Recent De Niro and a Top 10 of Alternative De Niro Performances
Our wonderful contributor, Michael Campochiaro wrote an article and listed his Top 10 Robert De Niro films for the website. I have also seen people all over the web praising the actor today for his amazing body of work and some, inevitably, pointing out that post 2000 the great method thespian hasn't, exactly, done his best work.
Initially this made me want to delve into his later work and see just what gems, if any, I could extract. There were a few things lying around, mainly his work with David O. Russell, and it's probably unfair to dismiss De Niro's later stuff completely but mainly, people are right, it's nothing compared to his run in the 70s, 80s and 90s. This is because there really isn't anyone else who can compare with his run of films in those decades.
It's not just comparing it with his earlier stuff either, there are other reasons De Niro post 2000 is a bit of a shambles. Firstly it's because movies in general, post 2000, are a bit of a shambles. He was never really a genre film guy and most films lately have been genre films. Yeah he'd done the odd comedy or the odd bit of thriller/action stuff in the past but mainly he was in films where complex, interesting people went through difficult emotions and talked a lot. His greatest work were mainly dramas. Even his gangster films were less the genre style gangster films of old and more sprawling, historical or contemporary, dramatic epics filled with relationship, familial or friendship problems.
They really just don't make movies like Taxi Driver anymore. They really don't.
He also got older but never really fit the generic Hollywood role of the father or the grandfather very well. Sure he's played them a bunch now, mostly in bad comedies, but even with De Niro playing the roles relatively normally, he's the weirdest and most awkward father or grandfather you've ever seen. This is because, for all his skills and abilities, being soft, emotional, romantic or caring, in a conventional sense, was never De Niro's strong suit. The man never looks relaxed. I don't care how many flappy linen suits you put on him or how much he wears his hair longer and maybe grows a beard, kindly or relaxed are not words you could ever, confidently, use about De Niro. That being said, his father role in Silver Linings Playbook is superb but it's hardly what you'd call normal or relaxed!
Nobody sees him donning tights and being in a superhero franchise either.
He's best playing lonely, frustrated, determined, awkward or miserable men. Outside of David O. Russell movies, which I can take or leave most of the time, his later, more interesting roles have been in Hollywood indie fair like What Just Happened, Being Flynn and The Comedian and I can't say they're much to write home about either but I'll take them over the Fockers movies, Bad Grandpa and Rocky and fucking Bullwinkle!
So while I am definitely not ready to write old Bobby D off just yet and while I am looking forward to Scorsese's upcoming The Irishman with De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel all together for the first/last time, I didn't feel I could, with all sincerity, write a list about modern De Niro stuff you should definitely rush out and watch.
Instead I thought I would just do a quick list about some of my favourite De Niro performances. I'm not including obvious stuff like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas etc. although I do love those roles, this is more a list of ones that you should definitely go out and watch and hopefully there are a few on the list you haven't thought about or haven't seen.
It's the Top 10 list of alternative, unsung and lesser discussed De Niro performances!
10. Grudge Match - I know, right off the bat I have lost you. Grudge Match? I hear you cry, fucking Grudge Match?!
Now I am willing to bet you either never watched it or watched it once and dismissed it. I am not about to say that it's a great film but it's definitely better than almost everyone gave it credit for. Yes it is all a bit over the place - is it a rom com, a boxing movie, a grumpy old men movie or a Kevin Hart comedy? well it's a bit of everything and, honestly, all the better for it. It's got Alan Arkin in it for Pete's sake! shut up!
The film could have, so easily, been just a string of Raging Bull and Rocky references that ended in a lack luster fight between two old farts nobody cares about anymore. Instead it has a real plot, characters, redemption, comedy, heart ache, relationships, family and all manner of things going on in it.
As for De Niro, he is not just resting on his name or his usual schtick in this movie. I feel like he's really enjoying the character and not dialing it in but giving a damn decent performance.
Don't agree? stick with this, the list gets better...
9. Killer Elite - Now I know you never watched this one. You probably dismissed it as a Jason Staham vehicle and never even noticed De Niro and Clive Owen were in the film, either that or you're like me, you watched it and it's in your Top 5 of Jason Statham films.
The reason why Killer Elite makes the list, despite De Niro really being just a third wheel in it, is that it's really good and De Niro, especially for one of his 'later' roles, is really good in it.
It's got a very strong Ronin vibe about it. Speaking of which...
8. Ronin - Amazing cast, great, solid De Niro central performance, twisty turny plot, amazing car chases, European locales, awesome direction by John Frakenheimer and not a bad score.
Make it a double bill with Killer Elite, you won't regret it!
7. Jackie Brown - Now Jackie Brown is undeniably Pam Grier and Robert Forster's movie. The pair of them are just incredible in the film, no doubt and without them in the film, I don't love it half as much. However, Robert De Niro as the low rent crim and weird stoner Louis is a quiet and schlubby delight in the movie.
From the moustache and the shirts, to the facial expressions and the mumbly speech, if I am watching anyone else in the movie apart from Pam and Robert Forster, it's Louis. He can make me laugh without doing anything and yet he rarely gets mentioned when discussing the film.
6. Casino - there are occasions where I will state that I prefer this to Goodfellas. I usually get a barrage of argument about it but the truth is I have watched this movie more than Goodfellas and much prefer its setting, its plot and some of its characters. Much like Donnie Brasco, which I also adore, it is the mob trying to bite off more than they can chew and trying to hold on to what they've got as time marches on. I like all the slimy, manipulating characters, the 70s Vegas-ness of it all and I love De Niro in it.
Beset on all sides by friends like Pesci's Nicky and a woman like Sharon Stone's Ginger, De Niro perfectly plays the part of the constantly frustrated Ace, so well. Wanting order, calm and control over everything and being denied it left right and center is just so fascinating and fun to watch.
5. Mad Dog and Glory - Here's one I bet you haven't thought about in a while.
If you don't know it De Niro plays a shy police photographer who'd rather be an artist, Bill Murray plays a bombastic mobster who'd rather be a stand up comic, Uma Thurman plays the mob boss's waitress turned escort that gets 'gifted' to De Niro for the week, Mike Starr plays, you guessed it, a mob heavy (again!) and David Caruso plays a massive dick that makes you wonder how twatty Caruso ever had a career in the first place.
Not quite a role swap, as I can't imagine Bill Murray playing De Niro's part but certainly the draw of this drama? comedy? is that the two actors play 'against type'.
Despite the presence of Caruso, the plodding direction and the occasional scene that just doesn't work, this film, for De Niro, at least is actually a chance for him to really play a different character. It's so high up the list because of De Niro's shy, awkward performance. When I talked earlier about De Niro's inability to do romantic and caring, it actually works to the benefit of the character in this film. Watching him kiss, bed and fall for Thurman can be a weird, excruciating experience but considering he's meant to be a shy, quiet loner who has dreams far beyond his stature, it works perfectly and De Niro elevates this movie above it's script.
4. Angel Heart - If you love detective films, creepy thrillers, the occult, the devil, mood, jazz, atmosphere, weirdness, Americana and more then please, please, please watch Angel Heart. I absolutely love the film. Mickey Rourke has never been better, Alan Parker's direction has never been better and Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre is menacing, strange, charming and unnerving in the very best of ways.
He's only in maybe three full scenes in the film and he is completely unforgettable. You've never seen anyone that can make the simple act of eating an egg be absolutely one of the most frightening and skin crawling things possible.
3. Cop Land - another film that I feel has been sadly forgotten from the 90s, or at least I don't see anyone discussing it. From its absolutely incredible cast - Keitel, Liotta, De Niro, Robert Patrick, Michael Rapaport, Janeane Garofalo and an absolutely career best from Sylvester Stallone - to its plot, direction, score and characters, Cop Land is an absolutely first rate crime thriller.
It's also, sort of, the last of its kind, in a way. These stand alone, strong thrillers with ensemble casts and good scripts just don't really crop up much anymore. Michael Clayton maybe and a couple of others but nothing like Cop Land.
On its urban, contemporary western, genre base, it builds a wonderful world of dysfunctional characters full of secrets, human failings, principles, rules, corruption and red tape.
Also, much is made of De Niro's grand method gestures like gaining weight for Raging Bull and The Untouchables, driving a real cab and shaving his head for Taxi Driver or even studying stroke victims for his role as Frankenstein's monster! but I think it's the subtle changes in body weight, hair, facial hair, posture and more, like in Cop Land that goes unnoticed and unpraised. Just a quick scroll through the pictures of him in this list of films and you can see how, even subtly, he changes his look depending on the character.
2. Brazil - While only a cameo in two quick scenes, Robert De Niro's performance and character of Harry Tuttle in Brazil is a mad delight!
Like a crazed, comic surgeon, spouting off weird dialogue and waving props around, Bobby D gives one of his finest ever performances and by far his most wonderfully comedic in Brazil.
Given what he was able to do in a couple of short scenes, it's a shame that more scripts didn't come along where he could expand this kind of brilliant, hilarious performance to a full film and it's an even bigger travesty that I find the rest of his so-called "comedic" work so utterly hammy and awful.
I all say that, but, of course, there is one exception...
1. The King of Comedy - Ask me what my favourite Scorsese film is and, mostly I'll say Taxi Driver. Taxi Driver had such a profound effect on me when I first saw it and was so unlike most everything else I'd seen up to that point that it just stuck with me. It's in my Top 5 greatest films of all time, De Niro is flawless in the role and Scorsese makes the scummy, steam filled sewer of New York City appear poetic and mesmerising.
I first saw The King of Comedy on TV with my good friend, Jon Wallace. At the time we were drawn to the film for its comedic elements and even rooted for Rupert Pupkin to at least be funny when he got to be 'King for a night'.
Since then I have seen it a multitude of times and it's an incredible film, just absolutely wonderful. It's not as flashy or haunting as Taxi Driver and Pupkin isn't a character that I could relate to quite like I could, weirdly, to Travis Bickle (despite being nothing like him and probably being way more like Pupkin) and its satire, such as it is, doesn't quite resonate as much as it should but De Niro's performance, ably supported by a fantastic Jerry Lewis and an unhinged Sandra Bernhardt, is a masterclass in subtlety, comic timing, absurd parody and keeping that slightly dark and uneasy side of Pupkin bubbling just below the surface.
I can't urge people enough, if they don't know this film, to go and discover it and if you have seen it, watch it again and rediscover it.
I think the tone can make it difficult for people to know whether to wince or laugh, I usually go with laugh, but that's the genius of the movie. Rupert Pupkin is an unhinged sociopath with none of the apparent empathetic damage and redemptive "I just want a better world and cleaner streets" qualities of Travis Bickle. He is a selfish, determined, lonely, weird man who will break major laws just to be famous but he is also a nerd, still living in his mother's basement, who wants to be a cheesy chat show host and De Niro drains every last drop of awkwardness and bravado from the character. It's amazing.
So there you have it! Have any other De Niro performances that you consider alternative or unsung, pop them in the comments below!