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Kevin Costner Full Employment Act

[My column in the Sunday magazine.]

I flew cross-country on United out of Dulles on the eve of the fifth anniversary of 9/11, and to make sure everyone was feeling safe and relaxed, the airline showed the disaster movie "Poseidon." It's about people trapped in a doomed vessel.

The movie stars Kurt Russell and that guy who looks kind of like Matthew McConaughey but is someone else entirely. There's some perfunctory character development, and then a 150-foot wave flips the ship arse over elbows.

For the rest of the film, the actors crawl and leap and wriggle and splash their way through various elevator shafts and ventilation ducts and propeller tubes. It's a chaotic, claustrophobic, supremely wet movie. Eventually, a few intrepid souls make it to a lifeboat, and the movie abruptly and mercifully is over.

Officially, "Poseidon" is a "disaster" movie, but the presence of Russell, as an over-the-hill firefighter, allows it to overlap with another genre that seems to be popular on airplanes: Aging Stud in Trouble.

Among Hollywood insiders, this probably has a different name, such as the Kevin Costner Full Employment Act.

The hero of the movie is a macho guy who's rumored to be past his prime. No one believes in him anymore. Younger colleagues covet his job. He drinks too much. His love life is a shambles. Worst of all, a lot of people want to kill him.

He is, in short, the personification of middle management.

This is a character who resonates in the coach cabin. Your average jetliner is full of graying boomers who quite logically fear their professional obsolescence and their physical senescence. They're wedged into a middle seat, trying to make numbers look good on a spreadsheet even as their laptop battery is dying. Universally, they feel underappreciated. They have learned enough to sense their limits, and to suspect that the narrative of their life is not going to be the box office blockbuster they once dreamed it would be. But they retain a faint, feeble fantasy of being The Man. And so they think: What would [Aging Action Hero] do?

And right there, on the little screen that drops down from the ceiling of the aircraft, they get to see -- assuming they flew United westbound in recent weeks -- Michael Douglas huff and puff his way through "The Sentinel." It's about a Secret Service agent who once took a bullet for the president, but never quite got the top jobs he wanted, and is now being framed as an assassin himself. His colleagues at work, including his protege, the Young Stud Kiefer Sutherland, want to track him down and kill him. Douglas pants and wheezes and stumbles along, but eventually his guile sees him through, and he's a hero again.

Bruce Willis is the Aging Stud in "16 Blocks" -- another movie I saw recently on United somewhere over middle America. He's a cop who is trying to get a witness to a courthouse to testify in a police corruption scandal. Bruce is balding, exhausted and injured, and his best friends on the force are, in keeping with the formula, trying to hunt him down and kill him. Hate to spoil the ending, but: He perseveres!

The list of crinkly, crusty Hollywood studs with expanding waistlines goes on and on. Check out Harrison Ford in "Firewall" or Costner in "The Guardian."

There's a glaring double standard in Hollywood for actors older than 40. Studio executives who green-light movies tend to be Aging Studs, and that may be one reason that, if you're male and have had some box office success, you can keep on getting leading-man roles into your sixties (Ford) or seventies (Clint Eastwood). If you're female, you're lucky to get a spot on "The Hollywood Squares."

But even the graybeard action heroes have problems. Their movies are rarely hits. You see their films on airplanes and can't recall them being in the theater. If you're Sly Stallone or Costner, you haven't had a hit in years. Meanwhile the studios want to produce movies that have the pacing of video games. The market is skewed toward the tastes of 13-year-old boys. The old actors have to chase after bad guys and leap over fences and dodge bullets, but you can see them gasping for air. They're hanging on for dear life.

And the Hollywood scriptwriting formula is brutal in the end. Aging Studs don't have the storybook protections of younger stars. Ultimately, as in life, the old star may be compelled to clear the way for a younger version of himself.

And so as much as we want likable ol' Kurt Russell to climb out of that sinking ship, we see those other young studs beside him -- and we have a pretty good hunch who's not going to make it.

By Joel Achenbach  |  October 7, 2006; 4:37 PM ET
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