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From killer smile to ... killer?

Hollywood stars take bad-guy roles to prove themselves as actors. But does the audience always go along for the ride?

By David SterrittFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2004



NEW YORK

The bad guy in "Collateral" is a very bad guy indeed - a psychopathic killer who claims his conscience is clear because murdering people is how he makes his living.

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What's most unusual about this character isn't his cold-blooded nature.

It's the actor who plays him: Tom Cruise, who had his first phenomenal success as the fresh-faced hero of "Top Gun" and has played other sympathetic roles in such movies as "A Few Good Men," "Minority Report," and "The Last Samurai."

What's a clean-cut superstar like him doing in a role like this? Isn't it "risky business," to borrow the title of an early Cruise hit, to play against his usual upbeat image?

Not really. "There's more than one reason for someone like Cruise to stretch his image this way," says Dan Gurskis, a TV screenwriter. "One is that he's getting older. His years as a conventional leading man could be over soon, so naturally he wants to test the waters of different images. Another is that he wants to be seen as a serious actor, not just a career-oriented star.... Roles like this are a way of showing off his talents."

Cruise is far from alone in wanting to strut his stuff as a "serious actor" - not just another pretty (and aging) face. Former model Charlize Theron hid her gorgeous appearance beneath added pounds and loads of makeup to play a serial killer in the aptly titled "Monster" last year, winning the Oscar for best actress.

Denzel Washington also understands this concept, taking home the Best Actor Academy Award for his corrupt policeman in the 2001 action melodrama "Training Day."

To be sure, Tom Hanks fared less well as a villain in "Road to Perdition" and "The Ladykillers," which may explain why he's scurried back to good-guy land in "The Terminal" and "The Polar Express," his upcoming Christmas release.

Then again, audiences had no problem watching Mel Gibson wax vicious in "Payback," a 1999 movie so eager to showcase Mr. Gibson as a vengeance-crazed thief that its promotional slogan read, "Get ready to root for the bad guy," and the video box banners his photo with, "No more Mr. Nice Guy."

This isn't even the first time Mr. Cruise has strayed from the straight-and-narrow path. He played a raging rebel in "Born on the Fourth of July," morally challenged millionaires in "Magnolia" and "Eyes Wide Shut," and the ultimate villain - a monster of the undead - in "Interview With a Vampire."

Don't mess with the persona

Things weren't always like this. A few decades ago, few in Hollywood would have fiddled with a successful star image.

A case in point is the 1941 thriller "Suspicion," an Alfred Hitchcock movie suggesting Cary Grant's character might be a psychopath bent on killing his new wife.

As conceived by Mr. Hitchcock, the movie's ending would have confirmed our suspicions that Mr. Grant's suave exterior masked a murderous secret life.

But not even a filmmaker with Hitchcock's awesome clout could make this appealing to the RKO studio, which insisted Grant be revealed as a misunderstood good guy in the final scene. To the end of his career, Hitchcock regretted what he saw as a missed artistic opportunity.

By contrast, today's film industry is generally open to stars trying on different images, or at least toying with them occasionally.

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