Who knew that a Chicago ex-cop would go on to become one of the most recognizable and talented presences in Hollywood? Michael Mann did when he cast buddy Dennis Farina in Thief way back in the day, after which the actor went on to give us an absolutely captivating, scene stealing body of work in cinema and a career particularly in crime and comedy genres that is now legend. He could be funny as all hell and then turn downright dangerous at the drop of a hat, your affable best friend or grim worst enemy in any given scene and often simultaneously. Dennis is no longer with us but his epic career lives on every day, and here are my personal top ten characters he crafted!
10. Maurice Cantavale in Randall Miller’s Bottle Shock
If you haven’t seen this lovely little film then get on that right away, because it’s an absolute charmer through and through. So basically Alan Rickman is a British wine connoisseur who travels across the pond to Napa valley for a competition to enter his wines. Farina is his neighbour, a travel guide entrepreneur who accompanies him for camaraderie, companionship and moral support. He’s a lovable teddy bear here who has adorable chemistry with Rickman and adds to an already terrific ensemble cast.
9. Henry DeSalvo in Barry Sonnenfield’s Big Trouble
In an ensemble cast that’s just about as packed as one 90 minute comedy can handle, he stands out as a super cranky hitman called into Miami to kill a asshole corrupt business exec (Stanley Tucci). He finds every obstacle possible thrown in his path though from rambunctious football fans (“we got gator fans!”) to overzealous security guards and everything else the city has to offer. His mounting exasperation and deadpan frustration is one of the highlights of this hilarious, underrated screwball comedy.
8. Lt. Mike Torello in Michael Mann’s Crime Story
Here he gets to channel his real life roots in playing a tough Chicago police detective trying to prevent an up and coming wiseguy (Ray Luca) from ascending to power in the city’s dangerous criminal underworld. A companion piece of sorts to Mann’s more popular Miami Vice, this is a fantastically produced crime epic that’s packed with guest stars, many of which went on to A-list fame. Dennis is grounded, angry, violent when he needs to be but imbues the character with compassionate hues as well, it’s a beautiful lead role in a career that’s mostly stocked with supporting turns.
7. Joe May in Joe Maggio’s The Last Rites Of Joe May
Another lead role yay! This is a fantastic little seen indie drama about ex Chicago hustler Joe May who is released from prison in his twilight years and discovers the streets, along with his capabilities, aren’t what they used to be. Farina sadly passed away a few years after this was released and as such it kind of stands as a swan song of sorts. It’s about age, the passage of time and ultimately redemption in the face of one’s own mortality, and he nails every aspect of theme/character flawlessly, and should have been nominated for all the awards.
6. Dick Muller in Jon Bokenkamp’s Preston Tylk aka Bad Seed
This little seen indie drama sees widower Luke Wilson in a disquieting game of cat and mouse with his deceased wife’s lover (Norman Reedus), both blaming each other for her untimely death. Dennis is the world weary private investigator Wilson hires to help him through the whole mess and it’s in their dynamic that a touching interaction is formed. This is a depressing, sad story that can only end messily overall but he finds the humour, pathos and uplifting notes to his performance and it’s one of my favourite of the lesser known ones.
5. Jimmy Serrano in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run
This guy is a piece of work, but a hilarious one. The grumpiest Chicago mobster you could ever find, he’s a violent, corrupt, short tempered prick who spends most of his scenes threatening his poor lawyer (Phillip Baker Hall) with extreme bodily harm and trying to track down Robert De Niro’s elusive bounty hunter with whom he has a decades old grudge with. It’s a flashy, really funny and engaging bad guy turn that manages to scare and I still laughs in equal measures.
4. Gus Demitriou in HBO’s Luck
This was a sadly short lived but magnificent series set in and around an LA horse racetrack and focusing on all sorts of individuals whose lives revolve around it. Dustin Hoffman is Chester, a parolee who walks a fine line between businessman and mobster, while Farina’s Gus is his driver, assistant, sounding board, business partner and overall good friend. The dynamic between these two is communicated brilliantly by the two actors and we get a real sense of Gus’s moral standpoint, goals and outlook on life.
3. Jack Crawford in Michael Mann’s Manhunter
A few guys have played the FBI’s head of behavioural science and while Scott Glenn’s turn will always be my favourite, Dennis made a fascinating version. In a career filled with intense and exuberant work he made his Crawford into an understated guy who works well with William Petersen’s equally inward Will Graham.
2. Ray ‘Bones’ Barboni in Barry Sonnenfield’s Get Shorty
One pissed off Miami gangster who is none too happy to get called to LA on business, he gets the film’s best line when he begrudgingly proclaims to a taxi driver: “They say the fucking smog is the fucking reason you have such beautiful fucking sunsets.” Dennis was a staple in film adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s work and this is one of the pithiest, funniest in both his and the author’s rogues gallery.
1. Cousin Avi in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch
In an ensemble cast full of eclectic underground whackadoos, he *really* steals the show as a supremely sassy NYC gangster reluctantly dragged to London (which he hates) to track down a stolen diamond. Dennis’s energetic Chicago twang and Ritchie’s stylized flair for dialogue make this character sing, he gets many of the film’s funniest bits and is clearly having a ton of fun.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!