Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In Character: Don Cheadle

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.

Five Six Essential Roles
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)
Buck Swope
“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.”

Traffic (2000)
Montel Gordon
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)
Paul Rusesabagina
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)
Petey Greene
“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.

Flight (2012)
Hugh Lang
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
Manic (2001)
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)
Rosewood (1997)
Bulworth (1998)
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)
Swordfish (2001)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
Crash (2005)
Reign Over Me (2007)
The Guard (2011)
House of Lies (2012-present)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
Christopher McDonald
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright


  1. Don Cheadle. Such a great actor. My favorite performance of his is definitely Buck Swope. Only he can make a black cowboy cool yet so misunderstood. Plus, Buck seems like a nice guy.

    Say, have you seen Don Cheadle as Captain Planet? My God, he was a riot.

    1. You can't go wrong with ol' Buck. Whatta classic character.

      And in answer to your question: "Captain Planet, Mothafucka."

    2. "The Power is Mine Bitches!!!"

      And I also want to applaud your choice for Manic, very underrated film.

    3. Thanks man! Glad to hear you're a fan.

  2. Before seeing it, I had no idea that Cheadle was in Boogie Nights. He would end up becoming one of the many reasons for why I love that film.

    1. Oh really? That's so cool. I love being surprised upon seeing who's in a flick. Love that role, love that movie.

  3. Manic is a great role for Cheadle, and a very underrated piece of work that not many people have seen, and definitely should. As for Cheadle himself, the guy is great but I really want to know where his career is going. He's good in everything he does, but he rarely ever gets the real chance to head-line a movie anymore and I just wish that he would try and comeback to leading movies again, because the guy can knock it out of the park when he wants. He just hasn't been in much as of late. Great post buddy, as always.

    1. So glad to hear your kind words about Manic, that movie deserves a much wider audience. Goddamn shame.

      You know what, that's a really fair point you brought up: where exactly is his career going? He deserves another role as big and marketed as his Hotel Rwanda performance. He man deserves Oscar gold, no doubt.

  4. When you saw "Flight", did you kind of see Cheadle's character as a more legal eagle version of Mouse? Like he was kind of swooping in there at just right the moments to try and help out Denzel? That kept popping up in my mind. Wanted to work into my review but couldn't make it feel like it wasn't forced. I just wanted to point it out.

    When you see those six roles lined up right in a, that's something. What a versatile guy. And "Manic"! Never heard of it! I'm on the case! Thank you!

    1. I actually didn't think that at all, but that's an interesting point. Do you think you are, in part, making the correlation because they're played by the same actors? That may seem obvious, but I dunno.

      Oh man, DEFINITELY check out Manic if you can. I don't know if you have Netflix, but it's there ready to be streamed.

  5. Great picks here. Manic! Nice call man. I agree that's his best performance, and Gordon-Levitt's too. Love seeing his underrated performance in Talk to Me on here as well.

    1. Another Manic fan - I'm loving this. He's damn fine in Talk to Me as well. That's a pretty solid flick right there.

  6. LOVE him as Basher in the Oceans series, and apparently Ewan McGregor, who is one of my most favourite actors ever, was originally considered for it, and I still would prefer Cheadle. That's how awesome Don Cheadle is.

    "So unless we intend to do this job in Reno, we're in barney."
    "Barney Rubble."

    1. Ha, I heard that about McGregor too. I love him, but I think Cheadle is the better choice there, but who knows. Everything that dude says in those movies is gold.

  7. I really need to get around to watching Devil in a Blue Dress. My favourite of his performances are: Hotel Rwanda, Crash, Talk to Me and Boogie Nights.

    1. Great picks. Devil in a Blue Dress is a really good movie. Perfect, steamy thriller nior. Highly recommend it.

  8. I'm a great fan of Cheadle. Back in April he played golf here in New Zealand for the Pro-Ams, which I went to see with my father as we do every year. He played terribly but incredibly got a hole-in-one on the 16th. Not sure how this anecdote is relevant, but there you go.

    1. Ha, I kinda like that your comment had nothing to do with film, just how badass Cheadle is. Hole in one is legit.

  9. Oh, I loved Manic. Having worked as a therapist with troubled youth -- and just as a movie viewer -- it felt very real. I'm surprised I haven't heard more people talking about it. So far, aside from my daughter and me, you and Josh are the only people I know who've seen it.

    Just watched and reviewed Traffic last week. Cheadle knocked it out of the ballpark there. Adding these other essential roles to my list. Alex, you are single-handedly driving my watch list out of control. :-D

    1. I think a lot of people haven't seen Manic because it's sooo small. Hell, I actually ran into Gordon-Levitt at Sundance one year and told him how much I loved Manic.

      His response: "So you're the one."
      Me: "The one what?"
      Him: "The one person who saw it."

      Really too bad that never reached a wider audience. I thought it was very very real.

      Ha, sorry your watch list is ever-growing!! There's so much great stuff out there.

  10. I am so glad you chose him for the In Character post, he is such a talented guy and, just like Stanley Tucci, he is, to me, one of the most underrated and underused actors out there! Great post!

    1. Thanks! Cheadle is SO underrated and underused. Dan O. made a comment here: what is actually happening with Cheadle's career? I really hope he gets bigger and better roles soon.

  11. Damn, I am a fan of Cheadle but I have only seen three of the films you highlighted. I'm going to try to catch Flight before it leaves theaters, and I need to find a way to see Manic, too. Good stuff, man!

    1. Thanks dude! Cannot recommend Flight and especially Manic highly enough. Both great films.