SPECIAL REPORT

PUMPING PROFITS

THE BIG STUDIOS ARE FIGHTING IT OUT AT THE BOX OFFICE WITH ACTION MOVIES

BRIAN D. JOHNSON June 18 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

PUMPING PROFITS

THE BIG STUDIOS ARE FIGHTING IT OUT AT THE BOX OFFICE WITH ACTION MOVIES

BRIAN D. JOHNSON June 18 1990

PUMPING PROFITS

SPECIAL REPORT

THE BIG STUDIOS ARE FIGHTING IT OUT AT THE BOX OFFICE WITH ACTION MOVIES

The Hollywood arms race is on. This month the major movie studios unveil their heavy artillery in the annual battle for the summer box office. With few exceptions, their arsenals consist of big-budget action movies, cartoon-like fantasies dedicated to the art of the car crash and the business of blowing things up. Many of the summer movies are sequels to fast-paced ad ventures-Robo~op 2, Die Hard 2, Young Guns II, Gremlins 2, Back to the Future ill and Another 48 Hours. Still, there are some new prototypes, and none is more keenly anticipated than Dick Tracy, which opens this week across North America (page 51). Director Warren Beatty stars as the dapper detective who talks to his wristwatch. But it is Madonna, co-starring as the slinky cabaret singer Breathless Mahoney, who is getting most of the attention. No one looks, acts or talks more like a movie star than Madonna (page 48). Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of the sci-fi thriller Total Recall, which opened on June 1, she projects invincibility. And she is armed with a special effect that has come to mean as much as talent: attitude.

The prevailing attitude behind this summer’s movies is one of exceptionally cold-blooded ambition. Mere fame, money and glamor no longer suffice. In the 1990s, a self-respecting superstar is working towards global supremacy. The biggest names in this season’s lineup— Madonna, Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy—are like stateless royals. They rule the New Hollywood, which still has an American face, but is increasingly controlled by foreign interests and responsive to the demands of a world market—international sales can account for more than half a movie’s revenue. The studios are spending more than $2 billion on this summer’s movies—70 per cent more than last year. It is the action movie with the name-brand star that cuts the widest swath through the market.

At the moment, the two biggest stars on the planet are Madonna and Schwarzenegger, the Bad Girl and the Bully. Madonna’s sound-track album, I’m Breathless, is near the top of the charts, and she is now in the midst of a world tour that seems to be living up to the audacity of its title, Blond Ambition. She acts, sings and dances, but her singular talent is the

art of celebrity itself. Schwarzenegger’s iron features grace the covers of three major American magazines this month. And he was recently named chairman of the U.S. President’s Council on Physical Fitness. The former Mr. Universe is “a living sequel” according to Arthur Cohen, president of worldwide marketing at Paramount Pictures. “It doesn’t matter what he’s in, people like him.”

Both Madonna and Schwarzenegger are self-made stars from humble backgrounds who have built their careers from the body up. The daughter of a Michigan automobile engineer, Madonna flash-danced her way to the top; the son of an Austrian policeman, Schwarzenegger turned pumping iron into a respectable fad. They have both constructed personas brimming with aerobic, cybernetic self-confidence. Both are living examples of blond ambition, of the survival of the fittest and the ascension of the sexiest: RoboQueen and RoboKing.

Massacre: Meanwhile, their movies both take place in utterly synthetic worlds. Total Recall offers a vision of the future with Schwarzenegger as a secret agent conducting a massacre in a martian mall. It is brutally violent, and the stunt men outnumber the actors. A less toxic fantasy, Dick Tracy offers a synthetic vision of the past, a comic-strip toy town of preposterous characters and soda-pop colors.

Despite their differences, both movies are examples of the new tyranny of style in Hollywood—the dictatorship of art direction. They are essentially the visions of production designers creating hyperthyroid cityscapes. Surreal sets have become as central to the action movie as stunts, special effects and prosthetic makeup. And the most

fashionable architecture is the heavy, brooding style from the 1920s known as German Expressionism.

For the past two years, Hollywood’s top-grossing movies have been highly stylized fantasies. In 1988, Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? dazzled audiences with the novelty of integrating cartoon characters into live action. Last summer’s Batman created a sensation by bringing a comic-book hero to life in a dark-humored melodrama. This year, the producers of Dick Tracy are banking on a similar response. And, in their attempt to make Dick Tracy the movie event of the summer, they spent $30 million on its release and promotion. But, according to the Los Angeles-based National Research Group, a private market-research company, Dick Tracy may still fail to ignite the box office. Children and teenagers tend to be unfamiliar with the comic-strip character, who at his peak of popularity in the 1930s appeared in more than 600 newspapers, but has since faded from popular culture.

Superstar: Dick Tracy's star, middle-aged sex symbol Warren Beatty, has little appeal among younger moviegoers. In fact, Beatty’s soft-edged vulnerability and ingenuous charm is far removed from the armor-plated image required of a bankable superstar in the 1990s. After the catastrophic flop of his previous movie, the 1987 desert farce, Ishtar, Beatty, 53, clearly redeems his artistic credentials as a film-maker with Dick Tracy ’s innovative visual style. But he may have to rely on Madonna to lure teenagers into the theatres.

With so many huge budgets on the line, the stakes at the summer box office are unusually high this year. Costing about $30 million, Dick Tracy is one of the more modest entries. Total Recall, Die Hard 2 and Days of Thunder all cost close to $60 million. Explained Tom Sherak, head of distribution and marketing at Twentieth Century Fox: “It costs a lot of money to blow things up and replace them and blow them up again.” Also, the stars carry high price tags—the makers of Total Recall are paying Schwarzenegger at least $11 million, plus a slice of the profits. But the movie had the strongest opening weekend so far this year, taking in $30 million at the box office.

Hardball: Some Hollywood executives seem to derive a macho thrill from their summer game of big-money hardball. Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose studio created Dick Tracy, recently exchanged duelling faxes with Days of Thunder producer Donald Simpson. “Wherever you go, you won’t escape the Thunder," wrote Simpson. Katzenberg scribbled a reply: “Wait till you see how big my Dick is.”

They may both be right. Days of Thunder, starring Tom Cruise as a stock-car driver, is certainly a favored entry in the summer sweepstakes. Reuniting Cruise with the producers and director f of the 1986 box-office hit Top 8 Gun—in which Cruise played a g fighter pilot—Days of Thunder z could be considered Top Gun on s wheels. The story focuses on the

SELF-RESPECTING SUPERSTARS ARE STRIVING FOR GLOBAL SUPREMACY

relationship between Cruise’s character and a pit-crew chief portrayed by Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall. Although it is not a sequel to Top Gun, it clearly has the same winning formula on its side. But like a pit crew racing against the clock, Thunder’s film-makers have had a hectic job trying to complete their movie in time for its June 27 release date. They have had just five weeks to edit more than one million feet of film, a task that would usually consume at least five months. And less than a month before the release date, they were still shooting new footage of Cruise at Florida’s Daytona International Speedway.

Driving a car of a different color, newcomer Andrew Dice Clay stars in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, a comic thriller about a private detective investigating the death of a heavy-metal singer. An immensely popular stand-up comedian, Clay has already carved out a notorious reputation for himself. His comedy routines are X-rated showcases of sexist, racist and homophobic humor. New York City’s The Village Voice called Clay “a demagogue playing to the random rage of the decade.” His recent hosting of Saturday Night Live prompted Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor to cancel her appearance.

Epidemic: But Clay’s attention-grabbing vulgarity fits right into the ambitions of the New Hollywood. Twentieth Century Fox has signed him to a three-picture deal. Besides Ford Fairlane, he appears this summer in a comedy concert movie. Michael Levy, Ford Fairlane ’s executive producer, predicted, “If this movie makes it, there’s no stopping him.” Unstoppability—it is the Hitler-invades-Poland theory as applied to show business.

The model for Clay’s Hollywood crossover is Eddie Murphy, another performer who used a raw stand-up comedy act as a springboard to the big screen. A paragon of sensitivity compared with the Diceman, Murphy is finally reunited with Nick Nolte in Another 48 Hours, a sequel to 48 Hours, the 1982 hit that marked Murphy’s movie debut. Among other sequels, Die Hard 2 is expected to be a tough contender. It shifts the original’s battle-in-a-building premise to an airport in Washington, D.C. Bruce Willis returns as the lone-gun detective who takes on a squad of terrorists. But American film-maker John McTieman, whose direction of 1988’s Die Hard was brilliant, has been replaced by Finnish-

born Renny Harlin—who also directs Ford Fairlane.

Directors of action movies appear to be playing musical chairs this summer. RoboCop’s high-powered Dutch director Paul Verhoeven traded up to the extravagant pyrotechnics of Total Recall. American Irvin Kershner, who wrangled robots on The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, has taken his place on the RoboCop sequel. In RoboCop 2, Peter Weller is back in the title role, an android cop who is part human, part robot. Encased in a suit of chrome-skinned fibre glass, his character fights an epidemic of a devastating designer drug called Nuke. Frank Miller, the innovative U.S. comic-book artist who co-wrote the script for RoboCop 2, says that the RoboCop sequel remains faithful to the original’s spirit of “sick humor—it’s all-out assault on the excesses of the Eighties.” Excess: In most sequels, however, the frontal assault of irony becomes just another form of excess. It seems unrealistic to expect anything less than wretched excess from Gremlins 2: The New Batch or The Exorcist III: Legion. z And in the more benign Back to the Future III, I where the DeLorean time machine spins its i wheels for Michael J. Fox for the last time, the y premise wears thin. Other summer excursions “ into the supernatural include Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze plays a man who comes back from the grave to protect his girlfriend from criminals, and Ghost Dad, featuring Bill Cosby as a drowned father who comes back to haunt his family. For children who still prefer real cartoons, the schedule includes two new animated features, Jetsons-. The Movie and Ducktales the Movie: Treasures of the Lost Lamp, and a rerelease of 1967’s The Jungle Book.

After the initial heat wave of action movies subsides, some more adult titles are on the horizon later in the summer. In Presumed Innocent, based on Scott Turow’s best-selling thriller, Harrison Ford plays a prosecutor who stands trial for the murder of a female colleague. Then, the most belated sequel in the history of Hollywood, The Two Jakes, arrives in August, directed by Jack Nicholson. After creating the role in Chinatown 16 years ago, Nicholson reappears as private eye Jake Gittes.

An older acting legend, Marlon Brando, returns to the screen as a Mafia boss in The Freshman. And director David Lynch, co-creator of the TV soap opera Twin Peaks, springs Wild at Heart on North America. The movie, which took top honors at the Cannes Film Festival last month, is a tale of two lovers on an Oz-like odyssey across the American South. It is sexy, violent and more inflammatory than all of the action movies combined.

More than anyone, Lynch represents the new tyranny of style. But he is one of the few American directors with a distinctive voice. Increasingly, the stars rule. They call the shots on movies custom-made to fit their egos. And the line between the actor and the role often seems perilously thin. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Schwarzenegger said: “For every punch, there’s a defence. There will always be those 10 guys shooting at you, but you must live on the offensive.” He was talking about his career plan, not his latest action role. For Madonna, too, belligerence is in vogue. In Dick Tracy, she dresses to kill. On the Blond Ambition tour, she plays the warrior queen, equipped with armored underwear and an attitude to match. She has found her place among the cartoon boys of summer.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON