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A career buff-up

Ashton Kutcher: Pretty-boy TV prankster, tabloid headliner, chivalrous hiker -- action hero?

September 24, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

WALKING up the dusty Hollywood canyon in 100-degree heat, inhaling great gulps of smog, I begin to wonder if I'm being punk'd. It's not that I'm famous or anything, it's just that my hiking partner is Ashton Kutcher, who created the MTV show where people are subjected to elaborate, ego-puncturing practical jokes -- they're punk'd. He's also well known for starring as the dumb brunet on "That '70s Show," headlining such cinematic milestones as "Dude, Where's My Car?," and marrying Demi Moore, who happens to be 15 years his senior, a May-December romance that has kept the tabloids titillated for years.

Kutcher assures me that this jaunt into heat exhaustion is not some elaborate goof. "I'm not that deviant," he says. "I always find it funny that people think they're getting punk'd when I'm around. That's the worst way to punk somebody, right?" He also insists that turning a reporter into a hyperventilating, dizzy, red-faced mass is not an extreme case of passive-aggressiveness either.

Venturing up the hill in the midday sun, he offers some advice. "Hydrate! Hydrate!" It's delivered in his best drill sergeant voice. The 28-year-old former Iowa boy is freakily good-looking in a slightly antiseptic, eternally boyish, Calvin Klein kind of way, with a long, lean figure, sculpted cheekbones and brown eyes bigger than your average doe's.

He arrived on a motorcycle, casually dropped his jeans to reveal gray shorts, strapped on a backpack and bandanna, then began to clip-clop blithely up the hill like a horse out for a casual saunter. He appears to be in good shape -- in part because he's just back from his summer house in Idaho, the hills of the oxygen-deprived, and, oh, yes, he recently spent eight months doing six-hour-a-day workouts to get physically ready for his latest role, as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer in the upcoming adventure flick "The Guardian."

Ashton Kutcher, action hero?

It's kind of a change of pace for a guy whose resume includes the airy comedies "Cheaper by the Dozen," "Guess Who" and "Just Married," and who's better known for the list of starlets he's dated than his cred as a macho man and thrasher of enemies.

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According to a master plan

ALAS, there seems to be a time in every young actor's career when he must try on the mantle of Tom Cruise -- not the psychiatry-bashing, couch-jumping megastar of late but the Tom Cruise of the "Top Gun" era, the testosterone-pumped, arrogant hot-shot, who needs to have an attitude adjustment before he becomes the soldier-leader he's destined to become. "Top Gun" was the shiny, throbbing Jerry Bruckheimer version of the myth. An earlier incarnation was "An Officer and a Gentleman," with a tight-lipped Richard Gere, a young Debra Winger and an overlay of class consciousness that gave the film a kick of importance. Kutcher's latest movie, "The Guardian," plays as a mishmash of the two earlier films, with a dollop of "Good Will Hunting" and that film's feel-good pop psychology.

Given the country's ambivalence about the wars at hand, it's not surprising that Kutcher's version features a hero who's not fighting anyone but the ocean, who must make it through the hardest basic training there is and survive the maniacal tasks assigned by his instructor, the beaten-down former rescue swimmer extraordinaire Kevin Costner in the Louis Gossett Jr.-Robin Williams part.

If this strategy works out right, Kutcher will follow in a long line of male actors who turned into major international movie stars with the right action flick. Will Smith was just the amiable "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" before he became a fighter pilot in "Independence Day." Nicolas Cage was just a talented weirdo before Bruckheimer buffed and revamped him into a power he-man with such flicks as "The Rock" and "Con Air." Unlike comedy, or drama, action is the one genre that works all across the globe, from India to the Ukraine to Latin America -- and an ability to carry high-octane movies can justify a $20-million-plus paycheck.

Of course, the master plan to turn actors into heroes doesn't always pan out. Johnny Depp floundered in subpar actioners like "Nick of Time" before hitting his stride years later as a jaunty, subversive pirate in "Pirates of the Caribbean." And Demi Moore, Mrs. Ashton Kutcher, proudly shaved her head and polished her body to star in "G.I. Jane," which flopped ignobly.

In person, Kutcher seems awfully amiable to play a smart-ass. When I tentatively point out that "The Guardian" seems, err, reminiscent of "Top Gun" and "An Officer and a Gentleman," he merely grins.

"That's a compliment. Thank you for that." He cheerfully admits that he didn't start out buffed. The first day, the trainer asked him to do as many pull-ups as he could in a minute. Then he was supposed to rest for a minute, then do more ....

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