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Actors With Average Builds Getting Bulk Of Action Roles

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a skinny, balding guy in a red cape!

When Nicolas Cage soars in “Superman Lives” next year, he will complete the stunning transformation of action heroes in the ‘90s. No longer are bulging biceps or a washboard stomach required to shoot guns, nor is the guttural utterance of such one-liners as “Hasta la vista, baby” or “Make my day” needed to make audiences scream.

Instead, all you need is an Oscarwinning actor primed on independent films intoning: “Put the bunny back in the box!”

That’s Cage’s gutsy tag line from “Con Air,” a film that contains the summer’s largest assortment of unlikely action heroes.

When a teaser for the film played last winter, it looked like a joke - Cage, in long, flowing tresses, storming with a band of thugs out of a raging fire. His co-horts: John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, John Cusack and timid, bug-eyed Steve Buscemi.

Steve Buscemi?

“He’s the most frightening thing in the film. He’s the only one who never fires a gun, never hits anyone, never does anything, never even takes his shirt off,” says director Simon West. “These are all serious independent-movie actors. And now they’re action heroes.”

Not to be outdone by any aspiring thugspian, Cage also stars in “Face/ Off” (coming June 27) opposite John Travolta, who keeps cementing his comeback from those “Look Who’s Talking” movies with action flicks. And since Tom Cruise is sitting out the summer, Cage will be joined by other unlikely skinny souls in what should be the season’s top moneymakers: Jeff Goldblum in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” Sandra Bullock and Jason Patric in “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” George Clooney in “Batman and Robin” (Friday) and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in “Men in Black” (July 2).

This assortment of talent brings action heroes down to a human level, with ordinary-sized people who take on a universe of villains and succeed. A thousand looks of panic, terror and pain cross their faces, as opposed to the smug looks of the matinee idols scoring easy victories. They walk softly, but they wield big guns. And for the most part, they keep their shirts on.

Don’t the days of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood seem long ago?

Leaving behind the supermodel dating blitz, Sly is now remarried, has had another kid and has taken to art films as he enters his 50s. He gained 40 pounds for “Copland” (Aug 1).

Clint’s an Oscar-winning director who’s behind the camera as often as he is in front of it. This summer, the 67-year-old is busy helming “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” which will be released next winter.

Arnold, fresh from preventive heart surgery on his 49-year-old mortal self, is up to his usual tricks in “Batman and Robin” as Mr. Freeze, but he’s only a second-fiddle villain to Clooney’s Bruce Wayne. How can 50 pounds of makeup and hardware compete with a sexy TV star in a skin-tight batsuit?

The only traditional action hero this summer, the kind who bares his chest to reveal rippling muscles and swats away bad guys like flies, is “Hercules” (June 27). He’s been the strongest guy in the universe for a few thousand years, which is hard for any mere mortal to beat. But as West scoffs, “He’s a cartoon; he doesn’t count.”

Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal must be eating their hearts out. Once, they had hopes of taking the action genre where Sly and Arnold could not. Their syntax was just as garbled, but they could do their own stunts. But now, for heaven’s sake, there are action-figure dolls of Jeff Goldblum’s lanky physique for not one, but three blockbusters (“Lost World,” the original “Jurassic Park” and last summer’s “Independence Day”).

Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson are all hunks who can act as well as look decent shooting guns. Their new problem: age. This summer, all three have big-budget adventures on screen - “The Fifth Element,” “Air Force One” and “Conspiracy Theory,” respectively - but they’re being overshadowed by younger guys with hardly enough body mass to cast a decent shadow in the first place.

Part of the reason for the slimming down is simple economics. Event films are about special effects, not human ones. The budgets are already high enough without having to pay a star $20 million to stand next to a blue screen and pretend he’s seeing fire, water, aliens or whatever disaster is looming. For some technoblockbusters, directors don’t want anyone who will outshine the computers, the real stars these days. (Thus, Matthew Broderick in next summer’s “Godzilla.”)

In theory, that means more women should be kicking cinematic behind - at least more than the few who have followed in Sigourney Weaver’s “Alien” footsteps since 1979. But Geena Davis’ weak efforts and “Tank Girl” aside, even the lower muscle requirements haven’t pulled women above sidekick status.

That may be because the testosterone-fueled stories haven’t changed that much, even if the writing has gotten a little better.

“It’s not like ‘Look out behind you!’ and ‘Take that!’ anymore,” says West. “You have to entertain people either emotionally or through humor. The minimum standard is that there will be some huge pyrotechnics and excitement. On top of that you have to have a proper story and characters.”

Tags: Commentary