A Small Study in Contrast: Bishop & Rafe
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.
28 Responses to “A Small Study in Contrast: Bishop & Rafe”
Another sterling piece, and one of incredible originality in both conception and thought. Your notion to compare and contrast these two unlike roles (and two performances) is a creative inspiration, and your chosen modus operandi really illuminates Henriksen’s abilities.
The Blogathon is lucky to have this one, my friend. Thank you for participating with another outstanding post.
Thank you very much for the kind words, John. I’m very happy to contribute a small part to this wonderful event celebrating an extraordinary performer. It has produced so much great reading material. And I’m so looking forward to next week when I can pick up the biography and meet Lance and Joe.
It’s great to see some time given to Rafe, a character often overlooked in these Henriksen discussions. He is one of my “favorite” characters (if one can use that term on such a scourge of humanity) for a couple of reasons. Physically, he’s just smoking hot. ;-P But he is the epitome of the typical thug. The guy we read about in newspaper stories (when we read newspapers) or see on “America’s Most Wanted” and who makes us scratch our heads and ask, “How could he DO such things?” He is pure sociopath. As he says himself, ” Don’t mean nothing to me, I’ll kill ya.” He doesn’t care about death. He doesn’t care about pain. He’s operating on pure animal instinct. To paraphrase something someone said about Henriksen once: This is not the guy you want to find standing behind you at the ATM at midnight. Rafe is summed up for me in one perfect Walter Hill pan – http://www.jackaloper.com/media/rafe_pan.mpg As a friend said to me recently, this shot is the checklist of how to be a badass. 🙂
So glad to find another fan of Rafe! I agree with you about what makes him so distinctive. That’s a perfect pan shot by Walter Hill, too (happy you provided the link). Lance as Rafe is such a presence. The clip also gives you a brief hint of that fantastic Ry Cooder soundtrack for Johnny Handsome.
Although, I don’t know why Rafe gets overlooked. He is such a badass. Perhaps, it’s because JH didn’t get the best reception when it debuted. Thanks so much for your comment, Terri.
I always love the analysis of contrasting elements and you’re right you could compare and contrast more than two at once and get entirely different shades of the actor.
HEck, I was watching Appaloosa again recently. His role in that film is so perfect and yet so different from the two parts you describe here, it’s quite startling.
You really cannot overstate the talent of this man.
Always a pleasure to visit and read the work over here at It Rains… You Get Wet.
Best my friend
So many great roles performed by Mr. Henriksen to chose from. And I guess I have a tendency toward looking at things in a contrastive way, so it seemed like a good fit for a post. It’s always great to have you stop by and give such wonderful comments, SFF. Thanks so much.
Excellent comparison, my friend. Really interesting indeed! It just goes to show the versatility of Henriksen. He can play a compassionat android and a stone cold killer in radically different films.
Always good to see Hill’s film getting some love. I sure wish it would get a decent DVD/Blu-ray release. Hell, I would be willing to get a DVD-R burn on demand release so long as it was widescreen. Ah, maybe some day.
Very kind of you to say, J.D. I hope Johnny Handsome continues to get the acclaim it deserves. The current disc offerings, compared to those of Aliens, are sorely lacking. As a Walter Hill devotee, I sincerely hope some studio (or MOD program) will finally deliver the original widescreen presentation for JH. It’s a great and deserving film. Thanks very much.
Great analysis of the two films/characters. I’m going to have to give Johnny Handsome another watch. I haven’t seen it since it came out on VHS in ’89 or ’90. Another great Henriksen role (as a villain, this time) was as Jesse Hooker, the leader of the vampire clan in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. Have a good weekend, my friend.
JH is a very under-appreciated Walter Hill film, John. And I very much agree Lance in Near Dark was fantastic in that role (and re-uniting with his Aliens co-stars Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein). Thank you and right back at ‘cha.
[…] Alatorre from the blog It Rains… You Get West offers an essay entitled “A Small Study in Contrast: Bishop and Rafe,” which reads like a direct response to Muir’s observations. He compares Henriksen’s […]
THANK YOU for writing about Johnny Handsome — an unfairly neglected film by a brilliant filmmaker. I want to share a link with you and your readers. It’s an interview that Walter Hill did a few years ago with journalist Pat McGilligan. When I spoke with Mr. Hill for Lance’s biography, he said McGilligan’s interview was the only one that he felt captured his sensibilities:
Walter Hill fans unite! He is one brilliant filmmaker. It was great to see Hill returning to New Orleans with Johnny Handsome (his Hard Times film was located there and is another fave). Thanks so much for your thoughts and the PDF link for that interview! Love it! Looking forward to meeting you and Lance next week when I come by to pick up the new book, my friend.
I actually saw Johnny Handsome in the theater when it came out, and over the years I’ve mentioned it to many who hadn’t seen it. Rafe is incredibly menacing every second he is on the screen. The combination of Mr. Henrikson and Ms. Barkin is just amazing. I agree with you on how great she is too. And their wardrobe is perfect, and the irony of her name…great stuff.
Greetings, Jane. You and me both took Johnny Handsome in first run. And Mr. Henrikson and Ms. Barkin made for one ferocious pairing on-screen. Good point about their wardrobe. It really added to the whole package. Thank you for stopping by and your comment.
Once again, you blow me away with the depth and breadth of your film knowledge. I did not know ALIENS cost only $18.5 mil! Cameron will never make a movie that cheap again.
This is a fitting tribute to one of our best character actors. And according to Mr. PCN, he’s a very nice man, something else to add to his list of impressive qualities.
As usual, you are very kind to moi, Elyse. I remember, too, you telling me that Mr. PCN has worked with Lance Henriksen (Millennium, yes?). That is soooo cool! I’m going to meet LH next Wednesday evening… in Burbank, in fact, at his book signing. Thank you very much.
Lance is going to be in Burbank?? Dang, P and I are going to a screening that night. Have fun! I hope you’ll post a report and pictures of the signing.
Oooh… good idea! Thanks, Elyse.
I have never heard of Johny Handsome before.
This is a great Idea for a post. I should do something like this for actors I like. i did one on Sandra Bullock but not as detail and as good as your post now.
Your closing line is very strong,I like it.
Just like you,I also like Bishop character. He is amuch better synthetic human than Winona rider in the last Alien.
Unfortunately, not many have heard or seen the highly underrated Johnny Handsome. It’s well worth checking out.
Since I’m a big Sandra Bullock fan, I’ll need to check out your post on her. And yeah, Winona had an even harder chore in attempting to reprise an android in ALIEN RESURRECTION. That film, and Alien³, definitely have their problems. But, I’m that rare one… a AR-defender. I really should write a post on that ;-).
Thanks very much for your comment, Novroz.
I’m the rare ALIEN 3 defender. Please don’t throw hard objects at me.
Here is the post: 180 degrees Sandy, if you want to read it. Yours is far more detail than mine.
I should try writing a comparison post like you one day.
@Pop Culture Nerd …I also have no objection with Alien 3, in fact I enjoy all 4 of those movies.
Thanks for the link, Novroz!
My good friend John Kenneth Muir is a Alien³ fan, too, Elyse. My head admires a lot about it… it’s my heart that has the issue ;-). I recommend JKM’s recent piece on that film for the blogathon. You two may have a lot in common. Thanks.
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I’d read Godey’s Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome long before seeing its film adaptation. And Walter Hill knocked it out of the park with a project that fit like a tailored suit.
The film put Henricksen and Ellen Barkin on my radar. For their elegant ease towards violence without apologies. Sunny and Rafe could be brother and sister. Consumately comfortable in their roles as seductress and flat out scary intimidator and muscle.
While Mr. Henricksen’s “Bishop” is the Milquetoast flip side of Rafe. Quiet and contained. Though with a glint of scheming in his eyes.
No surprise to find you admire Walter Hill’s work, Kevin. You have grand taste. Weren’t Lance and Ellen so startling in ‘Johnny Handsome’? Indeed. Good point about Lance’s Bishop. Many thanks, my friend. 🙂