Friday, July 10, 2009

"Lets worry about it in paradise"

Satan - yeah, you know the guy, he also goes under the names Beelzebub and Lucifer, and often the very impressive definitely articled "The Devil" - is more or less the hero of John Milton's Epic 1667 poem "Paradise Lost". Well, ok, he isn't quite the hero in the traditional sense. But he is the protagonist for the first few books, and Milton chooses to tell his "story" from Satan's point of view, meaning that Satan is an empathetic character, somewhat humanised and sympathetic. William Blake famously said that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it". Satan is definitely the most active character in the narrative of the poem, driving the action onward, and this alone makes him an attractive figure. As does the suspicion - encouraged subtly by Milton - that Satan is merely rebelling against an unjust God, whose characterisation is generic and shallow by comparison. Of course Milton makes Satan an unreliable narrator - he is Satan, after all - and so our admiration for him or sympathies are always conflicted, always qualified. He undermines himself by his very nature.

Some actors will play a bad guy that way. Like they can't help themselves, like they think its their movie - they will play the bad guy as if he is the lead role. Its arguably the way all bad guy parts should be played. Its a sign of a brave, confident actor. An actor who should be a Leading Man.

SWAT (2003) is a big budget B-movie with a decent cast, some solid action sequences and a great bad guy. That bad guy would be called Brian Gamble and hes played by one Jeremy Renner.
His bad guy starts out as a good guy with a little bad in him. He's a SWAT team member, but his recklessness gets himself and his partner Jim Street (Colin Farrell) in trouble, they fall out over it, and he quits. Theres a lot of homo-erotic posturing, face to face intensity and leering in their first confrontation. The dialogue sounds like something from a lover's tiff ("Partners for five years and thats how you want to end it?" "Oh, I didn't end it.") and the two actors play it as if its Shakespeare, all raging emotions and raw nerves. It feels like the actors are battling for the film. Its that sort of film - full of big masculine presences, the dialogue generally closer to locker room banter than witty repartee. Samuel L Jackson strolls through on autopilot, Olivier Martinez plays a stock Eurotrash villain, Michelle Rodriguez does her usual tomboy schtick, and LL Cool J gets a few laughs from some bad lines. Its not the best script David Ayer ever wrote, and thats part of Renner's triumph. He makes Gamble register as a vivid character without much to go on. Its all in his face, the near-constant smirk only replaced by a cold aggression, the almost demonic tilt of his eyebrows; in the cocky set of his shoulders, in the sense of competition between him and Street.

Farrell was the hottest young actor in Hollywood at the time and this was his first fully fledged Summer movie. But Renner, who had made an impression in a Jeffrey Dahmer biopic a few years before, knew a good chance when he saw it. He steals every scene hes in, from his introduction, shooting a hole in a hostage to kill a bank-robber ("I saved a hostage" he explains) to his final fight scene with Farrell. And he plays it all as if Gamble is the lead, as if this is his story and Street is just a supporting character. Gamble is almost sympathetic - his career destroyed by bureaucrats at the start, he is forced into crime. It is only his evident delight in it and Street's righteousness that places him so squarely as the villain.

I came away from SWAT wondering who Jeremy Renner was, since he is plainly the best thing in it. Apart from Dahmer (2002), he had enjoyed only small parts on tv and in movies, but after SWAT he started popping up in bigger films and capturing key parts in US Indies. He was great as the most classically heroic character in 28 Weeks Later (2007), retaining just enough of the no-shit attitude from SWAT, and also great, in a more muted, subtle fashion in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). But there is the suspicion that stardom will elude him. He seems too interesting, too interested in exploring his options. Not many hunky leading men get to play a real life Serial Killer so early in their careers, and it does seem to have set the tone for him to a certain extent. This despite the massive buzz surrounding his latest film at its recent release in America.

Director Kathryn Bigelow had Renner in mind for The Hurt Locker from the moment she saw his work in Dahmer. And her film has been, alongside Gregg Mottola's Adventureland, perhaps the best received American film of the year so far in the US. Oscar nominations are mooted, critical acclaim has been near-unanimous, and only a low-key release has prevented it from making more money than it has to this point. Renner has drawn raves, at the same time as he has seemed to take something of a sideways step, playing a part on TV in the ensemble Cop Show, The Unusuals.
But even if Renner never makes that step up to actual stardom, it is good to know that he can attract big parts in movies by good directors, based on nothing more than his talent. And Bigelow is a very good director, even if the relative disappointments of her last two films, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) and The Weight of Water (2000) did a good job of suggesting otherwise. The Hurt Locker, an action drama about a bomb disposal unit on duty in Iraq, seems the perfect marriage of director and material, and in Renner it has a great leading man.

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