Bill Paxton’s sudden death from surgical complications yesterday was as tragic as it was unexpected. Paxton was one of Hollywood’s MVPs, a man whose relentless enthusiasm, honesty and fundamental decency shone through in every aspect of his career. He will be sorely missed.
Within this sci-fantasy genre of our it’s often easy to assume we’ve all read, played, listened to and seen the same things, when all too often that’s impossible. With that in mind, and in an effort to celebrate one of genre’s all time greats, we’d like to walk you through some of Paxton’s best roles. This is far from a complete CV, the man was as prolific as he was beloved, but if you’re unsure what all the fuss is about then this is a collection of good places to start.
Paxton, along with fellow genre frequent flyer Brian Thompson, collects the first third of his Monster Dance Card in The Terminator. It’s a tiny role, which involves magnificently awful ’80s punk hair and getting very killed by Arnie, but it’s one of the movie’s early, memorable moments.
Just as Richard E Grant’s career was defined for years by Withnail, Paxton’s was by the phrase “GAME OVER, MAN! GAME OVER!” In the hands of a lesser actor, Hudson would have been one of the weakest points of Aliens. He’s a loud, arrogant dude bro’ who comes apart at the first sight of trouble and continually drags everyone down to his level of panic for the middle third of the movie. Instead, the script and Paxton pull off something extraordinary. Hudson becomes us – the default point-of-view as events spiral out of control and we latch onto the one marine who is legitimately NOT OKAY with this. Better still? He keeps going. Hudson’s loud and brash sure, but he’s also courageous, long-suffering and ultimately heroic.
Slipstream is a gloriously odd late ’80s curiosity about a river of wind circling a post-apocalyptic Earth. The plot involves a pair of bounty hunters, one of whom is Mark Hamill, chasing an android who may or may not have murdered his owner across the wastelands. The rest of the cast includes Bob Peck and Robbie Coltrane and it is a deeply weird, messy fascinating little movie that plays like it was made 15 years early. Paxton, as hero Matt Owens, ties the whole thing together with the sort of shabby charm and swagger that would make Han Solo proud.
Speaking of movies made too early, Predator 2 remains a fascinating curiosity. A sort of dystopian police thriller with added spine-removing alien trophy hunter, it’s a movie that constantly strains against the confines of its script, premise and early ’90s budget. Paxton, as golf-loving detective Jerry Lambert, is top fun. And yes, he gets the final third of his Monster Dance Card punched here.
Tombstone is one of those movies that at the time seemed to just sort of happen. An intimidating 24(?!) years later it can be viewed as what it is: an epochal Western with the sort of cast that almost never gets assembled in one place. The story of the Earp brothers’ fateful life before, during and after the Gunfight at the OK Corral, it features a memorable Paxton turn as idealistic younger brother Morgan.
The Last Supper
Speaking of casts you wouldn’t expect a single movie to get, 1996’s The Last Supper is a gleefully nasty black comedy about five liberal grad school students who invite Zack (Paxton) to dinner after he helps fix one of their cars. Things take a very dark turn when Zack is revealed to be a racist and holocaust denier. A fight ensues, they kill Zack and bury him and… well… decide the world is better off without him so why not… do it again? Jason Alexander, Cameron Diaz, Ron Eldard, Courtney B Vance, Ron Perlman, Annabeth Gish, Mark Harmon and others all turn in great work but it’s Paxton’s Zack that the entire movie hangs off. For extra value, double bill this with Danny Boyle”s breakthrough Shallow Grave. They fit together perfectly.
Paxton starred in and directed Frailty, released in 2001. Paxton plays Dad Meiks, a fanatically religious man who came to believe he was put on Earth to kill demons disguised as people. Flashing between the childhood of main character Fenton Meiks and the present day FBI investigation into the Meiks family it’s a measured, calm movie that packs way more of a punch than you’re expecting. If you’re a Supernatural fan in particular, then you need to see this.
Paxton’s role in 2011’s Haywire is a small but vital one and he anchors the movie at times when it threatens to float away. Former Muay Thai world champion Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a former US marine turned off the books Special Forces operator. Her last mission went very, very sideways and as Mallory tries to stay alive and clear her name, the movie flashes between the op and the present day. Featuring the first great fight scene of the 2010s between Carano and Michael Fassbender, the movie has a fantastic cast, an often oddly lumpen pace and a great turn from Paxton as Mallory’s calm, measured, more than a little terrifying dad.
Edge Of Tomorrow
Edge Of Tomorrow is very much a thematic double to Aliens, only this time with Paxton in the Sergeant Apone role. The entire movie, featuring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt as soldiers repeating the final day of an apparently unwinnable war, is massive fun but it’s Paxton you remember. Master Sergeant Farrell is this towering colossus of amiable Southern malice and you can almost see Paxton fighting the grin down as he messes with Cruise and the others.
There are so many other roles that Paxton excelled in both in and out of genre. The man’s work ethic was second only to his principles and it seems we’ve not only lost a great actor but a genuinely good man. If you’ve never encountered his work before, you are in for an absolute treat. If you have, then you know just how much of a talent we’ve lost. Rest well, sir. You’ve earned it.