Of all the arts, films most often approach perfection but rarely achieve it, paradoxically for the same reason. From the original germ of the idea a film has to go through a million filters, from writer to director to producer to executive (incidentally, that filter is covered in camel shit) to casting director to actor to editor, ad infinitum. Each stage can help or hurt the finished product, but usually at least one blocks the movie from greatness. Sometimes, a single casting choice is all that stands between a good movie and a classic.
The last time I watched The Matrix I had some trouble with it. Because of the countless imitators, what was once fresh had become cliché. It’s still a classic, but with the freshness gone, its Achilles Heel can no longer be ignored, an Achilles Heel named Keanu Reeves. With very few exceptions, Keanu is a terrible actor capable of singlehandedly dropping any film he’s in by a full letter grade. They cast him in The Matrix because he’s a pretty face, has a bankable name and is capable of (some would say “limited to”) playing dumb and naïve. The downside was they were forced to inject him with pure kung fu and they were stuck with a leading man whose idea of emoting was “Whoa.” Unfortunately, the perfect actor for the part died six years before The Matrix was released: Brandon Lee. Think about it. Think about how much better that movie is. Even with Reeves in the starring role, I still saw it four times in the theatre as a starving college student and each time pretended Keanu was Brandon.
You know I'm right.
By any stretch of the imagination, both of Nolan’s Batman movies are two of the best superhero films of all time. The Two-Face plot that never quite comes together hamstrings The Dark Knight and Batman Begins suffers for the ridiculous microwave gun, but neither of these is as damaging as the casting of Rachel Dawes. Katie Holmes, the original choice, isn’t really convincing as a non-mentally challenged person, let alone a steely lawyer with the brass ovaries to take on the mob. Maggie Gyllenhaal, the replacement that absolutely no fanboy was upset with, is a fine actress but her attractiveness tops out at “quirky.” That an average guy would lust after her is totally believable, but the idea of Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart fighting over her doesn’t play. It’s too bad there isn’t a beautiful young actress with experience playing a lawyer in a hopelessly corrupt city. Oh, wait, there is. Her name is Rose Byrne and she’s been on the stellar Damages for three seasons.
Also, she looks like this.
The first Spider-Man movie was wildly overrated at the time, mostly because we hadn’t seen Iron Man yet. It’s the second one that’s the real gem, highlighted by the train sequence that is the only place in the series that transcends the medium. Also, a movie about impotence in which the hero fights a father figure with four giant dicks is awesome in my book. Anyway, Tobey Maguire is fine in the role, but he always had the charisma of kitchen mold. At heart, Spidey is a skinny nerd with a quick wit and bottomless self-loathing. When it comes down to it, he’s basically Eric Foreman with superpowers. So ironically enough, the best person for the role would have been the guy who played Eddie Brock in the unwatchable third film, Topher Grace.
Bitten by a radioactive what now?
Paul Dano is the worst part of There Will Be Blood. At no point does he present a convincing threat to Daniel Plainview, a man who is basically a pair of barbed testicles. I’ve heard the apologists protest that Eli Sunday is not supposed to match up against Plainview, but come on. At some point we’re just waiting for Dano to get clubbed like a baby seal. It’s telling that whenever I make this point, the apologists have to concede when I suggest my replacement. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has quietly been the best young actor in Hollywood for half a decade, and he’s finally getting his due for Inception. Fortunately, you don’t even have to imagine what he could do with a role of emotional depth: rent Brick and Mysterious Skin. Thank you notes can be posted in the comments section. Take that intensity and suddenly Plainview will be tested and the murder at the end isn’t a foregone conclusion.
At this point, he should just be in everything.
God, I hate Arwen. She’s a terrible character on the face of it, and she only gets worse when you contrast her with the shield-full-of-awesome that is Eowyn. Arwen’s scenes in the trilogy signal the time to hit the bathroom and try to forget her lounging around on that couch while Eowyn takes care of the tiresome business of killing the Wych King in the face. There’s not much you could do with Arwen’s character, but making her hotter would help. Also, Olivia Wilde is an actual elf.
Streets of Fire is such an oddity that it’s likely no single casting choice would make the whole thing work, but it’s undeniable that the main problem is Michael Pare who plays laconic tough guy Tom Cody. I can’t really comment on his charisma, since, like dark matter, scientists haven’t conclusively proven it exists. Besides, you can’t cast Diane Lane and Willem Dafoe and not have someone with skill and presence to play off them. Otherwise, you get what happens: a film in which the lead gets eaten alive by his co-stars. The answer is the always underrated Michael Biehn. Picture him with a shotgun. Or just watch Terminator.
Come with me if you want to rock.
While we’re on the subject of tough guy heroes of awesome cult films, The Warriors has been in my top ten since I saw it. This is even with Michael Beck in the lead, who, if you remember, later managed to be the worst part of Xanadu. In a bunker under the Mojave desert, there’s a team of scientists, film critics and philosophers trying to figure out how this is even possible. Anyway, recast Beck with one of the best action stars of all time: Kurt Russell. Russell was two years younger and had just made Elvis and so was ripe to break out of his Disney rep. Had he done it as Swan, warchief of the Warriors, the film could delete that “cult” part in front of “classic.”
He kicked that much ass without depth perception!
I opened with Keanu, so it’s only fitting that I close with him. No other actor has fucked up so many genre films, apparently without motive. Does he hate us? Probably not, since that would mean he’s felt emotion in that icy black void he calls a heart. I’m left to assume that Alan Moore must have fed Reeves’s entire family into a wood chipper, since that’s the only possible impetus Keanu would have to play John Constantine. Nothing else makes sense. Unless of course, some stupid casting director decided that what really defined Constantine was naïvete. There’s just no logic there. Constantine is world-weary, sarcastic and enigmatic. Reeves is only enigmatic in that he makes me wonder how his brain functions without oxygen. The sad thing is that other than Reeves, Constantine wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the comic, but it came close a couple times and was one of the better stabs at an urban fantasy movie. For the lead, we needed someone from one of the British Isles who can express something beyond the blank gaze of a serial rapist. Cillian Murphy in other words.
Maybe these choices don’t make for perfect films, but they come a little closer. The fun part of this game is there are thousands of roles waiting to be recast in our minds.