Jack the Knife

Texas' Jack Crain helps Hollywood's heroes slice and dice the bad guys

There's a modern cliche that it takes only three or four phone calls to get in touch with anyone in the world. But trying to contact action-film mogul Joel Silver for comment on Jack Crain, the Weatherford knifemaker whose career in action movies he singlehandedly created, repudiates it handily.

The gazillionaire producer--currently ensconced in a bungalow on the premises of the Warner Bros. studio lot in suburban Los Angeles, where his self-named production company has its headquarters--is one of the most feared, admired, and sought-after men in the industry. His big-budget, technology-laden action pictures, which include the Die Hard and Predator films and a half-dozen Arnold Schwarzenegger epics, have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide.

Silver's orbiting protective force field of underlings reflects this fact: even his assistants have assistants. But no matter where you get transferred at Silver Pictures, chances are the flunky at the other end of the line has heard of Jack Crain. And he or she is well aware of how highly Silver, who owns several examples of Crain's work, values this obscure Texas craftsman.

"You're doing an article on Jack Crain?" asks a young assistant to Silver. "Funny. You know, I'm sitting here looking at some of his work right now. Joel loves that guy. He mentions his name a lot. Jack Crain this, Jack Crain that."

The harried Silver, who's finally snagged for a few moments of conversation after two months of long-distance pursuit, says with evident affection, "Jack and I have been great together. He has an incredible design sense, he works really quickly, he adapts his work to enhance whatever the storyline might be about, he makes knives that look fresh and different, and...ehhhh...I guess probably the best way to say it is that Jack Crain's knives just look really, really cool."

Cut to a wet fall day in Weatherford, Texas, a rural town situated a blink or two beyond the area's low-rent thoroughbred and quarterhorse racetrack, Trinity Meadows.

Jack Crain, self-described "weapons master," stands beside a workbench that holds an assortment of the most gorgeous, elaborate, and frightening weapons you've ever seen--daggers, hunting blades, gigantic combat knives and even larger broadswords, sheathed in leather scabbards festooned with straps and belts and buckles.

"You might recognize this one from the first Predator movie," drawls Crain, displaying a combat knife of hilariously phallic shape and fantastically overscaled proportions, so huge and heavy it looks more like a machete from Mars than a useful military blade. "Arnold Schwarzenegger pinned a guy to a post with it and told him to 'stick around.'"

Crain, 48, is a tall, chunky, bespectacled man with a wild halo of unkempt brown hair, an aw-shucks West Texas accent, and blunt-fingered hands covered in grime, knotted with muscles and veins and peppered with scars from accidental cuts, both old and new. As he unsheathes the weapons one by one, offering a brief description of each, he beams like a proud parent.

There's a broadsword made of stainless steel, with a bronze crosspiece carved to evoke the talons of a prehistoric beast. Next is a ritual dagger forged in serpentine shape, like a steel water moccasin streaking toward its prey, fashioned from 512 layers of micron-thin steel. Then Crain shows a knife cut in a geometric pattern and fitted with an amber handle; it is inscribed with Celtic runes that invoke a blessing on any warrior who uses the weapon to defend himself.

You've probably never heard Crain's name before now. But if you're a fan of action movies, you've seen his handiwork showcased onscreen.

He first edged into Hollywood feature work with the help of producer Joel Silver, who encouraged Crain to design custom blades for one of his earliest big-budget action pictures, the 1985 Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando. Crain designed the monster combat knife with which the Austrian Oak ventilates the throats and torsos of various swarthy foes.

The assignment marked the start of a series of starring roles for Crain's knives in the films of Silver and other action moguls. In the past decade, Crain's work has been featured in both Die Hard movies, both Predators, and Roadhouse, Action Jackson, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, Demolition Man, and various TV series, including "Airwolf," "War of the Worlds," and "Walker, Texas Ranger." The press kits that accompany these films all bear the same simple phrase: "Knives designed by Jack W. Crain of Weatherford, Texas."

Crain also makes duplicates of his movie knives for use in close-quarters fight scenes. They come in a variety of forms: metal with unsharpened edges, replicas made of plastic and hard styrofoam, and wooden versions for filming in water environments, so that if actors drop them the weapons won't sink and be lost.

For scenes in which actors appear with knives stuck in their flesh, Crain provides rubber duplicates with blades that stop at the halfway point. And because some of his creations are so large that a person of ordinary strength can't easily lift them one-handed, Crain sometimes offers actors duplicate blades crafted from aircraft-grade aluminum, which is one third as heavy as stainless steel. (In the TV movie "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues," sixtysomething martial artist David Carradine fought with a lightweight duplicate of the enormous Bowie knife Crain made for him because he couldn't heft the real one without grunting.)

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