Career Arc: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Colin Farrell

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In the corner, wearing a beanie and two stud earrings, strumming a guitar, and talking about poetry, Colin Farrell is about to make out with your girlfriend, and all you can do is applaud him and hold his drink while he does it.

I have no idea what he’s talking about for about 83 percent of that clip, but there is something going on in this “performance” on Charlie Rose that gets at why I find Colin Farrell so compelling. He’s so self-consciously self-conscious; eyes darting everywhere, then making contact and diving into the other person’s soul, earnestly talking about purging himself and chronicling “his stuff,” before casually, jokingly, mentioning the fact that he almost threw it all away. I don’t know. I like vulnerable Irish guys, especially ones who take everything seriously but themselves.

If you want to make God laugh, make a plan, but if you want to make him ROTFL, try to be a movie star. From 2000 to 2004 Colin Farrell did everything by the book; he came out of the gates with a “what was that” performance in a small, character-driven indie (Tigerland), paid his dues by playing second fiddle to more established stars in genre movies (Hart’s War, The Recruit), showed he could perform at a high level in a prestigious project (Minority Report), and carry his own, modestly budgeted B-movie (Phone Booth).

Then he made two bloated disasters (Alexander and Miami Vice), movies that mirrored the excess and insanity he was living with, personally. It was as if the Movie Gods were punishing him for his hubris (but that can’t be right because “Hollywood” actually means “hubris” in ancient Greek), and he seemed to vanish, off to movie jail, only to return two years later in 2008 with In Bruges, one of the best performances of the decade and the crowning performance of his career. The failures of Alexander and Miami Vice and the success of In Bruges taught Colin Farrell a lesson he probably could have stood to have learned a while ago: He’s not much of a movie star, but he is a hell of an actor.

The thing about Farrell in In Bruges is how disorienting his performance is in this dream-like film. But just based on a description of “two profane Irish hit men kill time and kill people in Belgium,” you’d expect something more brazenly, gun-wavingly masculine. Farrell, though, is never obvious. He plays the character of Ray as a haunted, inarticulate Woody Allen, almost. Nervous, probing, jumpy, bored, looking for love and trouble, knowing he’ll always be without the former and always have too much of the latter. Each scene with Farrell in In Bruges goes somewhere unexpected, somewhere weird and human. There’s no obvious trajectory to the character and there’s no obvious map to the performance. It’s just alive.

Since In Bruges, Farrell has pretty much gone and done what he’s pleased. He’s continued to make interesting choices — regardless of the role, the exposure, or the amount of lines in the script. Third wheel in Crazy Heart, coke-addled, bloated bit player in Horrible Bosses. You get the feeling he’s doing what he wants, taking roles because he’s interested, not because he feels like he needs to be the next Tom Cruise. With the release of Total Recall this week — his first legit (if disappointingly lackluster) starring vehicle since Miami Vice — it’s time to take a look at the career arc of Colin Farrell.

The Rise

Tigerland (2001)
Probably overrated as a movie, but underrated as a performance, if that makes any sense. Or maybe they were both properly rated, because when the hell was the last time you even thought of Tigerland? This is a classic Cool Hand Luke, Rebel Without a Cause turn. Holden Caufield goes to boot camp. But here’s the thing we should have noticed from the jump: Colin Farrell, while coming through town like a tornado in this film about soldiers in training before shipping out to the Vietnam War, does not carry Tigerland. It’s really about Matthew Davis’s character, in a lot of ways. It was an early sign that Farrell is at his best when he doesn’t have to carry every scene in the movie and instead just gets to steal every one he’s in.

By the way, Joel Schumacher’s motif for this movie is basically the same film stock used to capture home movies of Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years combined with some G.I. Jane B-roll.

Hart’s War, Daredevil, Minority Report (2002), The Recruit , S.W.A.T. (2003)
If you truly want to be a movie star, you must play a lawyer. From Gregory Peck to Paul Newman to Tom Cruise to Tom Hanks, there’s something about the courtroom that makes an actor into a star. Maybe it’s the suits, usually it’s the causes, sometimes it’s the monologues (“I want the truth!” “Now imagine she’s white”) and the journeys from ambivalence to deeply felt commitment. Hart’s War is an action flick, WWII jailbreak, and courtroom drama rolled into one mediocre package, but it jumped Farrell up a weight class.

I couldn’t bring myself to rewatch Daredevil, but I mention it because there was a rumor right before its production that Farrell was supposed to play the role of Matt Murdock, a part that eventually went to Ben Affleck. I suppose in some kind of Sliding Doors way this means Farrell just narrowly avoided starring in Gigli.

Minority Report is two-thirds of a masterpiece and Farrell’s fine, but I feel like he over-relies on his kissing-the-crucifix move. This is one of the few films where Farrell gets absolutely blown off the screen, courtesy of Hurricane Cruise (this is an awesome Tom Cruise performance, by the way).

If you put LL Cool J in your movie, you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says, “I Fucking Give Up.” In that sense, S.W.A.T. really exceeds any possible expectations anyone could have for it. Of all of Farrell’s early, quasi-leading-man movies, this is probably the one, were I a modern-day Robert Evans, I’d break off a wedge to see today. Farrell, Josh “I Grew a Mustache” Charles, and Jeremy Renner with Samuel L. Jackson? Taking back planes from terrorists and running around sewers? Where do I sign?

The Recruit is notable mostly for the fact that they got two-thirds into the movie without deciding what the actual plot of the film was going to be other than Colin Farrell walking around with Al Pacino. I remember a lot of screwing and unscrewing of Thermoses in this film, though there’s a really good scene where Colin Farrell has a breakdown over the possible torture of Bridget Moynahan that’s almost like watching a kid play really tough, shutdown defense in a pickup game. Hey, it’s just The Recruit, man! I didn’t know we were actually trying!

The Fall

Alexander (2004), Miami Vice (2006)
Think back to the years 2004 to 2006. Fairly low-key, right? You spent a lot of time trying to figure out Lost and, you know, just slogging through old issues of The New Yorker. That’s cool. Colin Farrell was doing all of the drugs. All of them. Maybe not literally, because then he would be wearing two earrings in Irish Actor Heaven right now. But he gave it a shot, and the two movies he is best known for during this period rather accurately present the ups and downs of being a chemical brother.

Holy shit, Alexander. Did anyone think this was really going to work? I mean, you’ve got a notoriously erratic director coming off a five-year break, the last movie he helmed being about a fictional Miami football team that was over-reliant on the route-running skills of Bill Bellamy. You get said director, Oliver Stone, on the case of crafting a biopic of Macedonian king Alexander the Great, ruler of one of history’s most sprawling and brutal empires. You stuff said biopic full of a who’s who of CRAAAAAAAZY people (Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Christopher Plummer, Jared Leto) and let him pour awful dialogue, blood, and tiger sex EVVVVERYWHERE. When you read the word everywhere there, say it like Gary Oldman says “everyone” in The Professional.

That’s how crazy this movie is.

I haven’t watched the director’s cut of Alexander because I have a FIFA ’12 team that needs tending and it’s just really a priorities thing for me. Maybe it’s amazing. (I’m not being a smart-ass; I think Ridley Scott’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is far superior to Gladiator, and Braveheart for that matter.) Farrell screams so much in this movie.

Miami Vice and I have issues. This was 2006, so it was still something of a novelty for the Internet/fans to basically incept a movie. But that’s how this felt. Every bit of news about the film seemed to be taken from my mind. Michael Mann? Yes. Colin Farrell going the ski-mask way? Yes. Foxx? Sure! Gong Li? Big fan. The trailer is incomprehensible, as are long stretches of this film. In the end, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try, you get what you need … but what you don’t need is Colin Farrell recreationally abusing Ambien and snorting household cleaners and drinking all the rum south of Bradenton, Florida. And what was that hair? Jesus. The only thing more confusing was the extended boat ride and dance sequence with Li in the middle of the movie.

The Resurrection

In Bruges, Pride and Glory (2008), Crazy Heart, London Boulevard (2010), Horrible Bosses, Fright Night (2011)
In Bruges I talked about above. Farrell found his new lane after that brilliant little movie: Be part of an ensemble, carry your weight, let other actors carry theirs. Pride and Glory is one of the more underrated cop movies of the last 10 years. Really deeply felt with a sneaky-great Ed Norton performance, in the tougher of two roles (Norton and Farrell play brothers in a family of NYC cops cracking under the weight of a police scandal). Even old Jon Voight couldn’t ruin this. It’s also an atomic Farrell turn as the racist, imploding Jimmy Egan.

Farrell gave a non-grandstand-y performance in a movie that I watched only out of feeling obligated to see “a performance of a lifetime” from Jeff Bridges and got pretty much what I was expecting. That being said, Farrell can sing OK!

Horrible Bosses felt like it never had a screenplay beyond the pitch — “there are these bosses … and they are HORRIBLE” — but Farrell is by far the most hilarious part of the film (with all due respect to Jennifer Aniston’s attempts at career suicide). It’s a great example of how unseriously Farrell takes himself — the comb-over, the fake stomach, the rub-and-tug hobby he has in the flick — it’s all pretty amusing.

London Boulevard is totally enjoyable, a slight variation on the Ray character Farrell plays in In Bruges, and is largely made up of the tracking shots of bars with Rolling Stones songs playing from Martin Scorsese movies.

Fright Night could have been a contender, a modern-day Lost Boys. Anton Yelchin doesn’t exactly take Farrell’s lunch money in this (though David Tennant pretty much does), but he carries the movie, and Farrell’s real job is to look like a million bucks and be convincing as the kind of guy who could get a girl to come to his vampire torture chamber. And it works. Too bad the film plays like someone in the studio lost their bottle at the last second and demanded it become a straightforward action movie.

Like Pride and Glory, like Tigerland, even, to some extent, like In Bruges, Farrell is really there to play as a foil to the central performance. He’s never going to be Tom Cruise. And in the last few years, he seems to have to come to terms with that. As has Hollywood. And it’s obviously quite a relief. Since 2010, Farrell’s been in a bunch of different movies, covering a bunch of different genres, and you can feel him, onscreen, enjoying himself for the first time in his career.

Filed Under: Colin Farrell, Total Recall

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Chris Ryan is an editor at Grantland.

Archive @ chrisryan77