By Ronald Grover
Want to know real star power is? The ability to raise the dead -- and Vin Diesel has it. Thanks to the success of his latest film, the pyrotechnic-laced XXX, the muscle-bound action star has breathed new life into Knockaround Guys, which had long been left for roadkill.
This flick has Diesel playing one of four Brooklyn-born sons of mobsters who brawl their way through a small Montana town as they try to retrieve a suitcase full of cash. The movie has been gathering dust for nearly two years, consigned to Hollywood Hell by New Line Cinema. Of course, that was before Diesel hit it big with the 2001 summer blockbuster The Fast and the Furious and developed an avid following among the under-30 crowd. With XXX -- which has pulled in more than $140 million at the box office -- proving that Diesel is no one-hit wonder, New Line has resurrected Knockaround Guys for an Oct. 11 release.
Studio executives took a pass this week when I asked them about the film, having done a quickie interview with the Hollywood Reporter in August when buzz first started to build about XXX. Domestic marketing chief Russell Schwartz told the Reporter that folks at New Line knew all along about Knockaround's potential. "It was never an issue of not releasing the movie but when to release it," he said. Maybe so. But it always seems to be a good time to release a film when it's tied to a white-hot superstar.
That wasn't the case in January, 2001, when Knockaround was initially scheduled for release. Back then, it was the story that was hot. Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the duo who wrote Rounders for Miramax, the script was the subject of a bidding war that New Line eventually won in 1998 for a cool $1 million. The big casting catch was John Malkovich, who signed on in 1999 to play Teddy, one of the older mobsters. A lesser catch -- but still several levels above the other leading men -- was Dennis Hopper.
Diesel was just one of the up-and-comers signed to play a hoodlum wannabe. Also in the cast are Barry Pepper, who like Diesel was a bit player in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (Pepper played a bible-quotting sharpshooter). Another Knockaround Guy is Seth Green, who had been cast -- but cut -- from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Green does have some following after playing Dr. Evil's son in the Austin Powers trio of movies). All in all, Knockaround Guys was made for a modest $20 million -- Diesel's salary for the XXX sequel that's scheduled to be released in 2004.
Knockaround Guys sure got knocked around on the way to the local multiplex. It was initially scheduled to be released in January, 2001, but the studio yanked it after releasing a blizzard of bombs like the Adam Sandler stinker Little Nicky. At about the same time, New Line said adios to production chief Michael De Luca, who left to join Dreamworks. Soon, marketing folks were heading for the doors as well, and Knockaround Guys was put on the shelf, where it could have stayed indefinitely.
Now, with Diesel a hot commodity, the film looks like a nice bonus for AOL Time Warner, the New Line parent company that's being hobbled these days by everything from accounting problems to limp Internet ad sales. New Line is putting the flick into 1,800 theaters, a fairly strong send-off for a two-year old film. And the studio is pulling out every marketing gun it owns, littering the airwaves with commercials on NBC's Thursday-night lineup, National Football League games, and just about any place where 20-somethings congregate around a TV.
It needed all those commercials because its hottest star doesn't have much time to hit the talk-show circuit. None of the headliners, other than Hopper, could make New Line's recent press junket at a Los Angeles restaurant. Diesel was in Europe rehearsing for his next film, a sequel to his 2000 movie Pitch Black. He did fly in for the New York premiere of Knockaround Guys but didn't stay around to chat with David Letterman, let alone make it to the Coast to talk with Jay Leno. Oh, but Barry Popper did a couple of radio interviews.
What New Line may have going for it -- in addition to Diesel, of course -- is a lack of much else to see. Knockaround Guys opens against the Adam Sandler romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, Madonna's much-panned remake of Swept Away, and the kiddie film Pokemon 4Ever. About the only action flick is Fox's The Transporter. The difference is that The Transporter doesn't have Diesel. And New Line execs now clearly think that having Diesel these days makes all the difference.
Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell