Michael Ironside and the evolution of his missing body parts
One of the all-time great screen villains, Michael Ironside also has a tendency to lose body parts. Phil celebrates the Laurence Olivier of the missing limb...
If there is one thing guaranteed to get me to watch a film, regardless of my mood or the movie’s reputation, it would be the sentence, “It’s got Michael Ironside in it”. I’m just a huge fan, and have loved his work ever since I first saw the original V TV mini-series one balmy childhood summer while I was staying at my Auntie Anne's.
As Ham Tyler, the leather jacketed ex-CIA agent who becomes an instrumental figure in the Los Angeles Resistance movement, Ironside seemed to dominate every scene he was in, and what impressed me most about his zero tolerance approach to the alien visitors was that here was a good guy who looked and sounded like a bad guy.
There was something very exciting about being able to root for a character like that, and although he has mostly played bad guys who look like bad guys since, I've never quite been able to stop myself rooting for the characters he plays.
Like Klaus Kinski and Lance Henriksen, two other actors I'll always watch regardless of what they're in (and in Kinski's case that really is asking for trouble), Michael Ironside seems to belong to an era when bad guys were as charismatic and as fearsome as the action hero leads they often found themselves up against.
In films like Scanners (Ironside), Hard Target (Henriksen) and The Grand Silence (Kinski), each of them played utterly ruthless villains with barely a shred of humanity between them, and yet it is their performances that captivate and remain longest in the memory. This has been the case throughout each of their careers, and were any of them in their prime today, Jason Statham might just be looking a little less cocky.
As I grew into adulthood, Michael Ironside began to edge ahead of my other two favourites when I began to lose the soft, luxuriant mane of hair that had once seen me compared to Nick Berry in his Every Loser Wins heyday. That’s because Ironside was one of the first actors to make me realise that this loser could still win, dammit, and that I didn’t have to worry about male pattern baldness when it was possible to be a male pattern badass.
Oh sure, the likes of The Stath would come along years later and adopt the bald look when it became fashionable but, as Larry David says in Curb Your Enthusiasm, we do not recognise head shavers as part of the bald community. No, if you were looking for a genuinely bald tough guy then, as far as I was concerned, there was only one man to go to and that was, and always has been, Mr Michael Ironside.
However, there is one curious aspect of his career that always bugged me and has never been fully explained – and that is his alarming propensity for losing body parts in his movies. As any fan of his work will already be aware, most often he'll lose an arm, but sometimes it's a leg and occasionally it's his head. At one point in the mid-90s, I even became convinced that he really did only have one arm, simply because of how often he was cast in such roles. But no, it seemed that it was all just a coincidence.
So what is it about the man that makes filmmakers want to take him apart? Is it that Michael Ironside is just so intrinsically hard that the only way an audience can be convinced of his demise is to see him being cut, blown or torn to pieces? Or is there something more subtle at work here? Has Ironside subconsciously brought these roles on himself by making some of the early film choices he did?
Well, as someone who prides himself on his devotion to the study of what really matters in the movies, I thought this was a subject that needed closer examination. So let's take a look at the work of a wonderful actor who is rarely given the credit he deserves, and the evolution of a career that has, for whatever reason, been littered with lost limbs, hacked heads and broken teeth.
Missing body parts: his mind
A breakthrough role for Ironside that would see him dishing out the sort of bodily dismemberment to others that would so soon and so frequently be the fate of many of his most famous characters. Ironside would go on to lose his head twice in later roles, but in this case he is the one responsible for someone else’s head loss in cinema’s definitive exploding head scene (so definitive it is rumoured that, after seeing it, Sir David Lean abandoned plans for a similar scene featuring Dame Peggy Ashcroft in 1984's A Passage To India).
David Cronenberg's mind melting, head popping classic sees Ironside cast as Darryl Revok, the head of a group of telepathic renegades called Scanners, who sets out his stall early on with a demonstration of his powers at a press conference being given by a government Scanner. Overloading the poor fellow's brain until his head bursts, it is a scene as iconic as any that Cronenberg has delivered before or since.
Although Ironside retains all of his bodily parts in Scanners, he does, however, lose his mind in the climactic duel with Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), another special effects laden extravaganza in which Revok’s powers initially seem to be too strong for those of Vale. However, Vale pulls the old ‘setting himself alight while telepathically projecting his own consciousness into his opponents mind, thereby eradicating his consciousness while his defences are down’ routine. The film ends with Revok’s eyes now recognisably those of Vale, who confirms his last minute victory with the words “We’ve won”.
As for Ironside, well, he was off to a flyer in the acting stakes, dominating the film with a charisma and presence that would seem all but effortless in his best work. Scanners also showed the world that at the outset of his career Michael Ironside could certainly dish it out – but could he take it? Well, of course he could. He’s Michael Ironside.
Visiting Hours (1982)
Missing body parts: none, but severe damage to his left arm
If Scanners was somewhat prescient in predicting Ironside's occasional head loss in later films, then Visiting Hours was downright prophetic in heralding the troubles the man was eventually going to have with his arms.
Playing misogynist serial killer Colt Hawker, Ironside acts out an act of self mutilation on his own arm with such relish that it almost seems like a surprise in later films when he screams in agony as he loses a limb.
Having attacked Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant), a prominent media feminist with whom he has become obsessed, Hawker has to devise a way to get into the hospital where she is being held in order to finish the job. But how to do so? Steal a white coat, stethoscope and clipboard and pose as a doctor? Buy a bunch of flowers and pretend to visit a sick relative? Pah! If your name's Jason Statham, perhaps, but this is Michael Ironside we're talking about here.
Instead, he takes a bottle of beer from the fridge, takes a healthy swig, and lays it on a table before bringing his forearm down on it and smashing it to pieces. He then grinds his flesh slowly and deliberately in the broken shards before admiring his handiwork with a sick grin. Finally, he is admitted to the hospital’s emergency room and sets about looking for his quarry.
Visiting Hours was a watershed moment in defining him as Hollywood's 'must cast' actor when it came to bodily mutilation, and from this point on, Michael Ironside would prove very careless with his body parts indeed.
Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone (1983)
Missing body parts: both hands, replaced by metallic claws
Released amongst the glut of post-Star Wars space adventures made in the early 80s, Spacehunter was a film that managed to retain a certain sense of fun, despite its shortcomings (3D not the least of them). As ever, one of the main reasons it’s worth watching is because Michael Ironside is in it.
As Overdog, the ruler of an area known as The Zone on the planet Terra XI, he is hidden under a layer of prosthetics, playing a character who has two large metal claws instead of hands. Admittedly, we don’t actually see him lose his hands. We don’t even know if he ever had any to be honest, but given that he looks vaguely biological (at least facially) then it’s reasonable to assume that he may at one time or another have had two hands that were subsequently replaced by claws. If so, it was to prove a design decision that would have fatal consequences.
In a climactic showdown, during which Overdog attempts to stop Wolff (Pete Strauss), from rescuing three women imprisoned in his fortress, Wolff jabs a power cable into one of Overdog’s claws, frying him to a frazzle and causing the fortress to explode. Alas, it could all so easily have been avoided with safer wiring and regular site checks and so, not for the first time, cinemagoers were left to shake their heads at the health and safety procedures and business continuity processes of intergalactic tyrants and megalomaniacal despots the universe over.
Total Recall (1990)
Missing body parts: both arms
The moment when things started to get serious.
Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi fun fest sees Ironside as Richter, the leader of a group of ruthless henchmen on the trail of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s good guy Douglas Quaid. With Richter, Ironside evokes strong memories of V’s Ham Tyler, the leather jacket once again donned with considerable aplomb as he indiscriminately sprays bullets about the place with ne’er a thought for the safety of casual bystanders. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that Richter is how Ham Tyler would have turned out had he not had an alien invasion force against which he could positively channel his more destructive tendencies.
Richter is a man from whom Schwarzenegger’s Quaid does a lot of running away, which is just how it should be when Ironside is the bad guy. However, the chasing eventually stops when the two do battle on an ascending lift platform, duking it out until Richter is knocked over the edge. Grabbing hold of Quaid in an effort to take him with him, the platform approaches a ledge and Quaid pulls Richter up just enough to ensure that his arms are sliced off below the elbow.
Unfortunately, Arnie’s subsequent one-liner is not up to his usual high standards as he delivers a rather disappointing retort to his adversary’s earlier taunt with, “See you at the party Richter”. Any serious student of 80s action flicks knows that what the scene is really crying out for is a Schwarzenegger woofer such as “Nice of him to give me a hand”.
Arnie would go on to compound such lameness in 2003 when, in pursuit of his political ambitions, he only managed to become Governor of California as a result of winning enough votes. Obviously, had Ironside nursed similar aspirations, he would have simply declared himself Emperor of the West Coast prior to millions of Californians falling into line very quickly indeed.
Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
Missing body parts: his head
The first film proclaimed that 'there can be only one', so it was unfortunate that director Russell Mulcahy ignored that memorable tag-line and went ahead and made a sequel. However, Highlander II does provide an opportunity for the bad karma of Scanners to come full circle, as Michael Ironside finally loses his own head, on this occasion to the blade of Christopher Lambert's MacLeod.
Savaged by critics, Highlander II is admittedly pretty awful, but once again I would argue that it is a film that benefits from the presence of Michael Ironside, his casting being the sole reason I am prepared (when heavily inebriated) to make a half-hearted defence of this movie's silliness before feebly venturing that it's "not really all that bad".
True, it's not his finest performance, but it is a fun one, his General Katana behaving like a kid in a sweet shop when he finds himself on Earth in New York. Although his decapitation during the final duel isn't particularly impressive (the fight preceding it being rather lacklustre), it's probably understandable that there was some restraint given that each of the actors lost a body part for real while shooting. Ironside lost part of a tooth before lopping off part of one of Lambert's fingers as a result of some especially lusty swordplay.
And in its defence, no film featuring an in-flight airline safety video that depicts screaming passengers and exploding aircraft can be all bad. Can it?
Starship Troopers (1997)
Missing body parts: his left arm and both legs
If there’s one director who understands that the only way an audience will believe Michael Ironside can be defeated is by seeing the man being taken apart piece by piece, that director is Paul Verhoeven.
He wanted to do it in RoboCop, when Ironside was almost cast as Murphy (right hand blown off by sawn-off shotgun), he did do it in Total Recall, and would go on to do it most emphatically in Starship Troopers, his pulse-poundingly entertaining satire on fascism.
As Rasczak, Ironside appears only briefly, but when he does, he grabs your attention in every scene he’s in. He first appears lecturing new recruits on the philosophy and art of warfare, memorably telling his students “Violence has resolved more conflicts than anything else. The contrary opinion that violence doesn't solve anything is merely wishful thinking at its worst.” Never in contention for the Noble Peace Prize, Rasczak is only missing part of his left arm at this point. But is that enough to stop him from blowing the giant alien insects that are engaged in a war with mankind to smithereens? Do me a favour.
Returning in the latter half of the film as the lieutenant of the Roughnecks, an elite infantry unit, he has in the meantime been fitted with a bionic arm. And so, full bodied once again, he leads his charges into combat against the alien arachnids.
Unfortunately, the blighters burrow underneath him, leaving him fighting them waist deep in the sand and alas, when he is pulled free by his men, both of his legs are gone. Refusing to allow the enemy to finish him off, he commands Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) to shoot him, an action that provides Rasczak with the sort of death such a magnificent bastard deserves.
At ease, Lieutenant Rasczak.
The Machinist (2004)
Missing body parts: his left arm
Perhaps the most grueling depiction of limb loss in the Michael Ironside oeuvre, The Machinist sees him playing Miller, a guy who loses his left arm to some industrial machinery as a result of co-worker Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) getting all distracted by a leering bald man and leaning on the wrong button.
What makes this scene particularly traumatic is the inevitability of the outcome and his mounting panic as he is slowly dragged towards the heavy duty machinery that will rip off his arm and leave it spinning on a metal rod like something you might see at a particularly macabre kebab shop.
But considering how furious he looks in the immediate aftermath (and understandably so), Millar is remarkably forgiving of Reznik at their first meeting after the accident, when he returns to work to collect his (brace yourself) ‘severance pay’. However, Reznik soon comes to believe that Millar is trying to get his revenge by coercing others at the factory to engineer a similar accident for him, accusations that result in a heated exchange with Millar grabbing Reznik by the bollocks and throwing him out of his house.
You see, that’s how tough Michael Ironside is. Even with one arm, he can have Batman by the balls.
Guy X (2005)
Missing body parts: left arm and left leg
As Guy X, the severely injured Vietnam veteran hidden away at a US Army base in Greenland, Ironside spends most of this film either in bed or on the floor having just fallen out of it.
By this point in his career, a law had been passed in Hollywood that meant all films featuring characters with missing limbs had to be offered to Ironside first (also part of the same bill was a requirement that Morgan Freeman be given first refusal on all movies requiring a world weary, yet heart warming and life affirming voice over).
Guy X features a gentler performance from Ironside than fans may be accustomed to, as here we see the tough guy he usually plays chewed up and spat out by a brutal war and left to rot by the military that used him. And it is by this point in his career that one can understand why so many people may have believed that Michael Ironside really had lost an arm, as it always seemed to be the same one that he loses.
Just as in Starship Troopers and The Machinist, in Guy X he once again plays a man who has lost his left arm, as well as his left leg (not to mention some pretty nasty facial scarring and a metal plate that has been inserted into his head).
What is also remarkable about Ironside in Guy X is that, given the number of times the poor bloke has been dismembered in movies, it is really only in this film that he looks anything like a victim.
Masters Of Horror - The V Word (2005)
Missing body parts: his head
What could possibly be more frightening than having a pissed off Michael Ironside on your case? Well, having an undead pissed off Michael Ironside on your case might do the trick.
In The V Word, he plays Mr Chaney, a former high school teacher who has been turned into a vampire and now wishes to pass on his new found gift to some of those he’d taught.
Now, I’ve been impressed by the steely glare and barbarous intent of Michael Ironside on many occasions over the years, but as a vampire he is particularly terrifying. And seeing as he is both Michael Ironside and a blood sucking lord of darkness, it’s best to not take any chances and instead, apply the textbook technique for finishing off vampires by staking him through the heart and removing his head.
Two of his former students do just that, and it proves an especially astute course of action as he doesn’t look that inconvenienced when he is initially skewered, only eliciting a comical “Uh-oh” when he sees the kids brandish an electric saw. Head loss number two quickly follows.
Lake Placid 3 (2010)
Missing body parts: everything
It had to happen. Sooner or later, Michael Ironside was destined to appear in a film in which he relinquishes every single body part, with nothing so much as an ear lobe remaining. That movie was Lake Placid 3, a film that features a number of man-eating crocodiles, so obviously the odds were pretty good that somebody was going to be losing something. Although his Sheriff Willinger is destined to end up as croc food, Ironside does not go down without a fight.
There is actually a moment in the film where it seems that he is destined to survive, so audacious is his escape from his first encounter with a 10-metre long monster. Finding himself in the water with the beast about to attack, he wedges a mere paddle into its gaping maw before swimming to dry land and safety. It is only later when he is trying to make an escape in his car that the creature drags the vehicle into the water and then swallows him whole.
What’s especially frustrating about this film is that a character does have their head bitten off but, unfortunately for this list, it isn’t the character played by Michael Ironside. Nevertheless, although we don’t see him lose any specific body parts, when you’re eaten alive then everything goes, and in a career like Michael Ironside’s, this just seems like the next logical step in the evolution of his missing limbs.
Some might call such justification for this movie’s inclusion on this run down a bit of a cheat. I, however, see it as rounding off a list of 10 quite nicely.
So there you have it. As far as I’m aware, that’s all of Michael Ironside’s missing body parts accounted for. However, I’ll admit to not having seen every one of his 200 plus film, TV and videogame appearances, and so can’t be completely sure that he hasn’t lost an eye or a big toe somewhere along the line. He certainly looks like he should have worn an eye patch at some point in his career. In which, case it’s over to the Den of Geek readership.
Of course, Michael Ironside's career isn't over, and my guess is that he may still go on to add to the examples listed here, further cementing his reputation as not only one of the best bad guys of his generation, but also as the Laurence Olivier of the missing limb.