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Summer Sneaks ’94 : These Guys Blow Us Away : With expensive blow-'em-ups running out of new tricks, some movie makers fear the genre faces a tragic ending

<i> David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Renny Harlin, director of such adventure films as “Cliffhanger” and “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” has less than encouraging words for his line of work. “Action movies are sort of the bastard child of Hollywood,” he says. “All the studios want them, yet somehow they appear to be somewhat disrespectful of them. Serious writers won’t seem to touch them.”

Harlin’s words are delivered without anger or bitterness; he just speaks matter-of-factly, because, truth be told, he shares that ambivalence. “It was a lot of fun to make, and it was exciting,” Harlin says of last summer’s hit “Cliffhanger,” “but, ultimately, it’s not a very satisfying way to live my life and my career.” Perhaps surprisingly, that disdain for big-budget blow-'em-ups is shared by many of his peers.

This may be a pivotal year in the evolution of the action film. The Times spoke to five leading action directors and one producer about the art of making action movies and other attendant issues, and all agree: The mega-budgeted, mega-noisy, mega-violent action film is about to meet an ending as tragic and predictable as that of a sidekick cop who loves his family and is mere days from retirement.

In recent years, the same movie has been made dozens of times: Brawny, laconic hero, quick with a quip but likely haunted by some past tragedy, must fight villain(s) with an arsenal rivaling North Korea’s, an ethnically diverse army of ne’er-do-wells, a prescient knowledge of hero’s Achilles’ heel and a female hostage of psychological importance to hero. Things get blown up for 105 minutes; evil is vanquished as the chief villain is disposed of in a particularly ghastly yet cathartic manner; a chaste kiss from the woman is the hero’s reward.

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“Action films travel to foreign countries well,” explains Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive,” “Under Siege”), “because you don’t have a problem with translating the humor, you know, the dumb one-liners they try to put in these things; there are no problems with nuance (imitating an average moviegoer): ‘Someone’s scared, someone’s bad, someone’s good--got it!’ ”

But the formula appears to be wearing thin. Last summer’s high-profile and perhaps presciently titled “Last Action Hero” did a high-profile belly-flop at the box office, and four action movies released this year--"On Deadly Ground,” “The Getaway,” “The Chase” and “No Escape"--have all performed well below expectations. Meanwhile, Davis’ “The Fugitive” and Wolfgang Petersen’s “In the Line of Fire,” action films driven more by character and plot than by special effects and stunt work, were among 1993’s biggest critical and financial successes.

Judging by some of the action releases due this summer, filmmakers are trying to put a spin on familiar material. A strong female character, played by Susan Sarandon, will take on the bad guys in the thriller “The Client,” and Jamie Lee Curtis will battle evil side-by-side with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “True Lies.”

Summer films by two first-time directors hope to evoke two of the best action films of the ‘80s: Alex Proyas’ “The Crow,” opening this week, is perhaps the most stylishly nihilistic thriller since 1982’s “Blade Runner,” while Jan DeBont’s “Speed” will endeavor to mount the longest sustained kinetic sequence since 1981’s “The Road Warrior.”

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Even some of the typical boy’s club adventure movies are aiming for something beyond the thrills. Richard Donner’s “Maverick,” starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and Jim Garner, offers more comedy than choas; “Clear and Present Danger” with Harrison Ford continues the sophisticated series of Jack Ryan films; “Blown Away,” starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones, aims for some of the same character-driven cat-and-mouse appeal of “The Fugitive.”

James Cameron’s “True Lies” is also expected to capitalize--like Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” and Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” before it--on the advent of computer technology so sophisticated that literally anything can be brought to the screen. But none of this comes cheaply, and with budgets for these films typically weighing in at $60 million to $70 million, before marketing and distribution--"True Lies” is expected to weigh in at about $100 million--they’re no longer the sure-fire money machines that, say, “Last Action Hero” was touted as being.

“The problem is that while the studios want and need them, it’s different today,” says producer Mace Neufeld (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger” and “Beverly Hills Cop III”). “You have to face the actual costs of making them. We’re constantly engaged in dialogues with the studio and the budget department on how to effectively control the costs in big-action sequences.”

In the last few years, arsenals in action flicks have grown increasingly larger and more sophisticated, explosions have erupted in an ever-more-extravagant fashion and, thanks to the improved clarity of Dolby-stereo sound systems, all the mayhem has become ear-piercingly louder. But there’s something called the law of diminishing returns, which states that there is a point at which bigger and noisier simply won’t mean better, and filmmakers feel that point has not just been reached but long passed.

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“I hate it,” states Donner (“Superman,” the “Lethal Weapon” series) flatly about the trend of effects one-upmanship. “If it’s gonna go on, it’s gonna go on without me.”

Davis wryly suggests that the end result of the competitive trend should be a James Cameron-meets-William Castle scenario: “The ultimate would be, the theater in which you watch the movie blows up.

“There’s a cap on violent movies,” he adds, growing serious, “and I don’t want to be a part of it personally. How many car chases can you have? I don’t think it’s a growth industry, to tell you the truth.”

Says Harlin: “Big effects and stunts are not the thing. That makes movies more exciting, but audiences have seen it all. In the future, story and characters are going to be the key.

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“In the ‘70s action movies, characters were very complicated,” Harlin continues. “In the ‘80s, though, things got out of hand. It was all super-heroes, all muscle and gun power. There were loads of super-heroes. The Reaganite period created that, but that’s dead now.”

Donner offers a metaphor to explain the action movie’s own recent story arc. “Years ago, stuntmen started to organize (into unions) and rightly so,” explains Donner. “They organized into two guilds, the Stuntman’s Association and Stunts Unlimited. They vied against one another by being more daring, to the point where they did stupid things. People were hurt, and the situation mellowed out. In a strange way, that’s what’s happening with action pictures.”

Directors best known for their action films prefer not to think of themselves in that fashion, nor to speak much about their peers. Few, for example, wanted to share their impressions of “Jurassic Park,” preferring instead to discuss Stanley Kubrick or Federico Fellini (Davis admits to having seen only one “Indiana Jones” movie). But they will discuss what they consider the most historically influential action sequences.

“The chariot race in ‘Ben-Hur’ uses an enormous amount of shots--it’s extremely artistic, there’s competent editing, there’s a very precise feeling,” says Paul Verhoeven (“Robocop,” “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct”). “That scene is one of the most fascinating ever made, one of the most musical--though there’s no music, with its rhythms, it’s more like music than drama.”

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Verhoeven and Davis also cite the car-and-subway chase sequence from “The French Connection.” “ ‘French Connection’ was an important film for me,” says Davis. “I think Bill Friedkin was a gifted young director to make that movie at that time. It set a standard for reality in action films.”

“I tried to work with rhythm that way in ‘Basic Instinct,’ says Verhoeven, “when the cars were following each other on the curvy road. It’s not that spectacular if you analyze the shots, but what I was doing was bringing in a certain kind of rhythm, getting the audience used to that rhythm, and then 40 seconds into the sequence, the autobus comes in, and the rhythm changes abruptly. That’s what makes good action films effective.”

The filmmakers concede that at this point, Cameron (who also has “Aliens,” and the “Terminator” movies to his credit) has set the standard in combining computer technology with breathless action and that “T2" represents a pinnacle in action films that will be very difficult to surpass. Says Donner, “James Cameron is brilliant. I wouldn’t compete with him in a million years. He’s a provocateur in this industry, designing computer programs I can’t even comprehend.”

Several also offer accolades to John Woo, whose Hong Kong films “Hard-Boiled” and “A Better Tomorrow” are considered classics of the genre, and whose first Hollywood project, “Hard Target,” met with modest success. “John Woo’s movies have become a genre unto themselves--the audience escapes into seeing over-the-top action,” says Neufeld. “Then, the gloves are off, you can do anything you want to do.”

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Similarly, all who spoke had nothing but awe and respect for Davis’ exhilarating work in “The Fugitive,” particularly its spectacular train wreck. “I’ll never do a train stunt,” says Donner. “It’ll invariably be compared to Andrew.”

Davis is clearly the man whose star rose the most in 1993. He made a name for himself by converting 1992’s “Under Siege” from a typical Steven Seagal vehicle into a stylish and witty thriller, and followed that with “The Fugitive,” the second highest grossing film in the history of Warner Bros. (following 1989’s “Batman”). The film received seven Oscar nominations, including best picture, and Tommy Lee Jones won the trophy for best supporting actor (another impressive feat--action films rarely reap such rewards). Davis parlayed that film’s success into a financially and artistically rewarding exclusive deal with Savoy Pictures.

Jones, a close friend of Davis’ who has appeared in several of his films, says: “A great virtue is his versatility. He’ll have scenes that have been planned for months, with a 15-camera setup, as smooth and as organized as any military operation. The next day, he’ll kick you out on the street in the middle of the St. Patrick’s Day parade with a Steadicam, and say, ‘See you later, boys.’ It’s a very energetic approach, and that’s good for cinema.”

Davis says such flexibility is the key to making exciting action movies. Despite the precise conditions under which “The Fugitive’s” memorable train wreck was shot, he says, “You still leave a certain amount of room there. If something gets a little out of control there, which will create some spontaneity, it’s important to be able to improvise. That’s what gives it an energy and a freshness, because it doesn’t seem so perfectly planned. If you storyboard a film and shoot just the storyboard, it’ll feel that way. It’ll feel too tailored and not spontaneous. Especially if things are supposed to be out of control, you don’t want things to feel too in-control.”

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Working as a cinematographer on documentaries in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s helped to imbue Davis’ work with an edge of gritty reality. “Several times now, I’ve taken real events like the St. Patrick’s Day parade (which wasn’t in the original script) and put them into movies as part of the story,” Davis says. “Because you can’t buy that stuff, you can’t re-create it, you can’t capture it. I figured if we could get our two characters lost in the fabric of Chicago, it would really feel like this guy was being hunted, and the frustration, the cat-and-mouse game would be that much more interesting.”

Of course, smashing up a real live train--or even crashing a parade--doesn’t come cheap; few things do when it comes to the blockbuster action movie. And while the filmmakers are unapologetic about the bloated budgets, they acknowledge some belt-tightening is in order.

“For an event action movie, it’s important to have a big enough budget to do things the right way,” says Harlin, whose “Cliffhanger” is said to have cost more than $70 million. “The audience is quite sophisticated these days, they’ve seen pretty much everything. So, to impress them, things have to be bigger, better and more surprising.

“Also, big budgets are often the function of big stars--they’re the ones who help make the tent-pole, or event, movies. Stars are extremely expensive, and machinery comes with those stars, and that machine doesn’t work without a high-octane fuel.”

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“I imagine there was a huge conversation over the train crash,” Neufeld says of “The Fugitive.” “It was likely bid out 10 different ways. Had they decided it was too expensive, they might have said, ‘So, let’s not do the sequence.’ And that decision would have meant that there wouldn’t have been a point in the movie at which the audience breaks out in spontaneous applause and walked out of the movie saying, ‘Wow.’ It’s that bite-the-bullet, let’s-do-it sort of decision that can make or break movies.”

But Verhoeven says studios have become cost-conscious and may balk at certain extravagances. “Jim (Cameron) reached the last possible balance (on “T2")--spending a lot of money but making more back. If you want to do something as good, it would be extremely expensive to the point of being economically inconceivable. The motorcycle-and-truck chase in that film, the shots are so fantastic, and they’re not done in an easy way; it’s very complicated. The time to set them up and to get so many of them--it’s one difficult shot after another. In economic terms, if you were able to surpass that sequence if you spent another $10 million on top of your budget, you would not be allowed to today.”

Neufeld recalls a similar occasion when the price indeed was too high: “We were on a very fast track to do ‘Beverly Hills Cop III’ a year ago. The budget was a horrendous number. We came in, looked at the budget, the screenplay and the release date and decided this was not a script we wanted to do. Sherry Lansing (head of Paramount) had just come in, and we had lunch with her, and said, ‘We’ll do this, but we don’t think the franchise or Paramount would be best-served by trying to shoot a release date rather than a film.’ ”

The film was postponed. “There was no margin for error,” Neufeld explains. “There was a lot of action, a lot of night shooting, on a tight schedule. One misstep could have turned it into a major disaster. Movie making and budget making are nowhere near an exact science. You have to give yourself breathing room, thinking room. Invariably, preparation and adequate post-production time make better movies and save money.”

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Neufeld suggests that the cost of special effects is becoming cost-prohibitive, but those vast expenses are necessary today to bring down computer animation costs in the future. “We cost out an action sequence both ways,” Neufeld says. “It’s still very expensive. Are we really going to blow up a house? A miniature is not really satisfactory. A computer can do it very efficiently, but it’s not cost-effective yet. But that could signify a renaissance of fantastic action, which is exciting in the future.”

But, Harlin warns, “We’ve had the breakthrough with technology. We’re being able to create things in computers. I think now, audiences get the gimmick--anything can be done in a computer. You have the guy changing shapes in ‘T2,’ you have dinosaurs, you have (Sylvester) Stallone hanging off a mountain.

“When you know almost anything is possible, things can get less interesting.”

A key aspect that can dictate the success or failure of an action film is the degree and tone of its violence. Each director has his own opinion regarding violence (Donner, in particular, says, “I hate those movies where you see gore and dismemberment”), but even though Hollywood is now in an era when violence in entertainment is coming under fire from Washington, each agrees that the director should have the freedom to create as bloody or as sanitary a film as he wants.

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"(When I’m working), I’m not thinking about the violence offending or upsetting them, or causing copycats, like the Disney case (in which revised versions of the the film “The Program” deleted a scene that had inspired fatal copycat incidents),” says Verhoeven. “The moment we say we can’t do this in a movie, because someone might copy it, then we have failed as filmmakers. We should not engage in self-censorship.”

“The tone (for the violence) usually comes with the star, and what works best for them,” says Harlin. “With Bruce Willis, the best movie winks at you. For Stallone, it’s better if you’re more serious, truly emotional. Action stars seem to have an aura, or an image, that the movie consequently inherits.”

Harlin says finding the right degree of blood and guts can be a crap shoot. “I’ve had interesting results at test screenings. We interviewed a core group after a ‘Cliffhanger’ screening, and asked them who thought it was too violent, and about half the group raised their hands. Then we asked who thought it wasn’t violent enough, and the other half of the group raised their hands.”

Two directors from foreign soil, the Netherlands’ Verhoeven and Hong Kong’s Woo, have found that unique sensibilities that serve them well in their homelands can get them into trouble with the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which has slapped several of their films with Xs or NC-17s.

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“It’s frustrating; they don’t care what the real purpose of your film is,” says Woo. “They look at everybody all the same. We fought so hard for an R. My kind of action--that cartoon, comic-book violence--amuses and appeases audiences. You try to make them understand that my kind of action is pretty artistic, like dancing. But they just don’t care.”

“It’s a horrible process; no director would like to go through it,” agrees Verhoeven. And even though his films “Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct” pushed the MPAA’s R rating to its absolute limits with their violence and sexual material, he insists, “I haven’t been trying to test the MPAA’s boundaries, this just started when I began working in the American market. I just shoot it, and that’s what I get. My European upbringing gives me a certain sensibility regarding sex and violence that simply is not corresponding with the MPAA’s guidelines on movie content.

“People think I’m pushing the envelope on purpose, but, really, it’s by accident.”

Woo admits, however, that he doesn’t consider the tone of a violent sequence when shooting it. “They’re based on feeling, like a painter. I usually put myself into the character’s mood, walk through it like the character would, and choreograph it myself. If, in a scene, the character is fighting for his life, he will fight very hard.

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“I’m concerned with beauty, the camera movement, the body movement, the editing and the rhythm. If I feel the whole scene, in perfect timing, when I feel right, I go for it. There’s so much to think about--I see myself like a wild horse running here and there, out of control.”

Showing a poster in his office, signed by fans at a premiere of one of his films (one of the messages reads, “I never saw a film w/ so many people getting killed!”), Woo admits that his hard-core fans are afraid that the one-two punch of Hollywood and the MPAA may dilute his--or any filmmaker’s--style.

Woo says, “In Hong Kong, I wrote my own scripts and put my own feelings into them. In Hollywood, in ‘Hard Target,’ it wasn’t my script. It’s complicated--the original script was good, but so many people at the studio got involved, and the script was changing, changing, changing. (The end result) wasn’t as good as it was originally.

“I have to be more patient,” Woo admits. “The system won’t change, and the studio invests a lot of money in these projects, so they must be careful. So, so many people try to control the proceedings. But in the meantime, you waste a lot of time and energy.”

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The degree of violence, it should never be forgotten, is also dictated by the viability of the stunts described in the script. Safety on the set, tragically, again became an issue last year when Brandon Lee was killed by a prop gun while performing what should have been a routine stunt in “The Crow.”

Scripts can become problematic with their lurid descriptions of action, according to Neufeld. “The writer is basically trying to please the producer and the studio. He’s making what’s on the page exciting and will most often describe action that’s virtually impossible or foolhardy to execute.”

“A lot of stunt people don’t like me,” says Donner. “I think we’re illusionists, I like to create the magic steeped in total safety and trickery. I pull (stunt people) back. I don’t believe in hurting animals or people for a movie.

“Action films are more about disciplining other people more than yourself. On '(Lethal Weapon) 3,’ on the very first shot, there was a lack of communication between two stunt men in the car chase, and I heard this terrible (expletive) explosion,” Donner recalls. “Two cars hit one another head-on, right at the beginning. Thank God no one was hurt; there was a sprained ankle. But that was lucky--lucky not because of the accident, but because it set the tone for the movie immediately. Once I saw everyone was OK, I went ballistic. That changed the attitude for the whole film. It was important, because they all knew if something else happened, I’d kill ‘em if they didn’t do it themselves.”

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On the other hand, Woo likes testing the boundaries of his performers.

“For example, in ‘Hard-Boiled,’ Chow Yun-Fat is holding a baby and running through a narrow corridor in the final sequence, and there are seven, eight bombs going off beside and behind him. He’s running toward the camera. On the first take, the stunt coordinator tried to stop me--he didn’t want the actor to get hurt. But I thought if it happened close to the actor, it would be more exciting, the audience would feel the danger more. The special effects guy said, ‘No, it’s too dangerous.’

“But I prevailed, and I cued the special effects guy when to set off the explosions, and the actor didn’t know that they were going to be so close,” Woo recalls. “His hair got a little singed, it looked like he was really running for his life in that situation. It looked realistic, and that’s important to get the audience to feel the same way, to worry about him.

“He said, ‘Jesus!’ afterward, because of his hair, but he wasn’t mad at me. He just asked, ‘Was the shot OK?’ ”

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“Generally, our action has got to be motivated by the story,” Neufeld says. “We’re currently in the middle of discussions over whether to eliminate or include an action sequence in ‘Clear and Present Danger.’ We’re asking ourselves, ‘Does it push the story forward? Can we do it in a way that has not been done or seen before? And if not, why do it?’

“The most dangerous thing when developing a script is to look at it and say, ‘There haven’t been any action sequences for 20 pages,’ and then go plunk one in,” Neufeld concludes. “Action should be the icing on the cake rather than the heart and soul of the movie. Because if that icing turns sour, it ruins the whole cake.”

All agree that what making quality action flicks boils down to is--surprise--finding decent scripts with interesting characters.

This summer’s schedule suggests that, in some areas, it’s testosterone-laced business as usual: Jeff Bridges will hunt down mad bomber Tommy Lee Jones in “Blown Away” (which is also the plot for the upcoming “Die Hard 3"); at least two action flicks will concern themselves with vengeful sky diving (“Terminal Velocity” and “Drop Zone”), and Eddie Murphy is back in a “Die Hard"-in-an-amusement-park scenario with “Beverly Hills Cop III.”

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Harlin says he turned down “Cliffhanger” twice before finally relenting and doing the picture. “The script was originally very simple--the dialogue was all along the lines of ‘Let’s go!’ and ‘Look out!’ ” he says. “It’s frustrating when you have the tools and money to make a movie--and if you just had the material, it could be really great.”

(Harlin’s dissatisfaction with the action genre seems sincere--the only movie poster up in his office is for “Rambling Rose,” which he produced--but days after he was interviewed, it was announced that his next project would be producing “American Gladiators: The Movie.”)

Donner says, “With the first ‘Lethal,’ the relationship was what the movie was all about. With the second, the buddy/action movie had all been done before, so we gave it a wild sense of humor, we decided to have fun with it. . . . Any action has to surround Mel and Danny (Glover), it has to complement them. If you do lots of action, you’re ignoring them, you’re not using them to their greatest advantage.”

“No matter how imaginative you are with the action, if you’re not invested with the characters and the stories, it doesn’t mean anything,” Davis concurs. “There’s probably some incredible sequences that you have never seen in B-action movies that are really good, the explosions, the danger, but no one talks about them because the rest of the movie is junk.”

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“Excitement doesn’t come from money, it comes from an idea, emotions and feeling,” says Woo. “Sometimes you’ll put a lot of money into an action scene, but the audience feels nothing--'Oh, another car blew up. Hmm.’ You sort of get numb to it. And I won’t do that. It’s not worth it. Action films need to emphasize character, heart and soul.”

Fast Action Heroes

If you want adventure, who you gonna call? The list starts with these 10 directors

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James Cameron

Significant Films

“The Terminator” (1984), “Aliens” (1986), “The Abyss” (1989), “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)

Signature Sequence(s)

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The T-1000 morphing and the truck-motorcycle chase in “T2.”

Strengths & Weaknesses:

Blends the newest computer technology with action sequences like no one else’s--and writes his own scripts. But will Hollywood keep bankrolling him?

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“True Lies,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger; co-writing and co-producing “Strange Days” for director Kathryn Bigelow; “Spider-Man” is pending

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Renny Harlin

Significant Films

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“Die Hard 2: Die Harder” (1990), “Cliffhanger” (1993).

Signature Sequence(s)

Those eye-popping mountain aerial stunts in “Cliffhanger.”

Strengths & Weaknesses

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Good sense of composition, rhythm and mounting suspense. But wants to find better scripts; in fact, wants out of action movies, period.

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Producing “American Gladiators: The Movie”; directing Cutthroat Island” with Michael Douglas and wife Geena Davis.

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Andrew Davis

Significant Films

“The Package” (1989), “Under Siege” (1992), “The Fugitive” (1993).

Signature Sequence(s)

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That amazing train wreck in “The Fugitive.”

Strengths & Weaknesses

Reworks his scripts until they’re in shape. Good with actors, who laud his flexibility. But how does he top “The Fugitive”?

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“Steal Little, Steal Big,” described as having a bit of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” spirit.

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Richard Donner

Significant Films

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“The Omen” (1976), “Superman” (1978), “Lethal Weapons” 1 (1987), 2 (1989) and 3 (1992).

Signature Sequence(s):

The Three Stooges-inspired mayhem of the “Lethal Weapon” series.

Strengths & Weaknesses

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Has a wisecracking sensibility and painlessly slips in social messages. Actors love him improvising; screenwriters can be less than amused.

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“Maverick,” a Western-comedy with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner.

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John McTiernan

Significant Films:

“Predator” (1987), “Die Hard” (1988), “The Hunt for Red October” (1990).

Signature Sequence(s)

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The white-knuckle claustrophobia of “Die Hard”; the treacherous transporting of Alex Baldwin from a helicopter to the Red October.

Strengths & Weaknesses

A big, bold stylist, he’s capable of nerve-rattling suspense. Coming off two failures (“Medicine Man,” “Last Action Hero”), he needs to prove he isn’t so chilly with characters.

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“Die Hard 3,” with Bruce Willis

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Ridley Scott

Significant Films:

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“The Duellists” (1977), “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982) “Black Rain” (1989), “Thelma & Louise” (1991).

Signature Sequence(s)

Just about any image in “Blade Runner,” Sigourney Weaver’s climactic showdown with the Alien, Thelma and Louise’s showdowns with a trucker and a cop.

Strengths & Weaknesses

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Unparalleled eye for gorgeous, inventive visuals. Proved he can create whole characters in “Thelma”...but then came “1492: Conquest of Paradise.”

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“Crisis in the Hot Zone,” with Robert Redford.

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Paul Verhoeven

Significant Films:

“The Fourth Man” (1982), “Flesh + Blood” (1985), “RoboCop” (1987), “Total Recall” (1990), “Basic Instinct” (1992).

Signature Sequence(s)

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The car hitting the human tower of Jell-O in “RoboCop,” Arnold using a bullet-riddled corpse as a shield in the subway chase in “Total Recall.”

Strengths & Weaknesses

Taut pacing, excellent visuals, grisly sense of humor. But can he make a dreary chapter in history books exciting? (See “Next Up”)

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“Crusades,” with Schwarzenegger.

Up-and-Comers

John Woo

Significant Films:

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“A Better Tomorrow” (1986), “The Killer” (1989), “Hard-Boiled” (1992), “Hard Target” (1993).

Signature Sequence(s)

Just about any shootout in any of his films.

Strengths & Weaknesses

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Wildly kinetic action sequences; balletic, Peckinpah-like bloodshed; mischievous humor. But can he convince the MPAA his cartoonish violence isn’t NC-17?

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“Shadow Wars,” a cops-vs.-Terrorists thriller.

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Phillip Noyce

Significant Films:

“Dead Calm” (1989), “Patriot Games” (1992).

Signature Sequence(s)

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Harrison Ford, watching as human computer blips are wiped out thousands of miles away, and the highway attack, in “Patriot Games.”

Strengths & Weaknesses

Coolly intelligent, his movies never get overheated. Then again, overheated might have helped last year’s “Sliver.”

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“Clear and Present Danger,” with Harrison Ford.

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Quentin Tarantino

Significant Films:

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“Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “True Romance” (1993, screenplay).

Signature Sequence(s)

The police officer’s shaving mishap at the hands of Michael Madsen in “Reservoir Dogs.”

Strengths & Weaknesses

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He knows what makes movies tick and has an effective visceral style. But is he a one-trick pony? His script for “True Romance” aped “Reservoir Dogs” too much.

Next Up

“Pulp Fiction,” with Harvey Keitel; Oliver Stone is directing his script “Natural Born Killers.”

Compiled by DAVID KRONKE

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