The Strange, Sick, Sad Career of Jonny Lee Miller

(Archived from my now-defunct Geocities site)

I blame my weird fascination with Jonny Lee Miller entirely on Orlando Bloom. Specifically, I blame it on the fact that the lovely Orlando, of the fierce cheekbones and stunning blond wig in "Lord of the Rings," has, as of this writing, an exact total of one movie available on video and nothing due in theaters until "The Two Towers" hits in December. Earlier this year, I started a new job I was pretty sure I really, really despised. Few things are more reliable for taking the mind off of daily drudgery than films starring cute boys with great bone structure. Because of the dearth of fresh Orlando material, I figured one attractive, talented English lad was as good as another, and decided to investigate the films of Jonny Lee Miller.

For the uninitiated, Jonny is the bleached-blond Brit who was terrific in "Trainspotting" and -- well, he was actually pretty bad in "Hackers," but he looked great, which, for any movie about rebellious computer-hacking teens on rollerblades, is at least half the battle. I quickly discovered that looking to Jonny as a surrogate Orlando is like trying to satiate a craving for an eclair with a heaping portion of tapioca. It doesn't work, and it just left me with a funny taste in my mouth.

Don't get me wrong: Jonny can be, when he feels like it, a tremendously powerful actor, capable of turning in some startling, impressive work. He's also fun to look at, with a face consisting entirely of hard angles and deep shadows, improbably arched brows, and the slimmest, sharpest, straightest, sleekest, most fabulous nose around. His most striking characteristic is some intangible quality wholly unique to Jonny, some weirdly compelling combination of aristocratic and, well, skanky. Okay, I'll get to the point: He's sleazy. Or, to be fair, he gives off a powerful onscreen aura of sleaze. Look, he's got a big ol' rat tattooed on his arm, plus a few snakes drawn on various parts of his anatomy. Ex-wife Angelina Jolie, never known for her excess of decorum and modesty, has fondly described him as being "a little wild." Try to wrap your mind around that concept, and draw your own conclusions.

In some ways, you've got to respect the manner in which Jonny has conducted his career. After "Hackers," his first and close-to-last American film, Jonny headed back to the UK and worked on a small number of small, quirky projects. This is fine and respectable, but if you're only going to make one movie a year, shouldn't it be a better one than, say, "Afterglow"? A disproportionately large number of his films have gone quietly to video, sometimes under a new title, after an ephemeral theatrical run. Often, the films haven't deserved such shabby treatment ("Complicity," for example, is actually pretty good), but just as often it's a little surprising they ever got released at all ("Love, Honour & Obey"? Has anyone seen that one? Wow. It's so awful, it's mesmerizing).

A quick stroll through Jonny's weird world of film:

Hackers (1995):
"Hackers" really isn't Jonny's fault. When you make your American film debut playing a character named Dade Murphy a.k.a. Crash Override a.k.a. Zero Cool, you're kind of doomed from the start. And in truth, there are so many other things dreadfully wrong with this movie that it seems petty and mean-spirited to single out Jonny for criticism. For instance, a whole doctoral thesis could be written on how awful Fisher Stevens and Lorraine Bracco are in it; Jonny isn't anywhere near their league of outstanding suckiness. That said, however, I should make it clear he's really no damn good. Miscast as a smug renegade teen computer whiz, Jonny nails the American accent but doesn't make much of an effort with any other aspect of his performance. As I mentioned earlier, he does look great, clad in some weird-ass quasi-cyberpunkish outfits (apparently, sulky teen computer-hacking geniuses wear a lot of modified scuba gear. Who knew?), with his hair bleached to a shade not commonly found in nature. Jonny also sets off some nice sparks with future (ex) wife Angelina Jolie. Still, there's little indication here of the great untapped potential burbling beneath the surface.

Trainspotting (1996):
Rallying nicely after "Hackers," Jonny does one hell of a great job in "Trainspotting" with his turn as Sick Boy, the loveliest junkie in Edinburgh. With a nasty skag habit and an equally scary addiction to peroxide, Sick Boy managed to be simultaneously vile and reprehensible, yet somehow charming and funny. In an exceptional movie with an exceptional cast, Jonny gives a standout, iconic performance. Does a nifty Scottish accent, too.

Dead Man's Walk (1996):
Jonny quickly killed the momentum his career had gained after "Trainspotting" by taking on a string of projects ill-suited for his particular abilities, starting with this one. I have to be honest here: Life is too short to fritter it away watching a five-hour Larry McMurtry miniseries, especially one that co-stars David Arquette. However, in the interest of completion, I watched "Dead Man's Walk" long enough to fairly judge whether the producers were onto something brilliant when they cast pale, angsty, angular, fine-boned Brit Jonny as a rugged Texas Ranger. Nope.

Afterglow (1997):
Notable mostly for being the only flick on Jonny's filmography in which the most disturbing scene -- burly Nick Nolte plugging away at scrawny Lara Flynn Boyle in a hot tub -- does not feature Jonny in any way. Jonny plays Lara's cold yuppie bastard of a husband, who, out of impotence or churlishness or simply because screechy Lara is really, really, annoying, refuses to sleep with her, thus sending her flying into the arms of randy handyman Nick. No fool, Jonny retaliates by trying to boff Nick's glamorous lush of a wife, beautiful older woman Julie Christie. It's a tedious, irritating, pretentious-as-all-hell film, and while Jonny does a competent job, this is a role any number of actors could have taken; it's a shame to squander his edgy intensity on such a one-dimensional part. (Cold yuppie bastard with a ferocious drug habit, now that's Jonny territory. Cold yuppie bastard with a penchant for cross-dressing, certainly). On the positive side, he does a fine Canadian accent.

Regeneration a.k.a. Behind the Lines (1997):
Gillies Mackinnon's screen adaptation of Pat Barker's book takes place in a Scottish mental hospital for shell-shocked front-line soldiers during World War I. Jonny plays a young officer rendered psychosomatically mute and amnesiacal from the atrocities of war. He nimbly pulls off the Herculean task of conveying bristling resentment and peevishness without saying a word; as you may have guessed, this involves a lot of nostril-flaring. The film is a little on the leisurely side, but it's thoroughly respectable, and Jonny turns in another striking performance. Which no one saw.

Plunkett & Macleane (1998):
I was a film major. I can readily list off all the reasons why "Plunkett & Macleane" was a critical and commercial failure. If you're one of those people who insists upon niceties like cohesive plot and consistent character development, you might be better off leaving this one alone. It's gleefully tacky, unapologetically vulgar, utterly brainless, and oddly delightful. I thought it was dandy, though it should be borne in mind that I think "Street Fighter" is a really good movie, too. Jonny and his "Trainspotting" cohort Robert Carlyle play a couple of eighteenth-century highwaymen who cheerfully loot and plunder their way across London. Jonny is uncharacteristically vibrant and funny as the horny, dissolute, and not terribly bright Captain Macleane; his scenes with Liv Tyler are genuinely sweet and sexy. With Alan Cumming as a flamboyantly gay nobleman. Imagine.

Mansfield Park (1999):
As all young Brit actors eventually must, Jonny stuffed himself into frilly shirts and breeches for his requisite appearance in a classy film based on a Jane Austen book. Jonny turns in a fine, respectable, witty, light-hearted performance in the fine, respectable, witty, light-hearted "Mansfield Park." Good work, Jonny. Nicely done. Don't ever do it again.

Complicity a.k.a. Retribution (2000):
The reasoning was sound behind this one: If you're looking for someone to play a cocaine-addled, chain-smoking, ale-soaked, morally-ambiguous Scot with upper respiratory ailments and a penchant for kinky sex, and presuming that Ewan McGregor is already booked for the month, the top name on your list should be Jonny Lee Miller. Jonny dusted off his "Trainspotting" accent and headed back to the highlands for the adaptation of Iain Banks' "Complicity," which never quite made it into theaters but finally saw the light of day on video under the title "Retribution." There's nothing outstanding about the finished product -- it's a little dank and musty, a little obvious and suspense-free (crack journalist Jonny tries to figure out which of his nearest and dearest childhood friends is setting him up to take the fall for a series of grisly murders; hint, Jonny, it's the crazy one) -- yet it stuck with me for an uncomfortably long time, kind of like that weird black mold on my bathroom ceiling. Even in the slow parts, Jonny is fascinatingly screwed up yet endearing; it's fun to watch him fall apart at the seams, until he ends up sobbing hysterically while hacking up a lung on the interrogation room floor. Not into serial killer flicks? Look at it this way: Any movie featuring a scene in which Jonny limps into work with torn ligaments and scalded genitals after a particularly energetic night of bondage with his married girlfriend is going to be worth the price of a rental.

Love, Honour & Obey (2000):
At this rate, it's probably too much to hope we'll ever see Jonny playing a psychotic, loose-cannon gangster in a good movie. That said, it'd be nice to see him as a psychotic, loose cannon gangster in a better movie than "Love, Honour & Obey." This film features a hip ensemble cast of some of England's best and brightest (Jonny, Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Sean Pertwee, Rhys Ifans), all of whom I quickly grew to despise. The dialogue is largely improvised, a factor which, when combined with the poor sound quality and overall amateurish look, makes it feel like an interminably long, highly self-amused student film. It's needlessly violent, crude and tasteless -- but not in a good way. Despite all the tacky plot lines and belabored sex gags flying around haphazardly, Jonny comes through this mess relatively unscathed, although he does have to mar his dignity by spending much of the movie in a clown suit. No, he's not a happy clown. What really sets "Love, Honor & Obey" apart from the average cruddy British gangster film are the insanely catchy karaoke songs performed by the cast, highlighted by Jonny's spirited, swanky rendition of "Avenues & Alleyways." Jonny has a lovely singing voice, which is kind of a relief; if his acting career continues in this direction, it's nice to know he has other options.

Dracula 2000 (er... 2000):
Critics across the board wondered what possessed Jonny to agree to do this one. Honestly, after "Love, Honour and Obey," "Dracula 2000" must have looked like a solid career choice ("I don't have to wear a clown suit, do I? Great. Where do I sign?"). The latest rehashing of the Drac myth finds Jonny playing sidekick to Christopher Plummer's Van Helsing. While the movie is no damn good, it's not nearly as horrible as it could be; at worst, it's kind of blandly watchable. The fight sequences aren't anything special, but Jonny's got a nice way with physical action, which hasn't been shown off much previously. Alas, Jonny's weird kink factor is mostly hidden (he decapitates a vampire or two, then gets bound and fondled by a bevy of cute undead chicks. Yawn). Come on! It's a vampire movie! It's okay to be sleazy in a vampire movie; in fact, it's almost a requirement.

So is there any light at the end of Jonny's long, strange tunnel? Hard to say. Last year, he finished filming "The Escapist," in which he infiltrates a maximum-security prison -- a setting rife with all kinds of tawdry possibilities. However, since it was helmed by Jonny's "Regeneration" director Gillies Mackinnon, it's probably going to be tasteful and thought-provoking. Damn. He's currently off in the Netherlands filming "Mindhunters" for director Renny Harlin, co-starring Val Kilmer and Christian Slater. Yikes. I think we're going to have to look to supporting player LL Cool J to bring any level of grace and sanity to this one.

At a guess, I'd say "Dracula 2000" is secure in its position as Jonny's all-time top-grossing movie for a while.


LindyLou said…
He delivers a fabulous performance as Lt. Prior in Regeneration. It was his performance which made the film compulsive viewing.

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