Reporting from Asheville, N.C. — They stand four rows deep in the movie theater parking lot, men in leather motorcycle jackets and women in tank tops and tattoos and teenage boys wielding cellphone cameras. They look toward the sky, in part as a symbolic gesture — because heaven is the only place, really, that one should look when a film divinity like Chuck Norris is so near — but also because that's where the man with the jet pack is hovering.
The crowd has gathered on this warm April weekend in Asheville, N.C., for a stunt show at ActionFest, the world's first — and, one can presume, only — "film festival with a body count." Specifically, they're waiting for Kinnie Gibson, a blue-suited man with a jet pack who first appears three stories above the concrete expanse outside the Carolina Cinemas, and then descends in a blizzard of confetti, a swirling vision of 1970s techno-idealism celebrating an action-movie culture equally rooted in the past.
Squinting into the sun, many in the crowd manage to plug their ears and emit loud oohs. "You don't see that every day! I'm feeling dangerous, and I'm just looking at it!" exclaims Aaron Norris, the emcee and festival co-organizer. Dressed in acid-washed jeans and sporting a mop of blond hair, Norris is an indefatigably cheerful presence — and, among this group, a minor god because he is the sibling and behind-the-scenes collaborator of one Chuck Norris. Aaron Norris and former Landmark Theatres president Bill Banowsky have gathered this loose fraternity of stuntmen, hundreds of action-movie junkies and, of course, Norris' famous brother for the first edition of what organizers hope will be an annual event.
Chuck Norris is, as anyone here could tell you in their sleep, the American corollary (and one-time costar) of Bruce Lee — a Korean War veteran, martial-arts champion, box-office force, exercise-machine entrepreneur and (campy) pop-cultural icon. Most important, however, he is the ineffable screen presence in action franchises such as "Missing in Action" and "Delta Force" — as well as TV's "Walker, Texas Ranger" — in which bad guys are bad guys and good guys are good guys, none of this "Dark Knight" moral relativism stuff.
"It's nice they have something for the regular folk and not just for the hippie, artsy people," says 17-year-old Wyatt Montgomery, wearing a combination of scraggly facial hair and black boot-kickers that suggest a proud misfit by way of action-movie machismo. Wyatt has come with his brother Clinton, who is seven years older and who weaned his younger sibling on action movies.
The brothers have a Zen, circle-of-life attitude about their Norris fandom. "We watched 'Walker, Texas Ranger' with our grandparents, so we came out to watch the guys who made that show, which we hope one day to watch with our grandkids," Clinton says.
Film festivals are usually twee gatherings of self-selected film connoisseurs. This is less twee. The people who gather in the Blue Ridge Mountains on this weekend eat and breathe, perhaps to the detriment of their social lives, all manner of action movies. They've come to watch them, to see the stunt shows that run concurrently with the movies, to snack on "full-metal burgers" and to worship the genre's patron saint, Chuck Norris. "It's all about the roundhouse kicks," says Beth Tremmor, a 24-year-old from nearby Hendersonville, her eyes lighting up when asked about her fandom; her mother, sitting nearby, nods in agreement. Since she was a teenager, Tremmor has been given a different "Walker, Texas Ranger" boxed set for her birthday.
Cannes has its well-dressed cinephiles waiting at the entrance of a regal theater politely asking pour une invitation, s'il vous plait. ActionFest has "Delta Force" fans waiting at the edge of a parking lot for Sylvester Stallone's stunt double to perform an aerial ram. "I think you can learn more from Bruce Lee than from the Dalai Lama in terms of religious doctrine," says Neill Clark, a retired schoolteacher with a salty-white handlebar mustache and a blue bandanna tied around his neck, the kind of rugged-individualist type you expect to exist only in a Chevy truck commercial.
As dark superhero movies take over Hollywood, this, in a way, is what's left behind: people who might have been part of the mainstream three decades ago but who in the Comic-Con era find themselves part of only a very small niche, the residue of pop culture. To be a Chuck Norris fan in 2010 is to be the movie-world equivalent of a certain kind of Fox News conservative , to make a set of cultural choices that look back fondly to a time of red-white-and-blue wholesomeness. It comes with a peculiar brand of cinematic purism, too, one that assumes the innate superiority of a 1980s filmic era of butt-kicking and gun-toting, before Hollywood was corrupted by, you know, the evils of CGI, antiheroes and believable dialogue.