1. Children of Men
Anyone confusing Clive Owen with a typical action hero should watch this movie again.
Theo Faron may have the long overcoat, the stubble, the f-you attitude, but most action heroes react as little as possible, while in this world, a world without children, is revealed to us through Theo’s reactions: his hopeless gaze; his fearful, fragile look after kidnappers remove the hood; his bemusement at finding Michelangelo’s David in his cousin’s mansion; his playfulness in the company of Julian (Julianne Moore) and his shock at seeing the pregnant Kee; how wrecked, how completely wrecked he looks after witnessing the murder of Jasper (Michael Caine). No one can forget the scene where Theo leads Kee and her crying baby through the gauntlet of soldiers, but an equally indelible moment for me is early on, and it’s a throwaway: Theo, feet up, smelly socks on, talking with Jasper at his place. The warmth and comfort between these two men cannot be on the page. These guys created it. The movie could’ve left us there, it could’ve been “My Dinner with Jasper,” and I would’ve happily watched it all.2. Croupier
“‘Croupier’ wasn’t released, it escaped,” Owen said with a laugh during a 2002 interview. “It struggled to get out and somehow caught the imagination in America.” It’s why he is where he is, and it delivers — give or take a porkpie hat — the classic Owen persona. He’s the man apart, both working class and superior, with a hard stare that is at turns pitying, contemptuous, or just amused, and which dares you to show him something unexpected. He rarely gets it. It doesn’t matter if he’s staring at his girlfriend, whom he half-loves, or the “punters” at the local casino, whose habits he knows all too well: the world rarely surprises him. Owen plays Jack, a would-be writer, unable to start his soccer novel, who restarts his croupier habit, his addiction to watching people lose, and gets involved with a femme fatale and a possible robbery. Or does he? How much of what we see is his life and how much is his novel? How much is Jack and how much is “Jake”? Even he seems confused at times. For all of this ambiguity, there’s a crispness to the film, particularly in the narration and dialogue, that’s as compelling as Clive’s hard, superior stare. As for what really happens? Place your bets, please.
Of the four main characters, Larry (Owen) is the last one we meet and the first one we remember. Specifically, we remember his ferocity when Anna (Julia Roberts) breaks up with him. It took a second viewing to recall that Larry and his main rival, Dan (Jude Law), actually meet cute — in a sex chat room — with Dan playing the female role. It’s a role he continues to play throughout the film. Essentially Dan is the soft, secretive one, Larry the blunt, determined one. There’s an implied violence in every confrontation Larry is involved in, but his trump card is his deviousness. Look at the way he pops a — is it a peanut? — into his mouth when Anna agrees to a final fling. He knows that Dan will find out, how Dan will respond, and how Anna will react to Dan’s response. He knows he wins. “Closer” is an updated “Carnal Knowledge” (both are directed by Mike Nichols), but in that earlier film no one gets what they want. Here, only Larry gets what he wants. He’s increasingly successful at his practice. He gets, then loses, then reclaims with a vengeance, Anna. He stubs Dan out like a cigarette. Hard to believe that when “Closer” debuted on the London stage in the 1990s, Clive played Dan.
4. Inside Man
Yeah, this is really Denzel Washington’s movie, or Spike Lee’s movie — it’s an homage to both ’70s dramas like “Dog Day Afternoon” and the noisy multiculturalism of New York City. But it begins with Owen staring straight at the screen (“My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself”), and he’s the main presence, the guy everyone, especially Washington’s Det. Frazier, is trying to figure out. We try to figure him out, too. He’s robbing a bank, he’s got hostages, the police have surrounded the place. What does he want? At one point, over the phone, Frazier tells him to stay calm and he responds, in that unsurprised, level Owen delivery, “Don’t I sound calm to you?” “Yes, you do,” Frazier says to himself. In a way, Russell’s cool — how little he gives away — gives him away. “Inside Man” is that rare cops-and-robbers drama in which we want both cops and robbers to win. The true villains lie elsewhere.
This entry isn’t just for his great turn on Ricky Gervais’ “Extras” as “Clive Owen,” the biggest a–hole movie star on the planet, the guy who says about Ashley Jensen’s sweet, bewildered extra, Maggie, who has been commandeered to play his prostitute, “I wouldn’t pay for that,” and agrees to do the scene only if he’s allowed to rub excrement in her face. No, that’s just one of his many great supporting roles. Add Robert Parks from “Gosford Park,” another superior, working class, man apart. Add his ultra professional assassin from “The Bourne Identity” (why isn’t he in a Michael Mann film?) and his ultra professional driver in the BMW ad series, which led many to think he would be the next James Bond, which, after the part went to Daniel Craig, he lampooned in a cameo in Steve Martin’s “The Pink Panther.” Consider this entry, too, a slam at the many lame movies he’s starred in. Between “Extras” and “The International,” I’ll take “Extras.”