The geek roles of Karl Urban

Feature Duncan Bowles 22 Apr 2014 - 07:35

As Almost Human approaches its UK premiere, Duncan salutes the 10 greatest geek movie roles of Karl Urban...

We love Karl Urban. The man has made his way into several of the biggest movie franchises of all time and, since Dredd, been utterly embraced by our readers with the kind of zealous fervour that would make most deities blush. His accidental foray into the world of geekdom (“I haven't conscientiously tried to do anything in my career! It just kinda happened!” he told us back in 2011) has led to a string of genre roles that have seen him excel at playing both heroes and villains.

It’s also worth noting that he’s managed to acquire quite a fine roster of character names, with Kirill, Vaako, Ghost, Grimm, Bones and Black Hat scattered over his CV.

Urban has now added one Detective John Kennex to the roster, with new sci-fi TV series Almost Human about to air in the UK on digital channel Watch. For those of you who have yet to experience the show’s delights, it ticks so many boxes that the pilot episode alone had me almost breathless with joy, but if you need convincing then allow me to pitch you this: Urban plays a grizzled cop, with an android partner and there’s violence, laser guns, space ships, sexbots, drama, comedy and action, with overtones of RoboCop and Blade Runner – it’s like someone decided to make a series based on most of the greatest genre elements, so I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Here, we’ve chosen to take a chronological look at his ten best and most geek friendly movie roles to date, though it would be remiss not to pay passing mention to his Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and  Xena: Warrior Princess days, as those shows no doubt contributed to his profile and skills when the time came to audition for Eomer, the role which would forever change his career.

Ghost Ship (2002)

“I think I just shit my pants.”

It was only in putting this article together that I finally ticked watching Ghost Ship off my film list, though it’s terrifying as it seemed like only yesterday it was released, when in fact it was all the way back in 2002. The beauty of seeing it this late in the day, though, is that it really made me appreciate how much fun it was back in the late 90s/early 2000s when modestly budgeted horror movies were so slickly put together and had such great ensemble casts.

Sea-based screams were also a common theme for many of them, with the gloriously knowing Deep Rising (Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, Kevin J O'Connor and Jason Flemyng to name a few), Deep Blue Sea (Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Samuel L Jackson and LL Cool J) and Virus (Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin, Joanna Pacula and Donald Sutherland). Ghost Ship was no exception, with its entire crew of protagonists played by superb actors including Gabriel Byrne, Julianna Margulies, Isaiah Washington, Ron Eldard and turns from the (then) much younger Emily Browning and Desmond Harrington.

Urban finds himself playing a more light-hearted character than usual, taking on the role of chain smoking comedy wise ass, Munder, though such is the archetype that you can almost smell the death surrounding his fate as soon as he opens his mouth. Still, where Ghost Ship deserves real credit is in its novel structuring – all the characters are likeable, no one actually deserves to die and time is spent building up their characters, rather than resorting to the ‘two lines and dead’ template.

There’s a real sense of invention and wit to the whole film, so if you still haven’t had the pleasure it’s great fun, and of course, there’s that opening sequence, which is quite simply one of the greatest starts to a horror film ever. More’s the pity that director Steve Beck hasn’t helmed anything since.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers/The Return Of The King (2002/2003)

“Do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands.”

The Lord Of The Rings trilogy is now without doubt one of the greatest and most loved cinematic trilogies ever made, but one of its finest attributes was the prominence it gave to a multitude of previously unknown actors. The cast were uniformly excellent, but while the likes of Sean Bean, Hugo Weaving and Liv Tyler were already established names, it gave career boosts to many of its cast, with Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban among the most successful.

While Urban had a few films and several TV credits to his name when The Two Towers continued Peter Jackson’s box office dominance, it’s safe to say that as Eomer, Urban found worldwide recognition and an instantly devoted fan base, allowing his trademark scowl and fierce intensity to reach global levels of exposure – I think it’s safe to say that without Eomer, there wouldn’t be most of the film roles below, which provides yet another reason to buy Mr Jackson a pint.

The Chronicles Of Riddick/Riddick (2004/2013)

“You keep what you kill.”

Sporting his most outlandish hairstyle to date, Urban’s character Vaako knows how to wear a space age, red neck, super-mullet. He also knows a thing or two about being a futuristic fascist, as The Chronicles Of Riddick sees him play a high-ranking Necromonger, a race that take great joy in destroying worlds - until a muscular spanner is thrown in the works.

Critically, many failed to enjoy director David Twohy’s much more epic setting for Riddick’s second cinematic outing, as expectation seemed to demand that the intimate horror of Pitch Black needed to be repeated for the sequel to work. I’ve never quite understood why people were so opposed to seeing Riddick thrown into a galactic conflict, rather than restricting him to fighting monsters in the dark, as there’s plenty of invention and nastiness in Chronicles without having to fall back on horror clichés. Certainly there are touches of sci-fi soap opera throughout, but the film still holds up as an original and exciting movie, with the production design in particular deserving praise.

Admittedly Urban, alongside most of the impressive supporting cast, play second fiddle to geek icon Riddick (and Thandie Newton’s heaving bosom) but that was always going to be the case and calibre of actors merely help to sell the higher concept elements in the film – literally in Dame Judi Dench’s case. I’ve still yet to see last year's Riddick, so can’t pass any judgement on that at this point, as I’m such a fan of the franchise that the negative critical reaction from friends has made me avoid any potential disappointment. It will happen soon though, so if you’ve seen and loved it then head to the comments and feel free to let me know.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

“MSB!”

One of the finest aspects of Mr Urban’s career to date is that he’s managed to avoid typecasting, proving as adept at stealing laughs in Trek and he was in making audiences bay for his blood in The Bourne Supremacy, which for my money is still the best of the three, an opinion that has caused a multitude of arguments over the years. Supremacy’s power comes from the core emotion driving the plot, which sees Bourne out on a mission of revenge after his beloved is mistakenly killed by Karl’s villainous assassin, Kirill.

It’s always great to have an action hero face off against an evil adversary of equal skill, and it’s a credit to Urban’s performance that he brings such immediate threat and menace into the life of a man we know to be an unstoppable force of nature, especially when he has very few lines of dialogue. I remember seeing the second Bourne film at the cinema and being absolutely convinced that Jason was going to die at the end, such was the predatory pursuit between him and Kirill, in what also remains one of the best car chases of all time.

Doom (2005)

“If I turn into one of those demons, shoot me. One in the heart and one in the head, and don't you hesitate.”

Spoilers ahead…

Hands up if you love Doom. Come on now, don’t be shy, we’re all friends here and I promise there’ll be no judgement. I have no qualms about preaching the high virtues of a film that has been described by fellow critics as “charmless/brainless” “idiotic/dull” and “bland/lifeless”, but it’s fairly safe to assume that those people hate fun, as Doom has proven its value as an entertaining spectacle time and time again, at least under my roof. Of course, the beauty of viewing such a contemporary action classic at home is that you can drink as much beer as you like while partaking in its joys with a group of friends, which I always assume is how the director intended it to be viewed.

After all, how could anybody be expected to watch Doom alone and sobre, with such delights as a Dexter Fletcher wheelchair monster to revel in? Or the loyal inclusion of the BFG? Or watching The Rock being a total badass, only to return as a mutant bad ass? Or getting to see the criminally underused Rosamund Pike having to keep a straight face through such lines as “Does it ever bother you, you could've spent your life looking in a microscope instead of a sniper scope?” Or the love-hate moment when the film goes fully bonkers and gives us the first-person perspective shoot-out?

I could go on about all the fantastic attributes the film possesses, especially as so many people seemed to miss its mischievous sense of tongue-in-cheek humour, but the reason it deserves a place on this list is that it allowed Karl Urban his first heroic Hollywood leading role. As the beautifully named John “Reaper” Grimm, he more than adequately held his own against charisma planet Dwayne Johnson, while proving a dab hand at the dry humour that he was later to excel at in Star Trek. Doom might not have made much at the box office, but it’s been instrumental in setting Urban on the path of action hero that has led to our beloved Dredd and now the rather fine Almost Human.

Pathfinder (2007)

“Twig”

Alas, poor Marcus Nispel hasn’t had much love for his directorial output to date. After helming remakes/reboots of three fan-coveted properties with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th and Conan The Barbarian, it’s safe to say he's become a persona non grata in geek circles. Yet there’s still a lot to enjoy in those films and he is, after all, responsible for giving us a scene in which Ron Perlman delivers a baby Conan on the battlefield via dagger caesarean, and you don’t see that every day.

If there’s one thing that Nispel truly excels at, it’s the visceral power of bloodshed, and Pathfinder is no exception. Within seconds of the opening credits there’s depictions of brutal slaughter, and the high level of violence never lets up, as Karl Urban’s character Ghost sets out to lay his demons to rest via the use of a rather large sword – if you’ve ever wanted to see him slice a man’s eye with said sword, then this is the movie for you.

Gore aside, Pathfinder’s an enjoyable little movie, though the erratic pace and minimal dialogue make it hard to invest in the characters properly, with only Moon Bloodgood bringing a sense of warmth to a film that even has a cold visual palette. Thankfully Clancy Brown is also on hand to lend a little colour, though for very different reasons, as he proves yet again why there are few to top his ‘sworded bastard’ persona. There’s also a great shield sled pursuit down a tree littered mountainside, which contains considerably more splat than you get from your average Biker Scout in Return Of The Jedi.

Curiously, after a recent watch of the fantastic Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Urban is seen sporting a very similar look indeed to the titular villain during the movie’s latter half, which made me double take, as you‘ll see in the above photo.

Star Trek/Star Trek Into Darkness (2009/2013)

“Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.”

Growing up as a Star Wars fan, it seems I fell victim to the geek cliché of not being able to love both properties, and while I’ve never disliked Star Trek, I’ve certainly never loved it. That was until Mr Abrams got his hands on it. I’m sure this will irk some fans, but I’m one of those people who now embraces the JJ vision of the Trek universe, though to be fair that’s in large part down to the cast who now inhabit it.

As someone who invested early in Karl Urban’s career, it was seeing him land a role in the new film, alongside the equally awesome and antipodean Eric Bana, that really helped to secure an early interest from me in Star Trek’s re-launch, as both actors had done enough films I loved by that point that I would have followed them anywhere. As it transpired the entire casting would prove to be immaculate and brave, with Urban and Bana sitting alongside a host of little-known and up-and-coming actors, including Kirk himself.

It’s Urban’s aggressive 'Bones' McCoy that steals every scene he’s in though, ramping up the comedy value and used so sparingly in both films that you’re left wanting more of him throughout – perfect casting in the perfect role.

Red (2010)

“Bad move grandpa.”

It’s nice to be able to mention the original Red again, after the recent sequel left such a horrible after taste. I’m still shocked by how far wrong Red 2 went, when all it really had to achieve was a simple re-tread of the original formula, with a few new action sequences inserted. Instead we got an awkward, unfunny mess that marked the third in a run of truly dire, phoned-in performances from Bruce Willis. There was also no Karl Urban in the sequel, and if this list proves anything, it’s that everything’s better with him in it.

Actions speak louder than words though, so time to break up my babbling with a little video and quite possibly the best scene in the film:

Priest (2011)

“If you're not committing sin, you're not having fun.”

Another slice of B-movie fun, with a modest budget used to grand effect in a film whose ambitions just slightly exceed the overall execution. Priest encompasses elements from sci-fi, western, vampire, horror, fantasy, revenge and post-apocalyptic movies, at times in a gloriously fun fashion. In its weaker parts, Priest played like a ‘best of' rehash from a truckload of movies from previous decades, including Blade Runner, Star Wars, The Matrix, Mad Max 2 and Blade 2.

The always excellent Paul Bettany leads proceedings as the central Priest, channelling parts of his rosary-clutching psychosis from The Da Vinci Code, full of conflict, on a mission to save his niece from the villainous clutches of former brother in arms, Black Hat, played by our man Karl Urban. Urban clearly relishes every second of his drawling, vampire cowboy role (he's a huge fan of westerns), though it’s a shame his character wasn’t given more screen time.

Dredd (2012)

“Negotiation's over. Sentence is death.”

I’d wager there’s barely been a week that’s passed since Dredd’s release where there hasn’t been something written about it, either by one of us, or one of our regular commenters. It’s been great seeing such widespread support for the film too, and the ongoing frustration about the lack of a Dredd 2 continues. That's very much prevalent in our comments as well - pretty much every film of late deemed worthy of a sequel by Hollywood, no matter how dire, has been bombarded by posts about how Dredd was more deserving of one. For those who continue in that tradition, you have my respect.

Just the other week we wrote an update about the likelihood of Dredd 2, which you can find here, and it sadly reflects that, despite all the campaigning, the chances of there being a sequel are still looking quite unlikely. I thoroughly enjoyed Dredd, but then I’ve always had a predisposition towards mega-violent, stylised action flicks and even more so if there’s a comic book basis. I’d be very keen to see more, especially if it involved a larger scope and an increased budget. It makes you wonder what could have been done if the production team had been given the same cashflow as Stallone’s much derided take, but let’s not go too far down that path.

What we do have in the existing Dredd is a tight, loyal, well-paced and at times visually arresting piece of action cinema, which Urban played to perfection and for that we can all be grateful - especially when it doesn’t involve Rob Schneider twatting about in a cleaning droid.

Almost Human starts on Tuesday 6th of May on UKTV's Watch (available on Sky, Virgin Media, Talk Talk TV and BT)

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