CanFilm Five: Author and Canadian Film and TV Critic D.K. Latta — Part 2

“CanFilm Five” is the Canuxploitation blog’s ongoing guest column, which brings together prominent filmmakers, bloggers, critics and programmers to discuss their most loved offbeat Canadian films.

The Masked Movie Critic, otherwise known as D.K. Latta (or is that the other way around?) is a sometimes writer of science fiction and of non-fiction, and a self appointed (and strangely self-important) commentator about, and opiner on, Canadian film & TV and has been for years. His website The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies (& TV) contains capsule reviews of literally thousands of Canadian movies and TV series and, when it started in the late 1990s, boasted it was the most extensive English-language Canadian site of its kind on or off the web. Not that there was a lot of competition for that particular bragging right. It’s probably less so now but, hey, he still likes it. It is also associated with his blog — Pulp and Dagger Blog — which is intended to cover a broader range of movie, TV and pop cultural topics, and does…but still tends to focus a lot on Canadian films and TV.

D.K. contributed two excellent lists–this earlier one on Canadian modes of movie mayhem  and this one on everyone’s favourite Canadian character actor, Michael Ironside!

Michael Ironside has become one of Canada’s most enduring exports. And has attained that singular distinction of arguably being a “cult” actor. Sure, any actor would love to be a matinee idol or to have a few Oscars under his belt. But the “cult” actor is, in his way, perhaps a more stalwart figure — a recognizable face to some, a vaguely recognized name to others…and an icon to many. He may not always appear in the best movies — indeed, “cult” actors are often usually described as being better than their material — and often in genre films of sci-fi, action and horror. But that’s kind of their appeal: their lack of pretension. They come. They do their job. And we love ‘em for it. And if you can tap into that vein successfully, you can look forward to a long career. Ironside himself once commented that in an industry where most actors were unemployed, most of the time…he’s worked steadily for years. Wonder if Ryan Reynolds or Ryan Gosling will be able to say the same a few decades down the line?

But Ironside’s roles have often been dictated by his distinctive presence and demeanour. It’s not that he has a face only a mother could love — it’s not like he’s ugly or anything — merely that he has a face only a mother wouldn’t be very, very scared of. And with a growling voice and the perfect surname to go with it! And so whether playing heroes or villains, Ironside is usually cast as the tough guy: the murderous killer, or the gruff anti-hero. But there’s more to his career than that! So let’s look at some of Michael Ironside’s more unusual roles.

Okay, yeah, this is very much what you’d expect from him. But as probably his first major role, the one that put him on the cinematic map, it’s worth starting with. Ironside had already paid his dues in Canadian film with TV guest spots, and movie bit parts, and grunt work (on the movie NOTHING PERSONAL, he had a bit part as a motorcycle cop…and behind the scenes was, according to him, doing the laundry of the film’s star, Donald Sutherland!) by the time he was cast as the telepathic villain in David Cronenberg’s gory milestone — the movie that, arguably, helped take Cronenberg out of the ghetto of cult fandom and into the mainstream.

But now let’s consider some of his atypical roles:

This was a Canada/France mini-series about the development of the atom bomb during WWII. And despite some awkward dubbing of some of the European stars, I recollect it as being a surprisingly gripping and insightful look at a story that has been told many times…but arguably rarely told as well. And Ironside, so often cast as thugs and tough guys, was here cast as one of the most famous and influential intellects in history — physicist Werner Heisenberg! And history generally regards Heisenberg as a guy who worked for the Nazis out of loyalty to Germany, not out of sympathy for the Nazi ideals, making for a nicely ambiguous role for an actor to take on. Heisenberg wasn‘t a main character in RACE FOR THE BOMB…but Ironside made him memorable.

HOSTILE TAKEOVER had the unfortunate fate of being re-labelled THE DEVASTATOR when released to video and re-packaged as though some lurid shocker. In fact, it’s a classy, existential, thinking man’s suspense film. David Warner (another actor with a claim to “cult” status) starred as a mild mannered office worker who takes his co-workers hostage as part of some symbolic statement that only makes sense in his troubled mind. And Ironside perhaps gets one of his most atypical roles playing Warner’s boss, a character owing more to Michael Scott than Ham Tyler. Smarmy middle management probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Ironside’s ouevre!

Canadian film isn’t exactly known for series and sequels, which made a couple of police thrillers starring Ironside and fellow Canadian Currie Graham as a couple of dogged American police detectives kind of unusual. Perhaps equally interesting is that ONE OF OUR OWN and its sequel DEADLY ARRANGEMENT (a.k.a. BAD BLOOD) defied the usual cliches of straight to video/DVD cop movies…because they weren‘t just shoot ‘em ups, or gratuitous exploiters. But were, in fact, intended as respectable, mainstream detective stories. And they maybe are interesting for just how, well, normal Ironside was supposed to be in them. And showing off other facets of his talents, Ironside actually wrote and directed the second one!

But arguably an acting high in Ironside’s long career has to be the mini-series, THE LAST CHAPTER, and its sequel. This mob drama was given a Canadian twist (at least given headlines in the years leading up to it) by being about bikers. But these weren’t the usual cinema bikers who ride nomadically through the dessert, harassing truck stop owners. These bikers are mobsters who spend more time in their suburban condos or tooling around in sports cars than they do riding their hogs. And in its contrasting the tough brutality of the mob world with the characters’ personal lives and marital woes, it clearly was playing in the same sand box as shows like THE SOPRANOS. Personally, I didn’t think THE LAST CHAPTER worked as well as it needed to, but there’s no doubt Ironside’s performance was something to see, marrying his more typical tough guy character with genuine vulnerability as a family man whose domestic bliss is slipping between his callused fingers. And it may be the only time you’ll get to see Ironside speak French, to boot!

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  1. Rob London says:

    Ironside’s most unusual role, to me, is that of heavy metal warlock/beer pitchman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNTmHfCvnYc