Top 10 greatest William Fichtner films

With Drive Angry out now on DVD and Blu-ray, we take a look back over the finest work of co-star and acting legend, William Fichtner...

William Fichtner might not have achieved the status of household name yet, but to those familiar with his work, he inspires as much loyalty from fans as he does from the directors and producers that have repeatedly cast him in their films over the years.

Focusing on his more geek-centric films, I’ll let his body of work and the sheer range and variety of his performances sell the quality of the man. He’s certainly an actor I’ve admired and followed for many years now.

I’ll freely admit that The Perfect Storm quite possibly should have made this list, but while I enjoyed the film and Fichtner’s performance, there wasn’t much I could find to write about it, other than that it’s a solid enough drama, with an almost inappropriate cast, that builds towards only one inevitable moment.

Here, then, are the top ten (and then some) Fichtner films…

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10. Heat/Strange Days/Virtuosity (all 1995)

Well, yes, I appreciate that this may seem like an incredible cheat to start with, but it’s to give an example of some of the more geek-friendly films he’s made small appearances in, be they dramatic or comical, and all three of these were released in 1995.

Fichtner excels at making small roles memorable, but I thought it was important to draw attention to those that almost qualify as ‘blink and you’ll miss them’, those that have helped build up his resume and reputation.

Strange Days is Kathryn Bigelow’s racially tense sci-fi movie, which sees a bedraggled Ralph Fiennes caught up in a murder cover-up, in a film that was far better than I remember it being. Fichtner plays a cop partnered with an out of control Vincent D’Onofrio, in a mostly silent role, but one that’s integral to the film’s narrative.

Russell Crowe chews all the scenery beyond measure in Virtuosity, which plays out like a poor man’s Demolition Man, only with Denzel Washington in pursuit. Fichtner plays the suited asshole, sharing scenes with the always hissable Louise Fletcher, making me wonder if perhaps she didn’t instruct him in the ways of onscreen villainy after her notorious turn in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

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Finally, to Michael Mann’s magnificent Heat, where Fichtner shares screen time with the heroic Henry Rollins, which is more than enough justification for a mention.

9. Date Night (2010)/Blades Of Glory (2007)

A comedy double which, again, if you’re a fan of Fichtner’s work and are keen to get another fix, will leave you feeling a little short changed in terms of time on screen, but still enthused by his performances.

Blades Of Glory is every bit the over the top lunacy you’d expect from a film starring Will Ferrell and Jon Heder, as rival figure skaters forced to team up. Fichtner appears only for the first ten minutes or so of the film and, sadly, doesn’t reappear, but plays a slightly camp and utterly cruel billionaire who buys up a young talented orphan, just to make him a success. The orphan grows into Heder’s character, who’s then literally dumped at that side of a road when his career comes to an end.

Date Night stars the esteemed comedy duo of Steve Carell and Tina Fey and was a film I read mixed reviews about. Yet, I fell in love with the sheer charm of both leads and wasn’t really worried by the more predictable elements of the plot, such as it is. It’s utterly rewatchable, and alongside Fichtner’s sleazy district attorney, features the best performance I’ve seen from Mark Wahlberg in a long, long time.

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Fichtner’s main scene, which comes towards the end of the film, is a glorious chance to watch him make Carell and Fey dance for his sexual pleasure, but I’ll say no more.

8. The Dark Knight (2008)

I know what you’re thinking. That William Fichtner only appears for five minutes in The Dark Knight. So, why have I included it? Well, to start with The Dark Knight is, for me, one of the greatest films ever made, so not to write about it would go against all better judgement. Also, the fact that Fichtner got to be a small part of it is more significant than you might first think.

Christopher Nolan is a man who’s known for his immaculately cast movies. Let’s not forget the first time the full cast of Batman Begins was revealed, and the poor poster designer had to find a reasonable way of squeezing all those names across the top. Consider then, that he knew that his interpretation and first reveal of the Joker in TDK was to set audience expectations for the rest of the substantial run time. If the moment that Heath Ledger first unmasked had been anything less than perfect, the whole film would have been unbalanced.

So, it would appear that the first person to be entrusted with one of the film’s key moments was none other than Mr Fichtner. An angry, shotgun-toting Fichtner, at that.

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It also spoke volumes about his cult appeal as an actor (if cult appeal is even possible, since the Internet became commonplace), that his casting seemed to allude to a future role, a much bigger one. (The web became rife with speculation that he was to become the future Riddler, with people reading signs into his encounter with the Joker.) But, more importantly, the fact that Fichtner was able to stand out in one small role is a significant display of his ability and popularity.

7. Equilibrium/Ultraviolet (2002/2006)

A double dose of Kurt Wimmer as both writer/director, yet he chose to work with William Fichtner both times. Wimmer is better known as a writer, with Law Abiding Citizen and Salt being among his more recent efforts. With only three directorial credits to his name, somewhat strangely, the Brian Bosworth actioner, One Tough Bastard, was the first.

I decided to include both films under one listing, as Wimmer clearly used Fichtner in a very similar capacity twice. Ultraviolet is an incredible amount of vacuous fun, as a semi-vampiric Milla Jovovich smashes more motorcycle helmeted heads than I’ll wager have ever been smashed in any other movie, with Con Air’s Nick Chinlund on bad guy duties.

Fichtner is used to bring a certain sage-like weight to the fluff that surrounds him, though, like most actors, should be forced to show vampire teeth, just so that we know he is one. (Wesley Snipes is one of the few that can pull that look off.) Fichtner also draws attention to Jovovich’s shortcomings as a dramatic actor, but that only heightens the enjoyment.

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Equilibrium, on the other hand, is a film I absolutely adore. Back when it first appeared at the cinema, I became utterly defensive of its qualities, becoming most irate if anyone dared to accuse it of ‘being like The Matrix‘. There are many things I love about Equilibrium, from Christian Bale’s calm psychosis when rescuing a puppy, a brief but touching appearance from Sean Bean, the general ambience of the film, to the films’ explosive and incredibly exciting action scenes that, for my money, better those in The Matrix, while being considerably more visceral.

Fichtner, again, has a relatively small, yet pivotal role as the underground leader of the resistance, whom Bale’s character is desperate to track down. Watching Fichtner confront Bale is certainly more befitting the man’s talents, and continued to place him on my radar as not only an actor I admire, but one who has a tendency to appear in a large amount of films I love.

6. Black Hawk Down (2001)

Normally, war movies don’t tend to appeal to me a great deal. Not through a lack of skill in the way that they’re made, but because I usually use cinema as an excuse to escape reality, and the bleak tragedy of war isn’t normally the most seductive environment to do that in. Sometimes, though, a war movie comes along which, regardless of how much it claims to be based on reality, feels more akin to a solid, dramatic, action movie.

Black Hawk Down is one such movie, feeling more like a grittier brother to The Rock than a documentary about real world problems, which did cause some people to take issue with certain depictions in the film. However, as is often the case with Hollywood’s historical interpretations, there has to be enough action and drama to warrant being a bankable slice of entertainment, and in that respect, Black Hawk Down is fantastic.

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Like several films on this list, its ensemble cast is almost too huge to mention, yet everyone makes a memorable impact. Eric Bana really shines as a man who you’d absolutely want on your side in a fight, providing some superbly cool moments, while the two Trainspotting‘s Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner are there for light relief amongst the carnage.

Fichtner, alongside Jason Isaacs and Tom Sizemore, carry the senior rankings out in the field and are all equally superb. But the main kick to be gained of Fichtner’s role comes from the tension between his character and Isaacs’. It makes for a great face-off, especially when considering both actors cinematic histories playing people less than friendly.

5. Armageddon (1998)

Straight from one beloved Bruckheimer movie to another, though this time one without any concerns about reality, which is just how I like them.

Armageddon has always been a divisive movie, to say the least, with its higher moments of melodrama proving hysterically funny for some, and tear inducing for others. But one thing’s for sure, it’s a damn site more exciting than Deep Impact, its cinematic rival at the time.

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Just a few days ago, a geologist friend of mine started bemoaning how the science behind the film wouldn’t work and questioning why on earth there was a minigun on a space shuttle, which I easily countered with, “Bruce Willis executed the science, so therefore, it would work, and most likely Steve Buscemi asked for the minigun, because he’s awesome.” Hardly the most highbrow defence of a movie, but you’re either along with Armageddon for the ride, or there’s no point in even watching it.

Like Black Hawk Down, there’s a cross section of the Bruckheimer Boys (as I have so named them) that are often seen in other movies he’s produced. For example, Buscemi’s scene stealing in both this and Con Air, or the paternal gravitas of Will Patton that was repeated in Gone In 60 Seconds. Jason Isaacs also puts in an appearance, though this time as a scientist demonstrating the ‘firecracker in the palm of your hand’ theory.

Fichtner gets the pleasure of heading up the astronaut crew and therefore locking heads with Bruce Willis throughout the course of the film. It’s a fairly substantial role, but an almost thankless one at times, as the film is designed to make you dislike anyone who goes up against the mighty Bruce. Still, Fichtner does get to point a gun at the former McClane and deliver one of the films’ greatest and cheesiest lines at the film’s end, thus proving his ability to deliver even the clunkiest dialogue with conviction. Fichtner also went on to make a third Jerry Bruckheimer film, Pearl Harbour.

4. Contact (1997)

Contact is a strangely epic film and one that I’ve often overlooked in the past. A recent viewing for the first time in years reminded me how great the film is, as it traces Jodie Foster’s constant attempts to make contact with extraterrestrial life, driven to near obsessive levels after a tragic event in childhood. There’s a great charm to the film, which is unsurprising when you consider that it’s directed by Robert Zemeckis, and it makes for a perfect Sunday afternoon’s viewing.

Sunday afternoons, for me at least, can be a great time to watch epics, be they historical, science fiction (or, as is also the case with The Right Stuff; both), or otherwise. Some films feel destined to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, when all you really feel like is something absorbing and dramatic and Zemeckis, much like fellow director, Ron Howard, always seems to effortlessly create such movies.

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It helps that Contact boasts a stellar cast of supporting actors, including David Morse (who also appears in Drive Angry below), Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt and the supreme James Woods.

Fichtner plays Kent, who, unlike many of his characters, is incredibly sweet and a near constant support to Jodie Foster’s Ellie throughout, with no hidden agendas. Kent is also blind, requiring a more sensitive handling of the role, while providing a different and difficult kind of physical challenge, compared to the Bruckheimer movies above, and Fichtner excels at it.

3. Drive Angry (2011)

Far from a perfect film and one that left me craving another viewing of Nic Cage’s awesome return to form in Bad Lieutenant, there’s no doubt that Fichtner knocks his performance out of the park. It’s so unusual to find a film where an actor seems to single-handedly outclass everything around him, feeling almost independent from any direction. Fichtner actually seems to have been spliced from a different league of film entirely and transplanted into Drive Angry as a saving grace.

The supernatural and demonic charm that Fichtner imbues The Accountant with reminded me, in parts, of Christopher Walken in The Prophecy (a much overlooked gem of a movie), an actor he shares many of his best qualities with. Both are known for their naturally threatening air, while being able to utilize that to great comedic effect.

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The Accountant very much plays both of those aspects to their full potential, allowing Fichtner to show how incredible he can be, with a large portion of the film’s attention on him, making him sorely missed every second he’s not on screen. Even though Cage spends most of the film looking bored, he sparks into life during his confrontations with Fichtner, as if he knows that simply strolling through his scenes won’t be enough to pass when facing off against such a talented actor.

The Accountant also gets to star in Drive Angry‘s best scene, which sees him surfing moving vehicles to KC and the Sunshine Band. It’s fantastic, and arguably Fichtner’s coolest scene to date.

2. Go (1999)

It seemed only fair to bump Go to the number two slot, after it topped my Timothy Olyphant list earlier this year, even though it’s the film that put both actors on my radar permanently. To be fair, the film would rank in a list of the best films of most of the largely underappreciated actors in its cast, from Jay Mohr to Sarah Polley and not forgetting Fichtner’s onscreen wife during his finest scene, Jane Krakowski.

Fichtner plays Detective Burke, who’s apprehended actors Zack and Adam (Mohr and Scott Wolf, who also made a guest appearance in Mohr’s superb TV series, Action) on a drug bust, but decides to let them off with a warning on one condition, that they come back to his house for dinner.

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What follows is a superbly unsettling and blackly comedic scene that’s laden with crossed intentions and irony. Fichtner and Krakowski make the perfect dysfunctional, superficially serene, suburban couple, showing as much of a comedic side as a predatory and sinister one. They effortlessly relish every second of their roles, stealing most of the film in the process.

In keeping with William Fichtner’s ability to be used multiple times by filmmakers, director Doug Liman would go on to cast Fichtner as the voice of the marriage counsellor in Mr And Mrs Smith.

1. The Amateurs (aka The Moguls) (2005)

Now, here is a film that I wasn’t even aware of until sitting patiently, awaiting my chance to interview the great man last earlier this year (that interview is linked below). It’s a film that Fichtner’s very proud of and rightly so, as The Amateurs is an incredibly sweet, charming and funny movie, with one hell of an ensemble cast, yet has received virtually no recognition.

The ever-excellent Jeff Bridges takes centre stage as Andy Sargentee, a man who’s spent most of his life ‘trying’, without ever succeeding in ‘doing’. Andy lives in small-town America and has always involved his close friends in his failed attempts to be successful, with the film detailing his latest attempt to make money, shooting an adult film. Rounding up his equally enthused male friends, who include Tim Blake Nelson, Joe Pantoliano, Ted Danson and, of course, William Fichtner, the film details the highs and lows of their naively optimistic journey.

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As Otis, Fichtner gets some of the film’s very best lines, from expressing his love of lesbians, asking if there’s a part in the film’s production where he can just ‘watch’, and in an fantastic scene where Ted Danson’s character’s sexuality is finally called out, quite literally.

Considering the film is rich in great performances (special mention should also go to Glenne Headly), it’s a testament to Fichtner that his stands out as the funniest, showing a fuller side to his comedic talents in a movie that I can’t recommend highly enough.

See Also:

Drive Angry 3D is available on DVD and Blu-ray. You can rent or buy it from Blockbuster, here.