The “Succession” Man – Brian Cox

If you find that most movie star biographies concentrate on gossip at the expense of genuine insight to the craft of acting, then this one is for you. For the bulk of his film career, Cox, outside of such films as Manhunter (1986), L.I.E (2001) and Churchill (2017), has been in the main a supporting player and not even the kind of supporting actor regularly commended by Oscar voters, rather the type of artist whose face you recognize and welcome in small but important parts. Probably you will be unaware that he was more of a titan on stage, winning two Olivier awards – the British equivalent of the Tonys – and nominated another twice as well as wins and nominations for theatrical productions in America.

So he makes no distinction between the various mediums – film, television, stage – in detailing the development of his craft.  His first seminal moment came from the David Storey play In Celebration when director Lindsay Anderson having spent 90 minutes trying to slow the actor down for one segment eventually in frustration explained to the actor the reason for takings things slowly: his character returning home for the first time in years would spend time reacquainting himself with the house, taking in what had changed and what was familiar. In other words, “I learned to be a character rather than describing or acting it.”

When he moved into films, he had enough self-awareness to realize he was never going to be the leading man (even in the cult Manhunter, he was billed third or fourth in the credits) and determined he was “going to earn my wage as a character actor and that what I really wanted to do was create characters similar to those I loved from the old films… (where) characters just zing at you, no matter how small the part.”

He also appreciates his co-stars, especially the superstars. Of Keanu Reeves, he pointed out: “Despite choosing interesting work and being an interesting guy, he still had a reputation as a bit wooden…He took himself off to a small theatre in Canada and played Hamlet. He stuck at it and he’s actually become quite good over the years. He’s become rather good because he’s learned his job.” He has similar praise for Brad Pitt. “Like Keanu the initial appeal is all about the heartthrob looks, so he’s had to learn on the job; he’s had to dedicate himself to his craft…I love that ambition, that dedication, not to be better looking or more famous or have a sexier partner, but to be a better actor.”

When an actor has 234 credits in film and television you can tell instantly he’s a character actor. While occasionally Cox has appeared in high profile ventures – Braveheart (1995), X2 (2003), Troy (2004), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – more often you would find him turning in bit parts in smaller pictures that you have possibly never heard of like The Water Horse (2007), Citizen Gangster (2011) and Morgan (2016).  Sometimes he pulled out a television plum, Nuremberg (2000) for which he won an Emmy or British comedy Bob Servant Independent (2013).   

With such a variety of movies, he has a wealth of anecdotes. He took over the role intended for Dustin Hoffman in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and replaced Tommy Lee Jones in Chain Reaction (1996). He has stories to tell about Sir Laurence Olivier, Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Weinstein, Steven Seagal. Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Farrow, John Schlesinger and a dozen others.  

But he doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino or the acting of Sir Ian McKellen. “I really don’t have much time for Quentin Tarantino. I find his work meretricious. It’s all surface. Plot mechanics in place of depth. Style where there should be substance. I walked out of Pulp Fiction.’ Of McKellen he observes: “He is a master of what I’d call front-foot acting. It’s very effective…but it doesn’t quite fulfil what I believe is one of the key functions of acting.”

He was paid $10,000 for Manhunter while Anthony Hopkins walked away with a million for Silence of the Lambs (1991). He turned down Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Game of Thrones. Terrorists nearly boarded his plane during 9/11. His  mother suffered from mental illness. His father died when he was young.

After a half century of as many downs as ups and little likelihood that publishers would be knocking on his door for his autobiography, he suddenly became a massive star thanks to Succession. Supreme acting skills that had been ignored by the Hollywood cognoscenti were crucial to Logan Roy becoming one of television’s most popular – and hated – characters. His great talent is stillness, to be able to convey myriad emotion without speaking a word.  

But publishing an autobiography is not the true mark of success. Being in demand is. As well as future series of Succcession, he already has in the can the following films – The Jesuit, Skelly, Prisoner’s Daughter and Mending the Line and is currently shooting The Independent, in all of which he is either top-billed or second-billed, a far cry from sixth or seventh billing in supporting roles.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021) ****

Contrary to all my expectations – and the opinions of the Rotten Tomatoes critical aggregate – this was a blast. The over-the-top tongue-in-cheek action thriller is dominated by Salma Hayek who acts as a glorious foil to the bickering bad boys. Had she not been so well established, this would have been a career-making turn. It might yet give her a fresh burst of cinematic life away from the serious stuff to which she has previously devoted her screen life.

This movie follows the new rule for sequels, in that often these days they are better than the original. I had not been so taken with The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017), which basically turned on the old idea of a mismatched duo with a more straightforward storyline.

This time round, disgraced bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is forced out of a very brief self-imposed retirement by Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek), who had small role in the original, to rescue husband Darius (Samuel L. Jackson) from gangsters. The main plot is straightforward enough – Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Papadopolous (Antonio Banderas) plans to hold Europe to ransom after the EU imposes financial sanction on his native country by knocking out all digital communication throughout the continent. Interpol agent Bobby O’Neill (Frank Grillo) forces the trio to work together to foil the plot.

But there are a host of wonderful, and occasionally surprisingly emotional, subplots. For a Start Sonia is desperate to become a mother with question-marks about Darius’s ability or wish to make her pregnant. Bryce has vowed to give up violence and we get to meet his father, a legendary hitman (Morgan Freeman) who adds surprising complications to the story. Bobby O’Neill is constantly at odds with boss Crowley (Caroline Goodall) and can barely understand a word spoken by Scottish interpreter Ailso (a very dry Alice McMillan). Aristotle once had a thing for Sonia and his chief bodyguard Magnusson (Tom Hopper) is by far the coolest bodyguard on show.

The action just batters along, fueled by various plot twists, and there is hardly a pause for breath as the hitmen and their adversaries destroy a ton of Europe’s most attractive cities. There are also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. There’s nothing remotely serious about the plot beyond personal issues facing the trio and that the preposterousness reaches high-octane levels only adds to the fun. If it’s not a shoot-out, it’s a chase. If the trio are not killing each other, they are trying to save each other. And there is a surprise ending which may trigger another sequel.

Salma Hayek (Oscar-nominated for Frida, 2002) at full throttle both emotionally, vocally and in murderous mode steals the picture. She delivers some hilariously salty dialogue in amongst the profanity and proves no slouch in the cunning department. All guns blazing is her default. Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, 2016) I found to be surprisingly good, too, a long way from the cocky screen persona he has inhabited of late, most of the time here emotionally vulnerable, in part due to his current antipathy towards violence but also from childhood demons, and spending most of the time taking one beating after another, once so convincingly dead that hitman and wife callously dump his overboard.

Samuel L. Jackson (Glass, 2019) could play this kind of role in his sleep but he, too, is given some emotional depth. Only Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, 1998) overplays his role. Caroline Goodall (Hunter Killer, 2018) is great as the crisp authority figure and Frank Grillo (Point Blank, 2019) as the eternal underling. It’s great to see Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) back in action – and more action than you might initially expect – and there is a cameo from Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I, 1987).

Patrick Hughes reprises his directorial duties, respectively, from the original and turns in a fresh take.

I caught this on my weekly Monday Night at the Cinema outing, catching films on the big screen before they are belittled on the small screen.

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