Of all the Don Cheadle performances I’ve seen (and there have been many) I cannot recall him giving a bad performance. He’s been in some crap films, sure, but he always brings it, no matter what.
Rarely changing his appearance or voice inflection, Cheadle has an uncanny ability to not only make every character its own, but to captivate you within mere minutes. He’s one of the best we have right now. Period. Here are a few reasons why.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Don Cheadle is a lot of things, but rarely is he a homicidal, trigger-happy lunatic doing whatever he can to make a buck. Many regard Mouse as Cheadle’s finest role, and that is for damn good reason. Still relatively new to films, Cheadle (quite literally) bursts onto the scene, going toe-to-toe with Denzel Washington in this superb crime noir throwback. Mouse is the kind of guy who’d rather shoot than talk. He could spend several agonizing minutes verbally persuading you to tell him what he wants to know, or he could just shoot you dead and move on to the next guy.
There is a constant unease about Mouse, which is exactly what makes this performance as effective as it is.
Boogie Nights (1997)
“I have this very unit in my home. But of course I got it modified with the TK-421, which kicks it up another… I dunno, maybe, three or four um…quads per channel. But that’s really technical talk, that doesn’t really concern you.”
And so we get Buck Swope, yet another perfect addition to the cast of colorful characters Paul Thomas Anderson assembles in his porn pop masterpiece. Whether he’s talking about the evil forces of magic with John C. Reilly, begging for a legitimate loan from a spineless banker, or eyeing a big, bloody bag of cash, everything about Cheadle’s work here is flawlessly in tuned to Anderson’s vision. I should also mention how amusing it is to constantly see Buck trying out new styles as the years pass in the film. It’s so satisfying that he ends with the best possible look for him.
“All you need to do is walk over, get down, and come inside us. Word.”
I’d love to focus on just one particular scene of Cheadle’s work in Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece, as a means of highlighting his brilliance. But which one? Maybe the way he so expertly plays his DEA agent undercover, “We gonna move some weight here, or…?” Or his volatile reaction to witnessing the murder of his brother in blue. It’s a damn tough call, but for my money, Cheadle is never better in Traffic than the moment he accepts his life and its possible insignificance.
Minutes before dealer Eduardo Ruiz (played captivatingly by Miguel Ferrer, an actor who deserves a post in this column) is set to testify against his boss, he gets into an argument with Montel in a hotel room. In a few short sentences, Ruiz belittles Montel’s entire career, and his worth as a man. Normally, Montel would scream and shout and run over Ruiz with threats of punishment, but he can’t this time. He knows that part of what Ruiz is saying is absolutely true, and it is devastating to watch.
But in the end, Montel has the last laugh. Running and laughing. He’ll get ‘em.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
As Rwandan genocide worsens around him, Paul Rusesabagina’s only initial concern is keeping him and his family safe. But, much like Oskar Schindler, the desire and ability to save those around him takes precedence, and he soon turns his hotel into a covert refuge.
Hotel Rwanda is based on a true story and although I’ve never done research to see how closely Terry George’s film mirrors the real life events and people it depicts, there’s no arguing that Cheadle’s work here is a flawless incarnation of a man in peril. Most every single conversation Cheadle has in the film is part of an extended scam to help save lives. His lies have lies, and, at one point, it becomes impossible to distinguish who he’s told what.
There’s a moment in this film in which Paul tries once, twice, however many times, to tie his necktie. His frustration mounts and he breaks down, crying and pleading to no one. The scene adds nothing to anything, but everything to the whole thing. A faultless performance.
Talk to Me (2007)
“Wake up, goddamnit!”
As the lacerating, real life radio personality who gave a voice to people who didn’t have one (at a time when they needed one most), Cheadle is utterly spellbinding in Talk to Me.
Petey is a flamboyant, alcoholic asshole who’s willing to do whatever it takes to make good on a hustle. A street thug trying to cut it in the big time, Petey’s (many) outrageous antics are wondrously amusing, but the beauty of this performance is in the downfall. Take, for instance, the scene in which Petey bombs disastrously on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Petey, completely out of his element, fucks up his live act, but Just. Keeps. Going. before letting out a pathetic, “Sorry, Johnny,” and exiting stage left. Heartbreaking.
I had Cheadle’s five essential roles ready to rock, but having recently seen his work in Robert Zemeckis’ fantastic Flight, I simply couldn’t exclude it from this list.
Hugh Lang isn’t nearly as dominating or forceful a character as some of the others on this list, but he is wholly commanding nonetheless. As a criminal lawyer trying to navigate a dirty man through muddy water, Cheadle plays Hugh as a guy whose sole motivation is to win. There’s a great scene in which Hugh nonchalantly remarks that Denzel Washington’s character will be tried for four manslaughters, because the two stewardess on board “don’t count.” He gently back pedals, but the song remains the same.
Don’t get me wrong, Hugh isn’t a snake, but his client certainly is. The only real way to stay alive among predators is to become one yourself. That’s Hugh. Calmly sitting back in his chair, reminding a billionaire yuppie that, “My clients don’t go to jail.” Keep on keepin’ on.
The Best of the Best
Dr. David Monroe
I try to sing Manic’s praises whenever I have the opportunity. The film is a criminally ignored drama about a group of misfit teenagers going through the motions at a juvenile psychiatric ward. But these kids aren’t locked up for smoking a little weed. They’ve beaten, abused, sexually assaulted – you name it. And it is Dr. David Monroe’s job to not only keep order, but rehabilitate as well.
Most everyone who has seen Manic agrees that its raw style is immediately jarring. The film was shot with consumer grade digital cameras and is handled shakily at best. It’s a technique that’s off-putting for some (if not most), but at its heart, Manic is as fine a drama documenting misspent adolescent youth as I’ve seen. And I mean that.
While Joseph Gordon-Levitt also gives the role of his career here, it’s Cheadle that we are utterly mesmerized by. There’s a scene in which a fight breaks out during a group meeting (the kind where everyone sits in a circle and talks about their problems), and instead of establishing calm order, Monroe fucking loses it. He screams, throws chairs, gets in faces – he breaks protocol every which way, but he also gets their attention. They stop and look and think. For the first time in a long time, these troubled kids reflect. That’s partly because they’re watching one of the best actors in the game flexing the best work he can. Sure enough.
Other Notable Roles
|In Out of Sight|
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990)
Picket Fences (1993-1995)
Out of Sight (1998)
The Rat Pack (1998)
Mission to Mars (2000)
Fail Safe (2000)
Ocean’s Eleven-Thirteen (2001-2007)
Rush Hour 2 (2001)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
Reign Over Me (2007)
The Guard (2011)
House of Lies (2012-present)
Michael Clarke Duncan
Philip Baker Hall
Philip Seymour Hoffman
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly