There’s a seeming contradiction in playing a tough guy in the movies. Acting is about revealing something while toughness is about revealing nothing, so how do you reveal something about a character whose goal is to reveal nothing? This dilemma has stunted more than a few careers and bored more than a few audiences.
At the moment, thankfully, there’s a host of dramatic actors who can do it better than anyone, and they’re in the midst of a kind of elaborate square dance, changing partners round and round. So Clive Owen faces down Denzel Washington in “Inside Man” and Denzel goes mano a mano with Russell Crowe in “American Gangster,” just after Russell takes the measure of Christian Bale in “3:10 to Yuma.” Off in the corner, there’s Tommy Lee Jones tracking down Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men,” while Daniel Craig, recalling a better Steve McQueen, is the evening’s wallflower: unpartnered for the moment.
Great actors can portray anything, of course, but these guys seem to have their own inner toughness. One of the better lines in a recent Academy Awards speech belonged to producer Douglas Wick, who, upon accepting the best picture Oscar for “Gladiator,” thanked Russell Crowe, adding, “You filled a whole arena with the force of your face.”
That’s it, isn’t it? The shallow among us (and in us) think toughness is all about pecs and biceps, but it’s really in the face and the eyes and the voice. These guys have a stillness about them, and an intensity behind the stillness. “You have to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once said of poetry, and the same is true here. Those ’80s action-heroes — Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, Segal — revealed nothing but held back nothing. They were empty vessels, which is why they were perfectly cast as robots. Actors like Crowe and Washington? They seem to be holding back the world.
The children of Lee MarvinConsider them the children of Lee Marvin. There were movie tough guys before Marvin — from the quick-talking, rat-a-tat gangsters of the 1930s (James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni) to the laconic, amused swagger of John Wayne in the 1940s to those epic chin battles between Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the 1950s — but Marvin added his own ironic elements.
When he shifted from villain to anti-hero, in movies like “The Killers” and “Point Blank,” he actually became more dangerous. His villains sometimes stomped and yelled but his anti-heroes talked with a calm matter-of-factness, sometimes even a faux friendliness that was truly frightening. His small smile almost always meant the opposite. He used the mere suggestion of his will to get people to do what he wanted. Method actors emoted all around him while he toned it down to the bare essentials.
With the current crop, you can track them from the level of intensity they give off, and —no surprise — it tracks from youth to maturity.
On the youthful end you have Daniel Craig, 39, who played the baddest of the Mossad agents in “Munich,” then almost ate Toby Jones alive in “Infamous,” but he’s best known for “Casino Royale” in which he threw away James Bond’s relaxed demeanor in favor of a young man trying to impose his will upon the world.
Christian Bale, 33, is equally intense but less of a straight line. He can play tough from either side of the tracks — yuppie killers in “American Psycho” and “Shaft,” working class bullies in “Harsh Times” and “The Prestige” — but either way there seems to be something off-kilter about him. His intensity is loopy, spacey, whether he’s Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins” or Dieter in “Rescue Dawn.” His Dan Evans in “3:10 to Yuma” was a revelation in that Bale actually played someone vaguely normal.
On the mature end you have Tommy Lee Jones, 61, no longer trying to impose his will upon the world, simply resigned to cleaning up a small portion of it. He’s become our sad-eyed tracker of lost souls. In the last five years he’s gone after assassins (“The Hunted”), kidnapped children (“The Missing”), murderers (“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”), missing sons (“The Valley of Elah”) and very bad men (“No Country for Old Men”). In his weather-beaten face there’s a foreknowledge that all his searching won’t change much but he’s determined to do it anyway. In a way his foreknowledge informs his determination. It’s because the world is so messy that he is so principled.
Between Craig and Jones is Clive Owen, 43, who came to international fame as the cool, solitary man in films like “Croupier,” “The Bourne Identity” and “Inside Man,” then ate Jude Law alive in “Closer,” before sprawling into unshaven resignation in films like “Sin City” and “Children of Men.” He’s become a Tommy Lee Jones character without the moral rectitude to keep his pants pressed.
They meet againBetween the two poles you also have our “American Gangster” stars: Denzel, 52, and Crowe, 42. Washington tends to play provoking alpha males — whether football coaches (“Remember the Titans”), narc cops (“Training Day”), former slaves (“Glory”) or paraplegics (“The Bone Collector”) — while Crowe’s characters seem beyond alpha. They have an ultimate stillness about them. “Why don't you dance with a man for a change?” Bud White half-whispers to the wife-beater in “L.A. Confidential,” hands in pockets, standing on the man’s front lawn like it’s his. There’s an edge in his quiet voice, a comfort in his tense body. He stands there perfectly balanced in his seeming contradictions. In that moment a star was born.
These two forces first met in the silliness of 1995’s “Virtuosity,” in which Crowe played virtual serial killer Sid 6.7 to Washington’s frustrated cop. Since then both men have won best actor Oscars. Now we get to watch them bang heads again in “American Gangster.” Somewhere Lee Marvin is smiling his cold smile.
Erik Lundegaard’s tough-guy role model is Dustin Hoffman. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org