Clive Owen: Inside Man
The best James Bond we never had (he did play 006 in Steve Martin's The Pink Panther) Clive Owen is the kind of movie star who makes British filmmakers look rather small. He's done some interesting work at home, but he's flourished in the big stuff – in the pulp paradise of Shoot Em Up, the dystopian allegory Children of Men and the heist thriller Inside Man. These stories could be set anywhere, but the movies – expansive, slick, larger than life – could only come out of Hollywood.
Like Daniel Craig, Owen can play all shades of machismo, from sensitive new man to hard-boiled killer – but like a lot of actors he's more interesting when he's playing bad.
The son of a Coventry Country & Western singer who abandoned his working class family when Clive was just three, Owen caught the acting bug when he played the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver! For all his versatility that still smacks of inspired casting on some teacher's part (and let's not forget his first big break was on TV as Stephen Crane, aka Chancer).
He's a very contained actor, someone who gives the impression that he harbours secrets, grievances and impure thoughts... an inside man, if you will. He's smart, like the dodger, but more than capable of making mischief. Then again, he could go either way, morally-speaking. You sense an emotional intelligence there. He often keeps his integrity under wraps, but that doesn't mean it's not there. He just doesn't care whether you like him or not.
It's a quality tailor-made for film noir. He's hard-boiled and self-sufficient, an honest tough guy in the mould of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum. He holds his cards close to his chest but doesn't pull his punches either.
Owen's interiority comes through in various ways. He's often cast as a man of few words, a private man who is as like as not defined by his occupation: professional killers The Professor in The Bourne Identity or Dwight in Sin City; the bank robber in Inside Man; a cryptic valet in Altman's Gosford Park; an unnamed driver in the series of BMW-sponsored short films he made with some of the world's best directors, including Ang Lee, David Fincher, Wong Kar-Wai and William Friedkin.
In some ways his definitive role remains Jack in Croupier (1997), a man torn between two vocations, casino dealer, and writer. Characteristically, he keeps this dilemma to himself, chewing it over in frequent stretches of interior monologue while retaining a poker face for the customers – and the ladies.
The voice is soft, doleful, even a tad monotonous. If the writing's not good, or if the role isn't a good fit (I'm thinking of two period pieces – King Arthur and Elizabeth: The Golden Age) he can come off as flat and disengaged. When the elements are in place, though, in something as good as Children of Men, for instance, he makes the audience come to him. Unlike the conventional breed of American action hero, Theo Faron is never a sure bet – we hope he'll come through, but there's a creeping suspicion he could flunk out. Same thing in The International: Louis Salinger seems to be on the right track, but it's by no means clear that this obsessive Interpol agent will best his powerful adversaries.
For now Owen remains on the brink of superstardom. Save for Inside Man, where his appeal was bolstered by costars Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster, he hasn't scored the kind of hit that translates into multi-million dollar pay cheques, and for all his sex appeal, he's struggled to spark with costars like Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley, Naomi Watts and Cate Blanchett.
A rematch with Closer costar Julia Roberts in the witty mystery thriller Duplicity (released Friday) might quell those doubts, while projected sequels to Sin City and Inside Man certainly won't hurt his commercial standing. We're promised that Duplicity will allow his lighter touch to come through too, giving him a chance to expand on the mischief hovering at the corners of his mouth. If it clicks, then Clive Owen could move into another bracket of stardom altogether.