The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Sam Neill
Who doesn’t respect Sam Neill? On the merits of JURASSIC PARK alone, his big-screen immortality is assured, but for my money Neill could – and should – have been a household name long before then. He had an interesting presence, capable of both horror movie malevolence, and matinee idol heroism. An Irish-man raised in New Zealand, Neill's big-break came in 1981. That year he played the lead in Andrzej Zulawski's cult-classic POSSESSION, and, prominently, the grown-up Damien Thorn in THE FINAL CONFLICT, the third and final installment of the OMEN trilogy.
After that he went on to play the likable bad guy in the cold-war spy caper ENIGMA (a staple of early-eighties pay TV) and then, became a heartthrob through his portrayal of real-life super-spy Sidney Reilly in TV's Reilly: Ace of Spies. That show was such a European sensation that when the time came to hire a new 007 for THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, Neill was one of the finalists – even filming a well-received screen test (you can see a tiny bit of it here). While that part didn't pan out, Neill's status as a Euro heartthrob carried on, with him starring opposite Nicole Kidman in the steamy thriller DEAD CALM (a great little movie), while playing an extremely well-received supporting part in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (more on that below) and Wim Wenders's much-maligned but better than remembered (if you see the full cut) UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD.
Of course, it was when he lucked-out and got the much-coveted lead as Dr. Alan Grant in JURASSIC PARK that his star really began to rise. While you'd think more lead parts would have come his way, Neill went on to do mostly supporting roles in movies like Disney's action-adventure re-imagining of THE JUNGLE BOOK, and the cult-hit EVENT HORIZON, where Neill memorably wore some ghoulish prosthetics. After once again playing Grant in JURASSIC PARK III (following fan outrage about him being cut from the first sequel), Neill kept more of a low-profile, mostly doing European TV and film work, before returning in a prominent part as the villain in The Spierig Brothers's DAYBREAKERS. Since then Neill's been in high-demand, with a two season run on Peaky Blinders and more recently, one of his best starring-roles to date in Taika Waititi's New Zealand-shot comedy-drama-adventure HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (read my review here).
Apparently, Harrison Ford was the first choice to play Alan Grant in JURASSIC PARK. For my money, Neill is better cast, with him being more of an every-man which makes his transition into a man-of-action in the second half of the movie all the more thrilling. It's too bad Grant's been only an occasional presence as the series has gone on, but with JURASSIC WORLD making billions, it would make sense for them to bring him back to the fold in some way.
Among horror fans, THE FINAL CONFLICT is considered the second best film of the original OMEN trilogy, which I guess isn't saying too much. All of the movies are fun but only the first is really great. Neill's a good Damien, but there are a lot of goofy scenes, such as one howler where Damien yells at a crucified statue of Christ (Nazarene!). It's entertaining, but not especially scary. Maybe it's just that Damien's nowhere near as scary grown-up than he is as a kid.
John Carpenter's MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN gets a bad wrap. Many remember it as an awful Chevy Chase vehicle (which came along as his career was in free-fall). An atypically straightforward thriller for Chase (not to mention Carpenter), MEMOIRS has its share of problems, including way too many wisecracks by Chase and dumb jokes shoehorned-in by a nervous studio. However, Carpenter's direction is mostly on-point, as are the (for the time) special FX. What's really good about MEMOIRS is Sam Neill as the sophisticated, almost Bondian antagonist.
Carpenter must have recognized how good Neill was despite going-on record about his disappointment in the film. A few years later, they re-teamed for the more typical John Carpenter horror flick, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Neil has a tailor-made part as a sophisticated insurance investigator who discovers a Stephen King-style author, Sutter Cane, is actually a demonic figure whose work drives people insane and may help usher-in the apocalypse. It's a little-known, but solid gem.
Of all the Tom Clancy adaptations, John McTiernan's THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is by far the best, with Alec Baldwin still, twenty-five years later, the ideal Jack Ryan. While mostly remembered for him and Sean Connery, Sam Neill, for my money, is the heart of the film, as Connery's trusted first officer, Borodin, who yearns for retirement to Montana and a simple life. His death scene is particularly poignant, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was what won Neill the lead in JURASSIC PARK.
Fitting his recent return to prominence, Neill's got a bunch of projects lined-up, including a new AMC TV drama called The Son, which is due to start sometime next year. In the meantime, go see HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE!
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|Extra Tidbit:||Thanks for the suggestion Nick Bosworth!|