Four videos with actor Ed Harris
It’s hard to be a saint in the cine, but Ed Harris comes close. Bucking the belief that scene stealing is crucial to career building, this low-key stage and screen actor has distinguished himself with understatement rather than attention-grabbing energy.
With his dimples and sympathetic blue eyes, Harris, 46, is solid leading-man material, something he first demonstrated astride a chopper in 1981’s Knightriders. But this uncommon star with the long-forgotten hairline tempers his manly charisma with reserve, making smooth confidence seem unintimidating for a change. If that has left his work underappreciated, a retrospective is as close as your local video store, where many of his three dozen-plus films are available.
In the new-to-video The Rock, Harris gets the chance to nibble a little scenery as Gen. Francis Hummel, a highly decorated loose cannon who commandeers Alcatraz Island and threatens to launch poison-packed rockets into San Francisco unless the U.S. government pays off the families of soldiers killed during clandestine operations. Instead, the Pentagon paper pushers scramble a SEAL team to retake Alcatraz, dragging an unlikely duo into the action. In a feverishly shticky performance, Nicolas Cage is FBI chemical-weapons specialist Stanley Goodspeed, a guitar-playing lab technician who becomes a bloodthirsty commando faster than you can spell implausible. Sean Connery, doing his drollest Bond-like turn in eons, plays John Patrick Mason, a slippery old English operative whose escape from Alcatraz is a state secret. So much for The Rock‘s commitment to logic and realism.
Armed with that strong cast and a promising story, director Michael Bay (Bad Boys) trades it all for a few good stuntmen and a whole lot of explosives. Despite the amusing possibilities of Cage and Connery’s mismatch under fire, the trigger-happy director’s interest in their forced repartee evaporates every time The Rock‘s adrenaline-powered juggernaut begins to roll.
That leaves General Hummel to hold the fort, as it were. He may be an extremist nut, but Harris characteristically makes him a compassionate and disciplined nut who remains calmly in control of his mission. Though such dramatic restraint usually serves Harris well, it can be a mistake when films demand more. In 1988’s Walker, his serenely detached presence as a 19th-century American soldier of fortune who became the president of Nicaragua nearly vanishes into director Alex Cox’s absurdly surreal vision. Likewise, as the team leader hired to salvage a lost nuclear sub in 1989’s The Abyss, Harris is all but drowned out by the computer effects and splashy action.
Three later films are just the right vehicles. In Apollo 13, his second astronaut movie (the first was 1983’s The Right Stuff, in which he played John Glenn), and one for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, he effectively matches the quiet heroism of flight director Gene Kranz. With buttoned-down determination, Harris distills Kranz’s low-key crisis management style, a crucial element in this fine movie’s confident spirit, and sets the indelible image of space programmers as can-do professionals unwilling to concede even the possibility of defeat.
Defeat is all Harris has to work with as Dave, a Vietnam vet in the affecting Jacknife. Hiding behind a walrus mustache, a beer, and a forlorn stare, Dave is the cloud over the romance blossoming between his sister Martha (Kathy Baker) and Megs (Robert De Niro), an Army buddy with problems of his own. All the actors are excellent, but Harris gets the subtlest detail, opening his character’s wounds to reveal a glimmer of redemption in a broken man.
Harris loses the emotional war in Glengarry Glen Ross, the powerful if irritatingly gabby film version of David Mamet’s play about four unscrupulous salesmen scuttling for survival in a hellish real estate office. Despite showstopping performances by Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon, Harris drives the action as Dave Moss, a tough-talking cynic with a scheme to get back at their merciless employer, churning a bellyful of bile through a broad Brooklyn accent. Plotting his vengeance on an individual map of greed, justice, and stupidity, Moss gathers the humanity that rolls right off The Rock.
The Rock: C Apollo 13: A Jacknife: B Glengarry Glen Ross: B+