Russell Crowe is an Australian soap opera star turned indie mainstay turned Oscar-winning box office powerhouse. He is a well respected actor, a less well respected musician, and on some level he appears to have inherited the cinematic mantle of manliness previously held by the likes of Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen. He’s put his growling stamp on iconic figures like Robin Hood and, this week, the biblical Noah, and yet can sometimes put on a dashing smile and slither into your psyche with a nuanced turn in films like State of Play or 3:10 to Yuma. He’s starred in three dozen films in the last 25 years… so the time has finally come to decide which of them is the very, very best.
This week on The Best Movie Ever, our critics have come up with their picks for The Best Russell Crowe Movie Ever, ranging from his early unusual roles to his charismatic modern leading man performances. Let Fred Topel, William Bibbiani, Brian Formo and Witney Seibold defend their choices, then vote for yourself at the bottom of the page.
The Quick and the Dead was my favorite Russell Crowe movie before I even knew who Russell Crowe was. Back in 1995, Crowe was the least famous person in Sam Raimi’s western. If anything it was a vehicle for Sharon Stone, who I think has never been better than as the cold “Woman with No Name” archetype, riding into town just in time for a gunfight. It was a showy role for Leonardo DiCaprio after his Oscar-nominated What’s Eating Gilbert Grape performance. Gene Hackman was basically doing his Unforgiven thing as the evil sheriff again, and man, it worked.
Crowe played a reformed gunslinger who was trying to give up violence, but when the sheriff forced him to enter a quickdraw contest, the Preacher was still a natural. If you’re wondering how a series of one-on-one gun standoffs can remain interesting, and like me in 1995 you haven’t seen a lot of spaghetti westerns, take this example. The Preacher is given a shoddy single-shot gun, and he draws first and hits his target. But it’s not a fatal shot, so he needs to find another bullet to finish the job before his opponent gets his gun drawn. The Quick and the Dead is full of wonderful creative moments like that, plus Raimi’s wild camera which, I didn’t know at the time, was right at home in a spaghetti western scenario.
The best movie Russell Crowe has ever been in? Oh hell no, I do think that Virtuosity is the best “Russell Crowe” movie, showing off just how wonderful a performer he can be and putting everything else – including the film’s so-called star, Denzel Washington – on the sidelines. You want a great movie starring Russell Crowe? Then watch L.A. Confidential, The Insider, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World or 3:10 to Yuma. You want to see Russell Crowe play the best Batman villain he possibly can and make a completely stupid movie worth watching through the sheer, unbridled force of his overacting? Then watch Virtuosity, and tell me this movie isn’t his.
In Virtuosity, Russell Crowe plays SID 6.7, a self-described “50 terabyte self-evolving neural network backflip off the high platform,” which is a pretty highfalutin way of saying he’s an artificially intelligent robot with super healing abilities and 200 serial killer personalities programmed into his brain. He escapes cyberspace by tricking his programmer into playing Weird Science with a video game prostitute (yes, really) and he emerges into the near future with no greater purpose than to kill as many people as possible and to piss off Denzel Washington, who spends every scene looking like he has no idea why he said “yes” to this movie. Virtuosity plays like an unwanted sequel to The Lawnmower Man, which makes sense, because director Brett Leonard also directed The Lawnmower Man.
Russell Crowe has in the years since based his career on charismatic heroes and antiheroes struggling to contain their emotions, but in Virtuosity he acts on every conceivable whim and lets fly with a rare sort of thespian bravado. It’s like a lifelong Chekhov actor has suddenly been thrust into a sadistic Looney Tune and he’s absolutely giddy about this new world of possibilities. The rest of Virtuosity may suck, but it’s the only movie starring Russell Crowe in which the entire production is an excuse to let him act, and he acts likes like an unforgettable maniac.
In film (and in life) Russell Crowe always seems to have a brutish lack of humility that keeps him at arm’s length. I’ve never been much of a fan. But my dad is. Maybe Russell Crowe reminds me of my dad. Instead of getting into the psychology of that, I’ll just say the answer to the Best Russell Crowe Film Ever is easy. It’s the same answer for the Best Kevin Spacey film, the Best Guy Pearce film, the Best Danny DeVito film, the Best James Cromwell film … you get the picture. It’s L.A. Confidential.
I can’t fully separate this film from my first experience of viewing it. L.A. Confidential will always be a building block for me in terms of my cinephile creation. I was 14 when I saw it. And I’d never seen anything like it: because I’d never seen any film noir. My obsession with L.A. Confidential and my subscriptions to magazines and having dial-up internet opened up a whole palette of film that I was unaware of. Next, I watched Chinatown then The Big Sleep, then The Big Heat, etc.
For me it’s the paparazzi element that really makes L.A. Confidential pop — the Sid Hudgens (DeVito) typewriter narration, the Jack Vincennes (Spacey) glitzy cop dilemma, the fact that celebrity and thuggery co-exist and co-mingle in 1950s Hollywood — it’s TMZ with bombshells, badges and seedy hotels. Everyone, even the cops, are one slip up from becoming D-List.
However, for the full narrative to work it needs brawn. That’s what Crowe supplies: he’s the local avenger for woman beaters, he stands with a wide gait and — of course — he squeezes testicles for information. I do think that Crowe was very good in The Insider, playing against type, but as L.A. Confidential was such a cinematic building stone for me and it was how I was introduced to Crowe — he’ll always be Bud White to me.
And of course Bud White would also beat someone with a telephone if it was the only thing available. The man beats up witnesses in a shack!
Russell Crowe occupies a strange place in popular culture. On one hand, he is an intense, hard-eyed movie star/thespian who pours his entire being into complex, Academy-friendly high-profile dramas like The Insider, Les Misérables, and A Beautiful Mind. On the other hand, he often cuts loose with a broad character genre pieces like The Man with the Iron Fists, Man of Steel, and the guilty pleasure Virtuosity. The one film where he rode the line between his early arthouse intensity (think Romper Stomper) and his letter-day movie star quality was the excellent 1997 crime flick L.A. Confidential, one of my favorite movies. And while not all of his films have been great, he has brought a strangely textured oomph to all of his roles, even the relatively dumb ones.
The film I select as Crowe’s best, however, and one that displays his talents as a performer, is 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, directed by Peter Weir. A stirringly accurate historical epic, pleasantly and richly detailed, and oddly calming in its just-another-day display of maritime life, Master and Commander (based on the novels by Patrick O’Brien) tells the story of Capt. Jack Aubrey (Crowe), one of the best captains in His Majesty’s fleet during the Napoleonic wars, chasing after a mysterious French ship that always seems to elude him in the South Pacific. Along for the voyage is Jack’s best friend and polar opposite, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship’s physician. This is no turgid wartime drama, but an exhilaratingly classical and ornate meditation on ship living. This is a film that tells a dramatic story, has some awesome ship-to-ship battles, and yet is more about the nuts and bolts of what is needed on the HMS Surprise. It’s also one of my favorite movies of the last decade.
Now where are the promised sequels? Crowe has said he’s game. Someone get Peter Weir on the phone.