Sunday, April 29, 2007

Stone Cold Steve's Hollywood Toehold

Through the infield swarm at the Texas Motor Speedway, there strides a slab of man with gorilla arms and a shaved head shaped like a battering ram. The crowds of NASCAR fans part and go "aaaaah" and then spring back, begging for autographs, mewling for photos with the honorary grand marshal for the race. Fully grown adults are punching numbers into their cellphones. "Honey, you'll never believe who I'm standing right next to." Giddy. "It's Stone Cold Steve Austin!"

Don't know who Stone Cold Steve Austin is? Then hit yourself over the head with a folding metal chair, because during his long and wild reign, The Texas Rattlesnake (a.k.a. The Bionic Redneck) was King of the Ring, and one of the most popular, most dangerous, most rebellious superstars -- as both hero and heel -- in the world of professional wrestling.

Behold! Three-time winner of the Royal Rumble. (See him drink beer in the ring while fighting!) Four-time topper of the World Tag Team Championship. (See him deliver double whuppings!) Six-time victor of the World Wrestling Entertainment Championship. Three times at Wrestlemania, which is the Oscars for those who specialize in the spine buster, the pile driver and -- watch out!-- the cobra clutch.

And now, prepare yourselves, because Hollywood wants to make Stone Cold Steve a movie star. It just may be his toughest bout yet.

Surprised? The people who run WWE Films (a new division of WWE Inc.) have two words for you: The Rock -- if Dwayne Johnson can carry a movie, so can his former rival Stone Cold. (They also mention a certain monosyllabic Austrian bodybuilder who became a global box office sensation and California governor, so go figure).

"The Condemned" opened nationwide Friday, and the $20 million movie was written, designed and financed by WWE Films as a vehicle for Austin. The premise: A reality TV producer purchases 10 of the worst murderous rapist terrorist scum convicts on Earth, drops them onto a deserted island, where the damned are ordered to fight to the finish, and the lone winner is promised his (or her) freedom and some wonderful prizes, including a passport and cash. Of course, the island is rigged with cameras and the death match will stream live over the Internet for the low, low pay-per-view price of $49.95. So . . . it's a think piece.

The R-rated movie is incredibly violent, including the equal opportunity machine-gunning of attractive young women. Austin plays (relative) good guy Jack Conrad, a U.S. Special Forces black-ops type, who has been abandoned by his own government to rot as an innocent man in a dungeon in El Salvador. Jack is a man of few words. "Let's dance, sweetheart" would be a long speech. Austin's thespian method is more rooted in Ooogg! Gurgle! Neck snap!

"I think he's going to be a huge star," says Scott Wiper, the writer and director of "The Condemned," who bases his opinion in part on the film's reception when it screened recently for 5,000 wrestling fans at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. "They went ballistic."

The WWE has high hopes for Austin, whose acting r?sum? outside the ring includes a turn as a prison guard alongside Adam Sandler in "The Longest Yard" and the recurring character of Detective Jake Cage on the old TV show "Nash Bridges."

"Where are the new action heroes?" asks Joel Simon, president of WWE Films. "Where's the new Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis?"

Austin reminds Simon of "the young Steve McQueen, the young Clint Eastwood, the young Lee Marvin and young Charles Bronson," though not all at once, of course. Austin is actually 42 and his body bears the insults and injuries of 14 years of broncobusters and flying clotheslines. (Austin retired from the fight game in 2003, although he continues to make appearances at events tied to wrestling, which remains highly popular with millions of fans and viewers).

Is the film any good? Nope, according to critics. "A real stinker," writes the Chicago Tribune. "Off-putting and ridiculous," says the Hollywood Reporter. "Austin deserves better material than this. So do we," goes the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But can he act? Well, acting here is a relative term because . . . .

"Tom Cruise has 10 weeks with a script and he gets to do 10 takes," Simon explains, as opposed to a professional wrestler in the ring. "Our guys get a story line, and that's it. There is no script. And they do it live, improvised. And they do their own stunts. One take. In front of 20,000 people. And they do 52 fresh new shows a year."

Simon says of Austin: "He's got that magic, that look, that intensity. He's not a bully, but here's a man you don't want to [ahem] with. And he's as recognizable as any movie star in the world to his core audience."

Ah: The professional wrestling demographic. Will they show up at the multiplex, the critics be hanged? At the Texas Motor Speedway, Stone Cold -- all 6-feet-2 and 252 pounds of him -- is recognized wherever he goes, though he is dressed in his civilian clothes of jeans, polo shirt and sneakers (in the ring he favored black bun huggers). When he does his grand marshal duty -- "gentlemen, start your engines!" he booms -- before 200,000 people at the NASCAR Nextel Cup, Samsung 500, he gets a bigger round of applause than driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (racing royalty who also drives the Budweiser car).

In the garages before the race start, Austin meets with driver Elliott Sadler, who is impressed. "I'm just the biggest wrestling fan," Sadler tells Austin. "I've had beer poured on me a hundred million times." They talk about the movie business. "All the records I've broken. My box office. My pay-per-view. All the championships and titles. They don't mean nothing in Hollywood," Austin says. "It's a tough racket to get into."

But so is pro wrestling. Many of those unfamiliar with the story lines of characters such as Mr. Perfect, the Undertaker and Deuce & Domino are surprised by the popularity of the entertainment. According to WWE, its five hours of prime time television (on USA, the CW and Sci-Fi channels) reach almost 16 million viewers a week. Its shows are among the highest rated on cable TV (only "The Sopranos" on HBO consistently ranks higher) and they are a dominant draw among men 18 to 34, who are coveted by advertisers. The company, which is the undisputed leader in the wresting sector, stages 346 live events a year before 2 million fans.

"Their audience is surprisingly larger and more diverse than you might anticipate," says Alan Gould, senior media analyst at Natexis Bleichroeder investment bank. Teenage boys are WWE's nuclear fuel, and the overall demographic skews blue-collar, but "I've gone to a few recently, and I was surprised to see that it's more family-oriented than I would have anticipated," Gould says. "You see a couple of people in suits, you see mothers, I mean I was shocked by who you see there."

Says Gould: "This company generates a ton of cash. And one of their issues is, we do wrestling really well, but how do we grow the business?"

The film offshoot is the latest in WWE's string of not-especially-successful efforts to expand the wrestling brand. Remember the XFL, the "extreme" version of football? Anyone visit the wrestling-themed restaurant in Times Square? Duds. Both ventures failed, but WWE Films believes movies starring wrestlers have more potential for two reasons: The movies themselves can act as advertising for wrestling events, and the talent is already in the company.

As Simon sees it, the company produces not only hours of TV but has 250,000 subscribers to its monthly magazines, plus 16 million unique hits a month on its Web sites, plus the live shows, including 61 overseas. In every medium, there's a plug for Steve Austin starring in "The Condemned." "That's saturation," Simon says. "If a studio wanted to buy that kind of advertising we estimate it would cost them $18 million."

So there's a lot riding on the former high school linebacker from Edna, Tex., who attended North Texas State on a football scholarship, but left school a semester short of a degree. His real name is Steve Williams and he was working on a loading dock when he heard about a wrestling school run by "Gentleman" Chris Adams at the fabled Sportatorium in Dallas back in 1988. He spent $1,500 to learn some of the tricks of the trade. In his first professional match against the Frog Man a promoter told Austin, "Okay, you two boys are going to wrestle and you're going to win," pointing at him. "So I was glad someone told me how it works," Austin says. He was paid $40.

In person, sitting over a couple of draft beers at his motel, Austin is friendly, eager, and seems as gentle as a bowl of pudding (he lives with his girlfriend in Venice, Calif.). The hard case stuff -- the taunts, the threats -- it's all an act in the ring. He describes the wrestling circuit as a brutal but beautiful life. The constant travel. "Getting dropped on my head night after night." Though wrestlers know the outcome of a bout, the story line, they do not rehearse or choreograph their fights. Instead, they lead and follow, like a pair of dancers. Working the crowds, they learn to play the psychology of the mob. The boos. Austin loved the boos. "I knew my career was taking off because I was really getting hated," he says. In professional wrestling, which adopted a secret language of the carnival hustle, there are baby faces (good guys) and heels (the bad guys). And in his long career, Austin managed to pull off one of the greatest tricks of all: being a heel who somehow won the fans over.

He says he is approaching the movie business the same way he did the wrestling. "You learn. They pound you down. Then you learn some more," he says. "I know I'm not the best actor. . . . I have a three- picture deal. I'll get better. But you know something? I have a lot of new respect for actors. It's not as easy as it looks."

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