By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
It is hard to believe that one of the greatest character actors of all-time, the one-and-only Bill Paxton, has passed away, at the age of only 61. This charismatic and highly likeable performer dotted the celluloid landscape for most of my movie-going life, so it is with great sadness that he is no longer with us.
Mr. Paxton left an indelible mark on just about everyone who loves film, so I would like to review some of my favourite Paxton films, along with memorable performances by the great man in productions that maybe weren’t top shelf, but were still entertaining. Any way you look at it, he is iconic, and if you happen to be a newcomer to the works of Bill Paxton, then please watch every single thing you can, as he was a shining light who brought joy to so many people around the world. I myself have still yet to catch up with Edge of Tomorrow and Nightcrawler, two films that were critically acclaimed and loved by audiences.
Everybody will have their own favourites, and I’m sorry if I haven’t included them in the following list. Some will mention Tombstone and Titanic, while others may have a soft spot for Twister, Navy Seals and Vertical Limit.
Streets of Fire (1984)
Despite a strong cult following, this is definitely one of the most under-rated films of the 80’s. Directed by Walter Hill (48 HRS, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort), this homage to the rock ‘n roll films of the 1950’s is an absolute delight, dazzlingly crafted and full of catchy tunes. Stars Michael Pare and Diane Lane, with support from Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis, and Willem Dafoe. Bill Paxton plays Clyde the Bartender, an old friend of Pare’s who has an early confrontation with the headstrong Madigan.
The Terminator (1984)
The film that put James Cameron on the map as a film-maker, and one of a group of hits that secured Arnold Schwarzenegger’s position as a movie star. The tale of a cyborg sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor, the woman who will become the mother of the leader of the resistance, was certainly embraced by audiences, and lead to a number of sequels. Arnie is great as the title character, as is Linda Hamilton as Sarah, while Michael Biehn leaves a strong impression as Kyle Reese. Cameron builds an impressive sci-fi/action thriller on a low budget, displaying the skills he had learnt under the legendary Roger Corman. A strong supporting cast includes Lance Henrickson, Paul Winfield, Earl Boen, Rick Rossovich, and of course Dick Miller. As for Mr. Paxton, he played the blue mohawked punk leader who gives Arnie one of his classic lines.
Weird Science (1985)
Fun fantasy comedy from John Hughes, though it isn’t up there with his very best. Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith play high school nerds who manage to make, via a complicated computer set-up, their own perfect woman (Kelly Le Brock). Comic situations abound as Lisa teaches the two to become more confident. Hughes’ astute casting pays off, with appearances by Robert Downey Jr., Robert Rusler, Vernon Wells, and Michael Berryman. Mr. Paxton is on board as Smith’s older brother Chet, an obnoxious military type who is always bullying his younger sibling.
For most, this is probably the role Bill Paxton will be remembered for, and this sequel to the classic Alien (1979) was a resounding success, both critically and commercially. James Cameron and his talented technical crew do wonders with a limited budget, and this entry cleverly expands the Alien universe. Sigourney Weaver is commanding once more as Ripley, and a strong cast gives the film added punch. As Private Hudson, Mr. Paxton is superb, delivering what seems to be endlessly quotable dialogue as his character finds it hard to face an army of vicious xenomorphs.
Near Dark (1987)
One of my favourite films, this unusual variation on the vampire legend still holds up well today. Written by Eric Red (The Hitcher, Bad Moon), and directed by Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), this ultra-stylish horror/thriller was a brutal flipside to the teen-orientated The Lost Boys, which came out the same year. A close knit group of vampires roam the land, and initiate farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) into the club when he falls for the pretty Mae (Jenny Wright). Caleb soon learns that the life of a vampire is grim and lonely. Mr. Paxton is memorable as the imposing Severen, who doesn’t take to Caleb joining their group. He also reteams with Lance Henrikson and Jeanette Goldstein, who were in Aliens. Not for the squeamish, but this is one of the best takes on an old legend.
Next Of Kin (1989)
Derided by most critics, this is actually a fun action film that has a nicely placed sense of humour. The late Patrick Swayze plays a Cajun cop working in Chicago who goes after the gangsters who killed his brother. Complicating matters is his other brother (played by Liam Neeson), who arrives wanting vigilante justice. The direction by John Irvin (The Dogs of War, Hamburger Hill, City of Industry) is solid, and all the cast acquit themselves well. It’s amusing now to see a young Ben Stiller playing the son of the lead gangster. Unfortunately Bill Paxton’s role, as the doomed brother, is rather short, but it’s still good to see him on screen.
Predator 2 (1990)
This high-octane follow-up to the 1987 hit starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was critically drubbed, but I always thought Predator 2 was unfairly maligned. The film relies more on elaborate mayhem and impressive visual design than well-rounded characters, but its great cast compensates for that. Danny Glover was a clever choice as the lead, who is about as different to Arnie as you could get. Maria Conchita Alonso, Ruben Blades, Gary Busey, and Adam Baldwin all play their parts with gusto. The action is incredible, delivered with terrific style and energy by Australian director Stephen Hopkins, who was trying to make his mark in Hollywood. Bill Paxton plays Jerry Lambert, the loudmouthed new cop on the beat who joins Glover’s outfit.
One False Move (1992)
After many years of supporting roles, Mr. Paxton was given the chance to anchor a film, and boy does he not disappoint. Co-written and co-starring Billy Bob Thornton, this nasty thriller follows a group of vicious criminals, who after committing murder in L.A., make their way to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Chief of Police Dane ‘Hurricane’ Dixon (Paxton) is informed of the group’s possible arrival, and he sees this case as a way of hitting the big time. Harking back to the stark noir films of the 1940’s, this is wonderful stuff, and although it is bloody at times (the opening scene is particularly harrowing), this is must-see viewing. This is arguably Bill Paxton’s best performance.
After a couple of misfires, director Walter Hill returned to form with this provocative, highly-charged action/thriller. Bill Paxton and William Sadler play firemen who obtain a map that promises hidden treasures, but it is located in a dangerous part of town. When they witness a murder committed by a renowned gang boss (Ice T), they hole up in a deserted warehouse, surrounded by the gun-toting criminals, which includes a very unstable Ice Cube. Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale of Back to the Future fame, this is lean and exciting, made by a film-maker known for his old-school approach. Mr. Paxton is perfect as Vince, an everyman-type character we can thankfully relate to amongst all the violence and mayhem. A film that deserves more recognition.
True Lies (1994)
Mega-budget, mega-hit from James Cameron, where Arnie plays super-spy Harry Tasker, whose family are completely unaware of his adventure-filled occupation. A remake of the 1991 French film La Totale!, this blend of action and comedy is excessive and overlong, but its uninhibited sense of fun is also infectious. The finale is jaw-dropping, both in its convincing special effects and in the way it throws logic out the window. Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis have noticeable fun with the material, and Tom Arnold delivers his one hilarious, big screen performance. The film is stolen however by Bill Paxton, who is sidesplittingly funny as Simon, a sleazy used car salesman who Tasker believes is having an affair with his wife.
Apollo 13 (1995)
The amazing story of the Apollo 13 mission is brought to the screen with typical confidence and sensitivity by Ron Howard. The effects are first-rate, and every aspect of what happened is handled in a compelling manner. Mr. Paxton co-stars as astronaut Fred Haise, alongside fellow travellers Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert (Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon), who have to think of the impossible in order to get back home safely.
A Simple Plan (1998)
A solid thriller that suffers from some slow spots and predictable plotting. One of director Sam Raimi’s most subdued outings, this tale of friends who turn on each other after finding a substantial amount of money in the woods is well-photographed and acted. The cast includes Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, and Gary Cole. Mr. Paxton is excellent as the level-headed Hank.
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
Another rather unappreciated flick, this updating of the 1949 classic is a lot of fun, despite the overlength and a script that lacks genuine sprit. Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron team up to look after the titular character, whose life is in danger once he is brought back to civilisation. Handled with the right amount of affection and exuberance by Ron Underwood (Tremors, Heart & Souls), and filled with convincing effects, both practical (supervised by Rick Baker) and computer generated. Mr. Paxton is as likeable as ever as Gregg O’Hara.
Bill Paxton steps behind the camera for his feature film debut as director, and delivers an unsettling, intriguing thriller that has developed a deserved cult following. Mr. Paxton plays a working-class mechanic and father who experiences a vision, telling him to kill demons who are disguised as everyday people. Telling his two young sons of this, they have to decide whether or not their father is blessed or crazy. Directed with skill and intelligence, Mr. Paxton judiciously underplays the grisly premise, and never portrays his role as a complete psycho, making the story all the more unnerving. His work with the young actors is outstanding, and there is even a restrained performance by Matthew McConaughey. There is also a nice appearance by veteran actor Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid).
The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005)
Bill Paxton may not be in front of the camera, but his work behind it is exemplary, making a story about golf seem fascinating and compelling. Based on a true story, this is inspiring stuff, and Mr. Paxton never lets the material become mawkish and sentimental. Written by Mark Frost (Twin Peaks, Hill Street Blues). A little-seen gem that is worth seeking out.
2 Guns (2013)
After a long absence due to his successful TV series Big Love, Bill Paxton returned to the big screen, and his turn as corrupt law enforcer Earl was easily the film’s highlight. A knowing homage (maybe too much so) to 80’s and 90’s films such as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, this paired Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg to amusing effect, both playing off each other very well. There are surprise appearances by Edward James Olmos, Robert John Burke, and the wonderful Fred Ward, but Mr. Paxton commands every scene he’s in, moving from funny to malevolent with brilliant ease.