Thomas Jane is an actor, producer, director and easily one of the coolest cats in the biz. While he had a multitude of memorable roles throughout his 25-year long career, most cinemagoers know him for playing charming tough guys and suave bastards (often at the same time). Over the years, he continued to demonstrate a level of passion and earnestness rarely seen in a predominantly superficial business, having no problems with voicing his opinions and declining to take part in lucrative projects that he didn’t quite believe in. But is there more to him than his cocky facade? Let’s put him to the test.
What can I say – I love the smell of controversy in the morning. The 2004 version of THE PUNISHER garnered a lot of criticism, mostly from fans of the original comic – some of it deserved, some not so much. While it is true that the script took some liberties with the source material and Frank Castle’s MO was a bit too subtle for the character’s brutal pedigree, I would argue that it was sort of the point. It was supposed to be an origin story and Castle didn’t really become The Punisher until the very last scene of the film, although I can definitely understand why some people felt cheated, considering that the movie’s title was THE PUNISHER and not FRANK CASTLE: THE MAN THAT WOULD BECOME THE PUNISHER. Others claimed it was altogether a bit too lighthearted, what with all the comedic scenes involving Castle’s colorful misfit crew of neighbors. Fair enough, I guess, although a lot of the comic books – while overall being a very somber affair – also had quite a bit of dark humor to them (in fact, the neighbor characters were lifted straight from a Garth Ennis story entitled “Welcome Back, Frank”). Still, for all the excuses I could make for it, I do get why a lot of people seem to have a problem with this movie, its plot and tone in particular.
What I don’t see anyone having much of a problem with is Thomas Jane’s portrayal of the titular character. While I feel like no movie version of The Punisher got it quite right, Jane came closest to knocking it out of the park. Both Dolph Lundgren and Ray Stevenson managed to capture the spirit of the character on some level, but Jane was the one actor that actually managed to breathe a sense of depth into the violent vigilante. In all the other film adaptations, Castle is pretty much a simplistic action hero, a tough-as-nails killing machine, his tragic past and motivations only vaguely hinted at. Jane’s performance focused more on the human element and the reasons why he does what he does, which simply made me care more. You might say that Jane has done better movies, but I feel like this is the one case where his performance took over the entire film and held it together. The actor shows off his chops, effortlessly switching between highly emotional scenes (like the death of Castle’s family) and full-on action hero mode (the film’s climactic mansion kill-a-thon). Jane clearly has a lot of passion for the character, which he proved not only by declining to participate in a sequel when he felt the script wasn’t up to snuff, but also lately, with his kick-ass DIRTY LAUNDRY short film. It’s a shame that he wasn’t given the chance to build upon his first take on The Punisher. With the origin out of the way and Castle in full-on punishing mode, the character could focus on what he does best – killing off scum and looking mighty bad-ass in the process. Jane could not only amp up the violence and streamline the story (both of which he professed when a sequel starring him was still a possibility), but also trim the fat off the character and become the ultimate on-screen Punisher, effectively turning it into a successful movie franchise – a feat that still hasn’t been accomplished. Alas, judging by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the aforementioned short film, there may yet be hope...
On your long and treacherous road through life, you’ll undoubtedly meet people who’ll defend this movie. I’m not one of those people. Some call it a mixed bag, while I call it a jumbled mess and one of the numerous Stephen King adaptations that simply didn’t manage to translate the original story into film in a coherent way. Some try to point out the positive things about it, but the only one that comes to my mind is that for a movie about aliens bursting out of people’s assholes, it had a surprisingly stellar cast. Whether or not the actors were used to their full potential is another matter entirely. To Jane’s credit, there are definitely bigger names in this one that do a worse job – like the tragically miscast Morgan Freeman, who, while being a brilliant actor in his own right, could never quite convince me as a villain (I mean, c’mon, how can you have any negative feelings towards Morgan friggin’ Freeman?).
Jane is simply alright in this one – he doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do, nor is there much to the character he’s portraying, but I definitely wouldn’t say he gave a flat out bad performance. He tries to make it work with what he’s given and pulls off a relatively endearing good guy. But the character and charisma he’s shown in spades in other films is nowhere to be found. It’s just a forgettable role in an even more forgettable film. He can do much, much better than that.
Without wanting to sound too obvious, it needs to be said that Jane loves to play charismatic tough guys and he’s damn good at doing it. He’s got the face, the voice, the physique... Not to mention the acting chops to pull it off. If anything, it’s surprising that he has never quite achieved the superstar status he was once headed for. For my money, the man could pull off pretty much any role demanding a highly physical, but not brain-dead or emotionally detached, performance. I keep stressing the emotional aspect, because that’s one of the main things that stand out in all of the man’s films. Sure, pretty much all of his characters are cool, tough dudes who can look out for themselves and casually kick all of our asses while doing it, but there’s usually an emotional core to them. Just like he did with Frank Castle, Jane always manages to infuse a potentially straightforward character with a level of humanity, that’s impressively believable.
One of the best instances of that was definitely Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s THE MIST, which was a definite case of ‘second time’s the charm’ in terms of Jane and King on celluloid. At the beginning, Jane’s David Drayton seems like a typical everyman – a simple, though physically capable guy, who’s thrust into a nightmarish scenario and has to protect his son. However, as the story goes on and the situation gets more and more intense, we see Jane mature the character and take him to unsuspected places. No time for fancy heroics here, no macho charisma, only a frail man fighting to save his loved ones. All of that culminates in the crushingly effective (not to say ‘sadistic’) final scene, which is incidentally the only major departure from the original story’s plot. The sheer level of emotional intensity is almost palpable and it only works because of Jane (well, alright, the accompanying Dead Can Dance track also adds to the drama). The man acts the f*ck out of every second and at the same time shows that there is much more to him than the played out tough guy routine.
Then again, that’s not to say that the actor can’t reel it in, if the role demands it. Bronwen Hughes’ STANDER saw him portray the titular cop-turned-criminal with much more restraint, while still maintaining high levels of coolness and emotional depth. And then, of course, there’s also a plethora of movies that simply didn’t call for anything other than a straight up action hero – such as the loveably campy DEEP BLUE SEA, with smaller but nonetheless memorable turns like the one in BOOGIE NIGHTS somewhere in between. The latter was also probably the closest thing to a straight up comedic performance the actor’s ever done (apart from the brilliant little cameo as part of the ‘Vegan Police’ in Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD). What I’m getting at is – and I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, because I’ve said the same about the actors previously dissected in this column – Thomas Jane is a versatile and altogether capable actor and it would be a great loss to pigeonhole him as a one trick pony. Even if it happens to be a cool-as-f*ck gun-toting, dick-swinging, baddie killing beast of a pony.
Jane’s career saw an interesting turn in the past couple of years, as he went the route quite a few before him ventured (with varying degrees of success) and branched out into directing. In 2009, this resulted in one of the more intriguing films he’s been involved in – DARK COUNTRY. While it’s far from a perfect movie and its creator himself would be among the first to admit its shortcomings, it’s still a precious little gem of a genre flick. Part Hitchcockian mind-f*ck, part supernatural horror, all drenched in thick noir atmosphere and accompanied by a captivating score and captivating visuals. Jane does a great job pulling double duty, giving a natural and convincing lead performance and providing an altogether focused direction. Yeah, the film’s big twist is a bit predictable and the story might not make a whole lot of sense once you really dig into it, plus, the whole thing is undeniably heavy on style and a bit low on substance (which is what I also heard said of Jane’s entire career), but it’s still a thoroughly entertaining ride that’s got ‘passion project’ written all over it. Do yourself a favor and check it out, if you haven’t yet had the chance.
Speaking of branching out, Jane was never ashamed of his love for other forms of storytelling, comics being his particular forte. For the past several years, he’s been running Raw Studios alongside long time pal and renowned artist Tim Bradstreet, while also garnering some well earned acclaim with the TV series “Hung”, for which he was nominated not once, not twice, but a whopping three times for a Golden Globe. Busy as ever, he currently has several projects lined up, most interesting of which are AN HONEST THIEF, which will see him as an archetypical thief with a heart of gold trying to stop a serial killer, and THE REDEEMER, in which he’ll tread familiar ground, playing a pissed off tough-as-nails detective on a bender. Though details are scarce at this point, we’re bound to be seeing Jane in more features, as HBO decided not to renew “Hung” for a fourth season. Any way you slice it, we’re not in a position to complain.
While Thomas Jane enjoys a level of success many could only dream of, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we have yet to see the best of what he has to offer. In whatever way he chooses to fuel his passion – be it as actor, director, writer or cigar aficionado – I know it’ll be worth checking out. There are too few guys out there like him, wearing the love and passion for what they do on their sleeve and that alone makes him a force to be reckoned with. Hollywood beware.