The Good, The Bad and The Badass: Don Johnson
I've been a fan of Don Johnson's ever since seeing re-reruns of Miami Vice on Spike TV in my late-teens. Granted, not only had the show been off the air for over a decade, but even Don Johnson's next show, Nash Bridges was done. Nevertheless, like the folks that must have seen Johnson slip into his white Italian sports coat in 1984, I was ultra impressed by his performance as Sonny Crocket, arguably the hippest screen cop since Serpico, on the show and I frequently return to the first two seasons on Netflix and disc – just for a little ultra-stylish eighties pick-me-up.
It's been really cool seeing Johnson go through a resurgence, as the guy really oozes star-power, no matter the role. It's strange his big-screen career never really took off in his younger days, thanks no doubt to a certain prejudice that used to affect TV actors in that era. His post-Miami Vice films were relatively minor, but movies like DEAD BANG, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBRO MAN and THE HOT SPOT were slick enough you'd think someone would have tried to give him a bigger break, although perhaps being tied so inexorably to the eighties made him a harder sell for the next decade.
Whatever the case, Johnson's back now and arguably better than ever. This week, he puts in a powerful performance as an Alzheimer's affected actor in Chris Messina's ALEX OF VENICE, a role that builds nicely on comeback parts in MACHETE, HBO's Eastbound & Down (Eduardo Sanchez), DJANGO UNCHAINED, and the recent COLD IN JULY. Speaking of the latter, I actually had a brief brush with Johnson at the Sundance Film Festival when I was seated with his family for the premiere. Johnson sat directly behind me, but I was too intimidated to say hello. He seemed like a perfectly accessible guy, but have grown up idolizing him I couldn't help but chicken out. Oh well, maybe next time.
OK, so this one doesn't really count as a film, but Johnson was never cooler than as Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice. Michael Mann's stylish eighties cop-show set the standard for cool in the decade, and watching it now one can't help but note how ahead of its time it was. As pop-fused and (admittedly) cokey as the pastel visuals and Jan Hammer soundtrack were, the stories and scripts were often intelligent, and very nihilistic at times. When Mann made the series into a movie people complained it wasn't like the show, but clearly those people never really watched the former as the film was actually a direct adaptation of the episode 'Smuggler's Blues.' As good as the movie was though, Colin Farrell (while cool) was no Don Johnson. It's too bad the show peaked so early, with Mann having reportedly lost interest around season three (when he left to do MANHUNTER). The last few seasons were pretty tepid, but if you check out anything from season one and two on Netflix you'll be surprised at how gritty and cinematic it is. As much as the clothes and the music made that show, Johnson was an even bigger ingredient and it's no wonder it turned him into a superstar. Heck, the man even had a top 5 pop hit in 1986 and dueted with Barbra Streisand. And yeah, his album was way better than Bruce Willis' 'Return of Bruno'.
Johnson's first post Miami Vice film, DEAD BANG came and went with nary a peep in 1989. That's too bad because John Frankenheimer's cop flick is actually pretty badass. Johnson plays a very Crockett-like character, Jerry Beck (to the extent you keep waiting for Philip Michael Thomas as Tubbs to show up), but a few interesting touches distinguish it, such as the far-out production design in the climax by Bond regular Ken Adam. The best scene has a hung-over Johnson get into a long foot-chase (a great action sequence) and being so exhausted by its end that he throws-up on the perp when he finally makes his arrest. I'd like to see a modern action film have the balls to tack on a scene like that.
Again, this one's not a film. Don Johnson's Nash Bridges is most significant for being one of Lost's Carlton Cuse's first big shows. I'm glad that it made Johnson so wealthy, but the show itself doesn't hold up at all. It's like Miami Vice without the style, although the chemistry between Cheech Marin and Johnson kept it reasonably popular. The show itself is a pretty minor TV potboiler and not particularly interesting nowadays.
This one's a no-brainer. While I considered his intro in DJANGO UNCHAINED, Johnson will always be remembered for playing Crockett, and this scene, as him and Tubbs drive along to Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' is one of the most popular scenes in TV history. The bit where Crockett stops at a pay phone to call his ex-wife is genius. “Was it real? You bet it was.” Classic.
In addition to ALEX OF VENICE (review up tomorrow) Johnson' s got a TV pilot called Boom in the works where he plays a J.R Ewing type-figure. Sounds like a cool fit. If it goes to series I hope Johnson is able to find the time to pop up on Hap & Leonard (the small-screen COLD IN JULY spinoff) so he can reprise the great Jim-Bob Luke.
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