McNulty, Spartans and The Merry Gentleman

Blog by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 06 Dec 2009

The arrival of a DVD from Lovefilm always promises a surprise in our house. What film will we be watching tonight? The sense of mystery is in part due to Lovefilm's close-your-eyes-and-stick-a-pin-in-anywhere-so-long-as-it's-near-the-bottom technique for selecting from our rental list, but is also a result of sharing that list with my better half. Our attempts to keep it updated are sporadic, uncoordinated and subject to passing, quickly forgotten whims. This has led to many arguments over who is responsible for a particular film turning up. But the arrival the other day of 300, the garish, violent film of the Spartans battling the Persians at Thermopylae, left us completely nonplussed. I was sure I hadn't ordered it and my wife claimed never to have heard of it. The mystery was only solved when, ten minutes into the film, there he was: McNulty, the priapic hobgoblin of the Baltimore police department, dressed in a toga. I looked at my wife: “You ordered this, didn't you?”. She nodded shamefacedly.

For those of you that have been away (very far away) I should explain. By McNulty, I mean Dominic West, the actor who plays Detective Jimmy McNulty in the The Wire. Like so many others, having burned her way through the box sets of the U.S. series last year, my wife has spent the time since mournfully trying to fill a The Wire-shaped hole in her life. This has included trawling the net for trivia and ploughing her way through David Simon's two breeze-block sized books, The Corner and Homicide. But mostly it has involved tracking down and watching any film that has one of the key actors from the series in it. Hence the arrival of 300.

All this started me thinking. I have long tended towards the Hitchcockian view of actors – so long as they say their lines clearly and don't bump into the furniture I don't give them much further thought. I rarely go to see a film on the strength of an actor's presence alone. Yet, of course, this is crazy. An actor's performance animates the bare bones of a film script as much as the camera or the direction. And while a poor performance does not necessarily scupper a film, a great one can transform an average film into something special. I remember eagerly awaiting the release of Eastern Promises because it promised another collaboration between David Cronenburg and Viggo Mortensen after the fantastic A History of Violence. And while I enjoyed the later film, on reflection I realised that it was actually a pretty ordinary gangster movie whose shortcomings were concealed by the muscular, towering performance of Mortensen (soon to return to the screens in The Road). He is an actor who could get me to watch anything. Well, almost anything. As long as there are no hobbits.

But it doesn't always have to be mumbling, massive weight loss and other such method madness (take a bow Christian Bale). Watching this week's release, The Merry Gentleman, I was surprised by how happy I was to see the thinly arched eyebrows and puckered lips of Michael Keaton. It was like running into an old friend who'd been away for a while. Keaton's career has often seemed like a slow withdrawal; from the motormouth of Night Shift and Beetlejuice, through his turn as the taciturn Batman, to his character role as Detective Ray Nicolette in the Elmore Leonard adaptations Jackie Brown and Out of Sight. This arc has been completed in this latest, self-directed film where he plays a contract killer who is reticent to the point of being comatose.

So, which actors would make you watch any film, whether it be good, bad or indifferent? Is it Bill Murray, whose ability to drag a laugh out of even the most woeful material (Scrooged, anyone?) verges on the uncanny? Or, speaking of uncanny, is it Nicole Kidman in spite of her supernatural ability to star in one complete dud after another?