The new face of the action hero

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The filmmaker is French, the star is British, the villains are Italian and Russian and the backdrop is Latino-flavored Miami, yet "The Transporter 2" brought in more American movie-goers than any other Labor Day release in history. Its $20.3 million haul at the box office surprised even the studio that distributed it, pointing up the marketability of an international cast and the continued rise of unconventional action heroes.


With their eye on the bottom line, Hollywood executives have lined up more of the same. The videogame-based "Doom," coming out in October from Universal Pictures, stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a futuristic Marine fighting creatures on Mars, and Sony's "The Legend of Zorro," features Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in an upcoming sequel to the late `90s swordplay hit. And there could be another "Transporter" in the offing, with Jason Statham likely returning as the mercenary-cum-martial-artist.

For the past several years, studios have consciously paid more attention to multicultural casting, especially in their teen-targeted comedies and horror flicks. Some upcoming films underscore the trend, with the thriller "Venom" starring rapper Method Man alongside former Calvin Klein model Bijou Phillips, and comedy "Roll Bounce" featuring a rainbow of young Latino, Asian and African-American actors.

Action movies, though, have largely remained the bastion of Anglo A-list men like Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Nicholas Cage, Mel Gibson, Matt Damon and others. Will Smith became part of that elite group a few years ago, which now has expanded to include such multi-ethnic talent as Vin Diesel, Jet Li and now "Transporter" star Jason Statham.

"The template is changing, and there's a decidedly different model for action stars now," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co.

The films tend to have a different sensibility than the typical American-made flick, Mr. Dergarabedian said, drawing in U.S. audiences and translating well overseas, a lucrative market for Hollywood.

The Motion Picture Association of America, in fact, this spring reported that foreign box office surpassed domestic for the third straight year. Hollywood's movies took in $9.54 billion in the U.S. and $15.7 billion in other countries.

Using less well-known talent has another business underpinning as well-actors like Mr. Statham are much more cost-effective for the studios. Based on stars' modest salaries, the overall film budget can be kept in check, where heavyweight actors like Mr. Cruise command top dollar plus profit participation.

Another thing to consider is that "young movie fans are tapped into Asian action flicks, from which American directors like Quentin Tarantino borrow liberally," said Tony Sella, co-president of marketing at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind "Transporter 2." "They want something original that doesn't look like every other movie."

Steve Chasman, a film producer and manager who represents Mr. Li and Mr. Statham, said young audiences have seen so many special effects that they crave authentic hand-to-hand combat. "Because of their physical skill, these guys are doing almost all the action themselves." Mr. Sella said Mr. Statham is "iconic and raw and credible."

The first "Transporter" brought in only about $25 million during its theatrical run in 2003. Audiences found it on DVD, however, spawning the sequel, which studio executives marketed heavily around Mr. Statham's physical prowess.

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