Monday, August 26, 2019

In Character: Michael Madsen

Michael Madsen doesn’t like to stand still. At least not for very long. His characters move, they assess, they act. And whether Madsen is playing a shit kicker, cow puncher, mob boss, or psycho thief, there’s an unpredictability to his characters that is so appealing. Michael Madsen inhabits his roles with a unique persona that is equal parts charm, menace, vulnerability and rage. Madsen’s imposing figure makes him a suitable choice for the many antagonists he’s played so well, but his capacity for emotional openness is something that has helped make many of his roles so memorable.

Five Essential Roles
Thelma & Louise (1991)
As Jimmy, Madsen has a smoldering, charismatic ease to him that captures the viewer immediately. Jimmy is a guy who had certain dreams for himself, and when those dreams didn’t come to realize, Jimmy became content with what he had.

This performance really comes down to Madsen’s chemistry with Susan Sarandon, and midway through the movie, the two share an extended scene in a crappy motel room that proves to be a highlight of the film. In the scene, Madsen achieves a balance of being tender, frightening, loving, and misunderstood all so realistically. Thank god to director Ridley Scott for giving Madsen a shot here.

Free Willy (1993)
Yep, if you can believe it, bad boy Michael Madsen played the supportive and loving foster father in Free Willy. What’s funny about Madsen’s tender work as Glen is that, because of my age, Free Willy is actually the first movie I saw Madsen in. As an 8-year-old kid, my perception of Michael Madsen was that he was an actor full of kind, supportive, thoughtful characters. My how that perception quickly changed. But in all seriousness, it’s pretty fun to go back and watch Madsen’s work in this; it’s unlike anything else he’s done on this large of a scale.

Donnie Brasco (1997)
Sonny Black
Sonny Black is arguably Madsen’s meatiest role to date, and he absolutely seizes it. Sonny is a young, made guy who isn’t moving up in the mob ranks fast enough, so he takes out the competition and positions himself as a head of the New York mob. Madsen’s large frame is used to great effect here, as you never know if Sonny going to use his physical intimidation and psychotic brain to compliment someone or kill them.

Something else to consider: Because Sonny Black uses force to gain control, he passes over older, more worthy potential bosses, including Lefty (Al Pacino). So, in the film, Madsen not only plays Pacino’s boss, but Johnny Depp’s boss as well. And never, for a second, does it feel like Michael Madsen is alarmed by these two serious stars. As Sonny Black, Madsen holds his own, and then some.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
After being given a glimpse of Budd in the first volume of Kill Bill, Michael Madsen is front and center in volume two. We meet Budd long after his fall from grace as an international assassin, now finding him as a down and out loser who doesn’t have a cent to his name. But in exploring Budd, we actually get to see a new side of Madsen, a tough guy with a heart; a vulnerable has-been with an aimless drive.

Tarantino and Madsen had a bit of a falling out after Reservoir Dogs (more on that later), and it was so nice to see them reunite in such a strong way here. As Budd, Tarantino gives Madsen more to do than ever – the strip club argument, the Johnny Cash-scored shootdown, the burial, the snake bite. This is a performance full of great set pieces, and Madsen chews the shit out of each of them.

The Hateful Eight (2015)
Joe Gage
Of all the evil people in The Hateful Eight, Joe Gage seems like the person who gives the least amount of shit about the outcome. There’s a stoicism to Gage that I find so appealing: “So, who are you?” “Joe Gage.” “What?” “That’s my name. Joe Gage.” “Okay, Joe Gage.”

Don’t get me wrong, Joe Gage is along for the ride and wants his money, but fewer things in The Hateful Eight are as enjoyable to me as Michael Madsen sitting off in the corner, occasionally barking out orders on how to properly shut the door. And when he’s asked where he’s going, he simply offers that he’s heading home to his mother’s house for Christmas. And what’s more perfect than that?

Wild Card
Wyatt Earp (1994)
Virgil Earp
Quentin Tarantino wrote the part of Vincent Vega for Michael Madsen, which Madsen turned down so that he could co-star in Wyatt Earp. At the time, Wyatt Earp was being marketed as the modern western. It had three times the money of Tombstone, the writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the star of Dances with Wolves. It couldn’t lose, and then it did, majorly.

I’m mentioning the film here because I understand why Madsen would want to play Virgil Earp. Virgil Earp is an iconic character, Pulp Fiction was a tiny film, Wyatt Earp was a huge one. Madsen took a gamble and the film missed. Madsen is fine in Wyatt Earp (though no one other than Costner is given anything to do), John Travolta killed as Vega, and Tarantino and Madsen eventually made up. All’s well that ends well.

The Best of the Best
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Mr. Blonde
Michael Madsen is in Reservoir Dogs for 33 minutes, and in those 33 minutes, Madsen created a cinematic pop culture icon that will outlive us all. Mr. Blonde is the embodiment of killer charm: The man is a full-fledged psychopath, but his heart rate never appears to go above 85; he’s dressed the same as his fellow thieves, but looks so much cooler than everyone else.

Mr. Blonde is one of the hardest kinds of roles to pull off, because the audience’s perception of him is firmly in place before he appears. Granted, we see Mr. Blonde briefly in the opening scene of the film, but from then on, we only hear of the gruesomeness he’s inflicted while on a job. Hell, at this point, first time viewers don’t even know who Mr. Blonde is. But as soon as the camera pulls back to reveal Madsen’s tall frame casually enjoying a soda, it is clear that Mr. Blonde as arrived.

Much has been made about the infamous “Stuck in the Middle with You” sequence in this film, and that’s for good reason. When I watch the scene now, I’m not only watching an actor become a star in front of my eyes, but I’m watching a director become the director, with one single scene. Reservoir Dogs was an announcement on many levels, and that certainly applies to its most iconic character.   

Other Notable Roles
In Sin City
Against All Hope (1982)
WarGames (1983)
The Natural (1984)
Kill Me Again (1989)
The Doors (1991)
Straight Talk (1992)
Fatal Instinct (1992)
Beyond the Law (1993)
The Getaway (1994)
Species (1995)
Mulholland Falls (1996)
Vengeance Unlimited (1998-99)
Die Another Day (2002)
My Boss’s Daughter (2003)
Tilt (2005)
Sin City (2005)
Strength and Honour (2007)
Boarding Gate (2007)
Hell Ride (2008)
24 (2010)
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)


  1. I completely forgot that was Madsen in Free Willy. That's definitely a departure from his usual roles. I agree Reservoir Dogs is the best of the best.

    1. Isn't that funny? And to think that was the first movie I saw him in haha!

  2. It's easy to forget that Michael Madsen was in Free Willy considering a lot of the films he's done yet he was one of the few bright spots in that movie though I wish they stuck with original ending in the director's cut but no, studios wanted something happier so they can make that extra money for the sequel and more sappy Michael Jackson tunes (which were unnecessary though I still love the guy).

    What I love about Madsen's work as an actor is that he can play the tough guy but not in the way one would thing. Usually, someone like that would yell, scream, or get physical with someone to get their way. Not Madsen, he is more laid back and maintains his cool but he'll throw down if he's provoked. My favorite performance from him so far is Budd in Kill Bill. Here's a guy that was a total badass but after what happened with the Bride and his brother, a part of him just got angry and chose not to speak to Bill for a while. He understands the Bride is coming after him but seems indifferent about it yet he ends up being the smartest person of the VIPERs. He beat the Bride but only for a while as I loved how he was able to outsmart her and hurt in ways she didn't expect. Mad respect to that guy. Plus, I would never trust anyone who claimed to have sold off his Hattori Hanzo sword. You never know, they could still have one in their closet.

    1. You gotta love Budd. That character, along with Sonny Black and Mr. Blonde, all make a good case as Madsen's best performance. I love the warrior code Budd still seems to live by; like you said, he understands why the Bride is doing what she's doing.

      I also agree that Madsen's uses calm as a great intimidation tactic. You never know when he's going to blow.

  3. He was in Free Willy? What?! That's crazy! I actually love his performance in Kill Bill 2 more than Reservoir Dogs because it's way more subtle and not so in your face, there's actual depth to that character unlike this psycho

    1. Isn't that crazy?! And Budd is for sure the more fleshed out character. But my god, I'm just so curious what makes Mr. Blonde tick.

  4. The scene in Reservoir Dogs is unforgettable though I'm glad it isn't me who is remembered for such a violent thing! Has he ever played the lead in a movie? He tends to always be a supporting actor.

    1. Haha right?! He's been the lead in a handful of straight-to-DVD action movies, and he's had some bigger parts in a few foreign films, but I've sadly never really liked most of those movies.

  5. As much as i love Madsen, i'm glad he turned down Vincent Vega. I can't see anyone other than Travolta in that role. Madsen killed it in Reservoir Dogs tough. I completely agree with that number one spot. I always wondered how that Vega Brothers movie would have turned out if ever got made. It's probably for the best it didn't tough. Prequels are rarely any good.

    1. Totally agree here. Part of what makes Pulp so magical is seeing Travolta revitalize his career scene-after-scene. I definitely would've loved a Vega Brothers movie, but they had such a small window to make that. And you're right, probably best unmade anyhow.