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Where have Hollywood’s real men gone?


Action heroes of the square-jawed, rock-ribbed variety fell out of fashion decades ago, but many of them are reuniting for “The Expendables,” due in theaters Friday. It’s an old-fashioned shoot-and-blow-‘em-up starring Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke, most of whom haven’t successfully detonated a box office in years. Other stars include Jet Li, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crews and Jason Statham — a younger group, relatively speaking, whose ages range from 37 to 47. (There’s also a cameo from California governor/former action-movie king Arnold Schwarzenegger.)


Not long ago, “The Expendables,” about a team of mercenaries dispatched to kill a Latin American dictator, might have been dismissed as a last-ditch effort by a bunch of oldsters and B-listers. But timing is everything: After years of gooey “Twilight” sequels, a glut of animated family films and a shortage of straight-ahead action flicks, “The Expendables” is shaping up as a hit. Writer-director Stallone, 64, was welcomed as a demigod at last month’s youth-oriented Comic-Con event, and the movie has since become one of the most talked-about releases on the Web, according to BoxOffice.com, which monitors social-networking sites. Even before the summer began, a poll of Fandango .com visitors ranked “The Expendables” as the season’s most-anticipated original movie (excluding sequels).


“I was hoping it would be ‘Inception,’ and it wasn’t,” says Fandango spokesman Harry Medved. “It’s hardly a movie you’d think about as an original piece of work.”


Why is a movie about middle-age men stirring such buzz among 18- to 34-year-old males? One answer is that there’s been little else for them to watch. Even superhero movies virtually disappeared after the May release of “Iron Man 2,” which now seems like a distant memory. Overall, there seem to be precious few action options for youngish male moviegoers.


“Hollywood sometimes forgets how valuable that group of people can be,” says Phil Contrino, editor of Box Office.com. “‘The Expendables’ is a check-your-brain-at-the-door flick, where you just watch stuff blow up. I think there’s a little bit of a hunger for that.”


It’s been many years since the action genre dominated the multiplex. In the 1980s, action movies reflected the country’s Cold War concerns, conservative politics and yet-to-be-shaken confidence in America’s military might. Likewise, the stars — with their mammoth biceps and unbreakable jaws — signaled an unwavering faith in physical force.


In “Predator” (1987), Schwarzenegger led a team of commandos through a deadly jungle; in “Die Hard” (1988), Bruce Willis played a one-man police force battling a group of terrorists; and although Stallone’s John Rambo began the decade as a damaged Vietnam vet (1982’s “First Blood”), he ended it as an all-American soldier-savior (1988’s “Rambo III”).


What brought the tough-guy era to a close? The more liberal and dovish 1990s may be part of the answer. But Stallone pins the blame precisely on the first “Batman” movie, in 1989, which put an average-bodied actor, Michael Keaton, into a costume with ready-made washboard abs. Pumping iron? Why bother?


“The action movies changed radically when it became possible to Velcro your muscles on,” Stallone recently told the Los Angeles Times. “The visual took over. The special effects became more important than the single person. That was the beginning of the end.”


It was also the beginning of Hollywood’s love affair with superheroes, which continued with the “Batman” franchise and blossomed in 2002 with the smash “Spider-Man.” By the end of the 2000s, the Terminator, Rambo and RoboCop had been replaced by Iron Man, Wolverine and Hellboy.


“The Expendables” may not become a true blockbuster — BoxOffice.com is predicting a solid $19 million opening weekend and $47 million overall — but if it performs well with younger audiences, imitators are likely to follow.


“Everything’s driven by young people,” says movie critic and author Leonard Maltin. “Maybe young people saw action movies as old hat, and at a certain point someone will rediscover it, or put a new or clever spin on it. Perhaps it’s this movie, and it’ll become cool again.”


———


NEW ACTION HEROES NEEDED


Whatever the success of “The Expendables,” its middle-age stars can’t go on forever. Is anyone up to replacing them? Here are seven possible heirs to the action throne:


Channing Tatum — The star of the 2006 teen dance flick “Step Up” appeared last year in two action films, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and the bare-knuckle boxing flick “Fighting.” Up next are Steven Soderbergh’s spy thriller “Knockout,” Dito Montiel’s crime drama “Son of No One” and a “G.I. Joe” sequel.


Daniel Craig — He made a splash as the new James Bond, though, as previous 007s can attest, the role has a way of limiting a career. Craig’s upcoming sci-fi Western, “Cowboys & Aliens,” with Harrison Ford, may help him diversify.


Jason Statham — A former championship diver, this bullet-headed Brit became an international star in high-octane fare like “Crank” and “The Transporter.” In America, however, he remains a cult favorite rather than a household name.


Clive Owen — He’s no muscle man, but Owen’s noirish intensity served him well in “Sin City,” “Children of Men” and “The International.” He’s recently been filming “The Killer Elite,” an action thriller with Statham and Robert De Niro.


Hugh Jackman — When did women start going to see comic-book movies? Probably around 2000, when this Australian hunk played Wolverine in “X-Men.” His next installment in that franchise is due next year.


Taylor Lautner — That other guy from “Twilight” has a martial-arts background, making him an action-flick natural. He’s set to play Stretch Armstrong in an upcoming 3-D film, a teen looking for his kidnapped friends in “Cancun” and an adoptee tracking down his birth parents in the John Singleton thriller “Abducted.”


Jake Gyllenhaal — The soulful star of “Brokeback Mountain” seemed an odd choice as the swashbuckling hero in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” but what he lacked in muscle he made up for with agility. He’s also set to star in the sci-fi thriller “Source Code” with Vera Farmiga.

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