When the Late, Great Philip Seymour Hoffman Played a Supervillain

It is such a pain in Owen Davian’s ass to deal with the stupid Impossible Missions Force. He’s a professional, and, just, ugh.

A good blockbuster movie villain usually enjoys being bad. Heath Ledger’s Joker was the ultimate example of this—cackling and skipping through bank robberies and bombings and murders.

Philip Seymour Hoffman turned that notion on its head in “Mission Impossible III.” He played Owen Davian—a maniac looking to deal the AntiGod to terrorists—as bored, like the whole game was beneath him

. mission imposs 3.preview

“What the hell is your name?” Davian asks Ethan Hunt when he realizes he’s been taken into custody. He sounds wearied and annoyed. “Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Because if you do, I’m gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna find you, and I’m gonna kill you right in front of her.” Words like that are scarier coming from someone who’s sober.

Hoffman died this week. He was an amazing, brilliant, wonderful, superlative, hyperbole-defying actor. It is always tragic when the world loses any Philip with one L. This one, though, really hurts.

Lots of remembrances have mentioned his work in “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway. He played Willy Loman, a traveling salesman who is old and suicidal. It’s a part for serious, powerful actors, and by all accounts Hoffman was amazing in the role. 16DEATH_SPAN-articleLarge

So he was a capital-A Actor — a serious student of the craft, and a man completely without vanity, willing to transform into any character.

He was one of the very best. When Paul Thomas Anderson made “The Master,” he needed to top Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in Anderson’s previous film, “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis is the actual best, but Anderson understood the following equation:

Joaquin Phoenix + Philip Seymour Hoffman > Daniel Day-Lewis

Just barely, but math is math. “The Master” is my favorite Hoffman performance, and one of my favorite movies. We’ve Flip Sided it here before, twice (click here or here). Hoffman played a cult leader pretending to be a genius, a megalomaniac who’s full of shit and does not care to admit it. He had to be sweet and smart in the presence of others, but this wasn’t his real nature. The internal duel—and his relationship with a throbbing caveman id personified by Phoenix’s nutso Freddy Quell—was fascinating.

But Hoffman could be fascinating in anything.

Late in “MI3,” the tables have turned. Davian’s interrogating Ethan Hunt. He’s asking Hunt, over and over, “Where is the Rabbit’s Foot?” He has a gun to Hunt’s wife’s head and he’s counting slowly to 10. Tom Cruise plays Hunt and he is freaking out. Davian is absolutely going to kill his wife in front of him. Why not? He doesn’t care about any of this bullshit. The scene is horrifying. It’s great.

Hoffman was so good he stole movies from small supporting roles. He stole “Charlie Wilson’s War.” He stole “Almost Famous.” He stole “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Along Came Polly.” And he stole the “Mission Impossible” franchise. The whole thing.

Last week came news that Jesse Eisenberg will play Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman/Superman movie. If you’re looking for the next Hoffman, I think it might be Eisenberg. He would hate to hear that, and I’m certain most movie fans disagree, but there was genuine brilliance in his soulless portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.”

Eisenberg is egoless, like Hoffman. And this may sound a bit strange since one dude rode heavy and the other’s pretty scrawny, but they share a kind of subversive athleticism.

Maybe it’s a stretch, but I see it. I’m excited for Eisenberg to take on Superman like I was excited for Hoffman to battle Hunt and his IMF.

Maybe it’s a stretch. Maybe I just want Eisenberg to be as creative in his choices as Hoffman was. We need a new Hoffman and it’s hard to think rationally right now, distracted by a fresh gaping hole in the heart of moviedom.


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