In the harsh glare of "Daylight" it's becoming harder to see where the role of reluctant hero begins and ends for Sylvester Stallone.
His latest action film, "Daylight," has become a box-office paradox: In the United States, it was a dud, but overseas it has already earned $93 million, nearly triple the U.S. take of $33 million since its release in December. The film cost more than $90 million.
So while American audiences appear to be tiring of Sly, the victim-turned-hero with the rippling muscles, the rest of the world audience can't get enough of him.
On "Daylight," Universal knew that dynamic going in, top production sources say. In fact, Stallone hasn't had a certifiable domestic hit since 1993's "Cliffhanger," which grossed $84 million domestically. But executives decided to gamble on Stallone instead of some hot young actor when they doled out $20 million for the aging action star. Overseas, not necessarily the United States, is now the studios' box-office gold mine.
"The [box-office] result of this film domestically was the studio's worst-case scenario going in," said one executive on the film. "They ran the numbers on Sly's last few films, both domestically and overseas. . . . They knew they could lose here but not overall. They're banking on making $125 [million]-to-$150 million worldwide."
And that's precisely why Universal pushed Stallone on the director and producers, who wanted to cut costs and go with a younger star. For his part, sources close to the production say, the actor hoped to portray a character more Rocky than Rambo, someone the audience could champion, but in the final script most of that vulnerability was gone.
By comparison, "Cliffhanger" hooked audiences immediately: Stallone's character fails to save his buddy's girlfriend while hovering thousands of feet above a cliff, and she plunges to her death.
"At that point, Sly's character becomes vulnerable and you care," one production source said. "Without empathy you don't hook into the likability of his character. That journey, unfortunately, started too late in 'Daylight.' " Others on the film agreed.
Stallone, sources said, tried to salvage his character's empathy by demanding that an ending be shot in which he dies. "Sly's performance wasn't bad. It's just that choices were made by a lot of people that left the audience with a character they couldn't root for. Clearly, domestically he doesn't open a movie anymore."
That sentiment only puts in further relief the mega-deal that Universal signed with Stallone, promising him $60 million for three films.
That deal, put together by Stallone's former agent, Ron Meyer, who is now head of Universal Pictures, caused huge shock waves throughout Hollywood because studios feared other stars would be demanding the same, further driving up movie budgets.
But Meyer's associates say that the deal was misrepresented in the press and that Stallone would not simply automatically pocket that money. The studio and the star must agree on each project, and Stallone will not be paid unless the pictures are made. And those close to the studio's top executives suspect that, after the disappointing results of "Daylight" in the United States, if they are made, those three films would not be typical action fare.
They also point out that, contrary to what most people think, "Daylight" was not the first movie of that pact, but was set up well before that agreement.
Since "Cliffhanger," Stallone has starred in "Demolition Man" ($58.1-million domestic box office), "The Specialist" ($57.4 million), "Judge Dredd" ($34.7 million) and "Assassins" ($30.3 million).
Not the most inspiring track record. So at age 50, Stallone appears to be joining the likes of Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal, who are also scrambling to reshape their images.
Stallone may face more of a challenge than the others, however, because of his trademark monotone delivery and monosyllable lines.
In a recent Esquire interview, Stallone called his self-created nonverbal stereotype an "empty experience," saying that the fame and fortune he reaped from it were "fool's gold."
He seems to have no choice now but to play completely against that type. His next film is summer's "Copland"--a low-budget Miramax film for which Stallone reportedly earned a straight SAG wage ($50,000)--starring as a pudgy, sad-sack sheriff opposite Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. He also is co-starring in "An Alan Smithee Film," the Joe Eszterhas-scripted spoof on Hollywood from Disney.
Then he will star in a black comedy for MGM called "Ump," playing a hit man waiting for a prime moment to rub out a mob boss and using his down time to clean up a town.
This role, caution rival studio executives, treads a bit close to Stallone's past ventures into comedy, where he has failed miserably, including 1984's "Rhinestone," 1991's "Oscar" and 1992's "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot."
"Look, Sly--or Rocky as we all know him--is a great guy. He was written off when he did those stupid comedies," said one Warner Bros. executive. "But then he came back with 'Cliffhanger' and that shut everybody up. But the problem is he's 50. Unlike Travolta [who is 42], a comeback at his age is really tough.
"The big question for all these guys like Sly and Arnold is, where do you go when you've sold yourself to the public one way for so long?"
A Paramount production executive was more blunt: "Face it, it's over. Next."
Stallone's associates say his two coming films will have plenty of action, but not completely formulaic action. "Wait until his fans see him in 'Copland.' Sly wants a change to try new things, a change. Just give him a chance to be what he wants to be," said Arnold Rifkin, Stallone's agent.
Part of that change includes more writing, Rifkin said. Stallone has written or co-written 13 screenplays. Those he wrote solo: the five "Rocky" films, "Cobra," "Paradise Alley," "Over the Top" and "Rambo III" (he co-wrote "First Blood" and "Rambo: First Blood Part II").
Rifkin cites Paul Kagan Associates' recent ranking of the top 100 screenwriters from 1985 to 1995 by U.S. box office: Stallone was No. 5 with $518.7 million on those films alone.
Make-over plans aside, Rifkin defied current conventional Hollywood wisdom that Stallone is over as an action star. All it takes is one hit, he says.
"If audiences give him a chance to get established where he wants to go," Rifkin says, "he'll give back."
And that gift? "Rocky VI."