The other day, I managed to catch up with Green Zone, the latest film to unite Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass. I broadly agree with Nicole’s review of the film and the three-star score that she gave it, but I couldn’t help but continue to like the fact that Matt Damon chooses his roles so well. Whether you love or hate the man, he could simply lend his name to traditional star roles and big blockbusters. And yet, I’ve never seen him anywhere near something like Valentine’s Day, or chatting about a massive effects blockbuster.
In fact, just look at his last three films. Green Zone is a fairly ballsy migration of the Bourne formula to the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Then there was Invictus, taking the less showy role behind Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood’s flick about Nelson Mandela. Before that he took the lead in The Informant!, a quirky comedy about a whistle blower for Steven Soderbergh that surely would have made more money if the whole thing was played straight (yet arguably was more interesting because it didn’t).
Dig back even further if you like. The Good Shepherd? Syriana? The Departed? This isn’t a man dedicated to turning out rubbish and counting the cash. And while his choices are far from perfect – Ocean’s 12 always springs to mind – it’s still terrific to see a major movie star picking his roles with a criteria of quality seemingly higher up the list than box office bottom line. George Clooney can be placed in the same bracket, too. Leonardo DiCaprio as well.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, this is not dissimilar to Kevin Costner was doing. Costner was a rare case: at the very peak of his box office powers, he rarely took the easy option. Granted, he chose misfires along the way, and some of his films are best forgotten. But at the start of the 90s, he, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis were the big movie stars. Bruce Willis eventually came round to picking more challenging fare by the end of the decade, while Arnie churned out the mix of action and comedy roles that have ultimately defined his career.
But Costner? Are there many other movie stars who, after garnering massive worldwide success with The Bodyguard (a film I’ve little time for, in all honesty), would follow it up with the sublime and hugely underrated A Perfect World? A film that that gave him a character who couldn’t be much further away from The Bodyguard‘s Frank Farmer (these’s an argument for Patrick Swayze, but his choice of material, while risky, was lacking in quality too often).
Then, after that, he jumped aboard Wyatt Earp, a big budget Western with no guarantee of success whatsoever (and ultimately, it proved not to enjoy that much at all).
Look back down the Costner resume, and it’s full of films chosen with an eye on the quality of the material first. Say what you like about The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field Of Dreams, Dances With Wolves, JFK, A Perfect World, Tin Cup, The Postman and Thirteen Days, but you can barely fault the eye for good material, or, at the very least, the propensity for taking a risk. They weren’t even risks because his career demanded he take a gamble to spark it into life. They were risks taken primarily because he wanted to take them.
While we’re here: Tin Cup and Thirteen Days are both hugely underappreciated movies, and The Postman, while a mess, is at least layered with ambition.
Now, take a look at most of the movie stars who have been doing the rounds at some point over the past two decades, and try and find another who’s consistently gambled, and won more than they’ve lost. Michael Douglas, perhaps? Certainly not the likes of Shia LaBoeuf (although he’s still young, to be fair), or Nicolas Cage (since he got his blockbuster breakthrough). Julia Roberts? Harrison Ford? Will Smith? Mel Gibson? Eddie Murphy? Johnny Depp, maybe? Even the two Toms, Hanks and Cruise, have played more safer cards than riskier ones.
Most actors we’ve mentioned have several interesting and riskier projects to their name, to be fair, but not to the same ratio when placed against their more commercial picks. And granted, there are many actors who have just as interesting a filmography as Costner, but how many of them were picking projects such as these when they first burst through as a major movie star? And then kept picking them when they were at the top of their powers? Even Waterworld, love it or loathe it, is about the most difficult action blockbuster anyone in the 90s could have plumped for.
Kevin Costner is far from a perfect actor, and he may be the most wonderful or loathsome human being on the planet. I couldn’t tell you. Nor can I tell you what was going through his head when he was making Dragonfly. He’s certainly made a number of shitty movies.
But we still need more movie stars like him. We still need a greater concentration of actors who have the chops to roll the dice when they’ve got the most to lose.
Long term, Costner’s probably paid a box office price for doing so. But the pay off is that, even though his star has long peaked, we’re still talking about his films, and the choices he made. And there simply aren’t many other actors of the last few decades whom that applies to.
Back to Green Zone. It isn’t a great film, but I’m glad that Matt Damon chose to make it. And I dearly hope that the likes of him, George Clooney, Johnny Depp and a few others continue to roll the dice, and continue to fully lend their star power to projects that really deserve to be filmed, and at least given a chance. That’s how you get films like A Perfect World and Thirteen Days in the first place.
And that’s why more young actors really need to be learning from the choices that Kevin Costner has been making, for better or worse, right throughout his career.