Last Friday, during our weekly trailer roundup, we asked a glib but honest question: “Are we all agreed that we’ve passed the tipping point with Samuel L. Jackson?” The query was posed in response to the release of the trailer for Arena, a (from all indications) aggressively stupid straight-to-DVD video-game-centered action flick — and just another in a long, long line of terrible movies from an actor once considered to be among the finest of his generation. Jackson certainly isn’t alone, though; there are plenty of film actors who have proven themselves capable of brilliance but have apparently made the conscious decision to (barely) expend their energies on lazy, paycheck roles.
Any discussion of this issue must, of course, begin with Nicolas Cage, who has turned out such a non-stop stream of irredeemable garbage over the last decade or so that it is easy to forget that he was once a bold and daring actor capable of delightfully gonzo turns in great movies like Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, and Wild at Heart. Sure, his instincts weren’t perfect (as anyone who’s sat through Trapped in Paradise can tell you), but the guy had heart, and he gave every role his all.
Then, in the mid-‘90s, two things happened. First, he won a well-deserved Academy Award for his wrenching, powerful performance in Leaving Las Vegas. The next year, Cage was cast somewhat against type as the lead in the Michael Bay action extravaganza The Rock, which became a box office smash. And there you have the crossroads that Nicolas Cage peered at: serious actor, or man of action?
Based on the direction his career has taken in the ensuing years, we can only assume that he compared paychecks. For the first few years, it was clear that he tried to do both — mixing the prestige projects with the easy money. But in all fairness to the actor, it soon became clear that his good movies (2003’s Matchstick Men, 2005’s Lord of War) were playing to empty theaters, while audiences were inexplicably flocking to garbage like National Treasure and Ghost Rider, so he gave them more of that: The Wicker Man, Next, National Treasure 2, Bangkok Dangerous, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry 3D. That’s a spectacularly terrible five-year run, with exactly one good movie in the middle of it — Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, an attempt to put his batshit-crazy onscreen persona (which has now morphed into a collection of tics and shouts entirely absent of the nuance of his early work) into an equally insane movie, where it would at least make sense. But, again, nobody saw it. So an argument could be mounted that if audiences had showed up when Cage was mixing good movies with the compost, then he’d make more of them. Maybe we share the blame, then. On the other hand, how much more money does this guy need? (Oh. Never mind.)
However, Cage’s fall into the cinematic dumpster isn’t nearly as depressing as that of the great Robert DeNiro, who was one of your author’s teenage cinematic idols thanks to his unforgettable collaborations with Martin Scorsese and iconic roles in films like The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, Once Upon a Time in America, and Brazil. Throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even into the ‘90s (lest we forget, his output that decade included Wag the Dog, Ronin, Heat, A Bronx Tale, and Jackie Brown), DeNiro was a reliable name on the marquee; this guy was an actor. He didn’t do crap.
Then, he started doing crap. In 1999, the actor — who had seldom dabbled in full-on comedy — sent up his own image in the admittedly entertaining Analyze This; the next year, he did The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (trotting out a shameful parody of his most celebrated on-screen moment, the “You talkin’ to me?” scene in Taxi Driver) and Meet the Parents, and the die was cast. The ensuing decade was a nightmare of half-assed comedies (Showtime, What Just Happened), instantly forgettable genre pictures (Godsend, Hide and Seek), and endless sequels (Analyze That, Meet the Fockers, Little Fockers), to say nothing of Righteous Kill, the horrifyingly inept 2008 effort that somehow managed to make the sight of DeNiro and Pacino sharing the screen about as exciting as a UHF cooking show.
DeNiro has had occasional oases; he’s not half bad in Everybody’s Fine, and is downright excellent in Stone. But, as with Cage, no one showed up when he bothered to act. So his upcoming slate is as depressing as you’d expect; there is this fall’s The Killer Elite , preceded by a trailer whose unironic use of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” makes it easily the year’s funniest two minutes of cinema, and New Year’s Eve , the all-star cluster-fuck follow-up to Valentine’s Day in which Mr. DeNiro will share the screen with such distinguished thespians as Katherine Heigl, Ashton Kutcher, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jon Bon Jovi.
For your author, longtime-DeNiro-fan-turned-DeNiro-apologist, the turning point came in 2007, with Stardust. It wasn’t just that it was a mediocre movie; it was that DeNiro was shockingly terrible in it. His turn, as a closet-queen pirate ship captain, was painful to watch; the distinguished actor made no commitment whatsoever to the character — we were just supposed to laugh at the fact that it’s him, all but winking at us, and that’s just not good enough. (It’s a characterization with all the depth of a late-season guest shot on Will & Grace.)
And that’s the point we’ve reached with Mr. Jackson; it’s not only that the good films are so grotesquely outweighed by the bad, but that he is so clearly phoning it in on all but special occasions these days. (I will again direct you to the way his reading of the line “I’ll set you free” in that appalling Arena trailer.) No one was happier than your author when Jackson broke through in Pulp Fiction; I’d been a fan for years, not only from his terrific work in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and Do The Right Thing, but from his utterly electrifying turn as “Hold-Up Man” in Coming to America. After that big break, Jackson (still, at heart, a hard-working New York actor taking every opportunity that came his way) could be forgiven for his lack of selectivity, especially because he was mostly doing stellar work in good, small movies like Eve’s Bayou, Hard Eight, and Trees Lounge. But (again) over the last decade, there have been fewer and fewer Mother and Childs and more xXxs, The Mans, and Jumpers. One wonders if he even bothers reading the scripts anymore.
Cage, DeNiro, Jackson — they’ve broken our hearts. What about you? Who do you think has fallen farther? Which actors are you through trusting?