Clive Owen’s performance in The Knick, which starts on Cinemax this Sunday, is the first bit of good news for the talented Brit in quite a few years since his heyday in the mid-aughts. Starting with his intense turn in gripping 1998 indie Croupier, up to his Oscar nomination in 2004 for his fiery performance in Closer, Owen was always on the brink of hype, constantly tipped as the next James Bond, and just waiting to hit superstardom. It never quite happened, and his cinema career has sadly fallen off in recent years. Can a turn to premium television, and a wonderful performance in Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, turn things around for him?
Owen has the usual early career path for a handsome English actor—trained at RADA, came up in theater (with plenty of Shakespeare) and UK indie TV/film scene. His performance in Stephen Poliakoff’s dark 1991 drama Close My Eyes is worth seeing but he didn’t make a major splash until Croupier, which first aired on TV despite being intended as a feature film, disqualifying him from his considerable Oscar hype. Still, the gritty little neo-noir was arresting enough to get Hollywood’s attention, especially when coupled with his James Bond-ian work in The Hire, the BMW ad campaign that paired him with eight major directors for short little action films.
The Hire seemed to earmark Owen for a role that everyone figured would be vacant very soon: James Bond (Pierce Brosnan’s last outing was 2002’s Die Another Day). He looked great in a tux and he seemed like the kind of guy who could kill in cold blood and charm the pants off a lady (it’s a very tough balance to strike). Meanwhile, he set about picking up meaty supporting roles: he’s the underrated plot lynchpin of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, he’s the scary assassin villain in The Bourne Identity. His first big leading role was Angelina Jolie vanity project Beyond Borders, by which point it was obvious he had a shtick—ruggedly handsome, a little on the scary side, but not without charm. That was turned up to its logical extremes for his genuinely brutish work in Closer, where he’s frightening and pathetic at the same time. No one quite steals that movie (the ensemble is pretty well-balanced) but Owen came the closest, and captured a slew of critic’s awards, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar nomination.
This should have been a major jumping-off point for Owen to A-list stardom. At this point, he almost didn’t need the James Bond role (he’d have been the first Oscar nominee to be cast) so it didn’t seem like much of a blow when Daniel Craig was cast (Owen says he was never even approached). But all of his post-Oscar projects, which all look decent on paper, were either critical or commercial flops, with the sole exception of Sin City (of which Owen is hardly the most memorable element).
King Arthur makes sense as an action epic for a 30-something Brit star, but the revisionist history approach turned people off and, four years removed from Gladiator, audiences were once again getting sick of swordplay-centric blockbusters. Derailed was a serious thriller from a serious director (Mikael Hafstrom) with a serious co-star (Jennifer Aniston) but it was too brutal and nasty to really catch on. Children of Men is a stunning piece of cinema and remains Owen’s best acting work since his Oscar nomination, but it was terminally grim and made only $35 million domestically on a $76 million budget.
Owen’s last out-and-out hit was 2006’s Inside Man, and Spike Lee put a lot of weight on his performance there (he talks directly to the camera, and we have to buy him as a mastermind genius pulling off an elaborate public heist). This was the kind of role he should have taken all the time: intense, but with a light touch and a sense of fun. But a couple years removed from his Oscar nomination, Owen’s shot at the A-List was already slipping away.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age was the sequel nobody asked for and nobody saw; Shoot ‘Em Up was an intense and fun, but basically plotless piece of action filmmaking that didn’t catch on past extreme cult status; The International was a thinking man’s action thriller directed by Tom Twyker that got okay reviews but basically vanished without a trace in audiences' minds. Owen is trying to have fun in Tony Gilroy’s loopy caper Duplicity, where he reunited with Closer co-star Julia Roberts (with whom he has real chemistry!), but critics were polarized and audiences were not interested. This seems to be a mistake Owen made over and over again: hitting a micro-genre a few years too late. Duplicity was pitched as rom-com meets Ocean’s Eleven, but by 2009 everyone was bored of that twisty-turny stuff.
As Owen has slid into underseen genre nonsense like Trust and Intruders, his talent has never gone away. His biggest pitfall may have been trying to graduate to leading-man status—he had all the hallmarks of one, but leading men are so often steely and boring. Owen just never got to have enough fun. At first glance, The Knick seems like more of the same—his character is a grim drug addict with an intense profession (early 20th century surgeon). But there’s something so vital about Soderbergh’s direction—his camera keeps moving, the visuals are stark and original—that brings out the best in Owen. He hasn’t worked with a director this interesting since Lee, and it really shows.
Owen is 49 now, and he’s certainly never going to be James Bond, but he’s the latest former film star who could be majorly served by a move to premium TV, where there’s real room to experiment with characterization and less expectation of audience hand-holding and commercial appeal. The Knick could be the perfect springboard to an exciting new phase of Owen’s career, but at the very least, it’s the most exciting work he’s done in close to a decade.