The 50-year-old former Rambo, whose tunnel disaster movie Daylight opened on Friday to predictably scathing reviews, said his conversion took place as he kept vigil during his infant daughter's heart surgery. "I said that if the baby would just be OK, I would change. I would do different kinds of movies. I would no longer play these guys with big muscles and shoulder- length hair blowing in the wind who run through burning flames and wipe out 200 heavily armed mercenaries with only a pistol."
Stallone plays a "humanistic" taxi driver-cum-emergency medical worker in Daylight, and is taking a big pay cut for his next movie. Meanwhile the 49-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger is making another effort at cuddly comedy in Jingle All The Way, which has just opened in Britain. But John Travolta, nobody's idea of an action man, is reported to have done an eight-picture deal that will earn him $130m (pounds 81m), which would make him the world's highest-paid actor. It crowns a comeback that started with his role in Pulp Fiction, for which he earned a mere $140,000, and is helping to prompt a typically Hollywood debate: where did all the action heroes go, and who is going to replace them?
Olivier Gruner, for one, would love to. In his latest film, Mercenary, he wipes out a roomful of seedy crooks, armed only with a pen and a credit card. The French former commando and kick-boxing champion's Gallic good looks, large shoulders and Mohawk haircut are being promoted by Avi Nesher, an Israeli veteran of the Yom Kippur war and maker of science-fiction and action films, mostly for television. "He - how shall I describe him - he's a very intense man, he is not as large as some of the previous super heroes, he's very quick, he's a great athlete," Mr Nesher said at the unprepossessing ground-floor office of his company, Mahagonny Pictures, which is some distance away from Hollywood on Beverly Boulevard. "There's something so realistic about the way he fights and handles weapons, he takes you back to the movies of your childhood."
But even Mr Nesher echoes what seems a common complaint: that action movies have lost their way since the heyday of the Rambo, Terminator and Die Hard series. Not just their greying stars but their man-with-a-gun plot-lines need an injection of younger blood. "I'm a great fan of them, but I had a tough time sitting through a lot of them in the last 10 years," he said. "They don't seem to be about characters and stories and issues, they seem to be about stunt men and pecs. It just really has worn thin." Stallone's last two pictures, Judge Dredd and Assassins, scored only lacklustre returns at the US box office, though these films typically collect most of their profits in overseas markets, particularly the Far East.
"Wanted: Actor to Take Action," ran a Los Angeles Times headline recently. There are many younger candidates, some of whom have delivered solidly macho performances, such as Nicholas Cage in The Rock, Wesley Snipes in Money Train and Keanu Reeves in Speed - though Reeves turned down $11m (pounds 6.8m) to appear in the sequel, saying he did not want to do back-to- back action movies. And that is the point. While producers might say none of the younger pretenders boasts the lethal larger-than-life qualities of a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone, they probably don't want to. Why restrict yourself to a fading genre?
Instead there are two new trends in popular movies: disaster epics on the one hand, such as the forthcoming Flood, and two rival volcano movies, and cultural extravaganzas on the other, from Romeo and Juliet to Portrait of a Lady and The English Patient.
"If you look at people who excite the younger audience," observed one Hollywood insider, "it's wet drips - like Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Christian Slater - being mobbed everywhere. These are all slightly hang- dog, small-penis kind of guys. Part of the publicity push for Bruce Willis and Stallone is that they are incredibly well-endowed testosterone figures. These new guys have never picked up a barbell in their life. It's a gentler, more foppish, younger thing.
"If you look at Speed, the girl drives the bus. Stallone would have said, 'Budge over, baby'."