The names that dominate the action genre have historically belonged to muscleheaded or wisecracking or muscleheaded-wisecracking white male actors--Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis. The list continues with Ford, Gibson, McQueen, Connery, Flynn. But Bruce Lee and Richard Roundtree, names synonymous with ass-kicking, were only given cult recognition as kung fu and blaxploitation stars. Today, as the old guard retires from adrenaline-pumping, a new school of action heroes, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-weaponed, emerges.
Ice T, the late 2Pac Shakur, and even Marky Mark have made bids as action heroes, but it was kinder, gentler rapper Will Smith who became an heir apparent to the Action Hero throne. Leaving DJ Jazzy Jeff behind, The Artist formerly known as Fresh Prince got jiggy wit it in two of the largest-grossing action-packed movies of the decade, Independence Day and Men In Black. Hollywood is continuing to bank on Smith. This summer, he will star as James T. West in the Big Screen adaptation of the classic TV series Wild Wild West.
Surprisingly, Oscar-nominated Nicholas Cage became the biggest action star of 1996 with the The Rock. His success with action/adventure wasn’t a fluke. While maintaining his signature quirky characterizations, Cage has continued his string of hits with the straightforward Con Air and John Woo’s operatic Face/Off. Unfortunately, his last two action outings have failed miserably and the sloe-eyed, mopey-voiced oddball actor may find greener pastures with familiar dramatic ventures.
It’s too early to tell, but the hipness factor surrounding actors imported recently from Hong Kong’s impressive martial arts and gangster films may catapult Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li into action hero superstardom. Chow Yun Fat starred in last year’s ill-received but fascinating bullet ballet, The Replacement Killers. He will next appear in the highly-anticipated John Woo feature The King’s Ransom. Jet Li wowed American audiences as the heavy in Lethal Weapon 4. His next feature, The Art of War with Wesley Snipes, may elevate the martial arts film from B-movie standing where, for the last decade, it’s been relegated by an aversion to low-rent kickboxers like Jean Claude Van Damme.
Last year, Wesley Snipes, The X-Generation’s Dolemite, produced the most two-fisted kung fu vampire flick in history, Blade. After years of dabbling at “serious acting,” the martial artist has gone back to his neo-blaxploitation roots, proving that, in this post-Tarantino era, the action hero no longer has to be The Great White Hope.