Car chases. Explosions. The rattle of gunfire. These are just a few of the things that spring to mind when the words Action Thriller are mentioned. Or at least, that’s what we assume when awards season rolls around each year. Like horror and science fiction, the action thriller genre is often overlooked when it comes to handing out acting gongs, usually in favour of biopics or genteel dramas about the triumph of the human spirit.
There’s at least a possibility that the situation could change early next year, since both Ryan Gosling and Gary Oldman both put in stunning, Oscar-worthy performances in their respective thrillers, Drive and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – in both cases, their acting is more than worthy of such recognition. Inspired by Gosling and Oldman’s exemplary turns, we’ve therefore put together a list of 10 action thriller performances we consider to have been sorely overlooked by the movie-making establishment.
Of course, choosing just ten Oscar-worthy performances is horribly difficult, so feel free to chime in with your own suggestions in the comments section.
Sean Connery – Dr No (1962)
Author Ian Fleming may not have been initially too happy with the choice of Sean Connery to fill the big-screen shoes of James Bond (he rather uncharitably described the former bodybuilder as “an overgrown stunt-man”), but there’s no doubt that, over the course of seven 007 films, he made the role his own.
Connery wasn’t exactly the dapper, slight and somewhat anonymous figure that Fleming had laid out in his novels, but the actor nevertheless fulfilled at least two important aspects of the character: he’s both charismatic and dangerous. Fleming didn’t approve of Connery, but it’s worth noting that, in the 1955 novel Moonraker, one character appeared to describe him quite accurately: “[He’s] rather like [the musician] Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”
It’s that air of charm and menace that Connery pulled off so perfectly, both in his debut, Dr No, and his six subsequent appearances as Bond. He wasn’t a RADA trained actor, as Roger Moore was, but Connery brought a believable earthiness and cool, murderous edge to Bond that is often overlooked.Andy Robinson – Dirty Harry (1970)
Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry set the template for four decades of maverick cop movies, with Clint Eastwood relocating his squinting gunslinger persona from the arid Old West to the run-down streets of 70s San Francisco.
Great though Eastwood was as fascist cop Harry Callahan, the film wouldn’t have been the same without the stunning performance of the then 29-year-old stage actor, Andy Robinson. His portrayal of the tittering, insane sociopath, Scorpio, all nervous tics and unruly hair, is inarguably one of the finest screen villains of all time.
Playing the Joker to Dirty Harry’s Batman, Robinson’s performance is quite similar to Heath Ledger’s turn as the clown prince of crime in The Dark Knight almost 40 years later. Scorpio’s a soul beyond redemption, whose moral bankruptcy allows him to commit all kinds of unspeakable acts.
The success of Dirty Harry resulted in four sequels, released in 1973 and 1988. None of them were anywhere near as good as the original, and that’s due, in large part, to the absence of the imcomparable Andy Robinson.
Harrison Ford – Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Steven Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones movie is so action-filled, and so broadly entertaining, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Harrison Ford’s lead performance is almost perfect. He brought a dark, dangerous edge to Indy’s character, but also a tender, human dimension – far from an unstoppable fighting machine, his archaeologist adventurer gets cut, bruised, and endearingly exhausted after each physical encounter. “It’s not the age, it’s the mileage”, Indy sighs, in one of the film’s rare moments of romance with leading lady, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).
It’s also worth noting that Ford is one of the few actors since Errol Flynn who looks absolutely at home in the role of a traditional, swashbuckling hero. Many Hollywood leading men have tried to swing about on ropes or dangle from precipices, but somehow, Ford brings the requisite presence, charisma and depth to what could be a stock role. It’s something Ford repeated in each subsequent Indiana Jones movie, and even in the franchise’s bumpier moments, he’s never been less than outstanding. Brian Cox – Manhunter (1986)
With Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs, Anthony Hopkins became the actor forever associated with the name Hannibal the Cannibal, at least in the minds of the wider movie-going public. But five years earlier, the same role was played by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, a relatively low-key adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel, Red Dragon.
To modern eyes, there’s much that is dated about Mann’s thriller – its male posturing and 80s pop, for example – but Cox’s performance as Hannibal is unforgettable. It’s interesting to compare Cox and Hopkins’ acting choices, in fact, and how perfectly they fit into their respective environments. In Demme’s hands, Silence Of The Lambs takes the form of a horror movie with thriller undertones, and Hopkins’ leering performance is perfect for its dark, grand excess.
Manhunter, meanwhile, is more subtly disturbing, and in a reversal of Silence Of The Lambs, is at its most chilling in its brighter, rather than darker scenes. Where Hopkins’ cell was a dimly-lit, medieval dungeon, the one Cox calls home is like an operating theatre – bathed in light, with not a shadow to be seen.
Cox’s performance matches Mann’s icy cool direction, but is no less terrifying and hypnotic than Hopkins’. He conveys both intelligence and physical strength in his posture and movements, while the few lines he’s given are full of gently insinuating menace.
The brilliance of his acting is exemplified in the moment when he casually, breezily asks his nemesis, the cop Will Graham, “Would you like to leave me your home phone number?” It’s a spectacular performance in one of Mann’s best films.
Mel Gibson – Lethal Weapon (1987)
Like the Rocky sequels, the subsequent Lethal Weapon films gradually descended into garrulous comedies, so it’s easy to forget that the 1987 original was an uncompromising and gritty action thriller. At the centre of Shane Black’s script, ably directed by Richard Donner, was the self-destructive detective Martin Riggs. Played by Mel Gibson, Riggs’ character later became little more than a parody of what he was in the first Lethal Weapon – the wild eyes and unpredictable behaviour were there, but the spark of danger was gone.
In the 1987 original, though, Mel Gibson brings real commitment to his performance as a cop whose grief over the loss of his wife has driven him to a suicidal nadir. We’re made aware from the outset that, when his character almost kills an unarmed man in a fit of anger, the film’s title refers not to guns, but to Riggs himself.
Had Lethal Weapon been entirely about Riggs, and his fractious relationship with reluctant partner Roger Murtaugh (the great Danny Glover), it’s possible that Gibson’s performance would have received more attention. Sadly, the film’s noisier, action genre overtones probably ruled out the possibility of any best actor awards.
Chow Yun Fat – The Killer (1989)
In a string of Hong Kong action movies, John Woo perfected his own brand of flowing gunplay, dubbed heroic bloodshed, which would come to exert a lasting influence on Hollywood.
His 1989 epic, The Killer, was almost certainly his best, and features a shiny, career-best performance from its lead, Chow Yun-fat. He plays an assassin, Ah Jong, ready to retire from a life of violence after he pulls off the proverbial one last job. Unsurprisingly, the job goes wrong, and in the subsequent shootout, Ah Jong accidentally blinds an innocent singer (played by Sally Yeh) when his gun goes off next to her cheek.
Determined to redeem himself and undo the damage he’s caused, Ah Jong attempts to procure the funds to pay for an operation that will restore the singer’s sight. What follows is a spectacularly violent yet graceful romantic tragedy, with Chow Yun-fat’s performance as its sad-eyed, thoughtful lynchpin.
In fact, while The Killer would become the film that established many of John Woo’s trademarks – the doves flapping in slow-motion, the Mexican stand-offs, and religious imagery – it’s Yun-fat’s noble, charismatic turn that proves to be its most valuable ingredient.
Anne Parillaud – Nikita (1990)
Action thrillers may be dominated by male characters, but there are plenty of actresses who’ve shined in their own respective performances. Anne Parillaud’s turn in Nikita is a prime example, and she’s fantastic as a teen drug addict who’s transformed into a government assassin.
Like a perverse take on Pygmalion, the young Nikita is taught how to dress and carry herself more elegantly, while simultaneously shown how to fight and kill people with guns. Parillaud handles this transformation – from teenager to woman, from junkie to poised killer – in a perfectly judged performance, and it goes without saying that the film would have fallen to pieces without an actress of her talent at its centre.
Nikita’s impact on action cinema has been long lasting; the subject of an inferior Hollywood remake and two TV series, echoes of Nikita can be seen in all forms of entertainment, from the heroine of the Tomb Raider videogames to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.
Anne Parillaud’s Nikita remains the definitive action heroine, though, and her ice-cold performance has seldom been bettered.
Morgan Freeman – Seven (1995)
There are many reasons why, to this day, Seven remains an unforgettable thriller. Darius Khondji’s cinematography is exquisitely framed. David Fincher’s direction is unremittingly tense and economical, while Andrew Kevin Walker has yet to write a better script.
And then there’s Morgan Freeman’s performance as Detective William Somerset. The world-weary cop a few days away from retirement is the stuff of genre cliché, but Freeman refuses to fully acknowledge the pulpier underpinnings of his character, and plays Somerset with intelligence and a raw, unvarnished sincerity.
Fincher and his collaborators create a believably dark and rich world for Somerset to inhabit, a city that is one part a recognisable American metropolis, and two parts rain-drenched hell. It’s a world that Freeman’s character fully inhabits, understands, and has grown to hate. Where Somerset’s experiences have allowed him to steel himself against the city’s horrible underbelly, his younger, aggressively idealistic partner Mills (Brad Pitt) fails to appreciate the nastiness and moral decay that surrounds him until it’s too late.
Morgan Freeman has had numerous awards and accolades piled at his feet for his skill as an actor, from Street Smart to Million Dollar Baby. It’s mystifying, then, that his astonishing performance in Seven – which we’d rank among the very best in his long career – was so studiously ignored at the Oscars.
Al Pacino – Insomnia (2002)
Christopher Nolan had a firm grip of the narrative wheel in his third feature, Insomnia, but it’s Al Pacino who drives the film from its muted opening to its bleak conclusion. In fact, if we were pushed to choose our favourite thriller performance of Pacino’s – and he’s done plenty, including Scarface, Sea Of Love, Carlito’s Way and Heat – we’d have to pick Insomnia. It’s not the best film he’s ever appeared in, but it’s by far his most interesting and difficult role, and a world away from the grandstanding, shouting characters he’s become known for in recent years.
Pacino plays Will Dormer, an ageing cop who carries a burden of guilt: the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation over allegations of corruption, he heads to a remote Alaskan town to help solve the case of a murdered teenager. Unable to sleep in Alaska’s incessant, pale daylight, Dormer frets and broods, wandering around his hotel room like a caged animal. And then Dormer accidentally shoots his partner during a fire-fight with the suspected killer, adding still further to his misery and guilt.
In his more prominent roles, Pacino tends to play characters that are capable and verbally aggressive – in Scent Of A Woman, for which he won an Oscar for his role as a blind army veteran, for example, he was on typically shouty, garrulous form. It’s quite startling, then, to see Pacino play a character as trapped, exhausted and defeated as Will Dormer, and the result is one of his very best, and sorely underappreciated performances.
Viggo Mortensen – A History Of Violence (2005)
Given director David Cronenberg’s taste for everything that is extreme and uncompromising in cinema, his choice to make a relatively mainstream studio thriller seemed like an unusual move. But as his 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone proved, even Cronenberg’s more populist movies are unmistakeably his own.
In A History Of Violence, adapted from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, an ordinary and unassuming proprietor of a restaurant in a small US town. But when two murderous thugs walk into his establishment, Stall’s extraordinarily violent response reveals that he’s not the quiet man he says he is. And as his fame as a local hero grows, some more unpleasant faces show up in town to remind him of the life he’s tried to leave behind.
Mortensen is spectacular in what amounts to two subtly different roles: the respectable family man he wants to be, and the unpredictable killer he tries to repress. His portrayal of these aspects of his personality is wonderfully subtle; with a slight turn of his head or an almost imperceptibly lowered voice, he switches between Tom Stall and his aggressive alter ego, Joey, in a split second.
In 2008, Mortensen finally earned the Oscar attention he deserved, with a nomination for Best Actor for his performance in another Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises. His turn as a Russian gangster in that film was undeniably excellent, but for us, his more subtle performance in A History Of Violence remains his finest and most depressingly underrated.
Honourable mentions: Steve McQueen (Bullitt), Michael Caine (Get Carter, The Ipcress File), Uma Thurman (Kill Bill), Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman (Die Hard), Christopher Walken (The King Of New York), Jamie Lee Curtis (Blue Steel).