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ActionFest packs a wallop for Chuck Norris fans

Reporting from Asheville, N.C. — They stand four rows deep in the movie theater parking lot, men in leather motorcycle jackets and women in tank tops and tattoos and teenage boys wielding cellphone cameras. They look toward the sky, in part as a symbolic gesture — because heaven is the only place, really, that one should look when a film divinity like Chuck Norris is so near — but also because that’s where the man with the jet pack is hovering.

The crowd has gathered on this warm April weekend in Asheville, N.C., for a stunt show at ActionFest, the world’s first — and, one can presume, only — “film festival with a body count.” Specifically, they’re waiting for Kinnie Gibson, a blue-suited man with a jet pack who first appears three stories above the concrete expanse outside the Carolina Cinemas, and then descends in a blizzard of confetti, a swirling vision of 1970s techno-idealism celebrating an action-movie culture equally rooted in the past.

Squinting into the sun, many in the crowd manage to plug their ears and emit loud oohs. “You don’t see that every day! I’m feeling dangerous, and I’m just looking at it!” exclaims Aaron Norris, the emcee and festival co-organizer. Dressed in acid-washed jeans and sporting a mop of blond hair, Norris is an indefatigably cheerful presence — and, among this group, a minor god because he is the sibling and behind-the-scenes collaborator of one Chuck Norris. Aaron Norris and former Landmark Theatres president Bill Banowsky have gathered this loose fraternity of stuntmen, hundreds of action-movie junkies and, of course, Norris’ famous brother for the first edition of what organizers hope will be an annual event.

Chuck Norris is, as anyone here could tell you in their sleep, the American corollary (and one-time costar) of Bruce Lee — a Korean War veteran, martial-arts champion, box-office force, exercise-machine entrepreneur and (campy) pop-cultural icon. Most important, however, he is the ineffable screen presence in action franchises such as “Missing in Action” and “Delta Force” — as well as TV’s “Walker, Texas Ranger” — in which bad guys are bad guys and good guys are good guys, none of this “Dark Knight” moral relativism stuff.

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“It’s nice they have something for the regular folk and not just for the hippie, artsy people,” says 17-year-old Wyatt Montgomery, wearing a combination of scraggly facial hair and black boot-kickers that suggest a proud misfit by way of action-movie machismo. Wyatt has come with his brother Clinton, who is seven years older and who weaned his younger sibling on action movies.

The brothers have a Zen, circle-of-life attitude about their Norris fandom. “We watched ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’ with our grandparents, so we came out to watch the guys who made that show, which we hope one day to watch with our grandkids,” Clinton says.

Film festivals are usually twee gatherings of self-selected film connoisseurs. This is less twee. The people who gather in the Blue Ridge Mountains on this weekend eat and breathe, perhaps to the detriment of their social lives, all manner of action movies. They’ve come to watch them, to see the stunt shows that run concurrently with the movies, to snack on “full-metal burgers” and to worship the genre’s patron saint, Chuck Norris. “It’s all about the roundhouse kicks,” says Beth Tremmor, a 24-year-old from nearby Hendersonville, her eyes lighting up when asked about her fandom; her mother, sitting nearby, nods in agreement. Since she was a teenager, Tremmor has been given a different “Walker, Texas Ranger” boxed set for her birthday.

Cannes has its well-dressed cinephiles waiting at the entrance of a regal theater politely asking pour une invitation, sil vous plait. ActionFest has “Delta Force” fans waiting at the edge of a parking lot for Sylvester Stallone’s stunt double to perform an aerial ram. “I think you can learn more from Bruce Lee than from the Dalai Lama in terms of religious doctrine,” says Neill Clark, a retired schoolteacher with a salty-white handlebar mustache and a blue bandanna tied around his neck, the kind of rugged-individualist type you expect to exist only in a Chevy truck commercial.

As dark superhero movies take over Hollywood, this, in a way, is what’s left behind: people who might have been part of the mainstream three decades ago but who in the Comic-Con era find themselves part of only a very small niche, the residue of pop culture. To be a Chuck Norris fan in 2010 is to be the movie-world equivalent of a certain kind of Fox News conservative , to make a set of cultural choices that look back fondly to a time of red-white-and-blue wholesomeness. It comes with a peculiar brand of cinematic purism, too, one that assumes the innate superiority of a 1980s filmic era of butt-kicking and gun-toting, before Hollywood was corrupted by, you know, the evils of CGI, antiheroes and believable dialogue.

The films on offer here reflect that sensibility: There’s the occasional Asian auteur piece, a number of contemporary direct-to-DVD action movies (“Undisputed III: Redemption,” is a standout, its Chilean star Marko Zaror surrounded by a gaggle of groupies after its midnight screening), and a heavy dose of the Norris catalog, including “Braddock: Missing in Action 3" and “Code of Silence.” All screenings are preceded by a pastiche of Norris trailers, a sizzle reel of karate kicks, commando missions and bar brawls. “This festival isn’t for sipping pinot,” says Tom Quinn, the director of acquisitions at Magnolia Pictures and the chief programmer at this year’s ActionFest. (Magnolia helped launch the festival in part to peddle its own action offerings, and the festival is taking place here in Asheville because Banowsky owns the theater — even if it provides a somewhat surreal contrast to the artsy, bohemian vibe that prevails a few miles away downtown.)

In between the screenings, stuntmen — the people who’ve doubled for Stallone and numerous James Bonds and of course Chuck himself — gather on panels and in the hallways to trade war stories. They discuss their MacGyver solutions to on-set problems and talk about their daredevil sacrifice with a mixture of heartfelt inspiration and winking bravado. “Artists paint with a brush. We paint with our bodies,” says former Bond double Paul Weston. “There’s not a man on this panel who hasn’t lost a good friend on a stunt,” Aaron Norris adds.

And then, of course, there’s Chuck himself. For more than two days he’s a spectral presence, an abstract notion that exists on screens and the lips of festival-goers, as they trade memories of sage quips and crotch kicks.

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But on Sunday, the final day, just after Gibson lands in his jet pack, Norris appears. Compact and without his trademark beard, the 70-year-old (!) is trailed by scores of fans holding cameras and DVD cases. He is trying to make his way into a packed theater for a panel, but is slowed by the throngs. Inside, he is greeted like a rock star by an electric crowd. There is wild whooping when he tells a story that culminates with the line “If you come in here again, I’ll give you so many rights you’ll beg for a left.” A young woman from Macedonia stands up to proclaim her enduring love for him and to assure Norris that, lest he be worried, he is, indeed, still the biggest star in Macedonia.

Norris is still sharp, though he does tend to forget names (his 40-ish wife is usually on hand to quietly remind him) and can have trouble hearing. But he is able to meet many of the expectations the crowd bestows on him. He offers a variation on a presentation he has no doubt given countless times before, a mix of his own personal history and an ode to the stuntmen. (In an interview later, sitting in stocking feet in the suite of a resort hotel, he rules out a return to acting — he concentrates these days on a foundation that teaches martial arts to inner-city children – as he recalls his long career. “The acting was terrible,” he says of his early films. “But people wanted to see me fly through a window,” he says with a casual shrug.

Norris has given his blessing to this gathering, which he says is a precious rarity in the annals of film festivals. “I’ve been to the Cannes,” Norris says at the panel, so that it sounds like he’s saying “I’ve been to the Con.” “I’ve been to a lot of festivals. I’m bored stiff through all of them.”

Norris’ brand of populism is a stance he returns to several times, to the delight of the crowd. “I went to the Oscars once. It’s the boringest thing you’ve ever been to in your life,” he tells the audience. “The good thing is I’m a member of the academy. So I can vote. Of course, last time I voted for ‘The Blind Side’ for best picture.”

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Back in the parking lot, Rick Owens, a retired law-enforcement officer with an aviation-industry ball cap on his head and a toothpick delicately tucked behind his ear, is sitting in a collapsible lawn chair, a beer koozie in one hand. His wife Nancy is sitting next him, talking up the glories of Brevard, N.C., insisting the reporter make the drive there, (“It’s just past the airport and the Wal-Mart,” she says. ) “Chuck has done pretty good movies, and we have all of them,” Rick Owens chimes in.

The couple waits a half-hour after the stunt show ends in the hope of landing Chuck’s autograph, but Norris has slipped away.

Instead, over walks Randy Fife, a stuntman whose primary claim to fame is getting beat up repeatedly by Chuck Norris on camera, the Washington Generals of action films. “I’ve fought Chuck hundreds of times and still never beat him,” Fife wags to the Owens, a line you get the sense he’s used hundreds of times. Rick Owens laughs heartily and, appreciation dancing in his eyes, holds out a flier, onto which Fife then etches his signature. It’s not a Chuck autograph, but it comes from a man on whom the action star has inflicted many a black eye, and on this day, that’s more than enough.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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