Craig here with Take Three, a weekly look at a character/supporting actor's career through three movies. Today: Anthony Mackie. Mackie’s had a sprinkling of leads so far (Spike Lee’s controversial She Hate Me, the period drama Night Catches Us, and the upcoming biopic Bolden!), and he’ll undoubtedly get a star-making role of his own someday soon. But in the meantime he’s working hard to create a still very-much-on-the-rise profile as an exemplary supporting player in a variety of fine films.
Take One: Half Nelson (2006)
Mackie puts in a vital sincere performance in 2006 indie drama Half Nelson. He’s Frank, a former friend of Drey’s (Shareeka Epps) jailed brother and a Brooklyn drug dealer, who is intent on dragging Drey into his orbit as a local drug mule. That's an idea that her teacher Dan (Ryan Gosling) takes umbrage with, especially in one riveting scene where Dan confronts Frank on the street, warning him to leave her alone. Mackie avoids the overplayed clichés in portraying drug dealers on screen. He’s calm, charming and actually feels he’s helping by keeping Drey near. He wins Dan around, in a way, too. He’s just someone making his way, just like everyone else in Ryan Fleck’s sombre, thoughtful film.
It’s Gosling’s film, obviously, and he’s great in it. But Mackie adds the kind of concrete support that's essential to the emotionally intricate structured character dramas. Frank is as key to Drey’s understanding and growth as Dan is, just in a different, more dubious way. The regard evident in Frank’s demeanour throughout suggests a tricky back-story to their friendship. It’s an essential detail for our understanding of the story, too.
Take Two: The Hurt Locker (2009)
There’s a trio of solid actors dominating Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker. Leading from the front is lead Jeremy Renner as reckless firebrand Sergeant William James. Backing up his ostensible one-man deactivation outfit two up-and-coming actors, Bryan Geraghty as Specialist Owen Eldridge and Mackie as Sergeant J. T. Sanborn. All three are making waves in the film world (twice Oscar-nominated Renner is the best known); their respective roles added exposure and gravitas to their résumés. Mackie was subtly commanding in the film as the operation leader, trying desperately to keep everthing running smooth and fine-tuned whilst maintaining a clear head.
Though it initially seemed that he'd be merely an antagonistic presence for Renner’s vented spleen, Mackie is so persuasive that he is never merely a guide and an obvious audience identification figure. He makes Sanborn the guy we trust to interpret for us the searing heat, hurt and hellishness of modern-day warfare. He transferred to the audience a measured perspective on it all; not the kinetic, compulsive thrill – is that the right word? – of it all (Renner owned that), but the responsibility, the discursive aspect and the drudgery, the stifled panic – the things that aren’t always first on the list of desired attributes for a sergeant in a war film. Mackie was, in a small way, quite revelatory. His presence cemented the film for me as much more firmly thought-provoking for a long period after I saw it.
Take Three: The Adjustment Bureau (2010)
In The Adjustment Bureau (now playing) Mackie looks just fine in a snazzy hat and trench coat combo – dashing through illogically mind-bending doorways across a rain-drenched New York. I’ll hold off on suggesting he’s Matt Damon and Emily Blunt’s personal guardian angel, as some reviews have offered up, as this seems to stretch the point a bit. But who this mysterious bureau “employee” Harry Mitchell is is left teasingly open. But he’s more a bespoke Deep Throat, an anonymous Mr. X silently assisting our political-wannabe hero in his time-loop of need. Harry can do crazy-mad magic sci-fi stuff like, er, tip coffee on people on buses and, um, creep up on you during wet weather. Ok, so he may be the least dynamic otherworldly entity currently on our screens -- a low-fi sci-fi shy guy -- and he may inexplicably fall asleep on park benches (thus, rather oddly, setting in motion the entire film’s plot), but Mackie more than makes up for it for the duration of Bureau’s running time. And I do mean its running time.
It’s a shame that Mackie is temporarily replaced halfway through by Terence Stamp as the dominating shadowy figure intent on giving Damon a run for his money. (Mackie is the best casting in the film and it rankles when he’s sidelined.) He disappears for a large chunk of the action, but there’s a game amiability to his performance. As an actor he pays keen attention to what makes such workaday genre hybrids as this tick. He plays his part amid the inscrutable daftness finely.
His appearance also makes you wonder: what if he had been cast as the hero? Isn’t it about time Mackie was upgraded to leading man? Move over Matt, Mackie’s next in line for star status.
Three more key films for the taking: She Hate Me (2004), Freedomland (2006), Night Catches Us (2010)