Men in Black III will roll into your local cineplex tomorrow (or tonight, probably), and while it is a film with some problems, there’s one element of it we can wholeheartedly endorse: Josh Brolin’s performance as young “Agent K,” the character played by Tommy Lee Jones in the first two MIB pictures (and part of this one). Brolin, who co-starred with Jones in No Country for Old Men and In the Valley of Elah (though they shared no scenes), not only has the older actor’s vocal inflections down cold — he also nails TLJ’s no-nonsense attitude and dry comic timing. But even more impressively, it’s not just a great impersonation; he transcends the limitations of mere impression and creates a wonderful performance, making room within the established character for his own touches. That’s a tough job to do, and not one that has been done successfully all that often. After the jump, we’ll take a look at a few other actors that pulled it off.
Robert DeNiro as Young Vito Corleone, The Godfather Part II (1974)
As we’ve mentioned, Robert DeNiro’s audition for the original Godfather was so electrifying, he was very nearly cast in the role of Sonny, though it ultimately went to Coppola’s original choice, James Caan. But the filmmaker kept DeNiro’s audition in the back of his mind, and two years later, when he was working through the rather radical notion of making Godfather II with a parallel timeline construction contrasting Michael in the 1950s with Vito in the 1920s, he hit upon the idea of having DeNiro play young Vito Corleone — the role that had won Marlon Brando an Oscar. DeNiro studied Pacino’s performance, and even went to the dentist who’d made Brando’s mouthpiece for the role to get a smaller one for himself. But he manages to capture the spirit of Brando’s iconic performance without ever resorting to anything as craven as mere imitation. He gets at the soul of the man and the journey he takes, seemingly realizing that Don Vito’s character development in Godfather II matches his son’s in the previous film — a good, honest man who is drawn by circumstance to a life of crime, and finds that he has a gift for it.
Michael Fassbender as Magneto, X-Men: First Class (2011)
Director Matthew Vaughn enlisted several noteworthy actors to take on the roles of the X-Men in his 2011 prequel/origin story/reboot: James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Beast. But no one made more of an impression than the ever-busy Michael Fassbender, who brought his moody charisma to the character of Erik Lenhsherr, aka Magneto. It wasn’t just that his dark charm and wry intelligence were reminiscent of Ian McKellan’s memorable work in the first three X-Men films; he had the opportunity to dig even deeper into the character’s pathos, and made what could have been a crass attempt to undo the damage of The Last Stand and Wolverine into a memorable film in its own right.
Jessica Chastain as Young Rachel, The Debt (2011)
Like Fassbender, there was no shortage of Jessica Chastain on America’s movie screens last year — she appeared in half a dozen 2011 releases. But her toughest gig of the year may well have come in The Debt, where she had to step into the shoes of the inimitable Helen Mirren. The film’s parallel structure tells its story in both 1965, where Chastain plays the young version of Mossad agent Rachel Singer, and 1997, where Mirren takes the role. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers called it “a nifty match-up,” and he’s right; though you wouldn’t put them together immediately, Chastain’s fierce intelligence makes her an instantly believable Mirren stand-in.
Rob Lowe as Number Two, The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember (2002)
Lowe perfected his impression of Robert Wagner while hanging out at the older actor’s house during his younger days (according to Lowe, “Whenever RJ introduces me to anyone, he says, ‘Do you know Rob? He spent an awful lot of time sniffing around my daughters'”). When Mike Myers was developing his sequel to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Lowe — with whom he’d been friends since Wayne’s World — mentioned that he did a top-notch impression of Wagner, who had played “Number Two” in the first film. A light went off, and when Powers travels back to the swinging ’60s in the film, Lowe appears as Number Two’s younger incarnation. It’s a lark, but the impersonation is spot-on.
Sean Nelson as Young Mike, The Wood (1999)
The 1999 coming-of-age comedy/drama The Wood may well be the least known of the films on this list, and that’s a shame; it’s a warm, funny, and utterly charming little picture, bolstered by fine performances by Taye Diggs, Richard T. Jones, Sanaa Lathan, Malinda Williams, and Omar Epps. The story of three friends and their relationships with women is split into two timelines: the present day, on the eve of one’s wedding, and their teenage years, as they make their first clumsy, tentative moves towards the opposite sex. Epps doesn’t exactly offer the kind of distinctive vocal or physical characteristics that make him easy to represent (as Brando, Jones, or Wagner do), but in playing him as a younger man, the remarkable Sean Nelson (who’d earlier appeared with Samuel L. Jackson in Fresh and Dustin Hoffman in American Buffalo) captures his charm and charisma, while imbuing the character with a clumsy likability that ends up bolstering Epps’s work as well.
River Phoenix as Young Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The big casting news in the third Indiana Jones flick was the addition of Sean Connery as the elder Dr. Jones, but Spielberg has another trick up his sleeve: a wonderful prologue set in 1912, in which we see young Indy — a Boy Scout, no less — discovering a band of thieves stealing an artifact from a cave. It’s a classic bit of origin storytelling, explaining how the character acquired his trademark whip and fedora (as well as the distinctive scar on his — and Harrison Ford’s — chin), and to play the role of the boy archaeologist, Spielberg got the hottest young actor working: River Phoenix, fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in Running on Empty. Phoenix perfectly captured the determined Jones persona, while investing it with a bit of his own youthful exuberance; the sequence was so well liked that it spawned a TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
Zachary Quinto as Spock, Star Trek (2009)
Sometimes, when a big potential blockbuster is going into production, you’ll hear a bit of casting news that will cause you to simply nod your head (and maybe add, “Oh, of course”). That’s pretty much the response we had when we heard who’d be playing Spock in J.J. Abrams’ much-anticipated reboot of Star Trek: Zachary Quinto, best known as the villainous “Sylar” on TV’s Heroes. It wasn’t just that he looked the part; his work on that show was scary precisely because of the kind of cold directness that could make him a great Spock. And he was, though neither he nor Abrams were interested in merely replicating Leonard Nimoy’s interpretation, and found some sly ways to fill in the character’s emotional life without altering the basic elements of the character.
Shia LaBouf as Young Dito/Melonie Diaz as Young Laurie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)
Shia LaBouf would become a marquee star in his own right in 2007 with the release of Transformers, but he was still an up and comer when musician-turned-memoirist-turned-filmmaker Dito Montiel cast him in the underrated coming-of-age drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Most of the story is set in the mid-1980s, during Dontiel’s teenage years, but it is told in the present day by the adult Dito, who is played by Robert Downey Jr. LaBouf does a fine job suggesting Downey without imitating the (probably inimitable) actor; even more impressive is the terrific young actress Melonie Diaz (Raising Victor Vargas) as his lady love Laurie, played in the present day by Rosario Dawson. LaBouf and Diaz get such a good chemistry going that Downey and Dawson genuinely seem to be working from it in their excellent scenes late in the picture.
Jenna Malone as Young Ellie, Contact (1997)
Little Jenna Malone may have had a bit of an advantage when preparing to play Jodie Foster as a little girl, since there’s so much footage out there of Foster at that age. Whatever research she did, it worked; it’s not just that the resemblance is borderline-eerie, or that she so handily captures Foster’s distinctive voice. She manages to project Foster’s intelligence, perhaps the most important aspect of her character, but the hardest one to put across in a five-minute prologue.
Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005)
Say what you will about the films themselves (and we certainly have, on numerous occasions), but George Lucas’ decision to cast Ewan McGregor in the role made famous by Sir Alec Guiness was sheer genius. Might have been the last smart decision he made, in fact!
Those are a few of our favorites—what are yours? Let us know in the comments!