It’s all about belief. Genre films in general need a sense of conviction from both the actors and the audience in order for their typically outlandish ideas to truly work. Lose faith in your plotpoints or persona, or even worse, how they are put across on screen, and you destroy everything a horror, fantasy, or action film tries to create. In the past, amazing actors like Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing offered a more debonair approach to dread, their clipped accents and focused line readings investing each scenario with a sense of truth - and trust. In the post-modern world, few if any have matched these mythic men. About the closest we have is English/Australian icon Hugo Weaving, perhaps the most accidental of speculative stars.
Working since the early ‘80s, the determined actor got his initial start in defining dramas like Proof and clever comedies such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. For many, he appeared poised to join Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce as solid Hollywood crossovers. But even as he excelled in role after role, he never really received the universal recognition of his Downunder brothers - that is, until 1999. With The Matrix, Weaving walked into a cultural phenomenon that’s still celebrated more than a decade later. It turned the virtual unknown into a household name, a set him up as successor to said former fright flick idols.
Now, with the announcement that the actor will wear the ghastly crimson face of Captain America’s arch nemesis, Red Skull, Weaving has positioned himself as the new genre giant, the go-to guy for authenticity in a world of whimsy. Further proof can be found on The Wolfman, hitting home video on 1 June. From there, one can look back at his decade inside the cinematic category and discover his appeal as being something more than ability. Weaving works in credence, and the results regularly cement the settings he is in, beginning with the one that really started it all.
There was something about the voice - that off-kilter lilt, the inhuman unbalance in its cadence and composure. Beyond the button down suit and sunglasses, aside from the receding hairline and snarling smile, Agent Smith wasn’t just the physical representation of a villain for our hero Neo to fight against. In the Wachowski’s brilliant take on reality and its relationship to human psychological and philosophical defects, Weaving’s weird amalgamation of bureaucrat and assassin, maintainer of order and potential threat all his own was the personification of the Machine World, barely capable of recreating life but desperate to mimic it as authentically as possible. Through the Agents, control would be kept. But Weaving always offered something more sinister with his interpretation. You often felt as if Smith had his own personal agenda against the supposed savior. The later installments of the series would bear this out.
Indeed, as first film was Reloaded and then blossomed into a series of Revolutions, Smith became more and more important. This is where Weaving really excelled, amplifying the anger and the menace inherent in a program gone rogue. While the mythos gets complicated and more than a little sketchy at times (the Wachowski’s even have a hard time maintaining a consistent balance between smarts and spectacle), what’s clear is that Smith becomes a doppelganger for Neo, seeing himself as the Machine City’s one true messiah and the only being capable of keeping the oppressive, dictatorial lid on Zion. Infiltrating each aspect of the Matrix itself, Weaving’s grinning face becomes the symbol for the proposed new order, each convert taking on the actor’s by now iconic image. But the visual approach is just one aspect of the performance. Weaving imbues Smith with an ire born out of injustice. It may be manufactured, but the anger - and its aftermath - are all too real.
As Elrond, the more than 6000 year old half-elf Lord of Rivendell, Weaving at first seemed like nothing more than physically appropriate window dressing for a massive movie epic. With his unearthly gaunt face and impish looks, he seemed typecast for the part of an immortal being hoping to avoid the final confrontation between Middle Earth and the evil rising in Mordor. Given a unique personality profile by director Peter Jackson, this version of Elrond is less a humanitarian and more concerned about the fate of his own people. Unlike the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, which see the character acting more like a participant and less like a passive ruler, the film version of Elrond is rife with contradictions. On the one hand, you can see he cares little about the fate of this world. But as someone whose lived forever and seen how the horrors all began (including an intimate knowledge of the ring’s true power), his is a compliance based in fate, not fear.
When you add his daughter Arwen into the conversation, you suddenly see how difficult Weaving’s part becomes. Playing protector to both his own kin and his people pulls Elrond apart, working on his desire to remain impassive but more or less making it impossible to do so. Coming so close as it did to the Matrix movies, his work in The Lord of the Rings resonates as wholly unique, and not just because of its limited need for wire-fu fighting and gansta gunplay. Elrond still wields a weapon and does so gracefully. But there is an angst to being armed, a knowledge of how such an act might influence the destiny of all things. For Agent Smith, such a decision is easy. His arrogant belief in his goals give him such a devil may care callousness. Elrond has the weight of his world on his shoulders, and Weaving makes sure we see every difficult decision.
As the voice of Megatron, Weaving gets to work his dark magic sans any recognizable facade. Though heavily processed in post-production to give it that flawless metallic twang, his interpretation and approach does give the definitive Decepticon a recognizable fierceness. Granted, it often gets lost in Michael Bay’s stunts of steroids design and never receives the attempted emotional tugs of Optimus Prime’s relationship with human Sam Witwicky, but Megatron is still the primary villain in the rampaging robot roundelay. Weaving was clearly chosen for what he could bring to the project and as usual, delivers.
Weaving stepped into the role of the title vigilante when actor James Purefoy left the project due to issues over having to wear a mask (one would assume that subject was discussed to death before production began, no?). Still, because of his association with the Wachowskis, who were overseeing the project for director James McTeigue, Weaving was brought in. V is perhaps one of his greatest performances, a work made up of physicality, gestures, and a foreboding British brogue. While parts of Purefoy’s turn remains (Weaving merely dubbed over the action), the actor’s indelible genre stamp remains. In a film where we have to believe one man, with the help of others, can bring down an entire totalitarian regime, we have faith in the rebel with the frozen false Guy Fawkes’ face.
In what many might see as nothing more than the Van Helsing role to Benecio Del Toro’s troubled supernatural struggle, Weaving’s Detective Aberline is actually a clever combination of old world dedication and new age smarm. His confrontation with customers at a Blackmoor inn represents the pinnacle of taking the piss out of people and yet his passionate desire to stop a rampaging “lunatic” from further destroying the citizenry is sincere and without match. Toward the end, Aberline is given a new path to follow, one that will be interesting if there are any sequels involved. While the film was not a solid hit, someone like Weaving really could keep the franchise going for a few more entries.