July 10, 2002




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Lizard king
The Crocodile Hunter invades movie theaters.

By Cheryl Eddy

IN THE WORLD of wildlife television, there's no more distinctive character than Steve Irwin, Aussie star of Animal Planet's The Crocodile Hunter and its various spin-offs. Thanks to his caffeinated personality, colorful array of catchphrases, and in-your-face approach to some of the world's most menacing critters, Irwin – who's been in showbiz for 10 years and in the reptile biz all his life – is presently popular enough to warrant a range of merchandising that includes talking dolls and Valentines.

Irwin's latest venture, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, aims to combine Steve-o's real-life outback dalliances with a fictional narrative: a cranky croc swallows a top-secret satellite beacon, bringing stuffed-shirt CIA types – whom Irwin and his constant companion, wife Terri, mistakenly believe to be poachers – to the Irwins' wild turf, hell-bent on recovering their quarry by any means necessary. Far-fetched, sure, but the tale allows for Collision Course to give audiences what they presumably want – the television show on the big screen – and to avoid sticking nonactors Steve and Terri in awkward scenes with the rest of the cast (a deliberately unremarkable collection of unknowns, save a croc-hating rancher played by Magda Szubanski, also known as Mrs. Hoggett in the Babe movies). Collision Course actually functions as a Hunter episode-within-a-movie, as sequences with actors are intercut with documentary-style scenes of Steve and Terri, who address the camera directly and do their let's-jump-on-a-crocodile thing.

"In September 2000 we filmed all the really heavy croc stuff, then we built the story around it in 2001, and we finished it at the end of February this year," Steve explained on a recent visit with Terri to San Francisco. "We knew from the onset that we were never going to be able to get insurance [for the movie] for me to go out and jump on crocs, so we did all that first."

In person, Steve was startlingly identical to his on-camera persona, which may or may not actually be a persona, considering he was in full-on Croc Hunter mode (wide-eyed and full volume, in trademark khaki shorts ensemble) at nine in the morning at the cold, foggy San Francisco Zoo. Discussing Collision Course, he was a classic close talker, not afraid to grab the interviewer's arm or leg to emphasize a particular point.

It was easier, he said, to film the doc segments (with creepy costars like a rather large, hairy, bird-eating spider) than to shoot scenes that related to the made-up story. "There was this boat scene – I'm taking the boat from here to there," he said. "Here's 10 minutes in the movie, took 10 days. Take after take after take. It's like, 'Aw, crikey, you're killing me!' " Steve and Terri's appealing spontaneity was the reason longtime Crocodile Hunter producer (and Collision Course director) John Stainton steered the pair away from scripted dialogue. "We have no ambition to become Hollywood actors – we're wildlife crusaders with or without the camera," Steve said. "So we ad-libbed through the whole movie."

In the past Steve has fielded criticism – including one particularly unflattering 1997 portrait in Outside magazine – for chasing after animals chiefly for entertainment purposes. And one has to wonder exactly why he feels the need to ensnare, say, the most venomous snake on earth (he calls it "sweetheart") and dangle it mere inches from his face. But the Irwins insist that in their work the animals come first. "Under no circumstances would I ever take an animal beyond its stress threshold," Steve noted. "I don't give a rip about the movie – my focus is on that animal. These aren't animal actors – these crocs will kill and eat you. So stress is very important." Indeed.

Though its odd structure – half wildlife doc, half narrative – will work for kids and fans of the show, it remains to be seen whether the cheerfully hokey Collision Course will win over new fans. Still, the Irwins have high hopes that the film will help spread their pro-animal agenda. According to Steve, all of the profits from the film, the merchandising, and the television show go back into their conservation efforts. (Terri adds that the family makes a living off the visitors to their wildlife park, the Australia Zoo.) "When I talk to the camera, I'm talking to you," Steve said. "I want you to get excited about wildlife – and that message of conservation is going to rub off on you if you go see the movie." 'The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course' opens Fri/12 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.