Colin Farrell Needs to Get Desperate

The Total Recall actor seemingly hasn't lived up to his early potential—even though he's secretly one of the most talented performers of his generation.

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Film critic-turned-filmmaker Rob Lurie once said of Oliver Stone that he'd made two of the best movies of all time and two of the worst. Similarly damning praise might be heaped on Colin Farrell, who has always been willing to put it all on the line—in films good and bad. Farrell's breakout performance in 2000's Tigerland was one of those signal debuts that come along only every so rarely and make you think, wow, that guy is going to be special, a la Edward Norton in Primal Fear, or Casey Affleck in the Jesse James movie with the long title. Of such auspicious beginnings are movie stars and great actors made. But Farrell's turned out to be neither.

In one camp of Hollywood performers are the big brands: the Clooneys, the Cruises, the Will Smiths. These are the guys who play themselves, or at least a version of themselves in every flick they headline. Or rather, they don't stop playing themselves, since their "performances" are merely an extension of their "private" personae—the ones splattered all over the magazines and Internet. Because of this public awareness (who they're dating, adopting, or throwing charity events for), we feel like we know them, and would be disappointed if they didn't play to form—if Clooney wasn't a goofy ladykiller, if Cruise didn't save the world with his maniacal intensity alone, or if Smith wasn't talking PG trash and running down aliens with his explosive charisma.

In the other camp there are the semi-anonymous actors with a silent private life—the Damons, the Fassbenders, the Joaquin Phoenixes, the Casey Afflecks—who are free to, you know, act, to play different roles. Would you believe Clooney in roles as diverse as Fassbender selects them? Or Cruise as Damon's junkie soldier in Courage Under Fire, as Will Hunting, or as The Informant? On the dark side of the media moon, these guys are free to be shapeshifters, without the baggage of our expectations.

From the beginning, Farrell has always been a bit different, though. Fresh off his glittering debut as a courageous soldier, with every script in front of him, Farrell opted to again play a solider, in a Bruce Willis vehicle, Hart's War. He did the obligatory Spielberg sci-fi epic (during a strange off-season for the great director, which included War of the Worlds and A.I.) turning up in an adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's Minority Report, playing the straight man opposite Cruise, and then reunited with Tigerland's Joel Schumacher for Phone Booth. It just went downhill from there: S.W.A.T., Daredevil, The Recruit, and Alexander.

There's never been any question of his chops. Just of his choices. But in 2005 a quietly brilliant performance as a troubled, sweet wreck of a guy in A Home at the End of the World suggested that he might be capable of something else, something rare, something Depp-ian. Perhaps he was interested in creating his own brand of performance, his own genre even, as Depp had. But although he's worked with some of the great directors of all time, he's never had his Tim Burton. He's never worked within the Scorsese/DeNiro (or even Scorsese/DiCaprio) kind of nurturing, challenging, even playful partnership that, say, Damon and Clooney have had with Soderbergh. We do get the sense that he could have been Shia LeBeouf before Shia LeBeouf, such was Spielberg's affinity for him, but, to his credit, he carved a wandering path all his own.

At first, his much-publicized penchant for booze and smoking was charming—here was a new generation of Hollywood bad boy. But after a while, the louche lifestyle became a little too overexposed, like his clavicle in the deep v-necks he favored. Still, he charmed the heavyweights. Terrence Malick cast him as John Smith in his 17-century epic, and Farrell had so enchanted the great screenwriter Robert Towne he was given the part of Arturo Bandini in Towne's adaptation of John Fante's classic Ask the Dust. But Dust bit it, and critics weren't ready for The New World and blamed Farrell.

Then came the Titanic of machismo, Michael Mann's Miami Vice, and the ultimate in overexposure, a sex tape with a Playboy playmate. Whether he had intended to or not, he'd become a name-brand actor, and his brand felt sleezy. Five short years after his startling debut, Farrell was fermenting into a cheeseball.

At first, the remake of Total Recall (out Friday), a strange but wonderful Voltron of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Verhoeven, and Phillip K. Dick from 1990, seems doomed as an unrebootable (even for Hollywood) cyborg. But after a steady dose of thrilling trailers, I get the sense that this may be one of those outliers where the effects and casting come together to create a movie greater than the sum of its parts (and, by the way, those parts are pretty perfect: setting the violent femme action heroines Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale on a collision course, for example, is brilliant).

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And the best part is that it puts Farrell in his sweet spot, with his back to the wall and everything on the line in the great they-stole-my-life-from-me-and-I-have-to-get-it-back mold Hollywood seems to have specialized in during the '90s (Ricochet, The Net, et al.). In the years after the sex tape, Farrell discovered something, or we discovered it about him: He's at his best when he is in great desperation.

Witness the brilliance of his flailing hitman in In Bruges, the struggling deadbeat in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, and the extraordinary performance as a convict fleeing the gulag archipelago in Peter Weir's The Way Back. We love to see him up against it, struggling with all his wits (though they may be few in the case of In Bruges). And, perhaps because of what we know or think we know of him in real life, we are repelled by his more cocksure performances.

So let's add one more category to the genus movie starus: the talented human. These are the DiCaprios, the Depps (and, to some extent the Pitts), the guys we know too much about for them to be anything approaching anonymous, but who have so much talent it's almost a disappointment when they just show up as themselves. These guys are in the next realm of possibility, prodigiously gifted, and, to judge by their precocious choices, willing to take great risks.

Here's something interesting to note: Farrell is 36, the same age as Casey Affleck, five years younger than Damon and Jeremy Renner, and six younger than Norton. He actually has as many incredible performances to his name as any actor in the generation just ahead of him, and he's been fighting with one hand tied behind his back for the last six years, if by "one hand" we mean popular appeal.

Now, with Recall, perhaps Farrell can join their company. Perhaps this can be the Blade Runner to his Ford, the 12 Monkeys to his Pitt—a signature role that begins a new chapter in a promising but as yet unfulfilled career. Even if not, he's going to keep putting it all out there.