Where is the next generation of Hollywood action stars?
For eons, it seems, audiences have watched Arnold, Sly, Bruce, Jean-Claude and Seagal as they slugged, kicked, blasted and winked their way to stardom while virtually defining the term Action Hero.
But today, with no obvious successors in the wings to Stallone, 50, Schwarzenegger, 49, or the others, Hollywood is wondering where to find its future superheroes.
To be sure, there is no shortage of actors who are trying to establish themselves in action films, but no one has emerged as a potential pop-culture icon in the mold of the two muscle-bound legends.
"They want to be Brad Pitt and they want to be serious," said casting director Karen Margiotta.
"There is an appreciation among young actors for the subtleties of character development," said casting director David Ruben.
One longtime industry executive summed it up this way: "They all want the money but they don't want to be typecast as a one-note guy who can only do that. They are all desperately afraid of it."
Keanu Reeves? He looked for all the world like a budding action star in "Speed," but then--in a move that stunned the film industry--passed on doing "Speed II." He bombed in "Chain Reaction."
Pitt? He seems intent on tossing off his pretty-boy image by showcasing his talents in dramatic roles.
George Clooney? Val Kilmer? Chris O'Donnell? "Batman" may have been a boon to their careers, but no one views them as the next Sly or Arnold.
Some see superstar possibilities in Wesley Snipes, whose action credentials have been well established in films such as "Passenger 57" and "Money Train." Stars such as Nicolas Cage, Christian Slater, Woody Harrelson, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Billy Zane and Jason Patric have played action roles while not forsaking other types of characters.
"They are saying, 'I don't want to be the next Sly or Arnold--I want to be Val Kilmer and do a multitude of roles and also do action movies,' " the industry veteran said.
What many young actors want, said one personal manager, is to be the next Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood--macho stars who established himself in franchise action roles like "Indiana Jones" and "Dirty Harry" and went on to long careers doing a variety of characters.
Cage and Slater are two actors who are trying to broaden their appeal by doing action films.
Cage, who won this year's Oscar for best actor as a dying alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas," recently starred alongside Sean Connery in "The Rock" and is currently filming another action film, "Con Air." And Slater recently starred alongside John Travolta in "Broken Arrow" and is now making the disaster film "The Flood."
But to be a true action star, said one casting director, "you need macho men that are charming but have a heroism about them. They need to be bigger than life. Christian Slater and that whole generation--they don't have it."
While the industry ponders if there is anyone who can replace Arnold or Sly, there is also the question of whether the action genre itself is beginning to wane.
"You can make a case that those movies have run out," said one top studio executive. "Audiences have shifted from under 21 to over 30. They want intelligent movies, not just blood and guts."
Over the years, action stars have tried to soften their roles, with varying success.
Schwarzenegger scored big with comedies such as "Twins" and "Kindergarten Cop" but not so with "Junior." This holiday season, he stars in the comedy "Jingle All the Way," which had a modest opening weekend.
Willis made his career in "Die Hard" movies, but he is constantly exploring different characters, as he did in "12 Monkeys" or in "Nobody's Fool" starring Paul Newman.
Stallone has repeatedly tried to branch out into comedy, but with dismal results like "Rhinestone," "Oscar" and "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot."
In a sign that audiences may be tiring of superheroes, Stallone, Van Damme and Seagal have all had lackluster outings of late at the domestic box office.
Stallone's 1995 film, "Judge Dredd," took in only $34.7 million domestically and "Assassins" garnered $28.8 million. Van Damme has had lackluster performances with "Maximum Risk" ($14 million), "The Quest" ($21.6 million) and "Sudden Death" ($20.2 million). Seagal's current film, "The Glimmer Man," has taken in about $20 million domestically.
"It may well be that the comic-book action star has run its course and the studios are getting ordinary guys to play action stars," said Tom Pollock, who formerly headed Universal Pictures.
One barometer Hollywood will be looking at is Stallone's next action film, "Daylight," which Universal is releasing Dec. 6.
"If 'Daylight' doesn't work, it may be his last action film," one industry observer predicted. "If 'Daylight' works--and it doesn't have to make $100 million domestically but it does have to do $50 million here and $100 million abroad--then the movie becomes profitable and Sly will do another one."
Avi Nesher, whose Mahagonny Pictures produces action movies with a number of Van Damme and Schwarzenegger wannabes, believes the action genre is at a crossroads.
"Action movies have become tiresome the last three or four years," Nesher said. "They have become very stale, very theme park. The whole Hong Kong school of thought where you have a bunch of sequences thinly connected and muscle boys flying about, that's very dull and very repetitive. That's the reason movies haven't been successful lately."
Nesher said there is a never-ending stream of young men who arrive in Hollywood with dreams of become the next action star.
"You have no idea how many people come here [to become the next action star]," Nesher said. "They have all seen the inside of local gyms a lot. But we have very little patience for people who say, 'I can take off my shirt and make my pecs bounce.' "
So, are there any Schwarzeneggers or Van Dammes out there?
At Fox, there is an attempt underway to transform former NFL star and current Fox football broadcaster Howie Long into an action star. Long will play a smoke-jumper in an action adventure film about a raging forest fire and prison break called "Firestorm," due next fall.
There also is a stable of actors whose names today may not be widely known but who are trying to break through to stardom. They include Olivier Gruner, Xavier DeClie, Matt McColm and Ralf Moeller.
"Many people think [Gruner] is the next great cheese," Nesher said. "We have teamed him up with John Ritter [in a movie called "Mercenary"]. In the film, Ritter plays a millionaire whose wife gets killed in a terrorist attack and, with the State Department helpless to do anything, he calls in a lethal mercenary, played by Gruner.
"Gruner has come up very quickly," Nesher said. "He's very intense. He's a great athlete. He takes direction well. In the old days, these people would just show up, take their shirts off and that was enough. This no longer works."
Nesher described DeClie this way: "He is not your average brute. He's kind of got that old Cary Grantish sort of charm. There is something light and comedic about him."
McColm, Nesher said, is a former Ralph Lauren model. As for Moeller, Nesher said: "He's big and somber, in the Arnold mold. . . . I'm not sure if he can handle lightness and deftness."
Or, the next Van Damme could be someone like Alejo Mo-Sun, a 27-year-old martial arts expert from Toronto. "It's scary what this guy is capable of doing," said a source familiar with Mo-Sun, noting that he recently made the rounds of the studios and touched off a "feeding frenzy" among executives.
"There is a real need at the studios to find the next guy--but not the next actor--and turn him into an action star," the source said. "Somebody who is a fighter and has charisma--and some talent."