There’s a breed of actor that’s strangely recognizable by sheer dint of being a through- and-through jobbing actor. You might classify them as the more than competent character actor, others have an even simpler function as the rent-a-stock figure. Rarer still are the dashingly handsome not-quite-leading types, whose old-skool Hollywood good looks get them parts in the strangest films. For the casual film fan these actors represent a familiar but nameless presence (“oh, I know him, where do I know him from?”) For the obsessive follower of film (and increasingly TV as well) their appearance is like seeing an old acquaintance. The more you watch, the more rewarding the echo of recognition, irrespective of the feature itself. Match enough of these appearances with unheralded yet unexplainably brilliant films and you get a dangerously unquestioning devotion.
Which is to say, I absolutely love Thomas Jane and the frankly baffling films he’s been in.
He partly falls into the category of the chisel-jawed would-be leading man, having even had a crack at the BIGTIME™ twice, first with the shark-baiting shenanigans of Deep Blue Sea, and later with dangerously wonky yet flat comic-book adaptation The Punisher. But for his failure to launch in these hero driven action flicks, it’s in the role of the Average Joe thrust into extraordinary circumstance where Jane has really come to shine. The handsome everyman who in spite of his dashing looks is quite easy to relate to; a touch self effacing, a little world weary (but not resigned), and probably unshaven. Effortless in so far as he could not care less.
He pops up in a brilliant and rather broad range of bit parts and cameos: the bushy moustachioed drug dealing partner of Boogie Nights lead Eddie Adams; the high-fiveing officer of the Vegan police force in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; playing himself as a method acting tramp in Arrested Development; and perhaps best of all, a soldier at the end of Thin Red Line with a brief reflection on being left behind. Some might take the fact that Terence Malick cut scenes with Mickey Rourke, Adrien Brody, Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman and Bill Pullman from the final cut, but left in Thomas Jane in for all of minute and a half as sign that there’s something special about the guy.
My first brush of surprise came with a mob of friends in a videostore, for reasons untold picking up the unassuming Thursday. Settled architect (Jane) is caught up by his drug-dealing/guns-blazing past, with a series of increasingly inexplicable characters appearing at the door of his suburban home. The film more than lives up to its risible blurb as a ‘post-Tarantino’ film, but for all its deficiency of imagination in regards snappy camera work and shuffled narrative, the twists in the pretty daft tale keeps bubbling along.
Jane’s role is the hub around which the whole film spins, the man trying, and failing to be a suburban nobody, deflecting the increasingly bizarre procession of callers that come throughout the course of the day. He’s matched by the suitably smarmy Aaron Eckhart as his wheeling and dealing partner of old, and the clash of the not-quite-leading-men makes this a surprisingly strong pairing. The film’s pretty garish at points, and the ending’s a complete cop-out, but a conveyor belt of recognisable faces (Mickey Rourke/James LeGros/Michael Jeter) lifts a uneven script. The film barely works as a whole, but by force of a baffling cast, some disjointed humour and fair dollop of misplaced passion it sort-of pulls it off.
The second Jane-related broadside came in the nigh forgotten Stander, the embellished story of a real-life South African police officer turned bank robber. I’m sure the first time I noticed the film was in the queue at a supermarket, the floppy wig, big sunglasses, automatic weapon, and competitive price point (~£3) more than enough to catch my eye. Cost aside, the film is rather neatly summarised as being about a man dressing in silly get ups for increasingly brazen hold-ups. Set in 1970s South Africa, Andre Stander is the cop fed up with enforcing the cruel Apartheid rule of law, and recognising the stupefying goodwill shown by banks towards white folk, decides to exploit the system. What starts off as a nihilistic dare turns into a rather elaborate scheme, with a criminal crew, nationwide hunt, and constant misleading of his police colleagues.
The exposition of the righteous political motives behind Stander’s wreckless campaign aren’t the most robust, but Jane throws himself into the role with a dizzying level of eagerness. The accents are surprisingly solid, the dynamic between the criminal compatriots a nasty mix of best-buddies and fiery contention. The disguises used in the bank heists are almost as ludicrous as the 70s fashion on parade, and the small but tight action sequences are underscored by an absolutely thumping afrobeat score. It’s one of those films where the cast are having an absolute whale of a time, and thankfully that enjoyment is incredibly infectious. By dint of being a rather small indie action film it’s probably going to be forgotten at the bottom of the bargain basket, but honestly, dig it out wherever you can.
Finally a mention has to be made to The Mist, the Stephen King short story polished to perfection by Frank Darabont with a cast of actors each of whom could readily qualify in the category I tried defining in the opening paragraph. The approach of the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances is pretty much King through and through, but Darabont brings an edge of physical horror with some gorgeous b-movie Cold War/War-on-Terror undertones to the piece. Jane is a jobbing film poster artist living in a picturesque small town East coast USA, and following a particular bad storm gets stuck in an old fashioned supermarket with his son when the store gets swathed in an almost noxious looking mist. Panicked citizens rush in screaming of unfathomable horrors lurking in the gloom, the captured crowd stuck in two minds whether to venture out or not.
The film develops into a sort of one room drama, with die-cast characters bouncing off each other in paranoid delusion, in bickering drama, in all kinds of stupid powerplays for control of the group. Again Jane is the hub of the film, the unassuming hero that desperately doesn’t want to be leading things, but who will none the less step up in the moment of crisis. The kind of hero we flatter ourselves by relating to. There are set piece dramatic confrontations, real fireworks that play right to the strengths of a cast of character actors more used to the stage than the screen. Then the monsters actually start to appear, or at least poke a toe in, and then things get a little Jurassic towards the frankly spectacular final reel. To say its bleak would be a cruel understatement, but through the course of the film you get pulled emotionally in every direction, Jane standing as the anchor you’re left clinging to as the whole world collapses around him. Monster movies with grander subtexts rank very high on my list of odd subgenres, and this comfortably tops that list.
Sadly 2011 doesn’t hold much promise for the Thomas Jane acolyte. A rom-com starring Miley Cyrus, whose title is an explanation of what LOL means, followed by an independent project, I Melt With You, co-starring Sasha Grey (aka, the actress whose filmography is probably funnier than many a film you’ll see this year). There’s another season of Hung due on HBO, which should hopefully see Jane on run-down form as the unwitting Michigan gigolo, but that’s unlikely to set the world alight. Not that Thomas Jane ever will set the world alight, but I’m ok with that, and hopefully he is too.