Where The Action Isn't

Art imitates life--and so, it turns out, do Sylvester Stallone movies. The actor's new drama, "Driven," tells the heroic story of Jimmy Bly, an auto racer who must overcome both personal doubts and a cocky rival to win a championship. Sounds like a perfect comeback role for the "Rambo" veteran, who's suffered through an extended box-office tailspin. Except for one thing. Bly's actually played by 24-year-old newcomer Kip Pardue. Stallone? He wrote and produced the movie--and cast himself in a supporting role. As a has-been.

Just as Aerosmith videos favor shots of curvy babes over the paleolithic rockers, Stallone has filled his new film with a bevy of Gen-X faces to reinvigorate his career. "It was going to be a one-man show, but the climate changes," says the actor, 54. "The more I started to think about young racers, the more I started to think their story was more interesting." Stallone's far from the only aging star to find that the climate'schanging--that it's getting a hell of a lot colder, to be specific. Many of the most bankable action stars of the '90s have been dropping bombs right and left-Kevin Costner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, John Travolta--and studios are more fretful than ever before about casting the sagging legends.

Talk about the end of days. (That's a reference to a Schwarzenegger movie. Maybe you didn't see it?) Twentieth Century Fox passed on giving Schwarzenegger, 53, the lead role in the remake of "Planet of the Apes." MGM declined to bankroll Costner's spiritual thriller "Dragonfly." And Warner Bros. drew up a remarkable game plan to make sure Seagal's martial-arts story "Exit Wounds" would not follow the sorry path of the actor's last film, which sank straight to HBO. In addition to pairing Seagal, 50, with rapper DMX, Warners insisted that Seagal shed 50 pounds, lop off his ponytail and refrain from wearing his trademark silk kimonos. (Dear Warner Bros.: from all of us, thank you.) "Exit Wounds" performed well, but DMX fans accounted for more than half the ticket buyers, suggesting Seagal hasn't bounced back quite so high after all. With its Travolta spy tale "Swordfish," Warners similarly hopes costar Hugh Jackman ("X-Men"), 32, will light a flame under Travolta.

Apparently not students of the supply-and-demand curve, many of the fading stars are still charging Mercedes rates even as their movies perform like rent-a-wrecks. MGM gave "Dragonfly" to Universal because, with Costner demanding $15 million and 15 percent of the box-office gross, the studio figured it couldn't make money unless the movie soared like "Crouching Tiger." Costner, 46, also lost a supporting role in the summer blockbuster "Pearl Harbor" by asking for $3 million when the other actors got about $250,000. (A Costner spokesman says the actor never officially negotiated with MGM, and that he was willing to cut his fee for "Pearl Harbor"--just not as much as Disney insisted.) As for Stallone... He may have put himself in the back seat for "Driven," but, according to MGM, he wants $20 million for another "Rocky." In other words, Stallone won't be lacing up the gloves any time soon.

The key to staying hot is choosing cool material and hip directors. "Die Hard" veteran Bruce Willis has remained a reliable draw by selecting great stories, like "The Sixth Sense," over showy roles. Age does not have to mean obsolescence. "Sean Connery hasn't had a bomb in a long time, and look how old he is," says Elie Samaha, whose Franchise Pictures financed Travolta's catastrophic vanity project "Battlefield Earth," Costner's "3,000 Miles to Graceland" and Stallone's "Driven." But the struggling Samaha isn't banking on "Driven," which was greeted with snickers at its Hollywood premiere last week: "After '3,000 Miles to Graceland,' I'm not making any predictions."

To be fair, domestic box-office numbers only tell part of the story. Action stars tend to do far better overseas where audiences, traditionally, have even worse taste. "Some movies do very poorly here and make $100 million foreign," says Stallone. Yet how many actors on his level have a movie that could bypass theaters entirely? Two years back, Stallone made "Eye See You," a $60 million drama set in a detox clinic. Universal claims the movie is set for a fall release, where Stallone believes the movie fits after all this time on the shelf: "It's a cold-weather film. Very dark." But people who have seen the movie say it borders on the unreleasable, and could go straight to video or television. That's a bad sign for the man who made "Driven." It looks like the wheels really may be coming off.