Recently on facebook, a friend of mine wrote on my wall, “Am I the only one wondering what the HELL happened to Laurence Fishburne’s career??”
When he turned up in Predators (which I will still see and enjoy), it made me examine whether the bad movies he’s been in happened before, during and after his Academy Award nominee star period. Here’s the short list: Fled, Event Horizon, Bad Company, Armored, Bobby Z. There are others, but the trend is clear: all of those movies were made after What’s Love Got To Do With It brought him the Oscar buzz that he deserved.
But instead of speculating on what the hell has gone wrong, Marz Daily Media will honor the man by listing my Favorite Laurence Fishburne Movies. This is my way of keeping the cynics honest when they want to make a snide remark (I don’t mean you, Paul) about an actor who would be knighted for his contribution to the arts if we had that system in America.
Also starring: Kevin Bacon, Jamie Gertz, Paul Rodriguez; Thomas Michael Donnelly, dir.
In this little-known movie about a hotshot stock trader (Bacon) who loses everything and becomes a bike messenger, Fishburne plays Voodoo, a fellow messenger with which Bacon has a rivalry. Although only in a few scenes, Fishburne definitely makes his presence known as a badass in the making. Remember: this is not an easy task when you’re riding a bicycle.
Band of the Hand (1986)
Also starring: Stephen Lang, Leon, James Remar; Paul Michael Glaser, dir.
It’s a mix between Miami Vice and Lord of the Flies, and it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. A group of juvenile delinquents become part of a rehabilitation program run by a Vietnam vet who has a taste for vigilantism. One of their main antagonists is Cream (Fishburne), a Miami drug runner who lives above the law in the cocaine-crazed town. It’s another smaller role for Fishburne, but further proof that his performances are rarely forgettable.
School Daze (1988)
Also starring: Spike Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell; Spike Lee, dir.
School Daze is easily one of Lee’s best movies, following the lives of several students over the course of homecoming weekend at a historically black college. Fishburne plays Dap, who spends more time being an activist than an academic, and takes anyone else at the college to task if they don’t agree with his agenda. School Daze could be considered the dramatic counterpart to A Different World, the Cosby-conceived sitcom about black college life. This was a hopeful period in the media during which black Americans came to the fore in an academic setting. Fishburne’s strength in School Daze contributed greatly to showing the mainstream how multi-dimensional black life really is. Too bad millions of black people still don’t realize it.
King of New York (1990)
Also starring: Christopher Walken, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes; Abel Ferrara, dir.
Fishburne dominates all of his scenes in King of New York as Jimmy Jump, the first soldier in command to drug lord Frank White (Walken). An audience should not forgive that a cold-blooded killer like Jump would show compassion, but Fishburne demonstrates how context can shift any character without even raising an eyebrow.
Also starring: Charlie Sheen, Martin Sheen, Michael Beach; Martin Sheen, dir.
In the only movie that Martin Sheen directed, Fishburne plays Roosevelt Stokes, the elder statesmen of a group of American servicemen serving time in military prison during the mid-1960s. Stokes routinely eases tension between Private Bean (C. Sheen) and the rest of the inmates, all of which are black. The movie is definitely a Charlie Sheen vehicle, but richness of the black characters, of which Stokes is the leader, is what makes the movie as entertaining as it is.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Also starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut; John Singleton, dir.
Fishburne becomes the quintessential father in the “urban” drama as Furious Styles in Boyz N The Hood. In a community known for its void of responsible paternity, Furious treads against the current of the rough streets to keep his son and his son’s friends aware of what the world thinks of them and what they must do to succeed in spite of that. It’s remarkable to think that in a span of three years, Fishburne went from college student, to hired gun, to prisoner, to poster dad for a better life. Typecast is clearly not a word to describe the actor.
Deep Cover (1992)
Also starring: Jeff Goldblum, Clarence Williams III, Charles Martin Smith; Bill Duke, dir.
Known more for its soundtrack that introduced the world to Dr. Dre’s artist Snoop Doggy Dogg, some people may forget that there was an enjoyable movie involved. In Deep Cover, Fishburne plays a police officer chosen to go undercover to infiltrate the inner city drug world and work his way up the pipeline to bring down the head of it all. His case consumes his life such that he begins to question whether he’s on the right side of the law. Fishburne’s gift in Deep Cover is in making the audience feel his character’s violent ambivalence in every move he makes.
Also starring: Chi McBride, Vanessa Williams, Tim Roth; Bill Duke, dir.
This movie about Bumpy Johnson’s (Fishburne) rise to prominence against Dutch Schultz (Roth) and Lucky Luciano (Garcia) reinvigorated a mostly forgotten depression-era crime story. Again, Fishburne brings to the fore a layered character that makes a case for turning to crime in an age when the black community has been presented little else as an alternative to prosper. Aside from The Untouchables, I don’t think there is another period piece of this kind that compares.
The Matrix (1999)
Also starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving; The Wachowski Brothers*, dir.
Without Morpheus (Fishburne), this groundbreaking movie would have lacked the ability to draw the audience into its world. Fishburne’s strong yet calm presence also lowered the threshold of disbelief opposite a Keanu Reeves who knows kung fu. The series that The Matrix became spun out into commercialized eye candy, but Fishburne remained the backbone of what made the Wachowski brothers’* story so provocative. So it’s not an accident that Fishburne logged his biggest payday from these movies. In the context of movie stars, he earned it.
*Apparently, Larry Wachowski has since become Lana Wachowski, making the duo The Wachowskis. Alrighty, then.
Once in the Life (2000)
Also starring: Titus Welliver, Eamon Walker, Annabella Sciorra; Laurence Fishburne, dir.
Once in the Life was originally a play that Fishburne wrote. Once in the Life is the story of 20/20 Mike (Fishburne) and Torch (Welliver), half-brothers who accidentally reunite because of their brushes with the law. 20/20 enlists his friend Tony (Walker) to help them lay low for a while. Anything more would be spoiling the story.
The most fun part of this movie is that Fishburne plays a Puerto Rican guy, complete with uptown accent and Jesus piece. I don’t know if this effort demonstrates that he should continue to write and direct movies, but it was an enjoyable attempt to witness, especially after enjoying Walker in Oz and seeing how far Welliver has come since (Deadwood, Lost, Sons of Anarchy).
Whatever has happened to Laurence Fishburne’s career cannot be attributed to a dearth of ability on his part. If the rash of remakes has been any indication that the originality gene in Hollywood is degenerative, moviegoers should know that the problem does not lie in the screen talent at the disposal of the Entertainment Capital of the World.
So here’s to (Sir) Laurence Fishburne III, a man with nothing left to prove, but whom Hollywood could use to prove that it’s still a city worth depending on for quality box office performances.