The top 10 Kevin Costner movies

Top 10 Simon Brew
27 Oct 2011 - 16:04

Simon salutes the sterling work of Kevin Costner in a list of the 10 best films of his career so far. “Let’s do some good”…

It’s a topic we seem to return to on an annual basis at Den Of Geek, and we’re firm believers with an ‘on with the tradition’ philosophy here. But, of all the movie stars who have risen and fallen over the past few decades, have any had quite as much of an eye for a good risk, or taking a chance, as Kevin Costner?

It’s testament to his body of work just going through some of his quality films that didn’t make the following run-down of his top ten movies. For Love Of The Game is a woefully underrated baseball movie, for instance, while there’s a lot to like in Mr Brooks, too. And you’ll notice the almost-criminal omission of the marvellous Bull Durham from the list, which would have sat in eleventh place. Eleventh place in most other actors’ career would be a bad thing. In the case of Kevin Costner, that’s absolutely not the case. The Upside Of Anger, a terrific drama that only had limited exposure in the UK, would sit in twelfth.

So, even appreciating he’s not the planet’s finest actor, here’s our celebration of his best films. And there are lots of them...

10. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves

Without question, Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is a film utterly stolen by Alan Rickman’s outstanding, shipped-in-from-a-different-movie performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham.

In fact, there’s a good ensemble at work beyond Rickman, too. Morgan Freeman is solid support, if an odd inclusion. But then there’s Christian Slater breezing in and out of the film, Brian Blessed being loud (as is Michael McShane), the underrated Michael Wincott sneering a lot, and still room for last-minute replacement Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, too. For the Brits, they even include Elmo from Brush Strokes.

Now, Prince Of Thieves is way too long, and its first 40 minutes or so are quite slow. Then, there’s an extended version, which adds in more Alan Rickman (and his witch-alike mother), but tests your backside still further. Yet it’s a hoot: a really fun blockbuster, with the underrated Reynolds’ (see: The Count Of Monte Cristo) fast-moving camera a fine fit for the material.

Costner’s accent is awful, of course, but it doesn’t really seem to matter. And when the film unveils its surprise cameo come the very end, it’s hard not to feel immensely entertained and satisfied. This, and the pretty crappy The Bodyguard, arguably marked Costner at the peak of his commercial powers, too.

9. No Way Out

Technology helps No Way Out a lot. A really tight thriller, with an ending you don’t want spoiling for you at all, the second half of the film is set against the ticking clock of a very, very slow computer gradually revealing an image. If the film was made now, a computer would zip said picture up in seconds, ruining the taut build-up. But No Way Out turned out to be the right thriller, made at just the right point in time.

It also has a really quite effective bonking scene, that was in turn gloriously lampooned by Hot Shots: Part Deux. And it offers a pertinent lesson in never leaving too big a tip.

But No Way Out works for many reasons. Firstly, it has a well-woven, interesting and logical story, that still holds water a couple of decades later. Secondly, Roger Donaldson’s direction is strong. But thirdly, there’s a cast of actors that fit the material exceptionally well.

We don’t talk about Sean Young and classic roles very often, but even outside Blade Runner, she has a couple of solid pieces of work on her CV. Her performance as Susan Atwell in No Way Out is one of them.

Meanwhile, Costner wears his naval uniform well, and looks suitably out of water for good chunks of the film (as befits the material), and then there’s Gene Hackman, blasting brilliantly through every scene he’s let near.

I’ve avoided talking too much about the narrative because, as those who have seen No Way Out know so well, it’s a film that can be very easily spoiled. But, even accepting the slightly dated feel of parts of the movie, this is a first class thriller.

8. Dances With Wolves

You probably know the before and after of Dances With Wolves only too well. Derided while he was making the film and eulogised once it was released, this was Costner’s first massive gamble.

He took what currency he’d built up in the movie industry, and threw it into a three hour western, of which a large proportion required subtitles, and he directed it too. It won Costner his biggest box office hit at the time, and a couple of Oscars for his mantelpiece (scandalously beating Goodfellas to Best Picture, but you can’t blame Costner for that).

It’s hard to overstate just what a risk this project was, and the film is genuinely very strong. The buffalo hunt sequence is cherished as the standout (and that was actually directed by Kevin Reynolds), but Costner crafts his film with a love of the genre, and a love of his characters. It’s an epic, perhaps not a classic one, but a very strong movie nonetheless.

Costner did release an extended version of the film, which stretched it to a bum-numbing near four-hour running time. I’d argue that this is one of those occasions where the longer cut was actually the weaker, though, even though it does flesh out the characters a little more.

In its three-hour form, though, Dances With Wolves was the kind of film that nobody was making anymore, and Costner triumphantly proved that they were wrong not to be.

7. Open Range

Costner’s directed three films to date. We’ve just talked about Dances With Wolves, and he followed it up with the much-maligned but actually not terrible The Postman. However, I’d argue his best directorial effort is the far lower key Open Range, which he released back in 2003.

It’s a smaller film than Dances With Wolves, but again sees Costner in the western genre (as an actor, he’d also appear in the bloated, decent Wyatt Earp). With Open Range, he gets a brilliant performance out of Robert Duvall as Boss Spearman, and he also stages a very, very underrated shoot out. Far removed from the polished shoot outs of many classic westerns, Costner’s is a lot more seat of the pants and rough, and it works tremendously well.

Again, he pulls in a strong supporting cast, with Michael Gambon, the sadly-missed Michael Jeter (this was his last live action film) and Annette Bening among the standouts. And Costner is generous enough to not give himself the showiest role here, allowing Duvall the space to deliver a wonderfully understated, effective performance.

I’d love to see Costner direct again soon, but for now, Open Range is a mature, confident western, that deserves not to be forgotten about. I'd just about edge it over Dances With Wolves, too...

6. A Perfect World

How do you follow up an international smash hit like The Bodyguard, a film that married up box office acclaim, immense video sales and a soundtrack album pretty much guaranteed to make your ears bleed?

If you’re Kevin Costner, you play your first mainstream villainous role, in a quiet drama from Clint Eastwood. A Perfect World is a massively, massively underappreciated film, which boasts an outstanding performance from then-child actor T J Lowther.

Lowther plays a young boy who is kidnapped by Costner’s escaping criminal, Butch Haynes. Sporting a paunch and no immediately likeability, Costner arguably gives his best screen performance as Haynes, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the young boy, whilst trying to evade Eastwood’s Texas ranger.

It’s the scenes with Eastwood and Laura Dern where the film slightly falters, but when the focus is on Butch, A Perfect World is a brilliant little movie. Eastwood’s unfussy direction suits the material very well, too, and he gives his actors the space and time to tell the story. They don’t let him down.

A Perfect World, though, proved to be a box office disappointment, breaking a run of hits that had stretched back several films for Costner. The blame was partially put on the fact that neither Eastwood nor Costner did extensive promotional work for the movie, but perhaps more realistically, this was never going to be a blockbuster. It was too small and unshowy a story, and perhaps its box office disappointment is one reason it’s been all but forgotten.

However, it deserves to be rediscovered, and it’d be interesting to see Costner and Eastwood reunite on a western, perhaps?

5. Tin Cup

One of the very best romantic comedies that relatively few people have seen. Reuniting Costner with his Bull Durham director, Ron Shelton, Tin Cup is a film that swaps baseball for golf. That alone didn’t help drive audiences through the door. Yet Shelton is wise enough to know how to use sport as a framing device and metaphor, and what’s at the heart of Tin Cup is the terrific pairing of Costner and Rene Russo.

Costner could have had a longer career at the very top had he sought more romantic leads, and he’s clearly very competent at playing them. But he never bettered Tin Cup in the genre, and I’d argue it stands up as one of the best three rom-coms of the 90s.

As washed-up former golf pro Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy, Costner exudes a weary, likeable charm. And his attempts to woo Rene Russo’s Molly Griswold are predictably not very successful. But, set against Don Johnson’s golfing rival David Simms, the film hits its stride early, never outstays its welcome, and actually gives you a relationship to root for.

Tin Cup is also very funny, and willing to play around with convention a little as well. And it turns out to be a tightly written, exceptionally well played romance, that just happens to have a bit of golf in it. An absolute gem of a movie.

4. Thirteen Days

Reuniting with his No Way Out director Roger Donaldson, Costner produced and starred in Thirteen Days, a tightly woven drama set around the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The film follows, as the title suggests, the near two-week period in 1962 when the world was dragged to the brink of nuclear war. It’s an ensemble film really, with Costner playing Kenny O’Donnell, a senior aide to President John F Kennedy.

O’Donnell’s is an unusual angle, perhaps, to approach the story from, but then Thirteen Days is a film that doesn’t have historical accuracy at the top of its agenda anyway. As my dad said after I took him to see the film, “It overlooks the fact that Kennedy would have had his way with about half a dozen women while all this was going on”.

That it does, but its focus is very firmly trained on the behind the scenes efforts, and the deep political drama, involved in averting war. It’s not the easiest story to digest and tell on the big screen, but Donaldson’s film – aided in no small way by a script from David Self (Road To Perdition, The Wolfman) – manages it.

Costner is strong here, but then so are the rest of the cast. Bruce Greenwood makes for a solid JFK, while credit too should go to the always-excellent Dylan Baker, and Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy.

It’s a tight, commercially unsuccessful movie, and a rich and serious one. Not for the first time, it’s all the better for it.

3. The Untouchables

Some of the behind the scenes stories of The Untouchables seem almost as golden as the movie itself. Certainly Sean Connery didn’t appear to be much of a fan of Costner’s acting talents, regularly chiding him behind the scenes and, truthfully, blowing Costner’s Eliot Ness off the screen whenever they appeared side by side.

In terms of coming out on top in acting terms, Costner was on a hiding to nothing with The Untouchables. Robert De Niro’s memorable supporting turn as Al Capone was tricky enough to battle against, as was Charles Martin Smith as bookkeeper Oscar Wallace. But Connery gives one of his very best turns as Jim Malone here, in a role that fits him like a glove. That he won his Oscar for this film is no surprise.

Don’t write Costner off, though, because he’s still at the heart of an excellent movie. Director Brian De Palma frames set pieces better than any of his contemporaries for my money (take the pool room scene in Carlito’s Way as an example of that), and he’s at his best here. The station shootout is simply textbook stuff now, managed and staged with real skill.

He and writer David Mamet also borrow a trick from John Carpenter here, by shocking the audience early on with the sudden, cold death of a child. And it sets a tone that the film continues to live up to.

Packed with quotable lines, memorable sequences, and a bit of Billy Drago for good measure, The Untouchables was both a big breakthrough for Costner, and a film that deserves its catalogue of acclaim. It still does, too.

2. JFK

My favourite review of Oliver Stone’s staggering JFK read something along the lines of, “It’s a great film, but one of the worst great films made”. I can’t remember who said it, but you can pretty much define the idea of begrudging praise right there.

JFK is, for my money, Oliver Stone’s best movie, made at a time when he was at the peak of his creative powers. Coming to it hot off the back of The Doors, Stone’s film smashed together a couple of books, a lot of ideas and plenty of conspiracy. It mashed up different styles of films, an ensemble cast that leaves room for everyone to make their mark, and a narrative thread at the heart of it all that managed to sustain its three hour running time.

Costner had the thankless job in the film, really, being the audience’s guide through Stone’s angle on who really shot JFK (and more to the point, who didn't). He plays Jim Garrison, and finds himself, at different times, sharing the screen with Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland (arguably the shining moment of the film), John Candy and Kevin Bacon. And then there’s also Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Gary Oldman, who also appear.

The one part where Costner holds court, pretty much literally, is in the courtroom presentation at the end of the film (“back, and to the left”), which you could argue is when the film’s tempo slips just slightly. But it’s a generous performance from Costner, who holds his own, while the characters around him consistently come to the fore.

The film is a tremendous achievement, that, try as he might, Stone hasn’t come near since (although Nixon is better than some of its detractors may tell you. W is crap, though). And this is one instance where the slightly extended cut is worth seeking out too, adding one or two extra moments for Jim Garrison, including a television appearance, and a scene where he’s threatened. It’s not too much longer, but the added material is worth it.

1. Field Of Dreams

I toyed with this one for a while, as JFK is a more ambitious film that caused far more conversations. Had Twitter been around the day it came out, it might just have melted down.

Yet Field Of Dreams is pretty close to a perfect movie, one that packs a massive emotional wallop over two decades after it first appeared. It’s a story economically and brilliantly told, that mixes a fantasy concept – hearing a voice in a cornfield – with elements of family drama, and a road trip, too. And it does it without resorting to gimmicks, cheap tricks or mawkishness. It’s a very tricky line it had to cross, but Field Of Dreams absolutely manages it.

Costner plays Ray Kinsella, who simply hears a voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come”. He doesn’t know who the ‘he’ is, but with the support of his wife, played by Amy Madigan (who’s particularly great during the scene where she defends the writing of Terence Mann), he goes ahead and does follows his instinct, cutting down the crops on his near-bankrupt farm to build a baseball field.

It’s got large tinges of Frank Capra about it, but Ray’s journey doesn’t stop there, as a team of long-dead baseball players, led by Ray Liotta, step out of the cornfield and onto the field that Kinsella makes.

Costner’s pitch-perfect as Kinsella, mixing intrigue, a bit of innocence and a drive to find out more. James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster at different points join him, too, and they’re among the highlights in a cast that also finds space for Timothy Busfield as the apparent antagonist of the movie.

But the flat-out credit here should go to Phil Alden Robinson, a man who reportedly doesn’t particularly enjoy directing films, which accounts for why he’s made so few of them. He’s helmed Sneakers and The Sum Of All Fears, both strong movies in their own right, but his control of the material in Field Of Dreams is immense. It’s his script, too, adapting the book Shoeless Joe (by W P Kinsella), and I’d argue the film is a career high for all concerned.

Rarely mentioned, too, is the score from James Horner, which I’d argue ranks up there with his very best.

Field Of Dreams is something of a fairy tale of a movie, and a very, very special one. It’s why I commend it to you as the peak of Kevin Costner’s very rich career...

And Finally...

Costner’s made some decent middling movies too, that deserve a shout-out. I’ve always maintained that the massively-derivative Waterworld is far better than its reputation suggests, while Wyatt Earp has its moments. The Postman I don’t mind (we talked about it here), but it’s a muddled mess, and the same can also be directed at 3000 Miles To Graceland, where you get the distinct impression that Kurt Russell and Costner weren’t the best of buddies. Swing Vote isn’t bad, either.

I’m not blinkered where Costner is concerned, mind, with The Bodyguard being a film I’d happily steer clear of, and Dragonfly is quite an appalling thriller. Rumor Has It is poor as well.

We’ll see how he fares in the new Superman movie, Man Of Steel, next...

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