HE’s Sunday afternoon question: Apart from Ben Kingsley‘s legendary Don Logan in Sexy Beast, who else has played a sociopathic criminal that stands out similarly? A bad-guy performance not just praised for the the full-madman aspect but enjoyed on a humorous level as well?
Over-the-top bad guy performances don’t count if the movie itself is trying to be funny. I’m speaking only of nutty or half-nutty performances that are (a) scary with a funny undercurrent but are also (b) part of a violent crime scenario that deals straight cards for the most part.
In a certain diseased, deliberately anti-realistic, intentionally over-the-top fashion, Jack Nicholson gives a comedic performance in The Shining. But who else?
In Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson‘s Jules Winnfield is pretty much a smirking riot from start to finish. Obviously Pulp isn’t a realistic crime film — it has an existential tall-tale feeling throughout — but the killings are real world; ditto Uma Thurman‘s drug overdose and that masked male hillbilly rape in the basement.
Barry Levinson‘s Bugsy enjoys itself start to finish, but it’s not a smirking attitude film — it’s history told with a certain flair. Harvey Keitel‘s performance as gangster Mickey Cohen, however, is amusing in nearly every scene.
Al Pacino‘s Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy obviously doesn’t qualify given the tone of the film, but his John Milton performance in Taylor Hackford‘s The Devil’s Advocate does. It’s one of those “Al’s going to town and having fun while he pockets a paycheck” performances.
Sorry but Joe Pesci‘s Tommy in Goodfellas doesn’t belong in this fraternity either. Yes, Tommy is brink-of-murder humorous in the “tell me what’s funny” scene in the Bamboo Lounge scene, and yes, there are one or two other scenes that play with this aesthetic. But 95% of Pesci’s performance is about serious psychopathic menace.
Kingsley, on the other hand, is so theatrically out there and unhinged that nearly every line and bit he performs can be read (if you’re able to step back and understand what he’s doing) comedically.
So we’re clear on this, right? If the performance in question is perversely funny within the scheme of a more or less straight-faced enterprise, it’s good to go. But if the film itself is kidding or winking, the performance doesn’t rate in a Don Logan way.