Do star names hurt modern thrillers?
If you want a modern thriller to genuinely leave you near the edge of your seat, then it’s best to leave the movie stars on the shelf, argues Simon…
This article contains a spoiler for the film, The Fugitive.
For some reason, Barry Norman's review of the 1993 big screen take on The Fugitive has always stuck in my mind. While praising the film (which would go on to snare a Best Picture Oscar nomination), Norman argued that it would be even more interesting were the main roles reversed. Thus, for Tommy Lee Jones to play Richard Kimble, the man on the run, and for Harrison Ford to be leading the team chasing him.
And you know what? Barry Norman was right. Because, with very few exceptions, when you cast a movie star in a role, even a criminal of sorts, there are certain conventions that fall into place.
One of the best examples I can think of to illustrate this is Sylvester Stallone in the movie Lock Up. Here, the script went to great lengths to convince us that Stallone is wrongfully imprisoned and innocent of everything. Because, after all, he's a movie star, and movie stars have to, while not be utterly purer than pure, still be very firmly on the side of good.
I don't think I'm spoilering much by suggesting that most of us saw the eventual resolution of The Fugitive some way off, and there was never any danger of Harrison Ford's character being guilty of murder. Even if we hadn't seen the TV series it was based on.
For my money, cinema offers few treats better than an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Yet, a movie star-driven thriller feels the same in some ways, to me as a series of novels featuring the same main character. You know that, ultimately, there's some hidden ring of invulnerability, or an infinite lives cheat, or there's a moral line, that they won't cross. There are exceptions, granted, but I'd still wager this is the norm.
And thrillers need suspense to work. Granted, for suspense to be generated, you don't need the main central character to have a degree of moral ambiguity to them. But it certainly helps.
That's what makes exploring lower budget thrillers a treat. I'm not necessarily talking bargain basement films, either, rather the low- to mid-range budgeted films that save money by not casting a Tom Cruise, or a Jim Carrey, or a Julia Roberts. Because what comes with that price tag of a superstar is a removal of some of a film's mystery.
Accepting that the shelves of DVD stores are littered with fairly crappy cheap thrillers, and appreciating that the presence of a movie star doesn't automatically rob a film of its thrills, there are still cheaper movies that work so much better for having a mid-range cast.
Take David Twohy's A Perfect Getaway. I stumbled across this recently, and enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting. Its trick, apart from a solid script and direction from Twohy, was that it had several characters who could have been the foe of the piece. And because the casting offered no clues as to who was what, you had six or seven characters on whom to cast suspicion. And that's the real benefit of not having a full-out star on board.
I can think of other thrillers where that's the case, too, where a less starry cast allows the morals of pretty much all of a film's characters to be far more blurry.
Take the likes of A Simple Plan, One False Move, Christopher Nolan's Memento, David Fincher's Seven (made when Brad Pitt's star wasn't as bright as it was right now, although I do get the impression that Pitt would have little trouble tackling a more complex lead role in a thriller), Sea Of Love, The Usual Suspects, John Cusack in Identity, and perhaps even Copycat. I'm not arguing that every one of those film is a masterpiece (although a few of them are), but their casting choices really aid the end product in every case.
There are, I should note, exceptions to every rule. And lest we forget, Alfred Hitchcock used to use the expectation that came with a star to destabilise his audience, by killing said star's character off nice and early. Once he'd done that, you figure that anyone is for the high jump.
Yet, few people want to take such risks with star names now, and that means that, if you're looking for an interesting modern thriller, you might just need to search the shelves a little more than usual.
For while the blockbuster sausage machine will give you Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code (raking in over $700m worldwide at the box office) something like A Perfect Getaway gets unfairly overlooked as a result (with $22m in the bank from its worldwide cinematic run). But I know which one sticks in my mind.
And while it's far from a masterpiece, there's at least some risk with A Perfect Getaway that you might be still guessing what's going to happen after an hour, rather than predicting it all, and knowing from the off which character is safely excluded from any doubt.
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