Monday, December 26, 2011

Movie Web Monday: Bob Hoskins

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie (or television show) invoked will be one I either own or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

In a major break with recent blog policy, I'm posting two days in a row. And today's article, like many of the posts that will be following, is one that I've been sitting on half-finished for a while. Believe me, the movie web stretches far and wide, so don't make the mistake of thinking that the chain of succession stalled in the gap. This week, we have the inimitable Bob Hoskins in three movies where he plays three engaging villains that each have a plot that involves assuming a sort of distorted father role in protagonists' lives.

Bob Hoskins: Correctamundo

Movie: Enemy at the Gates (own it)

The intro to Enemy at the Gates is a marvelous juxtaposition of savagery. We begin with Joseph Fiennes' narration that quickly sums up the stakes of the battle, remarking that the fate of the world hinges on Stalingrad. (There are few places in World War Two history where such a statement could be supported, but I think it's fair to say that the siege of Stalingrad is one such linchpin.) Then we get to see the brutal, cruel, and apathetic machinery the Soviet Union employed to desperately wage this stage of the war. Men are shipped to the front lines with virtually no supplies in crowded train cars that superficially resemble the popular depiction of Nazi internment cars. Only half of the soldiers are equipped with basic weaponry. They are launched on suicidal wave-attack formations, and then shot by their own officers if they retreat without orders--orders which never come. It's a grim conflation of values from the average World War Two movies that makes the Nazi and Soviet belligerents feel more interchangeable and ambiguous.

And then we get Bob Hoskins as Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. You first meet him as he gives a Soviet commander a pistol to kill himself for failing to hold the line, and then you revel in his snapping badger of a speech to the remaining officers of Stalingrad's defense. With Hoskins behind the characterization, Khruschev is both wryly funny and deadly--deadly deadly--serious. Plumbing the officers and commissars for suggestions, he listens to a handful of nervous party-line suggestions, all of which fall into the category of 'shoot those who don't fall into line'. When Joseph Fiennes as Commisar Danilov suggests that the Soviet political officers actually try to find good examples, heroes, for the beleaguered defenders to emulate, the Soviet pit-bull creeps up to the beanstalk Danilov and asks in a Brillo-pad-tender voice:

It's such a great, fun little moment, but still played completely straight thanks to the subtle depth of Bob Hoskins in this role. There's sinister anticipation, intimate anxiety, and sadistic humor all commingled in one perfect vignette. This deep introduction colors his later scenes as Khrushchev ingratiates himself as a bullish father-figure in Vassili's growth as a hero of the people, adding an engaging level of tension from another Soviet source in the second act of the film.

Movie: Hook (own it)

Steven Spielberg's Hook is one of the defining pieces of cinema that my generation devoured at a young age. A modern adult-centric sequel to the classic Peter Pan story, Hook follows the mid-life adventures of failed father Peter Pan as he gets dragged back to Neverland. At the bottom end of the intended audience's age, I went through junior high hanging out with kids who'd chant "Rufio! Rufio! Ru! Fi! Oh!" at large events, kids who earnestly worked on their crow, and otherwise enjoyed Hook as one of the few fantasy films accessible to kids in the early nineties. Part of the elegant power of this film--like many of Spielberg's enduring works--lies in the strength of the four principal characters: Robin Williams as Peter Pan, Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, and Bob Hoskins weighing in as the most enjoyable iteration of Smee ever--by far. By liberating the consummate goon from the mindless affirmative support Smee has always embodied, Hoskins' Smee was still mired in comical stupidity, but the actor also made him engagingly charismatic and vaguely devious at the same time. The marvelously unique minion's character is wonderfully encapsulated when he and Hook brainstorm how to get poetic, meaningful vengeance on Peter Pan. With a ding of a bell, Smee announces his own wicked plot with:

With Hook condescendingly correcting his henchman's verbiage, Smee nonetheless outlines a plan to use Pan's children to gain thorough revenge on Peter Pan--a plan that Hook clearly would not have developed on his own. Smee being a productive part of Prosthetic's crew is not just a novel approach, but it is so dynamically and enjoyably developed throughout the film that Hoskins stands shoulder to shoulder with Hoffman as the eponymous villain--even stealing a few scenes. Add to that the charismatic manner in which Smee barks back and forth with the rest of the pirates in the film, and you get a sense that Hoskins' Smee is the real power behind the Jolly Roger's tiller in Hook.

Movie: Unleashed (own it)

Unleashed is the most violent saccharine movie you're ever likely to see. It's a film about a quiet, child-like martial arts prodigy raised to be a human attack dog for a British loan shark, and it sits on the action chops of star Jet Li and director Louis Leterrier as well as on the acting chops of Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman. Morgan Freeman plays a saintly, patient, blind piano-tuner named Sam, who stands opposite the man holding the main character's leash: 'Uncle' Bart, played by Bob Hoskins. The juxtaposition of the sweet and the dangerous in this movie cannot be overemphasized--just taking a selection of moments from the movie's three acts illustrates this. Act one includes a scene where a man is killed outright when he's punched repeatedly in the windpipe. The second act has the main character learn about ice cream and his first brain-freeze with a cute girl, and the third act involves our hero tossing two bad guys at once by their junk.

That's right, I said it. I'll just give you a moment to let that sink in.

As with the other two movies, Bob Hoskins plays a character who is interesting and deep even in his most profoundly iniquitous moments. Unlike Khrushchev or Smee, however, Uncle Bart is absolutely vile and it's really only the marvelous realization of the actor that makes his loathsome character bearable on screen. He's a torturous loan shark, involved in blackmail and prostitution, murder, and he's a methodically cruel slave master to the main character Danny. And yet he plays the right moments off with a coy smile and understatement that make the audience actually enjoy the human diaper stain's contribution to the story. A prime example is when Bart is asked how he managed to turn a human being into a mindless fighting machine. His reply: "It's like my saint of a mum used to say..."

Look at that coy smile. Out of context, you might try slapping congenial as a label on that mug, but he's using that old wives' proverb to euphemise the systematic dehumanization of a person. It's boggling to watch, and enjoyable in its powerfully disconcerting subtlety in a movie that is otherwise un-subtly painted in contrasting tones of blood red and shining gold.

Leave it to Hoskins to find that critical transitory element in such an inky black-hat character. And leave it to him to make him smarmy and funny and subtle even when the rest of his on-screen moments involve murder and beatings.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

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