James Woods is like a force of nature. When he’s on the screen he virtually blows away most of the people with whom he shares that screen. His staggering versatility also marks him as one of the few true actors in the industry. Here are some of the movies which harnessed Hurricane Woods:
Role: Max Renn, cable television entrepreneur
Comment: Sorry to start with such an obvious choice but I’m amazed that there are still people out there who haven’t seen this movie. David Cronenberg’s patented body horror and other surreal visuals needed a thespian who wouldn’t fade into the woodwork among them. Woods as the intense, sleazy Max Renn fit the bill perfectly.
James proved you don’t need to be twitchy and leering to portray a character who is virtually amoral in his pursuit of money, kinky thrills, Deborah Harry … and the ultimate underground broadcast called Videodrome. Anticipating the Deep Web, there was this magnificent film about how – before the internet came along – it was cable television that was considered a doorway to the forbidden and the depraved.
A cable titillation peddler tries to locate and strike a broadcast deal with a seeming Snuff Show called Videodrome. The sinister parties behind the pirate broadcast are the ultimate villains for the time period, and Cronenberg’s treatment of them shows that SUBTLETY can be more effective than hammering your audience over the head. LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH!
THE HARD WAY (1991)
Role: Maverick police detective John Moss
Comment: Part Lethal Weapon buddy film, part Odd Couple comedy, The Hard Way presented James Woods putting his uniquely dangerous slant on the trope of “a cop who plays by his own set of rules.”
Amid a reign of terror by a mass murderer called the Party Crasher (Stephen Lang), John Moss’ unexpected blast of publicity as the investigating officer catches the eye of baby-faced action star Nick Lang, played with impeccable comic timing by Michael J Fox. Wanting to prove he can play grittier roles, the superstar finagles a stint accompanying Moss on his daily duties in order to soak up the hard-boiled, cop-on-the-edge air emanating from the detective.
Naturally Moss is extremely resentful of being saddled with this pampered actor while he tries to bring the Party Crasher to justice. The result is funnier and more exciting than it has any right to be based purely on that description. The two stars MAKE it work, with support from Annabella Sciori as Woods’ love interest and, bizarrely enough, L.L. Cool J, Penny Marshall & Christina Ricci.
Okay, so this movie doesn’t exactly pioneer new ground in filmmaking, but I’ll take it over Lethal Weapon 3 &4 or any Die Hard flick past the third one. It’s more like equal parts comedy and action rather than an action movie with doses of comedy.
Call me crazy but I find the chemistry between Woods and Fox to be just as hilarious as that between Grodin and Deniro in Midnight Run. Viewers even get a well-earned touch of genuine emotion when Fox as Lang proves that he’s a truly decent human being underneath the spoiled movie star exterior.
MY NAME IS BILL W. (1989)
Role: Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
Comment: Did I mention that James Woods has incredible range? In this movie he portrays the real-life Bill Wilson, World War One veteran turned stock broker turned alcoholic and, ultimately, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.
Biopics like this tend toward hagiography but My Name Is Bill W. keeps it to a minimum and presents a detailed look at alcoholism and a man who went on to provide countless others with the kind of help that was unavailable to him when he developed alcohol dependency.
This movie is still used at orientation sessions at AA to show newcomers that their founder really did go through a lot of what they have and that the AA approach is not based on trendy pop psychology.
Woods expertly depicts Wilson as a driven, unlikable man at first, who lapses into alcoholism after being wiped out by the Stock Market Crash that kicked off the Great Depression. His gut-wrenching journey out of the hell he’s fallen into is an inspiring reminder of the kind of everyday heroism that often goes unnoticed.
The movie reunites Woods with James Garner, with whom he starred in a memorable Rockford Files episode in the 1970s, and who portrays Dr Robert Holbrook Smith, a fellow alcoholic and crucial ally in Wilson’s life. JoBeth Williams co-stars as Bill Wilson’s wife Lois and Gary Sinise is along for the ride as Ebby.
Role: Vampire hunter Jack Crow
Comment: Years before the movie Van Helsing came this flick about a team of vampire hunters secretly working with the Vatican to safeguard the world from a threat the public believes doesn’t exist. Director John Carpenter made a perfect choice in casting the volatile genius James Woods as Jack Crow, whose hatred of the bloodsuckers and the suffering they cause is like a thing alive.
I’m not joking when I say that – if not for the fact that he’s physically wrong for the role – he’d have made a great Wolverine in the X-Men movie of 2000. Jack Crow, his right-hand man Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and the rest of their team wipe out a vampire coven in Mexico only to have its elusive leader Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) come after them for revenge.
THE Maximilian Schell portrays Cardinal Alba, the Vatican man who gives Woods’ team its missions, Tim Guinee plays Father Adam Guiteau and Gregory Sierra appears as Father Giovanni. Sheryl Lee is terrific as Katrina, a prostitute bitten by Valek and who thus shares a telepathic link to him like Mina Harker in the novel Dracula.
Jack and his team try to stop Jan Valek and other vampires from obtaining the Black Cross, a relic which can be used to make vampires immune to sunlight. Yes, parts of the story are derivative but Vampires is more than worth watching for James Woods’ quirky take on a traditional action hero role and, since it’s rated R, for the blood, gore and other special effects, which are NOT done with CGI.
SALVADOR (1986) Special Edition Only
Role: Photojournalist Richard Boyle
Comment: This Oliver Stone movie is based on the real-life experiences of photojournalist Richard Boyle. If you’re not familiar with him, Boyle was the last journalist out of Cambodia and he had also covered conflicts in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Chile and Iran. I have no idea what Richard is like in real life, so this review is based on the film’s depiction of him and is not intended as a take on the real-life figure.
As I stated above, the Special Edition is the only version of Salvador that is worth watching. The others are chopped up and incoherent. Woods’ Richard Boyle is a cynical, drug-using and abrasive figure whose coverage of assorted wars has made him skeptical of both left-wing and right-wing regimes. (Obviously my kind of guy.)
Hustling and schmoozing his way to El Salvador in 1980, Boyle covers the increasing violence as the right-wing forces impose a dictatorship on the nation. What follows is NOT a glorification of the news media but rather a measured look at how untrustworthy is coverage of any war. Given the wheeling and dealing and occasional puff pieces that reporters have to do just to get access to certain figures and locations in a war-torn country, people should always be skeptical about what the media chooses to tell them.
I agree with Stone that U.S. policy toward Central America in the 1980s was wrong-headed, so I wasn’t bothered by some of the preachier dialogue but people who disagree might be. A quality I’ve always liked about Oliver Stone is that he does not exempt his own generation from criticism, and through Boyle he reminds viewers that the political left is often just as guilty of backing left-wing dictatorships as the right is of backing right-wing dictatorships.
As Boyle, James Woods is like a hybrid of Raoul Duke, John Reed, and Rick Blaine from Casablanca with traces of Yojimbo as he sometimes plays both sides of the war off against each other to achieve his goals. Jim Belushi co-stars as Dr Rock, who is like Dr Gonzo to Woods’ Duke. John Savage is a fellow reporter and Elpidio Carrillo portrays the woman Boyle falls in love with.
STRAIGHT TALK (1992)
Role: Reporter Jack Russell
Comment: James Woods as the leading man in a romantic comedy? With Dolly Parton as his love interest? Believe it or not this Man of a Thousand Personae even pulls off THIS!
When his girlfriend Janice (Teri Hatcher) dumps him, Jack Russell begins dating Shirlee Kenyon (Parton), who has moved to Chicago after fleeing an abusive relationship in Arkansas. Through the kind of unlikely misunderstandings and coincidences that only happen in the movies, Shirlee lands a job as a radio talk show therapist. The station manager insists she call herself “Doctor Shirlee” in order to seem like a licensed professional.
Jack sees through the phony doctor’s schtick based on a meet-cute he had with Parton when she first arrived in Chicago. He plans his next big story to be an expose and take-down of the phony celebrity and pursues a relationship with her to help his investigation.
Needless to say, he genuinely falls in love with
those her, but when she learns he’s a reporter she assumes he was just using her and dumps him. Woods refuses to go through with his expose but Shirlee is found out anyway and loses her gig. She gets it back and Shirlee & Jack renew their romance in the predictable but entertaining finale.
Woods is the best thing about this flick but it’s still better than its reputation. The comedy is more hit than miss and it’s not meant to go any deeper than sitcom level. The “Holy Moly” bedroom scene with Woods and Parton is simultaneously cringe and cute.
BILLION DOLLAR BUBBLE (1978)
Role: Insurance Actuary Art Lewis
Comment: Billion Dollar Bubble was first made in conjunction with BBC Colour in 1976, but not shown in America until 1978. It’s an interesting but distractingly cheap look at the Equity Funding Corporation of America scandal from the early 1970s. With a bigger budget and a theatrical release this thing could have been Wall Street before Wall Street.
The Equity Funding scandal started out as fraud committed by insurance actuaries and their bosses in the Life Insurance division of EFCA but snowballed into a company-destroying stock market scandal. James Woods stars as Art Lewis, the up and coming company man at the heart of the events.
Woods was already demonstrating his mastery of the acting craft, going from awkward and insecure toady to prosperous and demanding co-conspirator. Just watch his character’s evolution from the inept go-getter giving a cringe-inducing presentation to his colleagues at the beginning to the driven big-shot he becomes by the end.
This story deserved a full-length movie, not a mere 63 minutes. The scandal begins in 1969 as Art Lewis, an upstart who is far more computer-savvy than others at EFCA, gives in to temptation and conspires with his peers and immediate superior to use the computer to cover a financial shortfall.
Step by step one deception leads to the next in the years ahead, especially when Woods and his co-conspirators start to enjoy being hailed as the company’s Wunderkinds and grow accustomed to all the money, fine dining, booze and marijuana that come their way.
In supporting roles we get Christopher Guest as a fellow stoner and computer tech who is savvy at systems manipulation, and Sam Wanamaker as the company’s president Stanley Goldblum, whose own greed and talent for fraud propel the conspiracy into the stratosphere. William “Porkins” Hootkins plays Lloyd Edens, one of Woods’ “top … men.”
Billion Dollar Bubble is so steeped in the finer points of the fraud that it was used for years as a training film to help educate insurance actuaries, CPAs and auditors regarding what patterns to look for when deceptions were afoot.
BADGE OF THE ASSASSIN (1985)
Role: Assistant District Attorney Robert K Tanenbaum
Comment: True-crime drama in which James Woods co-stars with Yaphet Kotto as a D.A. and detective who investigate and prosecute the savage murder in 1971 of two New York Police Officers (one black, one white, for any political robots who have lost all touch with their humanity).
In 1985 this kind of procedural police and courtroom drama had not been done to death like today, so try to bear that in mind when watching this. Here in 2021 we’ve seen countless variations on every scene in the movie but the performances are certainly engaging.
Woods brings the indefatigable Tanenbaum to life and Yaphet Kotto is excellent as Detective Cliff Fenton. Kotto shows toughness laced with distaste while dealing with the “Black Liberation Army” murderers behind the officers’ deaths. When the make-believe “revolutionaries” try to label Fenton an Uncle Tom for being a cop, he knows just how to deal with their racist hypocrisy.
James Woods is typically riveting in this virtual pilot for the Law & Order series of later years. With Alex Rocco and THE Pam Grier.
FOR MY LOOK AT TWENTY JAMES GARNER MOVIES CLICK HERE.
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