The Crocodile Hunter takes a bite out of Hollywood


Steve Irwin may fondle deadly vipers and wrestle renegade crocodiles every day, but the beast he fears most is no reptile at all. "Humans!" he cries in his still-cheery Aussie pitch. "The scariest animal on the planet. The only animal that is destroying habitat at such a great rate."

So modern man is the creature Irwin -- better known to fans as the Crocodile Hunter -- is really fighting as he rolls in the mud with all the claws and the teeth snapping about him. It's not that he thinks people are unpleasant, really, it's just that they seem to know so little about the flora and fauna around them. With his first feature film Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course opening July 12, he hopes to conquer his fans with a message of conservation and armchair zoology.

The action-documentary hybrid pits Irwin in an accidental battle of wills against suits in the U.S. government after he mistakes the secret agents for dastardly wildlife poachers (an easy mistake these days, no doubt). Between all the hijinks that ensue as he struggles to rescue crocodiles from the errant arm of the law, there are of course wrestling matches and sneak-up shots with reptiles of all sorts.

"This film is so much action and adrenaline and fun," Irwin beams. "When you go there, mate, you're going to hafta sleep for three days afterward!"

Much of the adrenaline presumably comes from the documentary-style animal scenes familiar to fans of Irwin's hit TV show on Animal Planet. Indeed, for most viewers and fans his main claim to fame comes from wearing his trademark khaki shorts as he crouches behind enormous, ominous snakes and whispers: "Ain't she a beaut!" Shooting on these wildlife scenes began in September 2000, and the story of the film (you know -- actors, plot, and scripted dialogue) were added a full year later.

"I have to keep the camera crew alive," Irwin said, explaining the shooting schedule. "When you're working with predators that have the ability to rip your arm off in one-millionth of a second, you don't think about anything else."

Perhaps it's this constant occupational danger that has provided him with that cherished hallmark of true celebrity -- the persistent rumor that he is, of all things, dead. Mainly an Internet phenomenon, the "Steve Irwin Just Died" movement seems to resurface every few months with an added urgency. First there were the rumors of snakebite. Then it was a drug overdose, or a crocodile, maybe a venomous spider. Finally, the word was out that a beetle had crawled into Irwin's ear and munched on his brain.

"That may have happened, but it didn't kill me," he jokes. The rumors, though, tend to strengthen his resolve to keep crawling the swamps. "I can't let a croc kill me ... crikey!" he says, using his celebrated catch phrase. "If I got killed by a croc, all these people would be saying, 'Well, we knew a croc'd kill ya, mate!'"

The reptilian fever you see in his wide eyes runs in his family -- Irwin's parents were noted zoologists and conservationists in Australia, and it was his early admiration of his father's exploits that first led him to jump into the snake pit. Nowadays, he's a father himself to Bindi Sue Irwin, who will turn 4 this month, and he can't wait to see her take on the crocs.

"My dad was my hero, and it looks like Bindi is doing the same thing," he says. It's pretty likely that she will inherit Irwin's special animal communication skills, dubbed "the Force." After all, it sounds pretty simple on paper: "I try to communicate with crocs; they just try to kill me."

The method to Irwin's madness, though, is to serve as what he calls a "wildlife warrior." A cross between Tarzan and Smokey the Bear, Irwin hopes his television and film work will educate the masses and create a more livable Earth. "I'm not turning myself into a superhero -- I probably already am one," he says brazenly, laughing.

Then the Crocodile Hunter takes over: "Ah, just kiddin' ya, mate." end story

Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course opens in theatres on Friday. See Film Listings for preview.

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