The Good, The Bad & The Badass: James Caan
Last week, in anticipation of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, we took a look at the filmography of Wes Anderson, whose debut film, BOTTLE ROCKET, featured a standout performance by this week’s subject…
No one could ever deny that James Caan is one hell of a badass. Even at seventy-three years old, Caan’s still one of the toughest guys in Hollywood, and anyone who’d dare tangle with him (or his similarly tough son Scott) would have to be nuts. However, Caan is more than just a tough guy. He’s also one hell of a consistent performer, and over the course of his fifty-year-career he’s done it all. Beginning with 1967’s EL DORADO, where he was schooled in the art of badassery by John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, and running all the way to this week’s BLOOD TIES, Caan's had an amazing career.
Looking at his filmography, his career can easily be divided into two halves. From 1972’s THE GODFATHER to THIEF, Caan was a superstar leading man, to the extent that at one point he was almost cast as both SUPERMAN and as Han Solo in STAR WARS. After THIEF (and his underrated directorial debut HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT) Caan took several years off to deal with problems in his personal life, but he made a major comeback, launching the second half of his career as an older character actor in movies like MISERY, THE PROGRAM, and the great HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. Since then, he hasn’t stopped working, frequently lending a little class to big movies like ERASER or GET SMART, some authority to shows like LAS VEGAS or MAGIC CITY, or turning in brilliant (if often unheralded) performances in movies like BOTTLE ROCKET, THE WAY OF THE GUN, and more.
I’m really torn between THE GODFATHER and THIEF. While obviously THE GODFATHER is a superior film, Caan’s performance in THIEF is probably the strongest of his career. Still, there’s something to be said for how iconic his Sonny Corleone has been to the American gangster film, and while technically only a supporting performance, whenever he’s on-screen in THE GODFATHER he dominates. Sonny’s a live-wire of aggression, and he made such on impression in the part that ever since Caan’s been pigeonholed as a tough-guy, although he’s also incredibly effective in quieter parts like CINDERELLA LIBERTY. Sonny’s got at least two scenes in GODFATHER that stand with the most famous moments ever put on celluloid, including his famous beating of the abusive Carlo, and his immortal tollbooth death, which has been copied to death (even Al Pacino’s death in SCARFACE owes something to it). Thus, THE GODFATHER gets a slight edge.
I wouldn’t dare call any of James Caan’s performances overrated, but it can’t be denied that his tenure on LAS VEGAS (OK, so technically not a film) maybe went on a wee-bit too long, which I doubt even Caan would deny. Caan’s too cool to be playing second banana to Josh Duhamel, and I wasn’t terribly upset when Caan quit the show to shift his focus back to movies.
ALIEN NATION is a film Caan doesn’t seem to have particularly high regard for (slamming it in his AV Club “Random Roles” interview) but as a kid, I absolutely loved it. That’s the first film I remember seeing him in, and even at seven years old I thought he was the coolest guy ever. While it’s dated and cheesy in that “eighties cop movie” kind of way, it's way better than the premise (human cop partnered with an alien) suggests. For one thing, it’s a pretty dead-one satire of the era (with yuppie-like Alien drug dealers), and Caan , together with the great Mandy Patinkin as his alien partner, elevate things and make this come off as more than an eighties B-movie. Also, you have to love the idea of aliens getting drunk off of sour milk.
I also really like an action movie he did in the seventies called THE KILLER ELITE (unrelated to the Jason Statham movie). Directed by Sam Peckinpah, Caan plays a CIA assassin who’ s double-crossed by his partner (played by Robert Duvall) who leaves him crippled and ostensibly out of the game. Of course, Caan isn’t kept down for long, and through some crazy seventies-style martial arts training (Caan’s a real-life sixth degree black belt) gets even, although not without first facing an army of ninjas (no joke). It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure in that Peckinpah clearly has nothing but contempt for the kind of comic book action movie he’s making, while Caan seems a little too bemused by the premise. That said, it's still a great action flick.
This is a no-brainer. Without question, the finest acting Caan’s ever done was this nearly ten minute scene from THIEF where he tells his love-interest, Tuesday Weld, about his life in crime, his time in prison, and what he hopes to accomplish with his life. Caan’s gone on record saying it’s the piece of work that he’s the most proud of, and the fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is ridiculous.
Despite getting a bit older, Caan’s not slowing down one-bit. According to the IMDB, last year he did thirteen episodes of something called BACK IN THE GAME, and he’s got tons of movies due to be released within the next year, ranging from bit parts in DTV action movies like THE OUTSIDER, to leads.