Were you anxiously awaiting the conclusion of my Wesley Snipes two-parter on Tuesday? Did you have to take anti-anxiety medication when it didn’t appear? It’s not my fault you’re a pill popper, of course, but I do apologize for taking away the one thing that kept you from going off the deep end on Tuesday. Or Wednesday morning. See, here was the problem — in the past few weeks I got into a bad habit of meeting my 8:30 AM Tuesday-morning deadline at 2 AM Wednesday morning.
So here we are on Sundays. To mark the occasion, here’s a clip from one of my favorite TV shows, which made a similar time-slot change on April 2, 1989. The show was canceled a few weeks later, but don’t be superstitious. Do expect a write-up of a certain singer who’s mentioned in the clip sometime soon, though.
Now, last week I talked about the birthday present I gave my lawyer/friend Dave-o: a some-expenses-paid trip to Wesley Snipes’s tax protest trial in Ocala, Florida. Taking a lawyer to a trial he has nothing to do with during his birthday week may sound strange, like going camping with a fireman and then setting the woods ablaze in his honor, but Dave-o really does enjoy attending trials in his spare time. Especially celebrity trials.
He explained it to me this way: “Robert, you were in a little-seen movie called Common Senses, which is currently available on Netflix and perfect for a weekend rental. Don’t you like to attend little-seen movies when you’re not appearing in them for three minutes?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m claustrophobic and agoraphobic.”
“I said ‘little-seen movies.’ Like, maybe ten people in the entire theater. Plenty of room to spread out.”
Well, when you put it that way, sure …
Aside from Blade II (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004), Wesley Snipes has been in plenty of little-seen movies himself the past eight years, and even Blade: Trinity was a box office disappointment compared to the first two. Of the six films he’s made since Blade: Trinity, five have gone straight to video, and the sixth, Chaos, had its world premiere in the United Arab Emirates in December 2005, according to IMDB.com, before getting a belated U.S. release in April of last year.
ZigZag (2002) is the last film Snipes made that couldn’t be classified as an action film or thriller of some sort, but back in the early ’90s he jumped genres with ease, which made him an interesting actor to watch. He had charisma to burn, and he stood out in supporting roles in films like Major League (1989) and Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and the video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad” (1987), directed by Martin Scorsese. Snipes also had enough range and star power to pull off lead roles in the neo-blaxploitation film New Jack City (1991), Spike Lee’s drama Jungle Fever (1991), and the comedy White Men Can’t Jump (1992), which is still a favorite of mine because of the easy chemistry between Snipes and costar Woody Harrelson. (They reteamed with less critical and commercial success in 1995’s Money Train, which also starred celebrity-trial veteran Robert Blake.)
Snipes handled comedy and drama equally well — he was also good as a paraplegic in 1992’s The Waterdance — and when he started appearing in action movies like Passenger 57 (1992) and high-profile adaptations like Rising Sun (1993), it looked like there was nothing he couldn’t do. I just wondered when he’d get his first Oscar nomination.
Unfortunately, 1993 marked a turning point, and I’m going to lay the blame on Demolition Man. A futuristic action film in which Snipes had blond hair, wore colored contacts, and blew lots of stuff up as a psychotic bad guy, it costarred Sylvester Stallone as the good guy and was produced by Joel Silver (the Lethal Weapon and Matrix series and the first two Die Hards), who had an admirable track record in the ’80s and ’90s making action films in which lots of stuff is blown up. I saw Demolition Man on opening day, October 8, 1993, and though I still had a craving for Silver’s action extravaganzas by the end of high school, even I could tell that this was no Die Hard. It wasn’t even up to Lethal Weapon 3‘s lowered standards. It felt like a movie Snipes agreed to do because his agent told him it was in his best interests in the long run: ignore the script and cash the check and better opportunities will come along after this one becomes a hit.
Like many of Stallone’s movies, Demolition Man did better in foreign markets than it did in the U.S. And as Snipes said in the December 21 issue of Entertainment Weekly when asked about his recent string of DVD-only releases, “Internationally, I have as large of a fan base — if not larger — than I have domestically. So, on one hand, people go, ‘Oh, he’s doing DVDs! Too bad!’ But on the other hand, it’s constantly building up my foreign-market value.”
That’s certainly one way of looking at it.
Speaking of the Entertainment Weekly article by Chris Nashawaty, it begins with this paragraph:
Ten years ago, it was hard to be a bigger star than Wesley Snipes was. The Bronx-bred actor with the brooding good looks and the menacing physicality to back them up was routinely earning between $7 and $10 million per film. He was costarring with A-list actors like Robert De Niro and Sean Connery. And his movies were making money hand over fist. New Jack City. Jungle Fever. White Men Can’t Jump. Passenger 57. Rising Sun. Waiting to Exhale. By the time he donned a black leather coat and dark sunglasses to play a half-human, half-vampire avenger in 1998’s Blade, Snipes wasn’t just one of the most popular African-American actors in Hollywood; he was fast becoming one of its biggest stars, period.
Ten years ago there were plenty of stars bigger than Snipes. Seven to ten million per film wasn’t that spectacular in ’97 compared to the $20 million paychecks earned by Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Jim Carrey, and the future governor of California. But I don’t think Snipes was cheated out of bigger paychecks just because he wasn’t white. “Making money hand over fist” is an exaggeration even for films like Rising Sun, which made $63 million, or White Men Can’t Jump, which earned $76 million. Waiting to Exhale (1995) brought in $67 million, but it was a “chick flick” in which Snipes had an uncredited supporting role, so it’s hard to argue that he was responsible for its success or even benefited from it.
Race was a factor in how much Snipes earned per film, however, in the sense that black teens may have flocked to New Jack City and black adults may have been the main audience for Jungle Fever, but because those films didn’t really cross over to white audiences — and because Snipes never headlined a $100 million blockbuster even in his box office prime (Blade II came closest, with $82 million) — studios had no reason to pay him $20 million. In the ’80s a comedy star like Bill Murray never earned as much as an action star like Stallone because language- and culture-specific comedies don’t translate as well as visually oriented action movies in those foreign markets Snipes is so proud of infiltrating.
Snipes says race was a negative factor when, in 2005, he sued New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Blade trilogy, as well as Blade: Trinity director David S. Goyer and the film’s producers (all except Snipes himself, naturally). He claimed that his role in the third installment was reduced in order to feature new costars Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds, that he wasn’t paid his full $13 million salary, and that he wasn’t consulted on the film’s casting, its screenplay, or even the choice of director, although Goyer wrote all three Blade films and had previously directed Snipes in ZigZag. Snipes says in Entertainment Weekly that “systematic racism was used to divert focus away from the real issues of an incompetent director and inexperienced producers with a $60 million budget and onto the ‘insubordinate, difficult, self-immersed actor’ … We’re conditioned in this country to believe that if there’s a problem, the black man is usually the culprit.” (If you’re interested in hearing another side of the Blade: Trinity story, click here.)
Back to Nashawaty’s opening paragraph: I don’t know about other Snipes fans, but I felt that by 1997, when he was starring in underwhelming action-suspense films like Murder at 1600 and mediocre romantic dramas like Mike Figgis’s One Night Stand, he didn’t have the same kind of energy or creative drive that he had in the first half of the ’90s. By the time Blade came out and Snipes was doing promotional interviews in his character’s costume and sunglasses, I wasn’t thinking, “Wesley Snipes is becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, period.” I was thinking, “He used to be a contender.”
While I was on a “study abroad” trip to London in the summer of ’97 I read a British magazine’s interview with Snipes, in which he was asked why he had been doing more and more action movies in recent years. Snipes replied that he was offered more of those films than any other kind. And that’s why I blame Demolition Man for demolishing Snipes’s promising career, dammit.
Of course, he’s not the first actor to experience success in one genre and then feel limited in what studios will allow him to do in other genres, but sometimes I think movie stars limit themselves just as much as, if not more than, studios or fans’ expectations do. Harrison Ford, for instance, was offered the role that Michael Douglas eventually played in Traffic (2000); he also turned down the role in Syriana (2005) that earned George Clooney a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Stephen Gaghan wrote both movies and directed Syriana as well. Stephen, you will never get Harrison in bed. Let it go.
Ford said he later regretted not taking the role of Bob Barnes in Syriana but that he had problems with the script when he first read it. But you didn’t have any problems with Firewall, the action film you made instead of Syriana? I still haven’t seen either film, so I can’t say if one’s better than the other, but c’mon, Harrison! You used to care, man.
Ford may make up for lost time with this summer’s Crossing Over, a drama about immigration that’s scheduled to come out a few weeks after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I respect that he doesn’t go after Oscar bait, at least not since the days of Regarding Henry (1991), but at the same time I want all the movie idols of my youth to live up to their full potential. They might reply, “Why don’t you live up to your full potential, Robert?” To which I would respond, “Get your own Popdose column.”
I said this would be a two-parter, didn’t I? I lied. Come back next week for the conclusion of this trinity — I mean, trilogy. And somewhere in between I’ll talk about Al Jarreau if I can find the time. Wait, scratch that — I will find the time to talk about Al Jarreau. My full potential depends on it.