Bruce Campbell Week: Bruce gets serious as ‘Homicide’

Is it uncool to quote myself? I’m gonna do it anyway. A coupla years ago in a review of Evil Dead II, I said this about Bruce Campbell:

In another era, Campbell — movie-star handsome, though he pretends he isn’t, and robustly athletic — would have been a Douglas Fairbanks or a Tyrone Power, daring and dashing and full of verve…

A friend of mine likens Bruce to Bob Hope in the 1940s: you’re sittin’ there watching some goofy movie in which Bob (or Bruce) is cheerfully making a total ass of himself, and out of the blue comes a cocked eyebrow or a crooked grin and you’re struck by lightning. “God damn,” you say to yourself, “he is gorgeous. Why isn’t he playing romantic leads?”

“say hello to my snub-nosed boomstick”

And he could be the stuff of legendary leading men, our Bruce, if he wasn’t such a devoted geek. If you’ve any doubt that he’s got the chops for anything beyond fighting off the undead/invading aliens/flying 19th-century French dwarf dictators, then you must see his 1996 guest-starring role on Homicide: Life on the Street (it’s on the Vol. 4 DVD of the Season 4 box set, which you can rent singly from Netflix). In the two-parter “Justice,” Bruce is Jake Rodzinsky, a Baltimore cop — not homicide: check fraud — and an old acquaintance of one of the series regulars who is devastated by the murder his father, himself formerly on the job. Over the course of the two episodes, Jake slowly implodes, his life and his career collapsing in on him as he insinuates himself into the murder investigation, confronts skels with presumed grudges against his father, inadvertently terrifies his wife and children, and just generally gets eaten alive by grief and rage.
This isn’t like anything you’ve seen Campbell do before, or since — it’s the very antithesis of the over-the-top loudmouth braggart that we know and love him for. Like everything on Homicide, Campbell’s performance is understated, approached from oblique angles. Even when Jake is, say, beating up some parolee who maybe doesn’t deserve to get beat up, Campbell creates an air of holding back, like he’s letting us see just the tip of the iceberg of Jake’s anger. Campbell’s scariest moment here may be early in the second episode, after we suspect Jake’s done something Really Bad but before that suspicion gets confirmed for us. Jake is laughing and joking with his cop buddies, as if the shock of initial anguish over losing his father so suddenly and so violently has passed, but Campbell injects a kind of moody unease into the moment: Is this a man who’s pretending jolliness in order to fool himself? Or is this, as we fear, a man who has gotten some kind of tenuous relief from the Doing of the Bad Thing? Even in retrospect, we never really know which is the case in that moment; maybe it’s both things at once. Jake’s not a bad guy — Campbell makes his momentary badness tragic.

Jake is almost a riff on Brisco County Jr. — the grieved son avenging his lawman father’s untimely death — and actually, watching Brisco again now, I’m sorta stunned to discover that there’s a lot more drama and many more opportunities in that series than I remember for the man to be damn impressive even when he is as far from sarcasm and/or Three Stooges comedy as an actor can get. (More on Brisco to come…) But Brisco is still, as far as the gotta-categorize-it entertainment spectrum is concerned, anything other than Serious Drama. Gritty documentary-style urban crime cop series? Sure. Comedy/action/sci-fi/Western about a guy who talks to his horse, and thinks his horse talks back? Not so much.

Campbell has always brought a sort of grounded elegance to everything he’s done, whether it’s howling out spectacularly nasty-funny one-liners or battling parts of his own body that’ve turned on him. The unflappable confidence and sincerity with which he handles some very silly roles are part of what endears him to fans of very silly stuff: he takes his funny business seriously; he doesn’t give less than he might because it’s “only” a horror movie, “only” a comedy. Post-Homicide, we’ve seen him treat the ridiculous as sublime in his guest appearance in the 1999 X-Files episode “Terms of Endearment” (on Disc 2 of the Season 6 box set), as Wayne Weinsider, a demon who’s far more poignant than he is malevolent, and in 2003’s Bubba Ho-Tep, as an almost agonizingly pitiful elderly Elvis.

And still, there’s something qualitatively different about seeing an actor like Bruce Campbell turn in such a devastating performance in something like Homicide. As powerful and even moving as Wayne and Elvis are in his hands, even in the mind of someone like me — who truly appreciates the bizarre and the strange, appreciates it even more when there’s an attempt to find meaning in the frivolity — it’s all too easy to scoff: there’s no such thing as demons, and c’mon, it’s Elvis battling a mummy, fer pete’s sake. But there’s nothing dismissible about Jake Rodzinsky — a regular guy, a husband and a father and a blue-collar grunt, very much a man of the here and now, where men are boxed in by their emotions, encouraged not to feel anything, or at least not to show it… Campbell’s slow boil as Jake is so effective because it gives expression not to hidden fantasies or nightmares but to hidden realities. And not just metaphoric stuff about society at large and the state of American manhood but about the actor himself. It’s not like you never imagined Bruce had it in him — it’s more like you knew all along the dude was righteous all around, and here’s the vindication.

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