Note: The following is another contributive post to this week’s Lance Henriksen Blogathon hosted by my friend/author John Kenneth Muir and Joe Maddrey, the co-author of “Not Bad for a Human”: The Life and Films of Lance Henriksen (Bloody Pulp, 2011). To say I recommend this web tribute to film fans would be an understatement.
As has been well noted throughout the course of this blogathon, actor Lance Henriksen has made a career at being exceptionally versatile across a breadth of characters. The face that stands out in a crowd, an unassuming support player in a story, or an ambiguous, distinctive character contributing in unexpected ways have all come into play many times across TV programs and film. Moreover, there are the good guys and the colorful villain roles that dot his filmography (and which could be among any of the dramatis personae I’ve just mentioned). Naturally, these two archetypes draw more weight because of their effect upon an audience. Plainly, it is a human trait to want to cheer the good or boo the bad. When you look at, that concept reduces down to this uncomplicated formula:
Noun 1. good guy – any person who is on your side [ant.: bad guy - any person who is not on your side]
It really distills to just that. Which side the character (or you) is on. So with that in mind, when I first learned of this web event, I began reviewing what makes this actor so entertaining along those very lines. His sheer talent for character was obvious. Add to that, Mr. Henriksen continually appeared throughout many of the television shows and films I’ve enjoyed through the decades. Still, a couple of particular roles immediately stood out. Please don’t misunderstand me. The number of mesmerizing and varied parts he’s done over the years are legion. There are plenty of roles this actor has performed that I revisit regularly for the sheer pleasure of watching him at work. Yet, the two that pushed their way up from that prodigious filmography stand out in my mind. Each marked me deeply long ago. The fact is this pair of characters give mightily to the films they emanate from. As they provoke antithetical sentiments in me, they are essentially and drastically unlike each other. The tandem is unique Lance Henriksen performances which leave me awestruck. Here’s what I’m getting at:
The Two Films
Different how: Aliens (1986), itself a sequel to a highly successful Ridley Scott Sci-Fi-horror film from the previous decade, instantly became an iconic blockbuster Sci-Fi-action thriller that sealed a standard for its filmmaker (runtime: 137 min., 154 min Special Edition) when it debuted. Compare that to Johnny Handsome (1989). An unusual crime drama from an underrated director/writer that didn’t have much box office success at all initially, and only in the last few years has it gained a modicum of acclaim (runtime: 94 minutes). The former was based on an original screenplay (by multiple writers, including the director). The latter was adapted from a forgotten gem of a book, The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome by John Godey. Per IMDB, Aliens grossed $131,060,248 (Worldwide), Johnny Handsome was lucky to pull in $7,237,794 (USA).
Alike how: Simply put, both are marvelous stories. Disregard the categories they’re in, the two films included talented casts and wonderfully written characters — with performances to match. Ironies – each roughly cost the same to make, believe it or not. Aliens, $18,500,000 (estimated). Johnny Handsome, $20,000,000 (estimated).
Different how: for better or worst, no one exudes special effects, technology, and box office clout more than James Cameron. No film budget, or daring, is too huge for this man (and who has an ego to match). Walter Hill is unassuming by comparison, though some of his films have proven to be successful with movie ticket sales (like 48 Hrs.), but mostly they are not a study in net profit. Hill, as a filmmaker, operates nowhere near the same neighborhood as the former (but few do).
Alike how: budgets and genres be damned, both are exceptional cinematic storytellers and action-oriented in the films they produce. Each of them can get your blood up in the sequences they craft and keep you planted in your seat through narrative and characters they write. Ironies (per Wikipedia) – “Hill was the co-producer and one of the originators of the blockbuster Alien series of films. He rewrote the script for the original production (with David Giler), co-wrote the story for Aliens, the second film in the series [Cameron's], and co-wrote (again with Giler and also Larry Ferguson) the screenplay to Alien³.”
The Two Roles
Take a closer look at these two screen caps. Same actor, in two films about three years apart. But, acting and demeanor is everything here, is it not? And ‘contrastive’ is a word-and-a-half in this instance. Each image is a visual barometer for who these personalities are onscreen, by their very nature. Bishop (on the left) stands almost shyly apart from the other character sharing the frame in the foreground. At a glance, you perceive the being as intelligent, certainly curious, but strange and somehow non-threatening just by the look he evokes. In total opposition to that is Rafe (on the right). You instantly recognize the predator in the shot by threat and facial expression (and you get the feeling the other character in the frame would rather be on planet LV-426 than where she is at that moment). And Henriksen’s eyes communicate everything. As supporting characters to the leads in their respective films, and therefore given only a fraction of the screen time, they still are the ones I most remember.
I love this character. I daresay this persona remains one of the best and most remembered in the entire ‘Alien’ franchise. Aw Hell, the 80s for that matter. Plus, you cannot minimize what Cameron and Henriksen pulled off with this film role. Ian Holm as the android Ash was a stunning surprise in story and character in Alien — and still serves as a perfect symbol for corporate duplicity, if there ever was one. Big shoes to fill, in other words. Stepping in as a new version (in another film), plus letting the cat of the bag by divulging his identity early in the story, the character of Bishop had a lot to overcome from the get-go with the audience. Evidently, he did, and then some (or I, or anyone else, wouldn’t be writing about it, here). James McLean in his recent post may have conveyed him best:
“Bishop was captivating – a fusion of counterpoints. Henriksen’s synthetic Bishop played off a warm innocence against the character’s cold artificial intelligence. His eyes were kind, filled with youthful honesty, set upon the face of a mature man. In the midst of the frantic horror, he was the calm in the storm.”
His character arc from near the beginning of the film to where he comes to lay at the end (Bishop and Ash still come from the same torn cloth) is nothing short of remarkable. There is a polar shift when you regard the androids, afterward. As much as Aliens is Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) journey back through the nightmare, it is the audience’s crossing, too, by virtue of Bishop. The doubt and suspicion of the character, telegraphed earlier, is deftly peeled away to reveal whose side the android is really on (and that he’s not the digital analog for Paul Reiser’s ambitious corp-wonk, Carter Burke). The way it is done, and its impact on the audience, is powerful and touching. And, it is precisely for that reason Bishop’s final spoken line in the film still chokes me up to this day (and why it’s tailor-made for the title of the actor’s biography).
“Not bad for a human.”
I hate this character. Yeah, and it’s personal, too. While the Bishop II in Alien³ may well be the dark flip side of a beloved character, I submit Rafe is the true antithesis. Human to a fault, and with all the subtlety of a mace to the groin, he is every street crime victim’s worst nightmare. Writer Hill has crafted some doozy villains during his directorial tenure (Luther in The Warriors, Albert Ganz in 48 Hrs. and Raven Shaddock in Streets of Fire come readily to mind), but Rafe is a piece of work. LH’s portrayal always elicits the same response from me when I watch Johnny Handsome. Yes, I’ll admit here and now that Emil Fouchon in Hard Target is more charismatic as a villain. Shoot, I’m pulling for Emil in fact to kill the Muscles from Brussels in John Woo’s film (unfortunately, he never does). Heck, I’ll even allow that Rafe isn’t even the most captivating character in the JH film — that role is Ellen Barkin’s Sunny Boyd.
However, he is utterly the most vicious thing in the movie. Sadistically so. Lance Henriksen pulls off another extraordinary part by just pure physical menace with Rafe. There’s no layers to him, nothing hidden. He’s on full palpable display as the volatile weapon throughout. Plus, filmmaker Hill makes judicious use of his small screen time, too, in a flick that’s already a lean and mean 94 minutes in length. If you watch this, notice that his character is introduced early, but disappears for a large portion then on in the story. You know you’ll see him again, dread it in fact. He’s the hammer launched on a slow steady arc that’s headed toward the protagonist (Mickey Rourke as Johnny). And when that blow lands, it’s a cringing sight for the audience. The scene I speak of is as subdued as a switch blade, and about as grim to watch in action. By the time you get to Rafe’s comeuppance, you yourself want to throw another bullet his way for good measure. Hell, I’d front the Alien Queen a ticket to New Orléans wholly to meet Rafe. Believe me, he’s that bad… and that memorable.
They’re not… unless you’re counting Lance Henriksen as the common part. In my opinion, LH’s talent makes this pair both real and unforgettable, and great on-screen examples for those on or against your side. It seems pretty clear. The audience can’t help but feel something toward these distinct characters, one way or other. My last point is this. Even though I’m emotionally at odds with these discrete personas, I learned long ago hate is not the opposite of love. It is indifference. And I cannot be indifferent with these characters, or this actor.