Thursday, February 12, 2009
I don't think I'm alone in expressing this sentiment...Dennis Farina is the most underrated actor of all-time. It is always such a thrill when you go to a movie, completely unaware of the supporting cast, and all of a sudden, Farina is staring back at you from the big screen. Some might say that he is only capable of playing one type of character. I'll give you that. But when that character is perfect, then what's the problem? He always has that rough edge to him, but he never takes it over the line. He might yell and scream, or even institute murder and violence, but it's always done with that little Farina charm that keeps you coming back time and time again.
The movie "Little Big League" told the story of 12-year old Billy Heywood managing the Minnesota Twins on an improbable playoff run. Two years later, "Eddie" hit the big screen, with Whoopi Goldberg coaching the Knicks as they battled for the 8th seed in the East. In both cases, these leaders were able to take over after the previous boss was fired. And in one of the most bizarre coincidences in the history of cinema, the ousted coach in both instances was Dennis Farina. How in the world did this happen? Granted, the movies are similar in plot and content. But the casts of each film are 99% different. Except for Farina. It just demonstrates the realism that he routinely brings to his roles. The producers of "Eddie" were so impressed with his turn as George O' Farrell in "League" that they basically had no choice but to bring him on board for their movie, too. It's impossible to think of another time that a guy played two different characters in two different movies, but did the exact same things in each one. Personally, I enjoyed his performance more in "Eddie," simply because he ended up catching on with the Charlotte Hornets at the end of the movie to try and take down his former squad in the finale. Running two different NBA franchises in a 90-minute span is nothing to sneeze at.
My boy Farina is also the only actor I can think of that has never played a nice guy in their whole career. It's just not in his blood. He is not there to coddle or babysit...he is usually about doing his job and requesting that you stay out of his way in the process. And he's always going to irritate you a little. Take his character in "Striking Distance," one of the best action flicks of the 90's. He plays Captain Nick Detillo in what might be the most sterling performance of his long run in Hollywood. He spends the whole movie trying to keep Bruce Willis from uncovering the truth about a series of brutal murders. Not exactly model behavior from someone who is a ranking officer in a law enforcement agency. It's classic Farina the whole time though. Lots of menacing stares, sarcastic remarks, and unnecessary scolding of anyone in his general vicinity. Honestly, you might think there is sarcasm in this piece, and there is none to speak of. I, along with my Dad and older brother Gabe, have seen "Striking Distance" a combined 500 times. And that might be an understatement. Terrific action, brilliant dialogue, Sarah Jessica Parker back when she was still legitimately frisky, Bruce Willis being Bruce Willis, and finally, another perfect game from Farina. It's worth a couple hours, trust me.
Even in movies with bigger stars demanding the headlines, King Farina ends up stealing the whole film. Take "Another Stakeout," for instance. You have Richard Dreyfuss still in the zone following "What About Bob." Emilio Estevez also stars, coming off his first of many unforgettable portrayals of hockey genius Gordon Bombay. Throw in Rosie O' Donnell in her prime (if she ever had one) and you have a pretty good lineup of mid-90's top tier talent. Farina blows 'em all away. He plays the same role as usual, portraying a bad guy that actually seems kind of nice. In film school, this type of part is defined simply as "Bein' Dennis." The last half hour is the best sequence of the movie, when Farina and his wife join Dreyfuss and Rosie for a dinner date. I know there must have been scripts with predetermined dialogue, but there's almost the feeling that Farina was creating his lines on the spot. He was almost too believable.
One of his lesser acclaimed roles was playing a casino boss in the box office flop "Reindeer Games." I happened to love the movie, and probably caught it another 40-80 times over the last decade. Another case of Farina outclassing the competition. This time, there was even more star power. Ben Affleck led the cast, back when he was still considered a hot commodity in Hollywood. Charlize Theron was not quite as well known yet, but her decision making even then was impeccable, choosing not to wear a shirt while going for a swim midway through the movie. This was much appreciated from me and all the other 16-year olds in attendance. Gary Sinise was his usual insane self in this flick, playing the same guy he played in "Ransom," but about 50 times crazier. Honestly, the movie really was a very nice combination of action and humor. But as per usual, it was Dennis Farina that brought the whole thing together. He's running an old Indian casino in Michigan of all places. The place is struggling to stay above water, while Sinise and Co., with their foolproof plan, are plotting to take it down dressed up in identical Santa costumes (though it always seemed too easy to identify which Santa was Isaac Hayes...um, he's the black one). Maybe my favorite Farina moment of all-time comes late in the movie. He is bruised, bloodied, battered almost to the point of death. In fact, he might have actually been dead. But he still somehow manages to grab a couple of huge semi-automatics, jump to the center of the big screen, and continue firing away at the bad guys...all while belting out the movie's signature line, "Hey, Santa Claus!! Welcome to the Tomahawk!!!" I even got the chills as I typed that.
Mega-stars like Tom Cruise, Will Smith, and Brad Pitt will always grab the most attention and the most cash to go with it. They get top billing in the biggest movies of the year. But beyond the flashy names, where many fail to look, there's a guy like Dennis Farina, slowly churning out historic performances that tend to go unnoticed. Well, today he gets his due. Growing up, I had a friend whose dad looked very much like my hero, Dennis Farina. He was a real nice guy, and always a pleasure to talk with. However, I did not see him very often, and when I did, it was only for a few minutes. It parallels the way I feel about the real Farina to a T. He's not in a ton of blockbuster movies, and his part is usually that of the 5th or 6th lead. But you know damn well that Farina is going to make every moment he's on-screen worth the price you paid for admission. Sometimes I find myself thinking, "I'm a huge Farina fan...how come I'm not angrier that he's not starring in the big movies"?? That's just not who he is. He'll make you laugh, he'll make you smile, he'll make you cry...but he does it all from the shadows. Because, just like my friend's dad, you see a little Farina here, a little Farina there, but you never feel like it's too much. Just the perfect amount of the perfect actor. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to watch "Striking Distance" for the zillionth time...The Legend awaits.
Do you have a favorite Dennis Farina movie or moment in particular? Post it in the comments area under the article or whip me an e-mail over at firstname.lastname@example.org