'The Matrix' to 'Cloud Atlas': Hugo Weaving's Smart, Subtle Scariness

It takes talent to play this many unforgettable bad guys.

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With a face reminiscent of a Modigliani portrait, Hugo Weaving is not obvious leading-man material, at least not by Hollywood's superficial standards. Still, his sharp features, which include a high, intelligent forehead and piercing blue eyes framed by a pair of unsettling brows, have been an indelible, if supporting, part of two enormous film franchises—The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix trilogies—while just his resonant voice, with its ominous smoothness, has enlivened several CGI creations, including the killer alien robot Megatron in the Transformers movies. The closing months of 2012 mark a couple of returns for Weaving. First, with the recently released Cloud Atlas, he has again immersed himself in the imaginings of Matrix directors Lana and Andy Wachowski. And in December, he treks back to Middle Earth to resume his reign as Elrond, the half-elven Lord of Rivendell, as Peter Jackson begins his attempt to spin Tolkien's modest prequel The Hobbit into three more crowd-pleasing epics.

Like many pragmatic foreign actors before him, Weaving, a Nigerian-born veteran of Australian cinema, has leveraged his talents into Hollywood semi-fame and fortune with roles of questionable artistic credibility. His turns as the eloquent vigilante in V for Vendetta and as the comic-book baddie Red Skull in Captain America certainly wouldn't seem to require the gifts of a graduate of Australia's renowned National Institute of Dramatic Art. In Vendetta, Weaving's wonderfully expressive mug is concealed by the now-ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask, while for Captain America, it is buried in layers of scary silicone. But these characters actually show Weaving in his sweet spot: using his emotional intelligence and striking mannerisms to create unforgettable villains and anti-heroes.

The Wachowskis are particularly indebted to Weaving, whose sneering formality ("Mr. Anderson") and other sinister charms as the virtual Agent Smith in the Matrix movies distract from the directors' screenplays' ponderous cyber-babble and fascistic anti-totalitarianism. Wisely promoted from enemy to archenemy for the series' second and third installments, Weaving's appearances are a consistent respite from the Wachowskis' endless freshman-year philosophizing, as well as his castmates' obvious confused indifference. Despite the Wachowskis' determination to muddle all that they create, Weaving manages to give Agent Smith the self-awareness and touch of vulnerability a really good bad guy needs.

In Cloud Atlas, co-directed by Tom Tykwer, Weaving plays a distinct character in each of the movie's six interlocking, centuries-spanning storylines. Most of them are bent, as Agent Smith is, on defending old orders against new ones or, to the Wachowskis' forever Manichean minds, slavery against freedom. None of Weaving's performances amounts to much more than a cameo. But especially in the Wachowskis' segments of Cloud Atlas—in which Weaving respectively embodies evil as a 19th century slaveholder, as an Asian penal functionary in the year 2144, and as Tom Hanks's voodoo-lizard-man delusion in a distant post-apocalyptic future—his limited screen time pays exceptional dividends. That's because in each case Weaving infuses his character's misanthropic words with enough menacing panache to jar the audience awake.

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Joseph Pisano is a writer based in New York. He has written for Cineaste and The Village Voice.

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