LOS ANGELES, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- Action heroes old and new are in the theatres this week as 72-year-old Clint Eastwood's detective thriller "Blood Work" vies with 35-year-old Vin Diesel's heavily hyped "XXX."
The latter is a trashy but entertaining-enough cross between a James Bond movie and one of those '80s action films where muscle-bound, thick-tongued heroes grunt out witty one-liners while shooting giant guns.
Diesel, star of "The Fast and the Furious," plays "a new breed of secret agent" for the middle-class teenage boy market. What's new about him? Well, when chased by bad guys on snowmobiles, 007 would out-ski them. In complete contrast, Diesel's XXX character, an X-treme sports outlaw star turned patriotic spy, escapes by out-snowboarding them. If you are 15, this distinction matters profoundly.
James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled off this secret-agent-on-steroids combination more adroitly in 1994's "True Lies." Cameron had a $100 million budget, but director Rob Cohen has only a modest $50 million to work with, of which Diesel got $10 million.
The stunts look exciting -- if preposterous -- in the TV commercial, but seem a little cheesy in the theatre. For instance, you almost never see XXX actually land one of his big air moves.
The announcement of Diesel's sizable salary generated far more than $10 million in free publicity as it inspired much debate over whether Diesel will be the action hero of a new generation.
Of course, at 35, the shaven-headed and tattooed Diesel, who looks like the progeny of a rhinoceros crossed with a fire hydrant, isn't exactly in the first bloom of youth. That's OK, though, because it's a rule of thumb among screenwriters that audiences want their leading men to be 35. (Leading ladies are supposed to be about a decade younger.)
Does Diesel deliver? He is terrific at acting nonverbally with his facial muscles. And he is at least as good as Sylvester Stallone or Schwarzenegger at the one-liners, of which Jeff Wilkes' script gives him quite a few funny ones. Yet, he can't articulate words quickly enough to keep up with ace actor Samuel L. Jackson, who plays XXX's mentor in the spy game. In this suddenly popular role, Jackson outperforms Sir Anthony Hopkins in "Bad Company," matches Robert Redford in "Spy Game," but falls short of Morgan Freeman in "Sum of All Fears."
Interestingly, XXX doesn't smoke or drink. Yet, his love interest, the Eurotrash waif starlet Asia Argento, is so unhealthy looking that she appear to have enough vices for the both of them (such as engaging in a reported on-set affair with the 53-year-old director Cohen).
Rated PG-13 for violence, non-stop action sequences, sensuality, drug content, and language.
Eastwood was 38 before he even got a starring role in an American movie. During the prime of his career, he was constantly compared to Burt Reynolds, and not always favorably.
Finally, in his 50s he was recognized as one of Hollywood's most distinctive filmmakers. But by then, he seemed past his prime. At the age of 62, however, he delivered his masterpiece, "Unforgiven," which won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.
Eastwood is definitely in his decline phase now, but he can still pick an intriguing script that suits him. "Blood Work" is by Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar for "L.A. Confidential." It's based on the detective novel by Michael Connelly.
Eastwood slyly makes sure the movie's weaknesses can be rationalized as his artistic choices. He seems old and tired, but then he's playing somebody who is old and tired.
Also, the movie looks cheap, like a 1970s cop flick, with flat lighting and drab San Fernando Valley locations. Is this Eastwood the producer just being his usual miserly self, or is it an intentional tribute to his glory days of 30 years ago?
"Blood Work" opens with Clint, playing a famed FBI profiler of serial killers, chasing his greatest enemy, The Code Killer, down a back alley, only to collapse with a hard-earned heart attack.
Two years later, he is retired and recuperating from his heart transplant. A pretty barmaid asks him to play private detective and solve her sister's shooting in a liquor store hold-up. Eastwood's not interested, until the woman informs him that his new heart belonged to her sister.
Assisted by his boat bum neighbor (Jeff Daniel, playing essentially his "Dumb and Dumber" character), Clint starts to investigate. Like so many Eastwood movies, the story line rapidly grows odd, even perverse.
The main problem in "Blood Work" is that, like most well-crafted mystery movies, it lacks enough extraneous characters to prevent you from guessing who-dunnit.
Rated R for violence and language.