Sunday, October 10, 2010

Take Three: Laurence Fishburne

Craig here with Take Three

Take One: Security vans and alien lands

It’s a cheeky sidestep this week. More of a Take Six – although still in three bite-size chunks. For starters, there’s two roles in a couple of nifty, no-fuss genre hits that he contributed supporting turns to recently: Armored (2009) and Predators (2010), both directed by Nimród Antal. In the former he was one of six average Joes – disgruntled security guards feeling the blue collar recessionary bite – hedging their bets on a massive, self-devised and of course ill-thought-out stolen loot payout. Fishburne was Baines, the brawny, aggressive one to whom nobody gave any truck. Along with Matt Dillon, Jean Reno and Fred Ward he lent Armored a hefty dose of gruff gravitas. He got to exercise his infectiously throaty laugh, shoot people willy-nilly and royally show up many of the other supporting actors (Skeet Ulrich I'm looking at you) without too much in the way of visible strain.

Fishburne: Armored van man

Commanding, seasoned actors such as Fishburne may be seen by some to be slumming it in genre quickies like this, but he gives it as good as he always does. It’s decent work – teamwork not dream work – and Fishburne does plenty of heavy lifting, raising it head and shoulders above likeminded flicks. Likewise with Predators. Here he’s Noland, a bedraggled and paranoid ex-assault soldier hiding in the belly of an abandoned alien ship. So he’s literally slumming it here. He scavenges for food. He mumbles something indecipherably questionable over his shoulder to an imaginary friend (or perhaps his agent just off-camera) to the general bafflement of lead Adrien Brody, head of Predators' all-new grunt bunch. Then he leads the not-so-merry lot through twisty tunnels into a sneaky trap. Noland’s outlook was never good, but Fishburne by turns allows him a cool entrance (deceptively dressed as he is as a rogue predator) and a gleeful hint of disturbed menace – both things that another, less talented, actor may well have skimped on. Fishburne elevates these two recent genre treats nicely.

Fishburne (left) and imaginary friend (right) looking fed up in Predators

Take Two: The Matrix Reassessed (just not very thoroughly)

I don’t think I’ve ever written a word about any of the three The Matrix films ('Riginal, Reloaded, Revolutions -1999-2003) before. Any cursory dip into their vastly all-encompassing waters, muddied with plenty of techno/psycho-babble, simply confuses me and I run for the hills. The worlds-within-worlds, meaning-within-meaning slant to the films whooshes over my head fast as a bullet; my comprehension of them slower than bullet time. I saw all three purely for the nifty fight scenes and the spaceships with tentacles. Its “legacy” or its “symbology” I can leave, thanks muchly. That’s why my favourite bits usually featured Fishburne kicking Keanu Reeves in the face. Or vice versa. Or even when he fired two guns simultaneously whilst standing on top of a speeding special effect.

Fishburne as Morpheus kickin' ass in The Matrix: Revolutions.
Or is it Reloaded?

He was Morpheus, and although he wasn’t entirely free of spouting mystical, daft, brain-twisting nothings during some parts of the films ("Welcome to the desert of the real" – "The pill you took is part of a trace program. It's designed to disrupt your input/output carrier signal."), he also made for a no-nonsense alt-world figurehead for much of his screentime – spouting impractical, daft, meaningless nothings ("Switch! Apoc!"), which I could relate to far more readily. He’s indeed the most watchable and entertaining presence in the three films (closely followed by Hugo Weaving’s Mr. Smith).

Fishburne as Morpheus kickin' ass in The Matrix (original).
Or is it him taunting Keanu off set?

Seeing him strut his stuff, dressed in obligatory Matrix cast member uniform of black leather and impossibly cool shades, was worth the combined three films' ticket prices alone. His career may forever be entwined with that of the Matrix phenomenon, but when you have an actor effortlessly delivering thespian goods – and more importantly, making us believe that the words Mjolnir and Nebuchadnezzar actually mean something – in a film series with more convoluted loose ends than a particularly tricky mathematical equation, you know it's a job done well. Who cares what colour pill to take – as long as it’s Fishburne shaped.

Take Three: An unlIKEable role

Fishburne’s best lead role was in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), for which he bagged his only Oscar nod. As Ike Turner, the whacked out, drugged-up singer who puts Angela Bassett’s Tina through the spousal abuse ringer, Fishburne essayed one vividly memorable role. Fishburne's deeply unlikeable Ike was played with such stern conviction, that he was more than just the flipside of fun in Brian Gibson’s acclaimed biopic. The (famous) man who beat and tormented Tina Turner was surely a complicated role to play (Fishburne allegedly turned down the role five times; only saying yes after Bassett signed on), but he ensured his Ike was a resolutely watchable character.

Fishburne can do mean and moody with ease. His impressive physicality and screen allure (and, here, confident vocal inflections – Fishburne also sang Ike’s songs in the film) surely assisted in his playing someone so monstrously pre-rendered. But he also managed to make human the troubled, abusive aspects of Ike’s character; there are times when you truly feel for him, despite the violence, which is solely down to Fishburne’s sincere, unshowy and very giving performance.

One of the defining images from Tina: What's Love Got to Do with It

Fishburne and Bassett were a fantastic acting duo; their torturous scenes with hysterically hollered dialogue and intricately performed physical choreography still contain as much hard-to-watch power as they did seventeen years ago. Watching Fishburne flesh out the subtle differences between the fun, earlier days and the tumultuous events later – from living the chart-riding high life to that quietly creepy kiss he plants on Bassett’s cheek during a sombre performance – is compulsive viewing. What’s Oscar got to do with it? Fishburne’s performance itself is proof enough of his onscreen greatness.

Three more key films for the taking: Apocalypse Now (1979), Deep Cover (1992), Akeelah and the Bee (2006)


Tania said...

"What's Love Got To Do With It" IMO is still an incredibl well-made and superbly acted film.

chris na Taraja said...

The "riginal" MATRIX was actually quite good, but the second and third movie when they went down the "Neo is the savior" path and had folks speaking monologues of nothing babble..eeew.

WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT. wow! what a great film. Holds up well too.

/3rtfu11 said...


Is Tina: What’s Love Got to Do With It? – the international title? It’s just What’s Love Got to Do With It? – stateside.

Beth Anderson said...

My favorite LF performance is Deep Cover - he's so good and brooding as the undercover cop who gets screwed over by his boss and becomes a drug dealer for real. Good stuff. And of course, don't forget Cowboy Curtis in PeeWee's Playhouse!



yeah, as music bio acting duets go What's Love Got To Do With It is pretty damn sensational.

Robert Hamer said...

Shoot, I was hoping for some words on Boyz N the Hood, at least more than Predators...

Silencio said...

Did we forget Othello?