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Variations on a Theme 

The whole concept of the "character actor" seems vague. After all, aren't most actors playing characters? True, but it's also safe to say that some actors excel at taking on a variety of characters, and the test of any actor's versatility is placing himself in contexts that don't always fit the ones with which he's normally associated.

Owen Wilson and Ethan Hawke, two of the more respected actors of their generation, have shown versatility but also have been pretty easy to figure out. Wilson's Texas/surfer-dude monotone has served him well in comedies such as Bottle Rocket and Shanghai Noon, with The Minus Man being the remarkable dramatic exception. By contrast, vulnerability and uncertainty have made fellow Texan Ethan Hawke a slacker poster-boy -- he's virtually been a walking open wound in everything from Dead Poets Society to Hamlet.

All of which goes to say that it's fun to see both actors stretching, whether by environment (Wilson in the military action thriller Behind Enemy Lines) or psyche (Hawke in Richard Linklater's insular character study Tape). This isn't necessarily playing against type, but it's compelling nevertheless to watch actors take their strengths and recast them in slightly different lights. To be sure, their respective performances take these otherwise conventional films to another level.

Consider Wilson as Navy pilot Lt. Chris Burnett in first-time director John Moore's Behind Enemy Lines. With his blond hair, awkward smile and twice-broken nose, you'd almost expect the modifiers "cocky" or "hot-shot" before Burnett's name. And with Enemy's rock 'n' roll soundtrack, jump cuts and rapid-fire special effects, it would make sense. But in Wilson's capable hands, Burnett isn't quite so easy to peg. Like so many Americans, he's anxious about being a "peacekeeper" in the former Yugoslavia, where identifying the good guys and the bad guys isn't so black and white. "We're watching, not fighting," an impatient Burnett complains to his commander, Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman, who can now do this role in his sleep).

Not that Burnett is all seriousness. While mulling over alternatives to their situation with a fellow pilot, he rattles off a list of rock stars who could have been saved if they'd had an ace pilot like himself: "A better pilot could have kept Ritchie Valens from being a one-hit wonder."

But then Burnett and his pilot veer off into a demilitarized zone, they're shot down, his friend is murdered by Bosnian Serbs, and he runs for his life. All the while, Reigart fights red tape to mount a rescue mission.

From there, it's all fairly predictable stuff, as Burnett escapes one pitfall after another. What isn't predictable is how Wilson handles everything. Shockingly, there are few zippy one-liners, only a handful of overwrought grimaces as he tries to get out alive. It's almost as if Wilson respects the role's context, preferring to let the rock 'n' roll soundtrack and Saving Private Ryan combat sequences do all the heavy lifting.

But then, Wilson usually gets a lot out of a little. In Meet the Parents, all his ex-boyfriend millionaire has to do is tell Ben Stiller about his personal relationship with Jesus Christ in a glorious deadpan delivery, and the audience is rolling in the aisles. A subtle approach to acting put to excellent use in this thriller.

Conversely, Ethan Hawke plays a variation on a familiar theme as a directionless drug dealer who meets up with high school chum turned self-important filmmaker Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard) in Tape. Hawke is all about ambivalence, but rarely has he played a role with such menace. His Vince spends much of the film goading Johnny into confirming his long-held suspicion that Johnny raped Vince's ex-girlfriend Amy (Uma Thurman) after their senior-year break-up.

With a manic grin, a predilection for speed-chugging cans of Rolling Rock, and a viciousness sneaking out from under his "What'd I say?" expression, Hawke's Vince has decided that a vengeful crusade will right an old wrong and legitimize an otherwise wasted decade. He interrogates Johnny almost as if to let himself off the hook; the fact that Johnny's guilty conscience (for what, we're not altogether sure) sets up a confrontation with Amy in the third act provides Hawke with even more possibilities, as he goes from prosecutor to prosecuted.

Tape isn't exactly all of a piece. Linklater, returning this year to his Slacker roots with this and the animated Waking Life, shot the film on digital, giving it an amateur, washed-out feel to match its compressed motel-room setting. But it's still fun to watch Hawke take something old and make it new. Or to put it more bluntly, this perennially sympathetic actor plays a prick with abandon.

Just as Wilson takes his tools and makes Behind Enemy Lines more than what it might otherwise have been, Hawke helps make Tape more than a talky bitchfest. And that's what good character acting is all about.

click to enlarge Fighter pilot Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) struggles to survive after crash-landing Behind Enemy Lines.
  • Fighter pilot Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) struggles to survive after crash-landing Behind Enemy Lines.
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