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Tom Cruise plays a contract killer in "Collateral."
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/3/2004 10:37:50 PM ET 2004-08-04T02:37:50
COMMENTARY

You cringed in sympathy over his misadventures in “Risky Business.” You rooted for him in “Top Gun.” You hoped he would be redeemed in “Rain Man.” You wished he would find love and happiness in “Jerry Maguire.”

But in “Collateral,” you pray he never crosses your path.

Tom Cruise plays Vincent, a hit man with a full plate of assignments during one fateful Los Angeles evening. With his salt-and-pepper hair, shark-gray suit and merciless work ethic, Cruise makes you forget all of the other largely heroic characters he played before.

It’s a departure for him, but it isn’t as though he needed to make a bold move in order to resurrect a flagging career. It’s because Cruise is so entrenched as the world’s No. 1 movie star that he can veer off and take a risk. If it fails, it’s just a blip on his radar screen, because  a “Mission Impossible 3” is always right around the corner.

Actors who have carved out their niche with essentially good guy roles and then jolted their fans with a villainous part are a delight to watch, even if they’re not always successful. Before Cruise, there have been many. Some have a few of those image-busters peppered across their resumes. Others have only done it once or twice. Tom Hanks in “Road to Perdition” appears on the surface to be an example, since he played a hit man, but in that story he was still motivated by good intentions rather than malevolent ones.

Here are just a few good guys gone bad. Some of them were hailed as wildly successful, while others were met with a chorus of “What was he thinking?” Either way, you have to give them an E for effort. If an actor lives on a steady diet of sweet and wholesome characters, he runs the danger of making audiences nauseous:

Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West”
Director Sergio Leone and two friends who would go on to become directors themselves — Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento — worked up a fairly familiar story about a ruthless businessman who wants to buy up land in a town because he knows the railroad is coming through (shades of “Johnny Guitar”). This exquisite 1968 film, both an homage to the American Western as well as a stand-alone classic, is beautifully cast, with Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale and Jason Robards. But Fonda — who exuded decency in “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Mister Roberts” and many others — is chilling as Frank, the landowner’s hired hit man. Leone was always a fan of Fonda’s work, and finally had the money in the budget to lure him. After Fonda watched some of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” he was in. Fonda even kills a young boy early on with a steely blue stare and a wicked grin.

ACTOR DENZEL WASHINGTON IN THE FILM TRAINING DAY
Warner Bros.  /  Reuters file
Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington in “Training Day”
Although he has played characters who are layered and complicated — the attorney in “Philadelphia,” the father in “He Got Game” come to mind — usually they are men of good moral fiber. Not so in this 2001 crime thriller, directed by Antoine Fuqua, for which Denzel won an best actor Academy Award. He plays Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris, as charismatic as he is corrupt, as street-smart as he is sleazy. The idea was for Harris to train a young detective, played by Ethan Hawke, but by the end we see that Harris is a reprehensible con artist and has other ideas. The picture itself got mixed reviews, many calling it exploitative and borderline vile. But it’s a tribute to Washington’s colossal talent that he was able to single-handedly raise its stock with his Machiavellian antics.

Gregory Peck in “The Boys from Brazil”
If there is one role that captures his essence as the tall, dark, handsome and noble leading man, it’s as attorney Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for which he won his sole best actor Oscar, in 1963. Forty years later, the American Film Institute named Peck’s Finch the No. 1 hero of Hollywood’s first century, ahead of Indiana Jones and James Bond. Peck also honed his honest and dignified image in flicks like “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “The Guns of Navarone” and “Cape Fear.” But in 1987, he took a walk on the dark side, playing Dr. Josef Mengele, about as creepy and horrible a human as ever walked the earth, in a story about a plot to launch a Fourth Reich. Laurence Olivier, in a good-guy role as a Nazi hunter, got an Academy Award nomination.

Robert Redford in “Indecent Proposal”

ROBERT REDFORD AT SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
Fred Prouser  /  Reuters
Robert Redford
In 1982, he turned down the role that Paul Newman eventually played in “The Verdict” because he didn’t want to play a broken-down alcoholic. Indeed, Redford’s career is filled with roles in which he plays either a lovable rogue, as in “The Sting” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” or an outright hero as in “The Way We Were,” “Out of Africa” or “The Natural.” But Adrian Lyne’s sexual melodrama is the kind of film that makes you want to take a shower after you sit through it, and Redford’s John Gage is one of the main reasons. He plays a sleazy high roller in Las Vegas who offers a young couple (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) $1 million if he can sleep with the wife. Redford isn’t a full-fledged villain, relying more on his charm and subtle manipulations, but this is as close as he has ever strayed toward bad-guy turf.

Ronald Reagan in “The Killers”
This 1964 gangster film was based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and was directed by Don Siegel, who later did “Dirty Harry” and served as a mentor for Clint Eastwood.  It was also Reagan’s final film role — two years later he would be elected governor of California — and it marked the only time he played the heavy. He reportedly hated the film, which was made for television but got a theatrical release because of its violent content. In the film, Reagan uttered this immortal line: “I believe in larceny. Homicide is against my principles.” Ironically, that same year of 1964, on October 27, Reagan gave a speech on behalf of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that raked in more than $1 million in campaign contributions and served as a smashing political coming-out party for the Gipper.

Robin Williams in “Insomnia”

WILLIAMS
Roberto Pfeil  /  AP file
Robin Williams
This wasn’t his only role as a bad guy. You could make the argument that his Sy Parrish in “One Hour Photo” was a tad on the destructive side. But because of his lonely existence, that character invites some empathy. Not so with  Walter Finch in “Insomnia,” Christopher Nolan’s remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. In it, a New York detective played by Al Pacino tries to track down a killer, who turns out to be a reclusive writer played by Williams. Interestingly, both “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo” were released in 2002. (Then again, so was “Death to Smoochy.”) Williams had distinguished himself as a fine dramatic actor in pictures like “Dead Poets Society,” “Awakenings” and “The Fisher King.” But he went on an unfortunate tear with treacly dogs like “Patch Adams” and “Jakob the Liar.” His short villainous streak was obviously an attempt to wash off the syrup.

Frank Sinatra in “Suddenly”
The Chairman of the Board apparently had a thing for political assassinations. In 1954, eight years before “The Manchurian Candidate” would be released, Sinatra starred in this crime thriller about a group of killers who set up camp in a small town knowing the President of the United States will soon be passing through. But as opposed to “Manchurian,” in which Sinatra plays a tormented seeker of truth as the protagonist, here he is John Baron, a slightly whacked-out former World War II sniper and hired killer who takes over the home of Ellen Benson, a war widow and pacifist, and proceeds to menace her. It was his only real turn as pure villain. Hollywood legend has it that after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Sinatra had this pulled from circulation and tried to have all the prints destroyed.

Steve Martin in “The Spanish Prisoner”

ACTOR STEVE MARTIN TALKS ABOUT "THE PINK PANTHER" AT NEWS CONFERENCE IN NEW YORK
Jeff Christensen  /  Reuters
Steve Martin
He broke through in show business with sight gags like an arrow through his head and the phrase, “Excuuuse me!” Then he starred in broad comedies like “The Jerk” and “All of Me.” Later, he would segue into family pictures like “Parenthood,” “Father of the Bride” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” So he probably would be deemed an unlikely candidate for a sinister part in a David Mamet film. Martin plays Jimmy Dell, a wealthy and mysterious stranger who meets Campbell Scott’s Joe Ross and uses his persuasive powers to con him into a convoluted web of corporate intrigue. Martin is cold, slick, duplicitous and convincing. It wasn’t his only dramatic role — he was outstanding in “Grand Canyon” — but it’s the only character the buoyant Martin has played who has a bona fide heart of stone.

Harrison Ford in “What Lies Beneath”
When you think of Ford, what comes to mind? Certainly Indiana Jones. And Hans Solo. Jack Ryan in “Patriot Games.” Dr. Richard Kimble in “The Fugitive.” The President in “Air Force One.” Notice you don’t see Harrison delving into too many gray areas, let alone black. But in this 2000 mystery-thriller, directed by Robert Zemeckis, he plays Dr. Norman Spencer who is married to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Claire. There are supernatural elements involved, but basically Ford turns out to be a man with a dark and dangerous secret, and he aims to keep it that way. The picture was a critical and commercial disappointment, which is probably one of the reasons why Ford is signed on to “Indiana Jones 4.”

Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”

Matt Damon
Chris Polk  /  AP file
Matt Damon
This example might be considered somewhat problematic because Damon’s career doesn’t have a ton of credits, like the others, so it’s hard to pigeonhole him as a lifelong good guy. And he is the protagonist of the film, despite his homicidal ways. Still, it’s tough not to call the well-scrubbed, baby-faced Damon a bad guy after what he does to the characters played by Jude Law and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” portrays Damon’s Tom as a sympathetic sociopath, not an easy task. But when compared against many of Damon’s other noteworthy roles in movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and the two “Bourne” releases, his Tom Ripley looks every bit as “bad” on his resume’ as Frank does on Henry Fonda’s.

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