Who decided Kevin Costner needed a comeback?
Why are we pretending Kevin Costner deserved a comeback?
To those who are curious why I am asking that question, what marks the third film headlining Kevin Costner this year so far, Draft Day, opened over the weekend. If you didn’t know, I’m not shocked, given cold reviews from critics, test audiences that evidently fell sleep in their chairs, and paying moviegoers giving it a wide berth, making it a small flop. Quality aside, it seemed like a fiasco waiting to happen. Trying to make a thriller about the NFL Draft, a non-event even the more devout football fans are content to read about in tomorrow’s headlines, was a thankless task enough. Centering on the Cleveland Browns, one of the worst teams in the history of American professional sports, and it would take a real hail Mary to succeed at the cinema. The movie’s biggest issue however, was that the lead is Kevin Costner, an actor whom, in my humble opinion, is one of the worst living actors in the medium of film.
That’s no empty statement on my part, and I’m hardly in the minority in sharing that opinion. To some it may seem extreme, given that Costner’s bland everyman presence doesn’t make him seem the type to vilify. To understand why, one needs context, and to realize that Kevin Costner was, for a time, despite any evident talent or screen presence, the biggest name in Hollywood, and to remember the disastrous results of that.
One of several actors who got work in the eighties for looking like an off-brand Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner remained a rather unexceptional actor best known alternatively for a pair of sports movies or playing the lead in The Untouchables. He wasn’t a household name, and in a just universe, this would be where his career declined before he makes an appearance on Dancing with the Stars once in a blue moon. Alas, a just universe wouldn’t have given us Dances with Wolves.
Let’s ignore that Dances with Wolves was overlong, aimless, and notoriously inaccurate in its portrayal of Native Americans. Forget that Dances with Wolves may be the most overblown piece of Oscar Bait of the last thirty years. Forget that Dances with Wolves managed to snub the vastly superior and far more deserving Goodfellas in sweeping the Oscars that year. Even put aside the fact Dances with Wolves gave rise to one of the worst modern Hollywood movie plots, Mighty Whitey, resulting in travesties from The Last Samurai to Avatar. No, the biggest crime of Dances with Wolves was that it fooled people into thinking Costner was some kind of idiot savant, and it would take a decade of some of the worst movies of the modern era to correct that train of thought.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was a schmaltzy star-vehicle largely derailed by Costner’s atrocious performance as the lead, complete with one of the worst attempts at a British accent in modern cinema. That, and I still involuntarily cringe every time I hear Bryan Adams sing “Everything I Do.” JFK, a half-baked conspiracy thriller that helped reinforce the Kennedy Assassination theories for a new generation. The Bodyguard, a movie where the only thing more unbelievable than Whitney Houston winning an Oscar was the non-existent chemistry between her and Costner, the kind of melodrama that would have been made-for-TV had Kevin Costner not thrown his clout behind it. Wyatt Earp, created as an act of spite toward Tombstone when the studios refused to give him more screen-time, despite being the lead role, ended up a bloated three-hour monument to Costner’s ego, tanking at the box office.
All of this climaxed in a pair of films where Kevin Costner, as director/actor in both, would earn himself a spot in Hollywood infamy: Waterworld, and The Postman. Both were tabloid fodder, went way over budget, and went on to become punch lines with critics and become two of the biggest box office bombs of all time. Suddenly, in the aftermath of having watched Kevin Costner sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a pair of films where he plays a post-apocalyptic messiah, people finally woke up.
In the aftermath of having helmed a series of some of Hollywood’s biggest failures, and his status as a major star largely killed by his own hand and hubris, Kevin Costner seemingly resigned himself to working direct-to-DVD films with the occasional theatrical releases almost universally panned by critics and widely ignored by audiences. It would seem that, at last, the universe had corrected itself, with Kevin Costner fallen from the lofty heights of the A-list to where he truly belonged, as a running gag on The Simpsons.
Yet for reasons I cannot fathom, save an act of cinematic necromancy most foul, it seems Hollywood has decided to make a charity case of handing Kevin Costner a comeback, whether we the movie-going public want it or not. Given his first major movie role in just over a decade in last year’s Man of Steel, Kevin Costner will be in no less than five major films in 2014, Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit and 3 Days to Kill earlier this year, this weekend’s Draft Day, and Black and White and McFarland later this year. Media outlets have been hailing 2014 as the ‘year of Kevin Costner‘ or gushing about a ‘Kevin Costner comeback‘,
Now don’t get me wrong, the reason I’m mystified by this seemingly forced reintroduction has nothing to do with any personal dislike of Kevin Costner, nor his dismal past performances, but because thus far, there has been absolutely no sign that today’s Kevin Costner is any different from the one whose career sank with Waterworld. If anything, the reasons for his decline are being regularly reinforced.
All of the roles he has are the same bland, folksy farmer/father figure/mentor archetypes he used to play, including his affinity for sports/spy movies, and even then his lack of range or screen presence is still evident. All of the movies released so far have been bland, bad or both, with Costner being a critical weak point in each, most famously his endorsement of infanticide in Man of Steel that did more damage to the Superman character in his fifteen minutes on screen than every comic since the Dark Knight Returns.
Perhaps most importantly, of the movies released so far, they’ve all either under-performed or straight out bombed if Costner was the lead, with Man of Steel and Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit barely recouping their budgets, 3 Days to Kill dead-on-arrival, and Draft Day playing about as well at the box office as the Browns do at football. McFarland will open against the latest Hunger Games film, all but a death sentence, and short of Black and White being something incredible, I expect this attempted return to the spotlight to end before it ever began.
Comebacks aren’t impossible in Hollywood by any means, nor are they out of reach even in the most hopeless of cases. Matthew McConaughey went from a bland pretty boy headlining chick flicks to an acting heavyweight who just won Best Actor. Sylvester Stallone went from a relic of the 80s to leading the charge in the rejuvenated action genre. Robert Downey Jr. went from a drugged-up former child star to one of the hottest names in Hollywood. Heck, even Ben Affleck’s gone from staring in Gigli to directing Argo.
The difference between these successful career revival’s and Kevin Costner is a simple one – they stopped doing what didn’t work, and tried something different. McConaughey stopped appearing in romantic comedies, and starting staring in some riskier dramatic fare. Stallone went back to the action movie basics of hard-hitting practical effects, and offered a welcome alternative to an age of CGI-dominated action. Downey Jr. went clean, worked hard and hit a lucky streak of varied interesting roles. Affleck stepped out from in front of the camera and started working behind it. In short, they tried something different.
Bringing us back to Kevin Costner, a comeback doesn’t work if you do the same things that sank your career in the first place, and the Kevin Costner of today isn’t any different from the Kevin Costner of thirty years ago in terms of ability or performances. He still plays the same bland, folksy non-presence whose monotone voice and wooden performances are the weakest link of every film he’s ever been in. It’s the biggest reason his career began to stall in the 90s even before his infamous string of failures sent his career into free fall – at his best, Costner is utterly forgettable, and at his worst, he’s enough to drag down an entire film. When the closest thing an actor can claim as a legacy is ‘screwed Goodfellas out of Best Picture‘ or ‘turned down The Shawshank Redemption to make Waterworld‘, there is a reason the world more or less gave up on Kevin Costner
Honestly, that makes Hollywood’s attempts to reintroduce him all the more mystifying, and what I find most astonishing. 2014 hardly marks the first attempt to reboot his career, with perennial attempts in 2011, 2006 and even 1999 to test the waters for a public that couldn’t care less. Kevin Costner is the acting equivalent of George Lucas – a lucky fool who rode a string of good luck until his ego and stature outgrew his ability, and he paid the price as he watched it all go up in flames. He’s an outed hack whose been offered countless chances and opportunities other actors would kill for – stop trying to hand Kevin Costner a comeback he doesn’t deserve, and let him serve as a cautionary tale. It’s the one role he’s good at.