The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Eric Bana
Last week, we took a look at the career of Christopher Walken, a legendary figure to be sure. This week's subject is probably a less obvious candidate for this column, but hopefully after reading this article you'll feel he's just as deserving of inclusion as anyone else...
Back in 2002, when Eric Bana was announced as the star of the much anticipated Marvel adaptation, THE HULK, most of us had the same reaction: Eric who? Unless you were from Down Under, where he was once dubbed Australia's answer to Jerry Seinfeld thanks to his TV work, he was a pretty obscure actor. In hindsight, it was obvious that his performance in CHOPPER landed him the part, thanks to it circulating around Hollywood, but it really only picked up its North American cult following after THE HULK, so to us he was mainly known as the special ops guy from BLACK HAWK DOWN – which was a fine role if not necessarily the type of part that makes someone a star.
All of this probably worked against Bana, as THE HULK was a financial disappointment, and his performance was roundly criticized as bland. Still, that did not stop Bana from becoming Hollywood's 'it-boy” for awhile, and he followed it up with strong performances in the underrated – if financially successful – TROY, where he stole scenes from star Brad Pitt. Shortly after he worked with Steven Spielberg in MUNICH, and that automatically grants a performer a certain stature. If he's good enough for Spielberg, he's good enough for anyone else, right? While mega-stardom still hasn't really happened for Bana, even a quick examination of his body of work shows him to be an actor that's consistently interesting, and able to work in a variety of genres, from action to comedy (his part in FUNNY PEOPLE is a gem) to romance (THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE) and this week, he gets his first major studio lead in a few years with the highly anticipated genre entry DELIVER US FROM EVIL. Thus, what better time than the present to examine his career?
CHOPPER is a full-on masterpiece. To play real-life outlaw Mark “Chopper” Read, Bana gained something like thirty pounds to make a RAGING BULL-like metamorphosis from the young, burly Chopper, to the older, gone-to-seed variation, and the result is striking. Even though it never really broke out in North America (although it's a BRONSON-like cult hit nowadays) CHOPPER is the kind of career-defining performance that really only comes along once (and that's only if you're lucky). Anyone who'd dare call Bana bland after watching THE HULK would obviously be won-over by seeing him here, as the unpredictable, clearly psychotic, but oddly likable Chopper Read, who's so notorious Down Under that prior to his death a few years ago, he was practically an industry unto himself. Bana's interpretation is complex in that not matter how crazy Chopper acts, there's a certain amount of humanity there behind the eyes. For me, CHOPPER is career-best work from both Bana and director Andrew Dominik. In a weird twist, a good friend of mine – after seeing the movie – sought Chopper out over the internet, and the two became pen pals, exchanging a number of emails over the years. Bizarre.
Maybe I'm overdoing it a bit calling THE HULK overrated, but the fact remains it was a solid – if underwhelming – box office hit. To this day it has its supporters, who say Ang Lee's radical take on the superhero genre was revolutionary. Personally, I think it's a wildly mediocre film. Granted, one of the big problems is that in 2003, the technology to make a CGI-hulk work simply didn't exist, and as a result it looks more dated than its age would suggest. The only thing that really works is the visual-style, with Lee doing a beautiful job making this look like a comic-book come to life. However, it has a ton of problems, firstly that Lee, for all of his talents, doesn't seem to really get what kind of a movie he's making, and while the visuals are striking, the plot is a mess, and the performances range from mediocre (Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Josh Lucas) to quite obnoxious (Nick Nolte). If you haven't seen this in awhile, try re-watching it. Chances are – by comparison to the recent Marvel movies – it's far worse than you remember.
There's no doubt in my mind that MUNICH is shamefully underrated. What's interesting about this one is how many mainstream critics shat all over Spielberg's gritty take on the Mossad and the Munich Olympic massacre, while fanboys – for the most part – were able to see it for what it was, which is a cool, William Friedkin-style action-throwback. In my opinion, MUNICH is one of the best films of the aughts, and an explosive demonstration of Spielberg's prowess. Eric Bana is brilliant as the morally conflicted assassin Avner, and along with something like HANNA, demonstrates that Bana's at his best in gritty actioners. It's worth noting that MUNICH is also largely responsible for Daniel Craig landing James Bond, with his turn as a cold-blooded Mossad assasin in some ways seeming like a trial run for what he did in CASINO ROYALE. The only real problem with MUNICH is that it's almost undone by Spielberg's weird decision to juxtapose Avner's visions of the Munich massacre with him making love to his wife. Nevertheless, it's still a nearly perfect movie.
I'm tempted to throw in the ear-cutting scene from CHOPPER, but as I've already written about that performance, instead I've chosen the amazing parking-lot showdown from HANNA. Now, one could argue the real star of the scene is director Joe Wright, who stages the scene in one magnificent take. That said, Bana's clearly got the choreography down cold, and it makes me wish some smart producer would give Bana the major action vehicle he clearly deserves.
Hopefully DELIVER US FROM EVIL will be a solid sleeper hit for Bana, who's still got loads of potential both as a movie star and as a proper actor. Whatever the case, Bana probably has tons of stuff in the works – although none are currently listed on the IMDB. Hopefully he'll get something worth his considerable talent, be it on the big screen or small.