Robinson thinks that's part of his appeal. "Ben is not a macho superhero. He has a sweetness and an intelligence to him. I'd much rather see guys I can relate to than some muscle-bound cartoon."
And if Ryan's derring-do strikes a tinny note, it's not entirely Affleck's fault. The apocalyptic thriller genre has been seriously undermined by 9-11. On its own terms, the movie (which was made before last September) is a slick, well-produced, reasonably exciting piece of old-fashioned summer entertainment. But when a nuclear bomb goes off in the course of the story--a disaster that would do far greater damage than the attack on the World Trade Center--it's treated as little more than a messy roadblock to our leading man's heroic mission. Oops, there goes Baltimore. A lot of people are going to have a hard time viewing this as an escapist romp.
By coincidence, Affleck's old pal Matt Damon follows hot on his heels with his action debut in "The Bourne Identity," taken from the Robert Ludlum novel. Damon plays Jason Bourne, an amnesiac CIA assassin trying to figure out who he is, while his former employers are trying to terminate him before he creates an agency scandal. …