When a truly bad actor wants to be seen as a good actor, they often go gruff, they often go moody and, mercilessly and all-too often, they often go unhinged. Gruff, moody and unhinged have saved the careers of several of the worst actors of our generation. By lowering their voices to a growl, grimacing a lot, smoking, going nude, going off the rails, womanising, chowing down on cock, getting punched in the gut in the rain, wearing a dirty trench coat and growing stubble, your shit actor can pretend they’re a brooding, Brando-type character tortured by inner demons; and not that arsehole you remember from that shit ‘80s teen film you used to like until you grew up and started watching proper films. The sort of films that don’t star Corey Feldman or Andrew McCarthy – those sort of films.
Several examples spring to mind. There was bumbling teen dude Keanu Reeves’s transformation from a shockingly bad actor in dross such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Parenthood, to troubled, chain-smoking misery guts in Constantine.
There was bubbly, annoying, Tom Hanks barnacle Meg Ryan, who showed us her unconvincing serious side when she opted to get her tits out and become Jim Morrison’s wasted fuck-piece in the monumentally awful The Doors.
And then there was Hanks himself: shouty, whiny and fuckwitted in Splash, Joe Vs the Volcano, The Money Pit, Volunteers, The ‘Burbs, Forrest Gump etc., then brow-beaten and squinty and terribly, terribly worthy in Saving Private Ryan and Philadelphia. Who saw that last one coming? I certainly didn’t – not on the evidence of Big.
By far and away the least convincing gruff transformation for me, however, is Kiefer Sutherland. His schtick in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was to play serious types, loners, badasses and scumbags. Not being able to act his way out of a paper bag, he did this in an incredibly unconvincing fashion in a string of forgettable films that made a lot of money thanks to teenagers, teenagers’ ability to swallow vast tranches of offal, and the invention of VHS.
There was his turn as a vampire in the appalling The Lost Boys; as a cowboy in the shittenfest that was Young Guns and Young Guns II (a bad actors’ ensemble piece spanning two truly evil movies); as a twat in Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, Flatliners, Bright Lights, Big City; and there was his ill-advised go at classic literature when he donned the cape and hat of Athos and became the second-least convincing musketeer in the history of cinema (the first was, of course, Chris O’Donnell – a man who must surely be in the running for the title of ‘Worst Actor of all Time’?).
Then, mercifully, he went away. Like acne and a disturbing crush on the fattest girl in the school, he was left behind as a part of our adolescence.
Sure, he’d pop up from time to time in successful guff such as A Few Good Men, JFK and A Time To Kill, but they weren’t Kiefer movies, they were Tom and Jack and Demi and Samuel L. movies, where Sutherland was called on to play a redneck shitkicker with an unconvincing Southern drawl and a not-particularly menacing menacing streak. For the most part, his career as the ’90s ended and a new century was born was a downward spiral into obscurity as he started punching at his real bad actor weight in direct-to-video masterpieces such as Ground Control, Desert Heat, After Alice and Cowboy Up. The shit actor had finally found his Tom Berenger-shaped niche. He was down where he belonged: with the likes of Chuck Norris and Cynthia Rothrock.
And that’s where he would have stayed – an ex-big gun member of The Brat Pack who’d fallen on high times; another Emilio Estevez; another Ally Sheedy. If fortune hadn’t favoured him, he’d now be starring in joint Russian-Iranian productions with titles such as Kung-Ho Diamond, Last Stand At Pingo-Mino II, and Green Berets Go Space IV. He would have been one of those actors that, upon the announcement of his death many years into the future, you would have said,
“Kiefer Sutherland? I’d forgotten about him. What was that cowboy film he was in? The one where’s he’s a miserable sod with long hair? Gets shot in the second one? Top Gun, was it?”
But, as we all know, Kiefer’s career didn’t turn out like this. Like Roger Moore before him, Kiefer ignored the most important rule when it comes to bad actors (get thee to DVD, Satan!), hung on in there and was rewarded with his very own TV show that went on to be a smash hit around the world.
With the success of 24, Sutherland suddenly found himself being taken seriously by Hollywood again. And they took him seriously because he’d pulled off the neat trick of being gruff, of being moody, and of being unhinged. Using the classic actors’ tricks of mumbling, eye-darting, looking dishevelled, tortured and hunted, Kiefer took a big fat leaf out of Russell Crowe’s and Colin Farrell’s books, emulated the first layer of those actors’ performances, and became one of those post-80s, post-muscle-bound, post-Reaganite everyman action-hero-with-issues types that seem to be what the paying public wants to see in its leading men nowadays.
It was Kiefer reborn, and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood once again came knocking.
And that’s why Friday sees the opening of Kiefer’s first proper, big-budget headliner since being welcomed back into the bosom of the Hollywood elite – Mirrors.
Telling the story of an off-the-rails NYPD detective who has ‘killed a man’, Mirrors sees our Kiefer taking up a job as a security guard in a creepy, fire-damaged department store whilst on suspension from duty. The store – which used to be a 1950s mental asylum, surprise, surprise – is filled to the brim with mirrors; mirrors that contain the souls of those killed by the evil that lurks within them. Once they have their hooks into Kiefer, the things in the mirrors are free to enter any mirror connected with him, and that means his estranged wife, his sister, and his two Latin American (?) children are under threat.
But why, you may ask, are the mirrors picking on Kiefer and his family?
Why, because the souls trapped within want to be set free, and for that to happen Kiefer must unravel a mystery that involves the department store’s previous life as an asylum, a possessed twelve year old, a strange name etched into one of the mirrors, a nun, and ‘something in the basement’.
That’s right, it’s a formulaic horror movie that never strays far from the well-trodden haunted house plot we’ve come to know far too well over the years. It’s as predictable as Ghost Ship, Thirteen Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill. With only a scene where a woman’s face is torn apart before our eyes, Mirrors hasn’t enough shocking moments to lift it above the norm, and isn’t, in its central performance, unhinged enough to put it into the unsettling psychological shocker category either. The thing is, with the correct actor, it could have been.
As discussed, the problem Sutherland has is he cannot act. Because of this disability, he is as unconvincing as a loose cannon shitbag detective with a dysfunctional family and a really, really crap job as he was as a cowboy, or a vampire, or a G.I. or a redneck southern shitkicker with a bad accent. This therefore wastes a potentially interesting lead character. As he frowns into those mirrors, you can’t help but remember he was peddling this inner-demons guff way back in Flatliners, and it wasn’t very convincing then, either. Whereas the modern everyman actor such as Farrell, Crowe or Norton can genuinely convince you that their lives are shit and, boy, are they feeling it, Sutherland just plays Doc from Young Guns – but with more frowning.
There’s a difference between a genuine performance of a man brought to the brink of madness by circumstance (Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson have all done it with an aplomb that takes your breath away), and an actor who’s probably seen his dad go through hell on earth in a film such as Don’t Look Now, and has decided to give it a go.
On TV – a medium that tends to be forgiving of terrible actors – it’s fine to act all sullen and worried and gruff for forty five minutes. You can get away with it because, well, it’s only TV, isn’t it? But on the big screen, when asked to carry the film for a running time of nearly two hours, you cannot forgive so easily unless the actor is very, very good. Kiefer Sutherland is not, and never will be, very, very good.
With an actor such as the aforementioned Norton in the lead, this movie could have been lifted above the humdrum thanks to a performance that would have made you believe you were watching a down-at-heel scumbag losing his life and his marbles to a building full of satanic mirrors. With Sutherland, you just don’t buy it, and it ruins any chance this film had of rising above its interesting – if not especially original – premise.
That’s why, in my opinion, Kiefer should go back to the small screen where he belongs, and leave the cinema stuff to the big boys.