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SUMMER SNEAKS

Where the Action Is and Isn't

Yes, 'Star Wars' looms as this season's ultimate blockbuster, but there's a lot more out there. And this time, the boys of summer aren't the usual crew.

May 02, 1999|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert Welkos is a Times staff writer

Where have you gone Arnold Schwarzenegger? Call home, Sylvester Stallone! Anyone seen Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson? And, while we're at it, whatever happened to Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced such action hits as "The Rock," "Con Air" and "Armageddon?"

The summer of '99 beckons, and the men whose very names have come to symbolize Hollywood action films are nowhere to be found.

Instead, we have Tom Cruise starring in a movie about sex--with his wife, no less.

Instead, we have Kevin Kline--this is not a misprint--fighting side by side with Will Smith.

Instead, we have Brendan Fraser--not Harrison Ford--blazing across the silver screen in an adventure yarn about treasure-seeking explorers who unwittingly stumble upon an ancient tomb.

The summer season even features not one but two films with that macho action star . . . Hugh Grant. And, instead of super-spy James Bond, we get super-spy . . . Austin Powers.

What's happening? Is Hollywood adrift in "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream"? Or has the approaching May 19 release of "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" in some 2,800 theaters caused such a tremor in the Force that studio executives have temporarily lost their equilibrium?

Without ruling out either proposition, it could be argued that this could be called Summer of Diversity: Episode 2.

Last summer might be remembered by action fans for "Armageddon" or "Lethal Weapon 4," but studio officials remember it because of lower-budget movies like "There's Something About Mary," "Dr. Dolittle" and "Hope Floats."

Take "Mary." Here was a little comedy spiced with crude humor (a dog in a cast, a woman wearing unusual hair gel) and it grossed an incredible $176.5 million. Move over Arnold, Mel and Bruce--here comes Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz and Matt Dillon!

Wait, there's more.

If officials at 20th Century Fox were surprised at "Mary," they were stunned by "Dr. Dolittle," which had Eddie Murphy talking to birds and farm animals. That film grossed $144.2 million.

Wait, there's more.

The Sandra Bullock going-home drama "Hope Floats" grossed $60.1 million.

What does all this say about the approaching summer?

"What last summer showed was that diversity does well," said Fox production president Tom Rothman. What makes a movie into a hit, he noted, can be summed up in one word: urgency.

"The best thing to have is urgency to see a movie for all audience groups," Rothman explained--for example, "Star Wars: Episode I." "But the next best thing is to have urgency among groups."

A good example of this was "Hope Floats," he said, which was targeted at older women. "We sold over 4 million videocassettes of that film, and I'm willing to bet you there wasn't a 14-year-old boy anywhere in the country who ever saw it," Rothman said. "But that's OK. They weren't meant to."

But this shouldn't cause action stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme to worry too much. Studio executives say there is still room in every summer release schedule for pure action films. Indeed, Van Damme, that quintessential action figure, will be back this summer in "Universal Soldier: The Return."

And yet, maybe it's time to usher in a more diverse summer? Turn down the volume. Adjust the frequency. Put familiar faces in new roles.

Who knows? Maybe Cruise and Nicole Kidman will rock the screen in director Stanley Kubrick's last film, "Eyes Wide Shut"? Maybe Kline will emerge as a new action hero in "Wild Wild West"? Maybe Fraser's starring role in "The Mummy" will make us all forget Harrison Ford in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"--well, let's not go too far.

Whatever happens, this much seems evident: It won't be the Summer of Same.

With all this in mind, what can we expect from this summer's movies?

IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY: Things to discuss with your friends while sitting on the curb waiting to buy tickets to "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace":

* Is Lott Dod, the Trade Federation's representative in the senate, related to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.)?

* Is Nute Gunray, viceroy of the Trade Federation, related to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich?

* To become a Jedi master, does one train on a Stairmaster?

* Did Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Darth Sidious and Grand Moff Tarkin ever perform with KISS?

PLEASE, MR. CUSTER, I DON'T WANT TO DIE: Jim Tharp just might be the bravest man in Hollywood. The distribution chief at DreamWorks SKG is releasing a little comedy called "The Love Letter," starring Kate Capshaw, on May 21--only two days after the debut of "Star Wars."

"We hear that Fox is limiting the number of screens that 'Star Wars' is playing on, so there will be an awful lot of screens available," Tharp says, adding with a laugh: "We're not limiting the screens exhibitors can play 'Love Letter' on."

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