This feature contains spoilers for Event Horizon and the Harry Potter films. This article was originally published at Den of Geek UK.
Hello to Jason Isaacs! Through roles in an impressive array of movies, from indies to massive blockbusters on both sides of the pond, he’s become one of our favourite character actors. We’ve found that no matter how the film turns out, you can guarantee that if he’s in it, his performance is going to be one of the highlights.
Off-screen, Isaacs has a whole other profile of popularity. Out of several prominent celebrity fans of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film review show on BBC Radio 5 Live, he’s the patron saint of their “church of Wittertainment,” and “hello to Jason Isaacs” is the show’s first, most popular catchphrase.
Some might argue that he’s better known for his telly work, because he more often takes the leading role, as with his turn as troubled private investigator Jackson Brodie in the BBC’s adaptation of Case Histories, or as Michael Britten in NBC’s solid but short-lived fantasy police drama Awake. He’s also done a stint on HBO’s Entourage and lent his voice to Lex Luthor, Ra’s al Ghul, and Sinestro in DC’s animated films and Admiral Zhao in the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
But all radio adventures and telly performances aside, today we’re looking at his unsinkable screen presence, which has mostly taken the form of excellent supporting roles, in movies of all kinds. Here are 12 highlights from Isaacs’ career on the big screen, whether offering sterling support in great films or elevating some slightly less remarkable ones.
Dr. Ronald Quincy – Armageddon
Billy Bob Thornton’s Dan Truman introduces Dr. Ronald Quincy as “pretty much the smartest dude on the planet,” which means he doesn’t have a whole lot to say in a movie as silly and unscientific as Armageddon. But unlikely as it seems, there has never been a more succinct summary of Isaacs’ talents than director Michael Bay’s apparent astonishment at working with a real actor.
Isaacs told the Evening Standard in 2000: “[Bay] said, “That was great. How did you do that? I said ‘action’ and you were like this totally different guy. Is that theatre training?” Of course, I thought he was kidding. Then he said, “Are you on the whole shoot? We need you on the whole shoot.” With “no extra lines [and] no extra money,” he was kept around so that he could credibly point at things and remove his glasses throughout the film. It’s still one of the very best performances in that movie and apparently gave Isaacs enough crazy Michael Bay stories to tell for years to come.
Chaz Whatley/’Cherry’ – Sweet November
The remake of Sweet November starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron is fairly dreadful, but again, Isaacs is a highlight. The film finds Reeves’ driven advertiser spending a month with Theron’s Sara after she promises that she will change his life for the better. Momentarily, he’s distracted from his job, until a dinner encounter with a Scottish transvestite called Cherry.
Realizing that Sara’s acquaintance is advertising hotshot Chaz Whatley by day throws Keanu for a loop (this is possibly the most baffled and bewildered scene of his entire career), but Cherry shrugs it off with a giggle. We can’t really recommend the film, which turns maudlin and cloying before the end, but Isaacs is clearly enjoying himself immensely.
Clark Devlin – The Tuxedo
Jackie Chan’s spy comedy is as close as Isaacs has come to playing Bond, as one of those Hollywood 007 substitutes with the name changed to protect the copyrights. He gives taxi driver Jimmy Tong (Chan) a job as his personal chauffeur and takes him under his wing, teaching him how to be suave so that he can meet his dream girl.
However, Devlin is gravely injured by a car bombing at the end of the first act, leaving Jimmy to don his technologically enhanced tuxedo and get up to all sorts of super-suited foolishness like martial arts fighting and dancing with James Brown. Isaacs’ role is fairly minor in this one, but he makes an impression in his bookend roles as Jimmy’s employer and instructor in womanizing.
D.J. – Event Horizon
We’ve recently written about how time has been kind to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, which had a lukewarm reception back in 1997 but has since been deservingly reappraised. Isaacs plays D.J, the trauma doctor on the doomed rescue vessel Lewis and Clark, which travels into a dimension beyond the known universe after receiving a distress signal from the titular ship.
D.J. is the one who eventually translates the distress signal correctly—“save yourselves from hell.” After Laurence Fishburne’s Captain Miller decides to destroy the Event Horizon, the crew start dying and D.J. finds himself on the receiving end of one of the film’s more famously nasty deaths, as mad, bad Dr. Weir vivisects him and hangs him up on wires. The combination of ickiness and gravitas makes this another memorable performance.
Major Briggs – Green Zone
Considering he was cast at the last minute in Paul Greengrass’ war-on-terror thriller (as Isaacs tells it, Greengrass rang him up and asked if he’d like to “jump out of a helicopter and beat the shit out of Matt Damon” the following morning), his performance here is all the more impressive. Green Zone follows Damon’s weapons inspector Roy Miller as he gets lost in the U.S. intelligence quagmire of Iraq, with everyone from the army to the Pentagon obstructing his search for the truth.
As Isaacs’ brief suggests, Miller comes off worse in a knock-down brawl with Briggs over an informant’s notebook, which is one of the standout scenes in the film. It’s not like he’s unrecognizable here, but his impeccable American accent and magnificent handlebar moustache still make it into something of a transformation. As is true for most of these roles, it’s not the biggest role in the movie, but Briggs’ spectacular facial furniture lingers in the memory as much, if not more so, than the political machinations.
Captain Steele – Black Hawk Down
Isaacs does a good line in tough guys in the military (see also, Major Mellitz in Windtalkers and Captain Waggoner in Fury), and along similar lines to Green Zone, he’s one of the standout players in the starry ensemble that Ridley Scott pulled together for Black Hawk Down, which chronicles a disastrous 1993 operation by the U.S. Army Rangers in Somalia.
Steele is the shaven-headed commander of the Rangers, endlessly imitable but nevertheless highly respected by his men. Once Scott gets his nearly 90-minute action sequence going, Steele is well established enough to stand out from the carnage even when he’s barking orders into a walkie talkie. The film was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer too, and this more than makes up for the lack of substance he was given in Armageddon.
The Colonel – Skeletons
This eccentric and under-appreciated British indie fantasy finds two emotional exorcists (Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley) trudging across the English countryside on assignments to clean the skeletons out of people’s closets. Their contact out in the field is known only as the Colonel, a gentleman in a flat cap with a big scary scar across his throat.
Like so much of the organization in the film, the Colonel’s backstory remains a mystery and Isaacs is amusingly gruff and unforthcoming as the leads’ boss, calling them “mush” and only really livening up at the prospect of airing out a pair of Saxe-Coburg descendants’ demons (“imagine the filth!”). His performance is accordingly dry and odd, but he provokes many of the bigger laughs in the film.
Father Richard Smythe – The End of the Affair
Neil Jordan’s adaptation of The End of the Affair is a melodramatic but moving portrait of a doomed love affair, in which Ralph Fiennes plays an author called Bendrix, who becomes poisonously jealous of every other man around his lover Sarah, played by Julianne Moore. Smythe comes into the picture as the man that Bendrix suspects is Sarah’s second lover, but eventually discovers that she has been visiting the Catholic priest for spiritual guidance after promising God that she would stop seeing her first.
Alongside Bendrix’s narration of his own hatred, Father Smythe is the character who sees him for what he is from their very first meeting and in his appearances thereafter, there’s a very well played, barely constrained disdain for the author’s selfishness in contrast with Sarah’s innate goodness. As an avowed atheist, the mannered exterior only infuriates Bendrix further, and Isaacs steals just about every scene he’s in.
Colonel William Tavington – The Patriot
You can say what you like about Roland Emmerich’s typically over-the-top Revolutionary War drama (though no one could lampoon such historical pablum better than leading man Mel Gibson did himself when he overplayed KFC’s Colonel Sanders in a skit on Jimmy Kimmel’s chat show), but Isaacs’ sneeringly sadistic villain is the best part of it, and Gibson’s collaborative process led to some interesting acting opportunities on set.
“One day, we shot the scene where [Gibson] tells me he’s going to kill me,” Isaacs told Movieline back in the day. “I was supposed to say something like, ‘We’ll see about that.’ Instead, I turned to him and said, ‘Go ahead,’ and I threw him a gun. He went with it as if that’s just what he imagined I’d do. I loved that.” British villainy in American movies might be something of a cliché, but while The Patriot merrily runs slap bang into such tropes, Tavington is still a great underrated bastard of modern Hollywood.
Lucius Malfoy – The Harry Potter films
Arguably, Isaacs has the only significant character development of any of the adult cast of the Harry Potter series. Michael Gambon took over from the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and Alan Rickman was let in on Snape’s true allegiance from the very beginning and played it accordingly, but other than that, the adults remain much the same throughout the story. The only recurring adult character who truly developed with each subsequent appearance was Lucius Malfoy.
When we meet him in Chamber of Secrets, he’s in Tavington territory with a resplendent blond wig and he essentially gets away with the attempted murder of an 11-year-old girl. We don’t see him again in the films until Voldemort returns, which begins a gradual decline of his standing. By the two Deathly Hallows films, he’s reduced to a craven, haggard Death Eater, who’s last seen running away from the fray with his family. It’s one of the best realized transitions from page to screen in the whole series, encapsulating the elder Malfoy’s austerity and cowardice.
Maurice – Good
Adapted from the stage play of the same name, Good is set during the rise of Hitler in Germany and ponders the complicity of ordinary people in their foothold in political power. The title literally refers to the maxim that all it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. Literature professor John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) is one such good man, but even the concerns of his Jewish friend Maurice (Isaacs) can’t stop him from embracing Nazism to advance his career.
Isaacs is one of the executive producers on this film and was instrumental in getting it made. It was a personal project for him and he’s at the peak of his powers as Maurice, a wealthy single man and a big character who is gradually stripped of his joie de vivre and ultimately, his dignity, as anti-Semitism becomes ever more popular in his homeland. Mortensen is reliably great in the lead role too and their dynamic is the foundation for a harrowing and thoughtful approach to a period of history that isn’t really covered that often in cinema.
Captain Hook/George Darling – Peter Pan
We’ve saved this for last for a reason. There’s only been one Lucius Malfoy, and Good is undoubtedly his best work, but for our money, Isaacs is the definitive live-action Captain Hook and there have been no shortage of Peter Pan movies. And when you think of 2003’s Peter Pan, you think of Isaacs’ take on Hook.
Again, he’s having a ball with it, without camping it up, and he imbues the character with some very real malice in his determination to kill Peter, so that he can be free of his own tragic grumpiness. In the theatrical tradition of J.M. Barrie’s play, director PJ Hogan also cast Isaacs as the Darlings’ father George, which is another nice touch. Dustin Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, and Garrett Hedlund have all had a go, and there are yet more live-action Peter Pan movies in development, (including one at Disney), but it’s Jason Isaacs’ take on the villain that has yet to be equalled.