The top 25 Kevin Costner films
Did any movie star make braver choices than Kevin Costner, at the peak of his powers? We count down his 25 best films...
People who tolerate this site on a fairly regular basis may already be familiar with my personal favouring of the film works of Kevin Costner. As someone who grew up with movies in the late 80s and 1990s, he's the only movie star that regularly comes to mind when I try to think of people who were making bold, bold choices at the peak of their powers. Mel Gibson made one or two, and there are actors and actresses who took the occasional gamble. And yet Costner - whilst choosing a few commercial projects - kept taking them, time after time. You could argue that his box office luck eventually ran out, but even then, the films he chose to make tended to have something about them.
What I've tried to do here is put together a personal list of my 25 favourite Kevin Costner films, then. And why.
I've left one or two out. He was barely in Man Of Steel, but then it'd barely scratch the list for me. The Bodyguard? I'm going to look at that one in more detail on this site shortly. I really don't like Dragonfly (his worst film for me) and 3 Days To Kill much at all, whilst 3000 Miles To Graceland never did a thing for me really either.
There are some you may well like that also don't make my list. Revenge, for instance, was one that never quite worked when I watched it, whilst Rumor Has It likewise I thought was okay, but not much more than that. The New Daughter is a come-and-go watch, I quite liked The War but it didn't really stick in my head, The Gunrunner is best forgotten. Sizzle Beach USA is a forgotten classic, of course.
But these 25? Not all great films - although some of them are - but they've each got something interesting about them. Without further ado.
25. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
"You're operational now"
We'll start then with one of Costner's recent endeavours, the attempt to reboot - not for the first time - the Jack Ryan movie franchise. Kenneth Branagh took the helm for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, with Chris Pine in the title role. And that left space for Costner to take on a character actor piece, as the shadowy CIA man who recruits Jack Ryan in the first place.
Had Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit become a box office juggernaut, then the plan would have been to spin Costner's character out into his own movie. The $135m worldwide gross (against a production budget of $60m) was certainly solid, but no franchise starter though.
Still, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a decent enough thriller, and Costner slips into the 'mentor who isn't a mentor' role with ease. There's sufficient mystery to him, and he gets a reasonable amount to do. It's far from his best thriller, but it's not a bad way to spend two hours.
24. Swing Vote
"I'm an American aren't I?"
A sweet one, this. Swing Vote stars Costner alongside Paula Patton, with the kind of contrivance that the movies used to thrive on at the heart of it. Costner plays Bud, a down on his luck slacker, who has a daughter but not much else in his life. Come the day America elects its President however, a power cut as he places his vote suddenly makes him the most important voter in the country. With, er, the Presidential race a dead heat, Bud has two weeks to re-cast his vote, and basically choose the President.
That's the backdrop of the film, although inevitably it spends a lot of time at the fore. Elsewhere, there's a father-daughter story, and a growing companionship to fit in. It evolves into gentle Sunday afternoon fare, opting to go nowhere near political commentary, but also keeping the comedy side more on the back burner too. The result is a good, one-watch film.
23. Message In A Bottle
"Got my name in all my underwear"
A decent success from 1999, based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. The key reason to see Message In A Bottle is Paul Newman in truth, who plays Costner's father in this one. But Costner too is good, as the widower who leaves the message in a bottle of the film's title. Said bottle is discovered by Robin Wright's Theresa, and before you can say 'Sleepless In Seattle', she vows to track down the person who wrote the message.
What follows is a solid three hander, that lifts above its mawkish moments by being willing to take one or two unconventional turns. Furthermore, Costner and Wright make a couple at least worth registering an interest in. But it's Newman who steals it.
22. The Guardian
"22... the only number I keep track of"
Imagine Top Gun, but set amongst the world of Coast Guard rescue divers. Imagine too that Top Gun was a lot longer, and spent more time with the instructor than the student. Imagine that the bloke from The Fugitive came in to direct it, and thought that casting Ashton Kutcher was a good idea. There, friends, is the rough recipe for The Guardian. Oh, with a dose of Cliffhanger sprinkled on top.
It's a film that's way too long, and the story of Costner's ageing rescue diver is the more interesting one here. However, amidst that bloated running time there's at least a very good hour, and some excellent water rescue sequences. By distance, Costner's character is the most interested and - here it comes - deep. The film has too much baggage around him though.
21. For Love Of The Game
"I don't know if I have anything left"
Arguably Costner's least successful sports movie - Sizzle Beach USA wasn't about sport, right? - For Love Of The Game nonetheless has its merits. Here, he plays a pitcher whose career we see in flashback as he plays what may be his last game. Does he take a trade to another team, or choose to go with the woman who may be the love of his life, played by Kelly Preston?
He certainly takes his time working it out, and one criticism aimed at Sam Raimi's movie is that it feels an unnecessarily long one (137 minutes, including credits). Costner's made lots of long films, to be fair, but this one feels it. Unlike his other sports films, this one works better when it's focused on the sport itself, rather than the life behind it. The home life story feels a little less cooked, and it doesn't help that Costner's character, Billy Chapel, isn't really one you find yourself rooting for. It's not a bad film, but For Love Of The Game is well below Costner and Raimi's best.
Extra trivia: the film has an infamous scene that was cut as a result of a test screening. We've detailed that in this article here.
20. The Company Men
"You're a shitty carpenter"
A recent low key drama, set in the aftermath of the world's recent financial meltdown, The Company Men brings together an ensemble cast, in which Costner takes a small role. The main protagonist is Ben Affleck, a man with a lucrative job, who's stripped away bit by bit as he loses said job, then struggles to find another. His attempts to brass it out become gradually less convincing.
Costner comes in sporadically in an important role as a self-employed builder, one who views Affleck's character as a rich man who doesn't really do proper work. It's not a heavy tension between them, but it's a notable one. Costner's work is fine, and you'd happily trust him to work on your house. He's your go-to-guy if you want a loft conversion.
One-time West Wing showrunner John Wells writes and directs this one, and it's a solid drama, although arguably Margin Call takes a more interesting angle. There's no Costner in that one, though...
19. Draft Day
"You're on Twitter?"
As we'll see, Costner's sporting movies rarely bring sport that much to the fore, and as a result, don't rely on that much of an understanding of whatever game the movie is set around. Draft Day is perhaps a little bit of an exception, set around US football, and the system of drafting and trades. It's not a massive learning curve you need to surmount though if it's a sport you don't know the ins and outs of.
Here, Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr. That's important, as Sonny Weaver Sr has left a bit of a reputation behind him. Weaver is the general manager of the long-suffering Cleveland Browns, a team that has number one pick in the annual NFL draft. He needs to use it wisely, and he also needs to work out how to step out of his father's shadow, and manage a burgeoning romance.
Directed deftly by Ivan Reitman, Draft Day doesn't quite play out as the comedy you might expect. Instead, it's an engaging sports drama, that gradually manages to notch up interest to its really rather good finale.
Bonus nerd spot: a pre-Black Panther Chadwick Boseman.
"Nothing's free in Waterworld..."
The thing about Waterworld is that pretty much every crticism you can aim at it will hit to some degree. It is too long. It is an aquatic retread of Mad Max: The Road Warrior. It does have huge logic gaps.
Yet accepting that, I've always quite liked it. I've liked its willingness to invest heavily in a difficult, practical action film with director Kevin Reynolds once again demonstrating that he's an underrated action helmer. There's a fluidity (haw haw) to his action that keeps what's happening firmly in frame, and allows you to follow what's going on.
Furthermore, Dennis Hopper's Deacon may make very little sense, but he's good value as a baddie, and every time you think the film's about to run out of steam, it manages to generate something else that impresses. It's a mess, certainly, but Waterworld's an entertaining one. I'd take it over many CG-driven bloated blockbusters, certainly.
17. Wyatt Earp
"I've been in a really bad mood for the last few years, so I'd appreciate it if you'd just leave me alone"
If we're going to cite one expensive film on this list that it took a movie star with clout to get made, then surely Wyatt Earp is it. Costner reunited with director Lawrence Kasdan for this one (Kasdan penned The Bodyguard, and infamously left Costner's scenes on the cutting room floor in The Big Chill, before directing him in Silverado) for a fairly straight telling of the Earp story. Running to 191 minutes and costing $63m just to make, the film's thunder was stolen by the more action-driven Tombstone.
An example of Wyatt Earp's more low key approach is how it brushes quickly over the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corrall - an event that full films have been wrapped around before. It's almost blink and you miss it in this one.
The cast here is great, mind, and you get to spend a generous amount of time with them: Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman and Costner himself are the standouts. But there's a sense that Wyatt Earp - whilst beautiful to look at - overstays its welcome by some time. That said, it's still quite an absorbing western at times, that demands patience and goodwill to get the most out of. Yet it's not without significant merits.
Sadly, its financial failure meant it's the last overtly big budget western of this ilk that we've had since 1994.
16. The Postman
"Wouldn't it be great if wars could be fought just by the assholes who started them?"
Probably the moment where Kevin Costner's career changed this one, and certainly the last time he was given an awful lot of money to make a film off the back of his name. The Postman, oddly enough, was originally going to come to the screen with Tom Hanks on board, but David Brin's book eventually landed on Costner's desk. With an adaptation from Brian Helgeland, he opted to make it his sophomore directorial effort, following Dances With Wolves, and this time, the naysayers drew blood. Reviews were savage, the box office was poor (it cost $80m to make, it took $17m in the US), and Costner swept the risible Razzies.
Yet if The Postman is a failure, it's an honourable one, and a film better than it's generally given credit for. We look at it in a lot more detail in this article, here.
Costner turned down Air Force One to make The Postman. In spite of all the hassle and snark he got in exchange, we suspect he doesn't regret it.
15. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves
"This is English courage"
A film of real contrasts. There's an awful lot to like about Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Alan Rickman's scene-robbing work as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Kevin Reynold's kinetic action sequences, Elmo from Brush Strokes, Michael Kamen's wonderful score and a generous dose of humour for a start. But there are also troubles. The film runs for a long time, it'd be fair to say that Costner isn't its strongest asset (although once you're over the infamous accent, he's perfectly fine), and it takes a long, long time to get going.
Perhaps most troubling of all is the fact that the last act hinges on a scene of attempted rape, played for comedy. The young me who watched Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves didn't appreciate that was going on, and it was a real favourite of my youth. I struggle with it - for all its qualities - now I'm more aware of what's happening.
There's that song, too. You might have heard of it.
"I guess I'm just not officer material"
Kevin Reynolds has directed Kevin Costner more than any other helmer, across Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Waterworld and Hatfield And McCoys. Their first union though, and another film that gave Costner a real breakthrough role, is in this very good road trip movie, about five friends facing adulthood.
Costner's Gardner is the clear ringleader of Fandango, dragging the bunch into some memorable scraps, the best of which is a hugely entertaining extended sequence at a parachute school. Reynolds, though, who also wrote the script, has his eye firmly on human matters, with the melancholic fear of the Vietnam War draft, for example, regularly in the background.
Often very funny, Fandango holds up extremely well, and whilst it's a bit of a sod to track down, it's a real treat on the early Costner CV. Co-star Judd Nelson is also strong.
13. The Upside Of Anger
"I dial your number ten times a day and hang up"
A sadly little-seen drama from director Mike Binder, who has reunited with Costner on Black And White more recently, The Upside Of Anger is a thoughtful drama with some light moments to it. Costner plays Denny Davies here, a friend of widower Terry, played by the always-brilliant Joan Allen. Terry has four daughters, and that in itself brings complications as she starts to fall for Costner's former baseball player.
The cocktail of Binder's strong writing, one of Costner's best performances and Joan Allen at the heart of the film really adds to something here. There's something grown-up and non-gimmicky about the stories The Upside of Anger wants to tell, and how it tells them. Do seek it out.