Tag Archives: james coburn

Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten James Coburn Performances

James Coburn was an interesting actor for me because he flawlessly jumped the gap between old school silver screen Hollywood and the post mid 90’s Hollywood we know today, so you’re just as likely to spot him in a Turner Classic western flick as you are to hear his deep, comforting voice in a colourful Disney/Pixar film. He had a rumbling intensity that lent itself to alpha tough guy roles early on in his career and later on blossomed into a winking joviality that saw him land many roguish old rascal types. He was one of the greats, and these are my top ten personal favourite performances of his!

10. WitSec Chief Beller in Chuck Russell’s Eraser

He turns a quick extended cameo into something fun and memorable in this underrated Arnold Schwarzenegger SciFi romp. Arnie spends the whole film battling his treacherous former boss (James Caan) and just when Coburn’s big shot CEO shows up we think he’s going to be an even *bigger* bad than Caan but he turns out to be a pretty solid dude, acting as a Deus Ex Machina of sorts to bail the entire situation out.

9. Mr. Waternoose in Disney/Pixar’s Monsters Inc.

Here he explores his playful side as one of the antagonists of this animated classic. Waternoose is CEO of Monsters Inc., a cranky spider-crab thing who only has the company’s interests at heart and acts in a callous, unforgiving manner given blustery gusto by James and his baritone boom.

8. Thunder Jack in Disney’s Snow Dogs

Another Disney one! This is admittedly not the greatest film, a silly city slicker in the Arctic vehicle for Cuba Gooding Jr. James is a curmudgeonly surrogate father who whips him into shape and gives him a good dose of tough love along the way. I have a soft spot for this since it’s one of the first films I ever saw in theatres as a kid, James is terrific fun in it and the squabbling banter he has with Cuba is a treat for kids.

7. Derek Flint in Our Man Flint and In Like Flint

Long before Mike Myers ever spoofed James Bond in Austin Powers, Coburn starred as slick super-spy Derek Flint in these films and they are kind of all over the friggin place. Super 60’s vibe, full of sexy chicks and dastardly villains and James makes a simultaneously klutzy and suave parody of 007.

6. Sedgwick ‘The Manufacturer’ in John Sturges’s The Great Escape

This classic WWII flick sees a gigantic ensemble cast full of multiple big names try and get out of a German POW camp with James playing a logistical expert and tools provider with that classic sly glint in his eye.

5. Britt in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven

Strong silent type and expert knife thrower, Britt is one of the less show-boaty and understated among this classic band of antiheroes, but definitely one of the most memorable. James looked like he had some First Nations background which adds to the rugged western flavour here. He’s kind of like the Mads Mikkelsen knife throwing character in Antoine Fuqua’s (who also coincidentally directed the Magnificent Seven remake) underrated King Arthur (a film I will always champion) : low key, man of few words, but deadly as all hell and super charismatic.

4. Jack Buchan in Joe Dante’s Second Civil War

Alongside Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog this is one of THE most criminally overlooked political satires of all time, and I imagine that both films were deliberately buried in terms of marketing because they’re just a *bit* too close to the way things sadly actually work in the world and those in charge didn’t want too many people exposed to such dead-on, accurate material. James plays advisor to the president during a time of ludicrous crisis and his perpetual exasperation at having to rationalize postponing executive decisions because they interrupt POTUS’s favourite soap opera is priceless, as an actor he truly understood comedy and had a gift for it.

3. Justin Fairfax in Brian Helgeland’s Payback

This wry neo noir sees Mel Gibson’s career criminal Porter going on a cynical rampage to get some money he was jewed out of, and Coburn is one of the powerful underworld bosses in his way. Fairfax hilariously seems to have little interest in Porter or the serious situation though, he’s just returned from vacation and is more concerned about his fancy luggage than any intruders with guns. James makes hysterical work of line delivery like “That’s just mean, man!!” When Gibson blows a bullet hole through his suitcases. It’s a juicy, eccentric cameo and brings some comic relief to the table.

2. George Caplan in Michael Lehmann’s Hudson Hawk

Talk about an underrated, misunderstood gem of a film. Bruce Willis is Hawk, the worlds greatest cat burglar on his craziest mission yet and up against all kinds of kooky cartoonish villains. Coburn’s Caplan is an ex military prick with a huge attitude problem, a mercenary for hire who commands a private unit of weirdo operatives named after candy bars like ‘Kit Kat.’ James understands this bizarre material and turns George into a rapscallion of a villain, whether he’s terrorizing local town folk or reminiscing about his Cold War spy days where he was ‘getting laid every night.’

1. Glen Whitehouse in Paul Schrader’s Affliction

This is the role that landed him an Oscar and it’s well earned. Affliction is the bleak, difficult tale of the Whitehouse clan, an ill fated New England family presided over by Coburn’s volcanically abusive, black hearted patriarch, a man who seems to reap poisoned soul food out of terrorizing his own family. He’s a mean, crass, violent old fucking rotten bastard but James is too good of an actor to play him one note. Glen is a monster but there’s shades of humanity when his wife passes, albeit briefly. There’s gnarled self hatred, a booze soaked, misanthropic nature to him and many other carefully calibrated aspects that make this one of the best pieces of acting in film.

-Nate Hill

Paul Schrader’s Affliction

Paul Schrader’s Affliction is a terrifying, tragic and too-real examination of how one series of events, dating back to childhood abuse, can spark the kind of self destructive downward spiral that no well adjusted person could ever thing themselves capable of. At the outset Nick Nolte’s Wade Whitehouse does indeed seem, perhaps mostly in his own eyes, to be a fairly well adjusted person. He’s an auxiliary lawman in a small New Hampshire community with a daughter, ex wife and set of problems that could be chalked up as ‘everyday variety.’ But just underneath that is a simmering layer of trauma and violence that inevitably will be unleashed, given the right set of catalytic incidents. Wade has a volcanically abusive father (James Coburn) who drinks like there’s no tomorrow and terrorized his family no end for years. Wade’s brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) distanced himself from the whole implosive saga years ago but when their mother passes away and the dynamics of their family as well as that of the town begins to shift, forces align against all of them.

This is a sad, heavy, fucked up, heinously bleak and relentlessly downbeat piece of storytelling, no fooling around. Wade’s trajectory is just painful to watch, from hazy flashbacks to childhood horrors inflicted by the old man to slow, steady signs of mental illness, delusional breakdowns and unstable behaviours manifesting gradually like an incoming blizzard. His relationship with his father is a poisoned minefield, his brother stays at arm’s length while his ex wife and daughter are resentful of him, perhaps scared or both. He has one solace in the girl he’s seeing (Sissy Spacek) but once she’s drawn into the whirlwind that is his life she too frays around the edges and is tainted by the violence, bad luck and pain surrounding it all. If this sounds like anything but a pleasant experience, it totally is and you’ll leave the room feeling like you’ve been slapped in the face repeatedly. But it’s an important, well crafted, intelligent, vital film that explores in uncommon empathy and understanding how a cycle of abuse, alcoholism, dereliction of compassionate behaviour and violence can ripple throughout generations like a sentient force all its own.

Nolte is sublime in this role, he’s an actor who always seems on the edge of an explosive outburst, always restless or shifting around, possessive of a deeply uneasy tone of voice and a guarded gaze. He rocks this role scarily well and it could be the performance of his career. Coburn is a tower of terror as the domineering patriarch, an imposing force in flashbacks now reduced to a frail, brittle and sour parody of himself in old age, constantly swilling booze, pissing archaic rhetoric like a toxic fountain and continuously displaying what the very worst traits of the male image look like. Dafoe is quietly powerful, present briefly in person and then in spirit with haunting narration, the black sheep of this clan in the best way possible. Spacek is so sad as the poor girl dragged into all this as it’s achingly clear she has deep feelings for Wade which she must abandon as soon as it becomes clear the kind of black hole he’s headed for. The cast is rounded out nicely with folks like Chris Heyerdahl, Brigid Tierney, Jim True-Frost, Mary Beth Hurt, Wayne Robson, Joanna Noyes and the excellent Holmes Osborne who we recall as Donnie Darko’s dad. This is a grim tale, as rough and cold as the inland terrain these people make their home, and for the family here there’s no way out of the cold, save for perhaps Dafoe’s character. It’s essential work though, a film that doesn’t doesn’t shy away from taboos that we ignore and banish out there with the howling wind, but rises up to meet and bear witness to such atrocities so that we may better recognize them in our own realm, and whittle away at the block of empathy and compassion in the face of such horror. A stone cold masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Brian Helgeland’s Payback

Isn’t it always kind of more fun when the protagonist of a film is an utter scumbag? I think so, and Brian Helgeland did too when writing Payback, my favourite Mel Gibson film (outside Mad Max of course, but that’s a high pedestal to breach). There’s something so engaging about Mel’s Porter, a street rat career criminal who’s betrayed by his treacherous partner (Gregg Henry) and junkie wife (Deborah Kara Unger), left for dead in an alley. After a rocky recovery he comes back with vengeance on the mind, hunting down those who fucked him over and anyone who profited from it. The first thing he does to set tone for his character is steal cash from a panhandling hobo, which is just about the starkest way to inform your audience of what’s to come. What does Porter want? He wants his 24k from the job he got shafted on, not a penny less and, hysterically, not a penny more either, which becomes the beloved running joke of the film as he prowls streets, poker rooms, titty bars and all kinds of lowlife establishments to get what’s his. Henry is off the rails as his former partner in crime, taking his usual brand of scenery chewing to new heights and picking fights with anyone who makes eye contact with him. He isn’t even the main villain either, that honour goes to a stone-faced Kris Kristofferson as the sadistic head of a shadowy mega crime syndicate who are soon alerted of Porter’s ongoing rampage. There’s uber corrupt cops (Bill Duke, Jack Conley), a weaselly bookie (David Paymer), a bureaucrat desk jockey villain (William Devane), a high class escort with a heart of gold (Maria Bello) who brings out the faintest of softer sides in Porter, a sneering assassin (the great John Glover) and others who all get caught up in the commotion this guy causes just to get his modest 24 grand. A young Lucy Liu also shows up as a sexy S&M hooker with ties to the Triads and enough scary attitude to either turn me on or freak me out, I’m still not sure. My favourite has to be James Coburn as another organized crime hotshot who seems more interested in his elaborate accessories than putting a step to Porter’s nonsense. “That’s just mean, man” he bawls after Mel puts a bullet in one of his designer alligator skin suitcases. So damn funny. This is the epitome of jet black humour, one of the meanest, gnarliest, bloodiest and most entertaining neo-noirs that Hollywood has ever produced. Mel has played so many heroes and upstanding family men that it’s refreshing to see him go for the contemptible asshole shtick, and I’ll be honest I’ve never rooted for one of his characters harder than I do for Porter and his deranged urban crusade every time I rewatch this, which is a lot. Fucking brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Eraser 


Eraser is a top notch Schwarzenegger vehicle, and in a year where the only other Arnie entry was the mind numbing Jingle All The Way, it supplies 1996 with that jolt of action from our favourite Austrian juggernaut. Here he’s John Kruger, a US Marshal who specializes in an obscure wing of the witness protection program that literally wipes people’s memories clean before replacement. The technology is naturally hoarded over by big old corporations which as we know aren’t to be trusted in these type of films. During a routine mission to help beautiful client Vanessa Williams, Kruger begins to suspect his own colleagues of some shady shit involving the sale of high grade weapons, and before he knows it he in the crosshairs and on the run with Vanessa tagging along. It’s all smarmy James Caan’s fault really, who plays his devilish, treacherous superior officer at the WitSec agency, a classic case of ambition gone rogue, his villainous cackle trademark of someone you just shouldn’t trust, even before his true colours are bared. The action is fast, furious and rooted in 90’s sensibilities, with all manner of attack helicopter chases, massive artillery fired off at a whim and the the near SciFi concept frequently smothered by the shock and awe campaign of each set piece, which is fine in an Arnie flick really, I mean they can’t all be Terminators and Total Recalls. There’s a neat rogues gallery of character actors filling in the wings in addition to the big guy, Williams and Caan, including Olek Krupa, Patrick Kilpatrick, James Cromwell, Danny Nucci, Robert Pastorelli, Joe Viterelli, Mark Rolston, John Slattery, Roma Maffia, Tony Longo, Melora Walters, Camryn Mannheim, Skip Sudduth and Nick Chinlund as Caan’s unwitting henchman. There’s also a delightful cameo from James Coburn as the WitSet CEO, doing the same pleasant ‘sort of a villain, but also sort of not’ shtick he did in Payback. One of Arnie’s more low key efforts, but still more than serviceable and a slam bang damn great time at the action races.

-Nate Hill

Christopher Coppola’s Deadfall


I hear a lot of talk about how weird Nicolas Cage can get in films, and I’m always seeing top ten craziest Cage compilations on YouTube and such, but people often seem to neglect the veritable cherry on top, the big cheese of nutso Cagery, a terrible conmen flick from back when called Deadfall. This is a film directed by a member of the Coppola family, and anyone who’s done their base research knows that Cage is a member of the brood, which is the only reason he ever broke into the industry in the first place. Now as to why and how he was allowed to give the unapologetically certifiable ‘performance’ we see here, well that remains a mystery. Needless to say, this is Cage unchained, off the leash and out of the Cage, an unnecessarily clownish banshee cry of a turn that derails the entire film, eclipses every other actor and puts a big dark stain on everyone’s career. The protagonist here is Michael Biehn as a shit-outta-luck hustler who accidentally kills his own father (James Coburn, who also does double duties to play the man’s brother), and ends up in the criminal doghouse, reprimanded by his boss (Peter Fonda) and left to flounder in small time stings. Enter Eddie (The Cage) another small-potatoes loser who clashes with anyone and everyone around him, a true lunatic of a character whose left empty of any sort of engaging qualities or charisma thanks to Nic’s utterly bombastic histrionics and lunatic ravings. If I sound like I’m overselling just how fucked up his performance is or making mountains out of molehills, please feel free to jaunt on over to YouTube, type in ‘Nic Cage Deadfall’ and see for yourself. If bad performances were represented as train wrecks, this would be the infamous explosion escape scene from The Fugitive, and even that doesn’t do it justice. This is a giant schoolyard tantrum, an inexcusable, near fourth wall busting bag of uncomfortable verbal utterances and bodily contortions that make you want to call an exorcist for the poor spastic, I really don’t know how the film ever got released with such fuckery on display. Anywho, all that just drowns out literally *everything* else about the film, and when one of your actors acts out so much that they smother work from heavy hitters like Biehn and Coburn, you know your filmmaking process is handicapped beyond repair. As such, brief appearances from Michael Constantine, Talia Shire and Charlie Sheen are subsequently lost to the abyss of Cage’s deafening orbit. A mediocre film without him as it is, but add what he does to the mix and you have a true stinker, the cinematic equivalent of a spittoon filled feces. Don’t bother. 

-Nate Hill