Before He Was Raylan Givens, Timothy Olyphant Justified a Movie Career as the New Bill Paxton

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Before He Was Raylan Givens, Timothy Olyphant Justified a Movie Career as the New Bill Paxton

Though the cautionary tales of your David Carusos and your Matt LeBlancs still reverberate through the sometimes-contentious history of movie/TV cross-pollination, there can be something gratifying about an actor definitively choosing a medium that fits, whether it’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning Emmys across three different sitcoms while virtually ignoring the movies, or George Clooney trading ER for Steven Soderbergh and barely looking back. By most evidence, Timothy Olyphant is, without shame, a TV guy: He’s starred in two all-time classics with Deadwood and Justified with sidelines in the well-liked Santa Clarita Diet and a recurring role in multiple Star Wars shows. His recently-wrapped return to Raylan Givens in Justified: City Primeval further solidifies his status as both a major TV star and a great TV actor, able to imbue small gestures with charisma and nuance, doing a lot within a familiar emotional range. Even when the writing and pacing of City Primeval hasn’t always lived up to the terrific series that preceded it, Olyphant’s Raylan makes for an unshakeable anchor, both reliable and, within the world of the show, reliably stubborn.

That Givens sometimes feels like a cowboy out of time, while the newest show built around him pushes against his roguish individualism, parallels the film career that Olyphant more or less left behind. He still appears in movies, but seems content to take smaller parts in ensembles for the likes of Quentin Tarantino or David O. Russell, rather than maximizing his big-studio screen time. But before Justified debuted in 2010, and lacking a steady supply of big-screen Westerns where he might have fit perfectly, Olyphant was riding the line between potential movie star and imminent That Guy. He popped up in a Scream sequel, a Jennifer Garner rom-com, a videogame adaptation, and the occasional hushed, reflective indie, among many others. Looking at certain moments of his pre-Raylan film career is instructive in his later development as a memorable leading man.

“Lead” was usually the sticking point; “memorable,” he didn’t have a problem with. Though Scream 2 put a spotlight on Olyphant in only his third feature film (just a few months earlier, he had a bit part as a hiker in the Danny Boyle flop A Life Less Ordinary), he pops even more in a youth-culture movie far fewer people saw: Doug Liman’s Go. The film came in just under the wire in 1999 to take the title of best Pulp Fiction knock-off of the decade, and, befitting its lower-stakes crime plot, Olyphant was on hand to play the skinny-white-dude version of Marsellus Wallace: Drug dealer Todd, who menaces Ronna (Sarah Polley) over some lost pills, flirts with Ronna’s friend Claire (Katie Holmes) via Breakfast Club references, and expounds upon his hate-reading of the single-panel comic strip The Family Circus. It’s the kind of material, in other words, that feels like shtick in so many other crime comedies, and Olyphant imbues with actual life here. It’s genuinely difficult to tell whether Todd is more interested in exacting harm upon Ronna or making out with Claire, and not because Olyphant plays Todd as openly, quirkily conflicted. Fitting with the movie’s chronicle of youthful whims, he’s acting on impulse and pretending he has a greater plan.

As is often the case, an eye-catching performance led to typecasting, with Olyphant playing criminal types in A Man Apart and The Girl Next Door, culminating in an underplayed turn as the bad guy in Live Free or Die Hard. What’s missing from his work in Die Hard 4 is exactly what made him seem like inspired casting in that role: His live-wire intensity, and a freewheeling intensity to match. In A Man Apart and The Girl Next Door, he’s essentially playing less wittily rendered versions of Todd, whether peddling harder drugs in Man Apart or porn in The Girl Next Door. He sports tight shirts, spiky hair, and an alternately drawling and manic delivery style that forges a clear connection to the late, great Bill Paxton. A Man Apart is a Vin Diesel vengeful-cop picture that’s unremarkable almost to the point of indifferent incoherence, but a standard scene where a sleazebag called Hollywood Jack (Olyphant) mouths off to a seething “good” guy (Diesel) is enlivened multiple times over, first by Olyphant’s insouciance and then by his Paxton-like vocalizing of his frantic cowardice. It’s standard stuff, and Olyphant’s scenes are practically the only ones in the movie where that feels like its cliché-ridden approach might actually work.

Olyphant’s character has more control in The Girl Next Door, albeit exercised privately, and at his peculiar whims. In this occasionally amusing, largely dodgy and extremely early-2000s teen comedy, he menaces his future Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood castmate Emile Hirsch, who plays a high school senior stumbling into a relationship with a former porn star played by Elisha Cuthbert. (Once again, it’s a part you could picture Bill Paxton playing well 15 years earlier.) As with Todd in Go, it’s genuinely hard to get a read on just how psychotic this guy is, and how much of it is self-amused, self-enriching posturing. After seeming to lose interest in the question entirely, The Girl Next Door belatedly lands on begrudging respect for the kid’s horny true-love hustle, and it occurs to the close observer of Olyphant that he could have made virtually any outcome work. An indicator of the movie’s slapdash nature? Sure. A tribute to the flexibility of Olyphant’s scene-stealing? Absolutely.

As Justified approached, Olyphant seemed to be figuring out how that persona might apply to someone on the non-criminal side of the law. The Crazies, released the same year that Justified debuted, places him in a cop role in a surprisingly sturdy remake of a George Romero movie; in contrast with the horror-movie violence that erupts around him, Olyphant takes a gentler, more folksy approach to law and order than Raylan. He’s solid in his highest-profile leading role to that date. But Olyphant’s peak movie role, at least so far, adroitly plays both sides of his persona. In A Perfect Getaway, he plays Nick, a screenwriter’s dream: A walking and talking red herring who talks about red herrings (though he insists on referring to it as a “red snapper”) as he regales his new vacation buddy (Steve Zahn) with his outlandish, screenplay-ready life stories, and quizzes the seemingly mild-mannered guy about the screenwriting career he casually mentions early on.

A Perfect Getaway is Screenwriter Cinema to the extreme; it’s all about itself, its cleverness, its twistiness, and what we, as an audience, assume based on casting, framing and genre conventions. What makes it more than a self-impressed calling card for already-established genre craftsman David Twohy is its use of the core performances. Zahn and, playing his new wife, Milla Jovovich, ably navigate the story’s twists and turns (Jovovich has a talent for playing both ass-kickers and flighty weirdos, and here gets to do both and more). Olyphant, though, makes especially great use of his character’s ambiguity. Nick should seem like a boastful bullshit artist, describing the myriad ways he’s survived various life-threatening situations with action-hero skills and extraordinary luck. Yet Olyphant delivers that maybe-bullshit with such straight-shooting aim that Nick is nearly impossible to dislike. “Outstanding,” he keeps saying, in Olyphant’s laconic not-quite-drawl, laying out the openness that Nick’s weird life has gifted him. Justified’s Raylan is no-nonsense; big-screen Olyphant has more nonsense tolerance.

Justified and Olyphant’s other shows have afforded him the opportunity to play things a little quieter, a little closer to the vest than his most memorable movie roles, where (pre-Justified, anyway) he had to make a bigger impression in a shorter span of time. On TV, he’s exploring and deepening an archetype, rather than embodying or subverting one; he may not be able to return to such outsized characters in the future, at least not with the same element of unpredictability. But the job of a 2020s Bill Paxton remains open if he ever wants to try.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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