Thursday, May 11, 2017

In Character: Tom Berenger

Tom Berenger is a guy I’ve always rooted for. There’s just something about him. He has an old school swagger but a thinly masked sensitivity. He’s tough yet vulnerable, mean yet melancholic. His career has twisted and turned, but he’s been in the game for 40 years, and I enjoy watching him today as much as I did when I was young.

Five Essential Roles
Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
as Gary
Looking for Mr. Goodbar is about Theresa (Diane Keaton), a young woman experiencing a sexual awakening. The film was highly controversial at the time, but many of the performances hold up today. In the final scene of the film, a fresh-faced, extremely cut Tom Berenger shows up as one of Theresa’s random suitors. Berenger’s Gary is off from the moment we meet him, and as soon as he steps into Theresa’s apartment, we know this hookup won’t end well.

Gary is a brief but star making turn. Berenger’s sexual intensity, matched with his violent unpredictability, is instantly palpable. It was Berenger’s first film role; a serious announcement that a new player is in the game.

The Big Chill (1983)
as Sam Weber
I love every character in The Big Chill, including the charming, famous TV star, Sam Weber. The first time we meet Sam, a flight attendant is asking him to sign his People Magazine cover story. We might be fair in assuming that Sam will be some sort of tool, but there’s more to him than that. He’s quiet, respectful, a bit sad.

Two of Berenger’s scenes in particular stand out for me here. The first is, of course, Sam being coerced into jumping into a Porsche the way his fictional TV character, J.T. Lancer, does. And the second is Sam and Nick (William Hurt) arguing about the suicide of their friend, Alex, toward the end of the film. The way Sam and Nick engage one another is so believable. And their silent resolution to this argument (in the film’s final scene), remains one of my favorite movie moments.

Major League (1989)
as Jake Taylor
Because Tom Berenger is so damn good at playing tough guys, I often forget how effortlessly charming he can be. This is perhaps best realized in Major League. Jake Taylor is a nearly washed-up catcher with a bum knee and a full heart. And when he’s given a final shot to prove himself (as the catcher of the low-ranked Cleveland Indians), he seizes it. Major League is most alive when it focuses on and around the field, but it’s a testament to Berenger’s acting (and his amazing chemistry with Rene Russo) that the film endures off the field as well. Berenger and Russo’s entangled love subplot shows us how charming Berenger can be, while his antics on the field display his knack for comedic timing.

Inception (2010)
as Peter Browning
I avoid details about movies I want to see. No trailers, no reviews, no social media - nothing. So, I had no idea Tom Berenger was in Inception, but holy hell was I happy when he showed up. Berenger’s older now, he moves and talks a bit slower, but his swagger is still full tilt. Watching him finesse his way through the film remains one of Inception’s great pleasures. One thing Christopher Nolan doesn’t get enough credit for is the low-key humor in his writing. One of the best examples of this is when Saito (Ken Wantanabe) mistakes Browning as one of Eames’ (Tom Hardy) impersonations. Saito realizes his mistake, apologizes to Browning, and Berenger turns and says, “Good lookin’ fella, I’m sure.” A priceless moment from a pro who’s still got it.

Hatfields & McCoys (2012)
as Jim Vance
On paper, Hatfields & McCoys isn’t really my thing. A History Channel Civil War miniseries about a feud I’d never heard of. But because the show earned Berenger an Emmy for Supporting Actor, I knew I had to check it out. Hatfields & McCoys begins with a literal bang and holds its bluster for its six hour duration. It’s a fine miniseries, and everyone in the cast (including Emmy winner Kevin Costner, and the late Bill Paxton) is great. And then there’s Tom Berenger, who shows up early in episode one as the bearded, drunk, hostile Jim Vance. In his next scene, he shoots a Union soldier for the hell of it. And we’re off and running. There are several reasons to check out Hatfields & McCoys, and Berenger’s work is surely one of the most significant.

Wild Card
The Substitute (1996)
as Jonathan Shale
I’m a product of the ‘90s, and as such, I have an affection for lame ‘90s action flicks. My not-so hidden secret is that I genuinely love these movies. The Substitute is a great example (others include Point Break, Cliffhanger, Bad Boys, The Rock, I could go on). In the film, Berenger plays a badass mercenary who goes undercover at his girlfriend’s school in an attempt to disrupt gang activities. It’s a ridiculous concept, an R-rated Kindergarten Cop, but what the hell, I enjoy the movie and I love Berenger in it.

The Best of the Best
Platoon (1986)
as Sergeant Barnes
What’s interesting about Oliver Stone’s Platoon is that the person we’re most afraid of isn’t an anonymous South Vietnamese soldier, but rather an American commander named Sergeant Barnes. There is no humanity within Barnes; he’s a man lost in bloodlust and anger. And he is in charge. To watch Barnes is to watch a man unhinged, as is made clear during Platoon’s recreation of the Mỹ Lai Massacre, which begins with Barnes shooting an innocent woman in the head for no reason. That sequence is one of the most unflinching scenes ever realized in an American war film, and Berenger steals it with his intensity.

When I watch Platoon, I don’t see Tom Berenger. I don’t see Jake Taylor or Peter Browning or Sam Weber. I see the hard, scarred, mortally wounded Sergeant Barnes. Berenger received his only Oscar nomination for his work in Platoon. He had strong competition, including his costar, Willem Dafoe, who played Sergeant Elias, the emotional antithesis of Barnes, in Platoon. Both actors lost to Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters. Caine’s performance is great, but my vote would’ve gone to Berenger. Berenger’s Barnes is full character immersion, and despite all the character’s misdeeds, I can never take my eyes off him.

Other Notable Roles
in Gettysburg
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979)
The Dogs of War (1980)
Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)
Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
Shoot to Kill (1988)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
The Field (1990)
Sniper (1993)
Gettysburg (1993)
An Occasional Hell (1996)
The Gingerbread Man (1998)
Training Day (2001)
Third Watch (2003)
October Road (2007-2008)
Major Crimes (2013-2015)


  1. Tom Berenger is very underrated. I just saw Major League again yesterday and he is so perfect in that film. Here's a guy that has been through a lot and knows he's past his prime but he is willing to get that one last shot in being a winner. That scene where he tells off Corbin Bernsen over tanking that play is awesome. "Jesus Dorn, I liked you so much better when you were just a ballplayer. If you want to be an interior decorator. That's none of my business but some of us really need this. Now look. This is my last shot at a winner. For these guys, it could be their only shot."

    I also liked him in Inception, The Big Chill, Hatfield & McCoy, Platoon, and The Substitute. He's solid in those roles. I also liked him in a film that I'm sure not many people have seen. It's a flawed film but certainly got a lot of ambition though the makeup he's given in the film isn't very good. It's called At Play in the Field of the Lords that is directed by Hector Babenco where he plays a Native American that crashes a plane that was supposed to destroy an Amazon tribe and ends up being part of that tribe who has to deal with missionaries. It's worth a look despite its flaws.

    1. Oh wow, I've never even heard of At Play in the Field of the Lords. I'll have to check that one out. That Major League quote made me laugh out loud. I love that damn movie so much.

  2. As I was going through this post, there were several times when I stopped and said that a particular performance is Berenger's best. More accurately, I was like "How is THIS not #1?" I just kept forgetting about it until I actually got to the real best performance. At that point, I was just like, Platoon, duh. He was just masterful in that one. I do think there is one performance of his even you underrate: his work in Sniper. He really made that movie much better than it had any right to be. Great post!

    1. Thanks man! And right?! Berenger is such a beast, so good. It was Sniper or The Substitute for my Wild Card pick. He really does elevate Sniper and makes the film far better than it has any right to be.

  3. Tom Berenger is a great and underrated actor. I always enjoy it when he pops up in movies. My favorite performance from him is also of course Platoon. He was fantastic in that movie. Major League was also one of my favorite movies as a kid despite not knowing a thing about baseball (no one plays it here in Norway), it was all thanks to the great characters. Another personal favorite of mine not mentioned here is Sniper. A great, cheesy 90's movie starring him and Billy Zane.

    1. Ohhh that's so interesting about Major League. That's such a testament to the film that you enjoyed it without knowing about baseball. Proves that a good movie is a good movie, period.

      Really glad you're a fan of Berenger's. I do love Sniper as well. He makes that film far better than it should be.

  4. Great post! I saw Platoon when it came to theaters (1986?), and Tom Berenger's performance is the most memorable thing about it.

    I was in college then and working in a movie theater. Platoon drew two groups of people: Vietnam veterans, who'd heard the movie did a fairly good job of portraying the war, and adolescent boys looking for a bad-ass war flick.

    Some of the boys swaggered in dressed in camo, as if they were gearing up for battle. They acted like idiots in the theater, cutting up, cheering, and yelling "boom!" when there was an explosion. This was brought to our attention by one of the veterans. "This is very personal to some of us--we just want them to stop." So sad. :-(

    Even sadder is the fact that I'm nostalgic for a time when the possibility of any of those boys being drafted into a foreign war seemed remote. Now I look at my eighteen-year-old son, and I wonder...

    1. Stupid ass boys. I mean... have a little respect, you know? I once watched Platoon with a Vietnam vet. It was a very intense experience. This guy was hard - big, tough, hard. But he was a mess by the end.

      That is scary about your son. Because honestly, who the hell knows right now? It's a crazy, crazy time we're in, isn't it?

    2. This era is way beyond insane. :-( Unrepentant liberal that I am, I never thought I'd be nostalgic for the Reagan years. I actually have to pace myself on reading news because I become physically sick with outrage on a daily basis. It's nuts.

      And my son and I have had some talks about Canada. Y'know, because it might be a nice place to take a vacation sometime.

    3. I pace myself too. Every day is something new and dreadful. I'm going to be explaining this era to my grandkids with "sentences like: "Yeah... uhhh... none of us had any idea what was going on either."

    4. If you have not seen the film, I strongly urge you to find a copy of 'Rustler's Rhapsody'. IMHO it is Tom Berenger at his best! Can you imagine him starring and singing in this western/comedy? I am certain had the author viewed the film it would have definitely made the list.

    5. Oh damn - I have to see that ASAP! That sounds amazing.

  5. No one mentioned Betrayed (1988) such a wonderful film. Tom is fantastic in it and one of his few romantic roles.

    1. Oh wow, I really need to check that one out right away. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. Don't forget Shattered and the Last of the Dogmen.

    1. Shattered rocks, but I haven't seen Last of the Dogmen!

  7. This is an old thread but I would encourage you to watch Blood and Money, released in 2020. The film was shot in Maine in very challenging weather. I would not have expected this to have slowed down Mr. Berrenger, because he is tough as nails, but he delivered an exceptionally nuanced performance for an actor who we associate with action movies. Personally, I take greater pleasure from watching Mr. Berrenger than Mr. De Niro or Mr. Pacino. He acts his age.

    1. Old thread, but I'm still here! Thanks for the rec, I'll try to check this out soon.