Top 10 greatest Timothy Olyphant films

Top 10 Duncan Bowles 21 Feb 2011 - 12:13

We salute one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated actors, and pick out ten of Timothy Olyphant’s finest movies...

Like so many of my on-screen heroes, Timothy Olyphant manages to fit the profile of being utterly superb and massively underappreciated, with the constant ability to make every film he’s in better.

Despite appearances in some high profile movies, a starring role that will launch him to the level he deserves, one that cements his name in mainstream consciousness, still seems elusive.

Olyphant’s TV work has seen success from the swear-a-thon that is Deadwood, a recurring role in Damages with Glenn Close and as Raylan Givens, the cowboy hat wearing, shoot first, ask questions later U.S. Marshall in Justified, whose second series is currently airing on FX.

He’s now on our screens in DreamWorks’ I Am Number Four, as well as lending his voice to the fantastic-looking Rango, out in the UK on the 4th of March, but in the meantime, here’s a list of some of his best work to date (with an obvious geek bias), and some very good reasons why he deserves even more recognition...

10. Stop-Loss (2008)/A Man Apart (2003)

“Oh I’m sorry buddy, let me rephrase – fuck you!”

A little Olyphant can go a long way. Certainly, some filmmakers think so, as I approached both of the above films expecting a solid dose of a high-billed Mr Olyphant, only to discover that his appearance in Stop-Loss runs to a total of about ten minutes, with A Man Apart clocking about twenty (he doesn’t appear until half an hour in).

Stop-Loss is a good, overlooked attempt to raise awareness of the post traumatic stress, death and mutilation that young soldiers face, and plays out almost like an MTV version of The Deer Hunter, only without the bad connotations this might suggest.

Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt take up the majority of screen time, as three friends who fall apart on their return to America from their tour of service in Iraq, a situation made worse when Phillippe decides to go AWOL after being ‘stop-lossed’ (forced to return to war, even after your service is supposed to have ended).

Like a handful of films on this list, it’s well worth tracking down, proving to be a surprisingly tough watch at times, and deserving of considerably more recognition. After working together on it, Tatum convinced Gordon-Levitt to join him in G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, promising it wasn’t going to be an advert for army recruitment. It wasn’t, but then it wasn’t very good either.

Olyphant appears sporadically as their Lt. Col. Boot Miller (a great name for a commanding officer), who’s perfectly cast as the man you should never insult the president in front of, and who is suitably irate when his men start losing the plot.

A Man Apart gives Olyphant slightly more screen time, and a chance to flex his bad guy persona, only without the usual strength of purpose his characters possess, as his Hollywood Jack turns out to be quite cowardly - it’s still a blast watching him play arrogant alongside a very angry Vin Diesel, though.

The rest of the film is a straightforward action movie, as a bearded Diesel punches and shoots his way to the person responsible for killing his wife, showing such a panache for it that it reminded me how much I resented his foray into the realms of The Pacifier.

9. Dreamcatcher (2003)

“Motherfucker tried to bite my dick off, Jonesy.”

Despite having an incredible cast, an extremely talented director in Lawrence Kasdan, being based on a story by Stephen King and being adapted by William Goldman, Dreamcatcher as a whole never quite feels as strong as the sum of its components, or Morgan Freeman’s amazing eyebrows.

It’s a film that’s grown on me every time I’ve watched it, but it’s still a bit of an oddity, with its denouement seemingly better suited to a work of literature than a mainstream movie. However, alongside Olyphant, there’s Freeman, Tom Sizemore, Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis and an unrecognisable Donnie Wahlberg, who all ensure that the film is packed full of greatness, while the group of old friends are instantly likeable simply because of the actors chosen to portray them.

Olyphant holds his own amongst such fine company, getting a few choice lines and a requisite display of attitude. It speaks volumes about his talent that he was chosen for the part, even if the film wasn’t as successful as hoped, but if Kasdan picked him, perhaps he’ll get a call one day from the likes of Spielberg and have his reputation cemented by one of our greatest directors.

8. Hitman (2007)

“Yell all you like, the Lord himself won’t hear you.”

I’m keeping a close eye on Hitman’s director Xavier Gens, whose previous output has led him to make the intriguing looking The Divide, which stars Heroes’ Milo Ventimiglia and geek legend Michael Biehn, which also has a strong enough poster and trailer to make sure it’s firmly on my ‘to see’ list.

I know that quite a few of my friends have a strong dislike for Hitman, but with its 80s throwback attitude towards violence, plotting and one-liners, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Don’t blame me - blame one too many straight-to-DVD movies from my somewhat fallen idols Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme. If they hadn’t made so many terrible films in the last decade, maybe I wouldn’t go looking for an action fix in other sordid places.

To be fair, the film was apparently taken away from Gens in the editing suite, with some of his favourite scenes swapped for yet more violence by the powers that be. But there’s still plenty to enjoy, watching Agent 47 (Olyphant, of course) despatch bad guys in inventive ways in a role that was originally touted for Vin Diesel.

I still find the casting of Olyphant a little left of centre, as it’s a pure action role and seemed designed for someone of Diesel’s stature, yet Olyphant proves himself admirably, snarling out the dialogue in a way that befits his strengths. He also shows a physical adeptness during the fight scenes, even if the bald look is a slightly unusual one for him, as most of his other parts in action movies have never required such a high level of physicality.

7. Catch And Release (2006)

“Nice dress.”

Timothy Olyphant does not waste time. Perhaps it comes from too many brief roles in too many movies, but he certainly knows how to make an immediate impact. Within minutes of appearing in Release, we’ve already seen him cracking onto a waitress at a wake for his friend, before engaging in a comical sex scene while a mortified Jennifer Garner hides behind a shower curtain.

Thankfully, there’s a lot more to his character in a film that I was extremely concerned would be upsettingly unwatchable from the get-go, starting as it does with a shot of a teary, distraught Garner at the funeral for her fiancé.

If you’re wondering why Catch And Release made the list, when my geek credentials dictate that perhaps Gone In 60 Seconds should, perhaps, have taken precedence, then I’m going to play the Kevin Smith card, as Release is quite a gem of a romantic comedy/drama.

Smith is on fine comedy form, playing one of the deceased’s best friends (and yes, there is a Star Wars reference, albeit a short and sweet one), alongside our man and Sam Jaeger, as everyone tries to come to terms with the loss of a friend and the fallout he’s left behind.

One of the best things about loving an actor and writing these lists is watching a movie that you’d never normally be drawn to, such as Catch And Release, only to find yourself unable to look away when its charm takes hold. Sure, it’s fairly predictable, but it has a good heart and a great cast, which make the proceedings stronger as a result.

It also gives Olyphant a fine chance to play a romantic lead, in the traditional sense of the word, while the likes of Smith and an appearance by Juliette Lewis are used for comic relief. It’s a nice change of pace to see Olyphant in the role, even if you do suspect there’s evil afoot in his mind due to past experiences, but it’s another eclectic choice that shows the man’s versatility.

6. High Life (2008)

“Like a pink Chuck Norris.”

Reading the title and synopsis (“Four hapless junkies decide to rob a bank”), you’d be mistaken for thinking that High Life was just another stoner comedy, when its sensibilities lie much closer to the independent films I discovered in my late teens from the likes of Hal Hartley and the Coen brothers. It’s a short, slightly surreal, bittersweet comedy heist movie which, like so many other small movies, deserves more attention than most generic output by Hollywood.

Taking place in 1983, it sets about stating its quiet message, with a desperate and frustrated Olyphant at its heart, (un)ably assisted by a mismatched group of three, including the frightening Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre), pretty boy Billy (Rossif Sutherland, channelling a look and performance that kept reminding me of Billy Zane/Diedrich Bader, which I mean that as a complement), and his co-star from The Crazies, Joe Anderson, as Donnie.

There’s a certain spark between Anderson and Olyphant, which explains their reunion so soon afterwards. (As an aside, one thing that does shine through is Anderson’s uncanny resemblance to Kurt Cobain, especially considering the films’ content, so we’ll see if that casting call ever comes to pass. When I spoke to Anderson last year, he was even learning to play the guitar left handed, so watch this space.)

Our man looks suitably glassy eyed throughout, with a believability to his performance that conveys his pathetic plight perfectly, while offering the very rare sight of him looking absolutely terrible. With his lank hair, unshaven face and blackened eyes, Olyphant’s usual physical appeal is solidly masked, freeing him to extract our pity, without the often laughable attempts by Hollywood to make its beautiful stars seem jagged and rough.

5. The Girl Next Door (2004)

“Sometimes in life if you wanna do something good, you gotta do something bad.”

Around 1986, I saw a film which I’ve never seen get much coverage since – Something Wild. The film starred Jeff Daniels as a straight-edge yuppie, whose life is turned upside down by a rather appealing Melanie Griffiths, especially when her dangerous and sinister husband makes an appearance, played by Ray Liotta.

I vividly remember the latter's performance, as he approaches Daniels with an incredibly dubious offer of friendship that terrified me, with the absolute knowledge that there was a ticking psychosis in Liotta’s character that threatened to go off at any moment.

Along came Olyphant nearly two decades later and turned in a very similar performance, playing a character with equally alarming intentions.

The Girl Next Door starts harmlessly enough, with the usual nerd-falls-for-beauty set-up, but it soon takes a different turn, when said beauty is revealed to be a porn star. Just take a look at Tom Cruise’s Risky Business and you’ll already know that when everything seems too good to be true, there’s normally someone or something around the corner to bring things crashing down, especially when sex is involved.

When Olyphant’s Kelly makes his grand entrance, he’s even given a rock ’n’ roll theme tune, as the camera pans over his styled body, exuding exactly the usual kind of dangerous cool that seems so effortless to the man.

Kelly immediately sets about extending the innocent hero a devilish offer, forcing him to suffer the same teenage indignation that so many of us have endured – never being able to compete with an older man. Still, I can’t help but love Kelly, despite his inherent evil.

4. Die Hard 4.0 (2007)

“Detective, covering the camera with your hand does not turn off the microphone.”

Truthfully, despite being an avid Die Hard fan, I avoided part four at the cinema. In part down to an absolute fear that Len Wiseman, who hitherto had given us the tedious and messy Underworld series, was going to ruin the franchise, but mostly because I had no intention of paying to pander to Hollywood’s awful decision to cut the language and violence just to get a bigger audience.

It’s a strange world when your hero can’t exclaim his infamous “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” without being censored, yet driving a truck into a woman and gloating about it is a-okay for the world’s youth, even if she was a rotter. Still, I did actually love the film.

It helped that accompanying a fully lethal John McClane on his new adventure were the rather beautiful Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Justin Long. I’d been rooting for the latter in previous years, and I was thrilled to see Long in such a huge picture after his small but sweet part in Den of Geek favourite Galaxy Quest, and one of my favourite, overlooked high school comedies, Accepted. Why the Long’s name hasn’t been linked to Ghostbusters 3 is anyone’s guess. I still missed Bonnie Bedelia though.

Die Hard 4.0 also afforded the same opportunity for Olyphant, who clearly relished a chance to fill the rather large shoes left by Alan Rickman, William Sadler and Jeremy Irons, even if the scripting didn’t quite allow him to threaten in the same way as the Gruber boys. Still, he gets some great lines and a chance to join the ‘frustrated to the point of boiling anger’ club that John McClane has spent his career shaping.

A great career move and a fun film, though I still haven’t forgiven whoever’s responsible for taking away the white vest. The heretic.

3. A Perfect Getaway (2009)

“You know, if you're so fricking smart, you could play stupid once in a while.”

Simon was recently surprised by this solid little thriller from Geek friendly director David Twohy who, aside from making Pitch Black, should always be praised for the often overlooked undersea horror, Below.

A Perfect Getaway was a film I also discovered very recently, with very little knowledge about its premise, other than a horror element the TV spots hinted at, and the cast of our man Olyphant, the always excellent Steve Zahn, action princess Milla Jovovich and Kiele Sanchez. Which is exactly how you should approach it.

With that in mind, I won’t go in to much detail, but if you’ve seen Pitch Black and Below, then you’ll be familiar with Twohy’s brand of tension, which is present in Getaway throughout, as lead couple Cliff and Cydney start suspecting everyone they encounter of foul play.

Olyphant’s casting is superb, as he’s spent a large amount of this list instilling paranoia in people, even when he’s playing a normal character, and that reputation is fully utilised by Twohy in the best way. Don’t read up on the film, just grab a copy and watch it as soon as possible.

2. The Crazies (2010)

“Don't ask me why I can't leave without my wife and I won't ask you why you can.”

I really can’t express what an unexpected delight Breck Eisner’s version of The Crazies was. I was feeling particularly deflated by horror at the time and righteously resented the endless wave of remakes and dross that kept getting a cinematic release, so had lowered my expectations accordingly, despite a confidence in Eisner and his cast.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the film turned out to be more than just a fine remake, possessing more skill, tension and restraint than most horror films I’d seen in years. Eisner’s masterstroke was in pulling his punches, and moving away from the obvious clichéd set-ups, and I can't praise him enough for making use of the most neglected asset of great horror: implication.

It also gave Timothy Olyphant a great opportunity to play an out-and-out hero as the sheriff of a small town who has the unfortunate burden of trying to manage an outbreak that consumes a population he’s personally responsible for, and more importantly, personally connected to.

His turn as David is finely balanced, utterly sympathetic, and cuts a fine figure as a physical protector. Olyphant always strikes me as a man you’d want on your side in a crisis, especially if he has a shotgun.

1. Go (1999)

“What do you want for Christmas, Claire?”

Go is a fantastic movie for all kinds of reasons, combining, as it does, a director on the rise in Doug Liman (post-Swingers and pre-Bourne Identity), a tight script by then-newcomer, John August, a solid cast of underappreciated actors and an awesome soundtrack.

Go was one of the first region one DVDs I bought, and I’ve always felt bonded to it, especially as it appeared during a slightly over-indulgent period in my life. Beyond that, it was also a movie that seemed to bypass a lot of people, adding to its cult appeal and making me more defensive of it as a result.

More importantly, it put Sarah Polley, William Fichtner and Timothy Olyphant firmly on my radar for the first time, with Fichtner having a short but comically inspired turn as a detective with a hidden agenda. Olyphant though, burnt his way through the screen, refining his early villainy into a threatening restraint that was to become one of his most bankable assets and one that I’m sure led him to Die Hard 4.0 years later.

His character, Todd Gaines, is a drug dealer who seems to be constantly on the verge of a psychotic explosion, sidled with an unnerving intelligence and a predatory manner which he uses to undermine Ronna’s (Polley) attempts at being streetwise, before turning it towards the innocent Claire (Katie Holmes), who he’s essentially taken hostage.

It’s a great film, full of memorable scenes (Macarena anyone?) and comes highly recommended.

Also recommended:

Gone In 60 Seconds (2000) – Well sort of. It’s got Nic Cage, Angelina Jolie and Will Patton in it, while Olyphant is memorably partnered with Delroy Lindo. The film itself is far too long, and way too spartan on action scenes.

Scream 2 (1997) – A fleetingly brief part, that well… if you’ve seen it, you’ll know.

Bill (2007) – Stars Aaron Eckhart. I love Aaron Eckhart.

Not seen:

No Vacancy, in which apparently he’s one of only two things worth watching in an otherwise ropey film.

Auggie Rose (aka Beyond Suspicion), which looks intriguing, as the mighty Jeff Goldblum decides to pinch a dead con’s identity, sleep with Anne Heche and punch Mr Olyphant in the head.

I also need to track down Coastlines and Broken Hearts Club, so if anyone’s watched them, I’d love to hear your opinions. The same goes for The Safety Of Objects and Rock Star. I’m curious as to how much screen time he gets, as the casting inferred little more than a cameo (shame on you Stop-Loss/A Man Apart for tricking me).

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