The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Ian McShane
Most Americans probably weren’t really aware of Ian McShane until his role as the aptly named Al Swearengen on HBO’s “Deadwood”. Living in Canada, which is still part of the commonwealth, I had access to more of his older stuff growing-up. The TV show, “Lovejoy”, where he played a smooth art-dealer caught up in various hijinks, was prime Sunday afternoon fare on my local PBS, and even before I really knew him by name, I thought McShane was cooler than cool.
Middle-aged even when he did “Lovejoy”, McShane was a heartthrob in British cinema going all the way back to the sixties, when he played one of the young leads in Guy Hamilton’s epic WW2 retelling of the BATTLE OF BRITAIN. I caught a young McShane a few years ago in a cool Oliver Reed crime caper called SITTING TARGET (after it showed up on a list of great crime films written by Edgar Wright). After a few quiet years, McShane had himself a nice little comeback with a scene-stealing turn as a posh gangster in SEXY BEAST.
It’s safe to say though that “Deadwood” is really what launched him into another sphere. Following that show’s too-early demise, McShane found himself in high-demand, leading mini-series like “The Pillars of the Earth”, and having major arcs on shows like “American Horror Story”, “Ray Donovan” and “Game of Thrones.” He’s also shown up in movies like JOHN WICK, HERCULES, DEATH RACE, HOT ROD and more, and remains in-demand as an older, tough-guy character actor.
McShane won a well-deserved Golden Globe for playing Al Swearengen (and he deserved an Emmy too) and in his acceptance speech he said it was the best gig he’s ever had. I’m inclined to agree, with him elevating David Milch’s unbelievably foul dialogue into a kind of gutter-Shakespeare, and something that feels authentic to both the characters and the era. Swearengen is a fascinating character. In season one he’s pretty much a straight-up bad guy, but possibly due to how popular he became, he’s softened ever-so-slightly in season two, emerging as a kind of dark anti-hero by the end, albeit one that’s still happy to feed the bodies of his victims to the pigs at Mr. Wu’s. He’s absolutely magnetic throughout, and his chemistry with Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock is superb.
While I’m more-or-less a fan of “Ray Donovan’s” third season (the same can’t be said for the one that just ended), I felt let down by McShane’s role as what I thought was going to be the season’s big bad. Playing a King Lear-like power broker with two kids ready to stab him in the back, he ended up playing second fiddle to Katie Holmes (and her braces), which was a waste all things considered. Ray’s yet to really get a strong adversary.
Even if it was a huge flop upon its initial release, a lot of people love HOT ROD. An early star vehicle for Andy Samberg, the film benefited greatly from McShane as Rod’s adversary, his ill step-dad who he’s always trying to beat in a fight. With a twinkle in his eye and his barrel chest out for all to see, McShane seems to be having the time of his life pushing Samberg around. Despite his gravitas, McShane really does seem to have a flair for comedy – I wish it would be exploited more.
The changing dynamic between Bullock and Swearengen takes a major leap forward in the first episode in season two, where a confrontation between the two turns into a violent, life-or-death battle on the streets of Deadwood. It ends with Swearengen (who – naturally – has the upper hand) putting a knife to Bullock’s throat, but sparring him once he sees Bullock’s wife and kid in the town stagecoach. An act of mercy? Hardly. “Welcome to f**king Deadwood.”
Ian McShane’s got a full plate, with parts opposite Michael Shannon (I can’t wait) in POTTERSVILLE and Keanu Reeves in the upcoming JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2. He then segues back to TV with a regular role on Starz’s “American Gods”, and – just maybe – a return to the streets of “Deadwood” for the long-rumored HBO miniseries. I won’t hold my breath.
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...