The Good, The Bad and the Badass: Ewan McGregor
While there are certainly bigger “stars” out there, Ewan McGregor no doubt holds a special appeal for the so-called “generation x” and “generation y” (I was born in 81, so I guess that makes me Y). McGregor is kind of the poster boy for that generation, with TRAINSPOTTING being one of those quintessential youth culture movies that defined an era and an attitude. When I was in university I'd wager 90% of the apartments of fellow students I visited had pictures of McGregor as Renton on the wall. That alone would have made him an icon, but then he signed on to do a little movie called STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE.
While we can snicker at that now, the fact remains that in '99 the hype was at a fever pitch and I don't think there's ever been another film from my lifetime that was greeted as such a pop culture event. Even though the film wasn't very good (save for the excellent “duel of the fates” sequence) McGregor was damn good as Obi Wan, channeling Alec Guinness in a way that was a stark contrast to the rebellious performances he'd given up to that point. THE PHANTOM MENACE certainly put off a generation of fans, but no one blamed McGregor, and by the time REVENGE OF THE SITH hit theaters in 2005 he was firmly established as one of the major actors of his generation.
What's puzzling is how Hollywood has consistently failed to give McGregor the kind of vehicle that would take him to that next level of stardom. His talent is there, and even in full-on awful movies like STAY or ANGELS & DEMONS (heck, even DECEPTION) McGregor can be relied upon to give a great performance. Still, his best work has consistently been in the indie world, with movies like YOUNG ADAM, BEGINNERS, I LOVE YOU PHILIP MORRIS and more. This week, there are two McGregor movies coming to theaters, giving us perfect insight into the way Hollywood still sees him, with him having a supporting part in the goofy-looking MORTDECAI while simultaneously owning the screen as the lead in the indie actioner SON OF A GUN (read my review). One can't help but feel McGregor should be up there with the biggest names in the business as the talent and charisma is clearly there. That said, I have a feeling McGregor's best days are still to come.
While I have a definite soft spot for the great MOULIN ROUGE, it can't be denied that Renton in TRAINSPOTTING is the kind of a role that defines a career. TRAINSPOTTING wasn't McGregor's first film, nor even his first with Danny Boyle (who memorably cast him in SHALLOW GRAVE) but it's the part that made him. Playing a Scottish junkie living a hardscrabble life in 1990's Edinburgh, with his shaved-head and “choose life” mini-monologues, Renton became the poster boy for a generation, including those who would never dream of dabbling in drugs. For his part, it made McGregor a kind of punk-rock James Dean, and hopefully the rumors of him doing the follow-up “Porno” with Boyle (the two infamously had a falling-out years ago) are true. This post-economic collapse world needs another dose of Renton.
OK, so maybe I shouldn't call THE ISLAND overrated. Granted, it flopped back in 2005 but over-the-years it's been frequently cited as director Michael Bay's best film (far from it – THE ROCK, ARMAGEDDON and even BAD BOYS 2 are far superior) and maybe due to co-star Scarlett Johansson's rise to super-stardom, it's been somewhat re-appraised by the same critics who hated it back then. The truth is THE ISLAND is not a good movie. While it has its moments, the rampant product-placement makes it all but impossible to take seriously (it should have been called “THE ISLAND OF PUMA”). This is a film where the advertising overload absolutely kills whatever momentum the film ever manages to establish and sadly, set the pattern for all of Bay's films to follow. It feels less like a film and more like a piece of corporate “synergy” which was a word that was all the rage in those pre-crash days.
There are tons of McGregor movies that I'd call underrated. One is his third Danny Boyle collaboration, A LIFE LESS ORDINARY which – although it pales next to SHALLOW GRAVE and TRAINSPOTTING – has moments of dazzling inspiration. However, the one movie of his that's been shamefully under-seen is his Woody Allen movie CASSANDRA'S DREAM. In it, he and Colin Farrell plays brothers who are talked into committing a murder for their mobbed-up uncle (Tom Wilkinson) so Farrell can pay off his debts and McGregor can make enough money to impress his trophy girlfriend (an early part for Hayley Atwell). This barely got a theatrical release which is a shame as it's one of the best Woody Allen movies of the last decade.
While I was tempted to service my fellow STAR WARS fans by throwing in the battle with Darth Maul at the end of THE PHANTOM MENACE (the highlight of the prequel trilogy) I can't not throw in that crazy scene from TRAINSPOTTING where Renton surrealistically climbs headfirst into a public toilet to retrieve a heroine suppository that he just accidentally pooped out. It's an absolutely magnificent piece of work by both Boyle and McGregor. Man, if PORNO happens these guys have a lot to live up to.
Later this week I'm off to the Sundance Film Festival where McGregor's LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT is having its world premiere. In it, Ewan plays both Jesus Christ and the Devil. Wow, ambitious. Stay tuned.