Warren J. Cantrell‘s Top 10 lists are becoming a regular feature here at Scene-Stealers. Cantrell’s unique voice has already given us Top 10 Reasons Why “Predator 2″ is the Best of the Franchise and Top 10 Movies Ruined by a Female Presence, so it’s only fitting that he follow those man-tastic lists up with a tribute to freakazoid actor Gary Busey. If you have a Top 10 list of your own you’d like to contribute, email me at email@example.com. Here’s Warren:
The quality of Gary Busey’s output has diminished over the years, but why shouldn’t it? Like any gladiator—any true warrior—there can be no indefinite prime. The slow and steady progression of age and insanity will take its toll on the best of us. Like Bill Paxton and Christopher Walken, Gary Busey is that most rare of commodities: the film equivalent of a relief pitcher that comes in to save either a worthy performance by others, or to salvage an already lost cause. To insert any of these three cinematic giants into a movie guarantees almost instant success either in the form of audience approval or ticket receipts (or both). Each of these three men simply cannot help but to make every film they appear in exponentially more awesome—their mere presence enough to assist a film’s transcendence from mediocre to almost-good. The films listed below properly utilized the volatile and unstable magnificence that is The Busey. The filmmakers of the movies below either found one of the maniac’s “good” days in their filming schedule, or let the ravenous man-boar off the chain and provided him space to tear the hell out of his scenes with impunity. Beyond these parameters, there really are no defining limitations to these picks. The entries listed are entirely subjective choices the author of this list felt properly showcased either The Busey’s extraordinary ability to curb his insanity long enough to get a scene in, or sufficiently brought in the man’s leash to get a stable, realistic performance out of the guy (an amazing feat all to itself, and quite worthy of recognition). Thus, I humbly give you the Top 10 Gary Busey Performances.
10. The Firm (1993), Eddie Lomax
You’re not going to find a lot of Tom Cruise vehicles on my lists (at least not in a complimentary fashion), so I feel a bit sheepish about throwing this one on here. Busey’s performance in this picture is really something to behold, however, and it is worth touching on if for no other reason than because G.B. is playing it largely straight, and does a damn fine job with his role. The Cruiser is out looking for some advice after learning that he might be working for a law firm that specializes in protecting mafia rackets, coming across a friend of his older brother from the good ol’ prison days. Playing a private detective, Busey does his part as a plot-filling stop-gap, inadvertently hooking T. Cruise up with Holly Hunter’s character, a partnership that will be mutually beneficial for both the characters involved and the twisted plot the film tries to cobble together from the ashes of Grisham’s novel. Though on screen for less than six minutes, Busey’s character performs his role as a script go-between splendidly, and even has one hell of a death to close out his final scene. Showing that though he can come to a movie with restraint and the crazy switch flipped off yet can’t leave without making at least one manly speech or stand, the film gives G.B. proper respect, allowing him to die with honor. Though shot to pieces in a torture interrogation scene in his own office, Busey gives a little back before getting the shit shot out of him. Plugging one of the hitters in the knee with a hidden desk-gun before getting blown all to hell, Busey goes down fighting and without revealing who it was that hired him to look into the firm (thus saving The Cruiser’s ass). Though a somewhat normal role without any wild-eyed screaming, Busey still turned in a performance that was as tough as it was gloriously efficient. Well done, sir.
9. Black Sheep (1996), Drake Sabitch
This one probably would have made it into a higher ranking on the list had the movie been anything except an unmitigated disaster not worthy of a middle-school sleepover party. Though amusing, “Tommy Boy” doesn’t exactly hold up as a benchmark in comedic cinema: What was once uproariously funny in the mid-90s is often lost in a future that’s seen far too many retreads and formulaic “got to raise money” SNL movie plots. “Black Sheep,” on the other hand, was a shameless cash-in which fooled nobody even at the time of its release, the vindictive aging process no less abusive in recent years. With the exception of Chris Farley’s “Kill Whitey!” speech near the end, the only salvageable pieces of this disaster are Busey’s scenes, every one of them ludicrous in ways only the master himself could manage. Like G.B. himself, his character in “Black Sheep” has no place in the functional world for he operates with no reason nor any discernible motivation. Though slightly provoked by David Spade, it’s clear that Drake Sabitch needs no cause to commence with a full-scale assault with all available weapons and resources for no other clearly defined reason than because Busey felt like kicking some ass. His character in this film is little more than a veiled artistic interpretation of Sir Gary himself: a man who wages psychological warfare on unsuspecting city folk (to him, that’s pretty much all of us) if only because it’s a job that needs to be done by somebody. Though this breed of crazy-character-acting has seen little reinvention over the last decade, people who cast Busey these days essentially looking for a slightly altered version of what appears here, give credit to the film that took this insanity and let The Busey run with it. Hence, as the mold was truly struck with this turn, it gets a nod.
8. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Highway Patrolman
This one is such a small role, but it’s so important, it simply cannot be neglected. The scene is a classic example of the “don’t try this at home” insanity that the King of Gonzo passionately embraced. After bolting from a highway cop to give the two bored drivers something exciting to do in a lonely, desolate stretch of America, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) calmly whips his obscenely red convertible into a standstill to allow the custodian of justice ownership of the moment. In the novel, Dr. Thompson writes, “He will want the first word. Let him have it. His brain will be in turmoil: he may begin jabbering, or even pull his gun. Let him unwind; keep smiling. The idea is to show him that you were always in total control of yourself and your vehicle – while he lost control of everything.” Indeed, who better to play a slightly-off West-coast Super Trooper out of control than The Busey? After giving our hero a break for no apparent reason other than because he respects the journalist’s moxie (and his staggering collection of grapefruits and soap), the inevitable collapse in reality occurs: the patrolman asks Duke for a little kiss, as it is very lonely out there. Throwing a massive gulp of beer back in the subsequent cut scene, you got to figure he threw it Busey’s way, if only because no person on Earth can refuse the charms of so pure a creature.
7. Under Siege (1992), Commander Krill
The producers of this film gave as much to this effort as could be expected of any group of industry hacks, pairing the woefully under-achieving Steven Seagal with decent stock in a film that managed to be both entertaining and free of moral baggage. In Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey, the film got pleasant distractions from a headache-inducing Seagal, who can’t seem but to squint with furrowed brow in every single scene he’s in. Pug-face acting aside, the film does its best to keep the focus on what is most important: compound bone fractures and knife-murders. An obligatory titty-shot and helicopter demolition contribute to the effort, as does a submarine that appears halfway through the picture to create some sense of urgency, yet did little but confuse the targeted 13-year old audience with its spurious presence. The aquatic vessel did provide a spectacular death for our Mr. Busey, however, who through the course of the movie managed to kill his ship’s captain in cold blood, nearly drown the crew, commit high treason, and blackmail the U.S. government for the Presidency. As far as Busey films go, that’s a pretty full day, something that could only have been enhanced by a wicked backstory explaining the roots of Krill’s insanity. This was not a mistake made by the following film, however…
6. Surviving the Game (1994), Doc Hawkins
To do as much with this role in the time allotted to his character is a feat to behold with admiration: Busey’s turn as Doc Hawkins unquestionably one of the best in his storied career. It’s probably all for the best that he went down pretty quickly in this one, the colossal stature of Busey’s character almost too fantastic to capture properly on film. The story is simple: Ice-T is a homeless vagrant hired by a group of “businessmen” to act as a guide for a camping “expedition” deep into the wilderness, an expedition that actually specializes in taking bums into the woods to hunt for sport. Not only is Doc Hawkins the psychologist (hence the spiritual ring-leader) for a cadre of psychotic hobo-murderers, but once the hobo-chase is on it’s established that he hunts with a crossbow and Bowie knife. Jesus! Talk about hard! And that’s brushing aside the savage backstory the film gives us for his character—a monologue so brutal that the film’s plot halts completely to allow Busey about seven minutes to tell the tale. In sum, the film’s hero and the audience learn that as Doc Hawkins’ boyhood right of passage, his father made him raise a dog from puppy into adulthood, forcing the boy to murder the beast with his bare hands only after the child and dog had fully connected. Somehow, Ice-T is able to go to sleep after hearing this, and is (somehow) surprised to wake the next morning with a hand cannon in his face and a cabin full of maniacs foaming at the mouth in anticipation of his flaying. Busey is easily the most eager of the group, plowing through a plate of eggs only to be verbally restrained by the group who feel the good Doctor is too bloodthirsty even for their ranks. His death is no less fantastic: The semi-climactic hand-to-hand battle that ensues is the perfect ending to a glorious character. After taunting Ice-T for the better part of a century, Doc Hawkins is flipped wildly into a burning gasoline tinderbox pretty much right as it explodes. Yeah, that’s what I call giving proper respect to a man more than deserving of such an exit. The screenwriter later admitted he killed Busey too early! The film would be higher in ranking if it produced more of the good stuff, however, giving us a longer sip of magnificence like that provided by…
5. Point Break (1991), FBI Agent Pappas
Talk about giving a man some room to work. Busey is not only flanked by an appropriately awesome antagonist (The Swayze), but he’s paired with a young pre-”Speed” Keanu, thus allowing the film to operate in a way that sees the dynamic between each of the two fall at an equilibrium that has not been seen in a Reeves vehicle post-1995. Indeed, Busey can’t help but to steal the show from Keanu, an actor whose limited Hollywood cred at the time couldn’t even score him a plausible name in this piece of shit picture (Johnny Utah!). Though the film’s plot demands that most of the story concern itself with the budding romance between Keanu and Patrick Swayze…err, I mean, Lori Petty, Busey’s insanity repeatedly steals every frame of every shot of every scene he’s in. No matter what speech Busey’s giving, the same squinty-glared raspy intensity follows through the end of each sentence. Whether it’s laments over the hunger of a man willing to eat the ass out of a dead rhino, or speaking with nostalgic glee over simpler times when punks crapped on their hands and rubbed it in their face, the audience gets undiluted Busey the whole way through. His death in the movie is pretty goddamned outstanding as well, his bullet-riddled torso manly enough to shrug off an ass-load of hot lead for enough of a duration to put a pill in one of the baddies, taking one of the bank-robbing surfers straight to Hell with him. Busey finds the perfect groove in this picture, playing a law enforcement role with no less self-effacing hilarity than his turn in “Fear and Loathing.” Evidence? Consider that the FBI Agent he plays in this film green-lit an undercover surfing operation with a first-week rookie, drank Jack Daniel’s on the job, punched his supervisor in the face at a crime scene, and took the cuffs off a prisoner to get into a gunfight. If that’s not policing the Busey way, then I don’t know what is (nor do I wish to know).
4. The Buddy Holly Story (1978), Buddy Holly
Give credit to the film that turned the Busey loose on the world because it may not have introduced the man, but it certainly provided him one hell of a coming-out party. To watch this film now is to look at a completely different creature—one not warped by narcotics, alcohol, or extended bouts of insanity. This slender, fresh-faced kid walked into Buddy Holly’s shoes and never looked back, taking all the quiet Texas decency of the historical rock icon and infusing it with a subtle rebellious yet endearing slant. Yes, the historical record and the events in this film often don’t jive, but to harp on this too much would be to miss the point entirely, as this is a column extolling the cinematic virtues of one Mr. Gary Busey, and in this, his most (and only) Oscar-nominated performance, he does not disappoint. Not only does he play and sing the performed songs in the film himself, he and the filmmakers properly convey the most important thematic aspect of Buddy Holly’s career: social change. Buddy Holly not only blew the doors open for main stream rock n’ roll, pushing the new art form into a wider path of cultural circulation, but he also challenged established racial lines, as seen in the film by his performance at the Apollo Theatre and his marriage to a Puerto Rican woman. Both of these points are touched on in the film, and each lends weight to presenting a character that not only became famous as shit and died in an epic plane crash, but also, by all accounts, was a generous, caring, talented man with a hell of a lot to offer the world. Though The Busey went pretty well off the deep end in most subsequent outings, it’s worth it to remember what a diverse and promising actor the guy once was, and the true quality of talent that lies beneath the surface of a certifiable maniac. And while flying in a plane that runs into the side of a mountain is a pretty goddamned awesome death, it pales in comparison to his character’s demise in…
3. Predator 2 (1990), Peter Keyes
Though the two don’t share any real scenes together, that the filmmakers of this gem had the foresight to pair Busey with Bill Paxton demonstrates true commitment to the project. Playing a mysterious government operative trying to capture the Predator to usher in a new age of steel-net and shoulder-cannon warfare, Busey’s Peter Keyes runs head-long into the always solid D. Glove, whose Lt. Harrigan is so unapologetically no nonsense that not even the long shadow of Schwarzenegger could stand as the Lieutenant’s equal. Busey holds his own, however, seamlessly jumping between serious government double-talk to rebel-yell murder-acting, the breaks between these transitions sudden and magnificent. The result is a perfectly molded plot-repair whereby the audience can enjoy cheeky South Central L.A. space-carnage whilst confidently trusting that the picture provides some explanation of why the government isn’t getting in on some Predator-related research. Busey explains in his prequel re-cap and climax exposition speech that his team plans to freeze old pussy-face and take him back to the lab for a scientific prodding and poking session. As many of the films above have thoroughly showcased, however, when Busey’s characters take direct action, the initiative usually turns on him and the consequences tend to bring G.B. a quick—though often awesome—death. This movie doesn’t disappoint either, giving the audience not one, but two G.B. kills, as if the first one wasn’t properly Busey enough to warrant his exit. The second—complete—demise is more fitting a man of Busey’s stature. Talking shit right to the Predator’s face, screaming at the giant beast about his sorry space-assed inability to go home now that true men have his number, The Busey goes down hard, firing his freeze gun right up to the moment his body is cut directly in half. To even come close to this level of awesome, what with the pairing of Busey with Paxton and the screaming Predator-taunt death, one would have to turn to the man’s most frantic, drug-fueled, unhinged role—a movie that had everything, even a Baldwin…
2. D.C. Cab (1983), Dell
When I say that this film gives the world Gary Busey at his craziest, at his most randomly insane and unpredictable, I make a statement not only bold, but dangerous. If there is any doubt about which character in G.B.’s extensive catalog is the most uncontrollably frantic, I ask that you simply pop in this oft-overlooked 1983 treasure, and watch the evidence unfold. Honestly, I don’t even know where to start. In every scene where he appears, The Busey is not only speaking in the most hysterically frantic wheeze imaginable, but is spewing forth the most incomprehensible conspiracy babble that the most powdered of coke-heads could conjure. Whether it’s his assertion that Bruce Lee is not dead, but frozen and locked into an underground silo until the economy improves, or his assertion that he will, under no circumstances, work on Elvis’ birthday, the madness never stops. While I do enjoy his intense monologue near the end of the film about holding glass bottles next to his eyes after shaking the carbonated liquid within to unstable levels, how can you take that scene over, say, his attempt to woo Max Gail’s wife by telling her he’s come over with a bottle of Quervo Gold and his “lucky rubber”? To say a movie is awesome when it sports Mr. T, a Baldwin, Bill Maher, and Busey, is like commenting with shocked certainty that water is indeed wet. G.B. takes the opportunity to really stretch his legs, however, absolutely eating every other actor’s lunch when onscreen with them, running away with scenes at will and going so far over the top that even the characters in the film can’t help but to wince at the lunacy. His best line of this, or any of his films, though? Easy. “You wanna know what the worst part of oral sex is? The view!” Another gem:
Albert: “Do you do drugs, Dell?”
Dell: “I don’t remember!”
1. Lethal Weapon (1987), Mr. Joshua
Does it get any better than this? Just to make things fair, let’s discard the fact that Busey’s got maybe the coolest name in this film than any other character on his resume. Throughout the course of this movie, Busey’s so hard that he allows himself to be burned alive, rigs a house to blow, engages in some serious car-jacking, tortures the shit out of Mel Gibson in a way that could only make a Catholic happy, and gets into a goddamned mixed martial-arts brawl with a cop on another cop’s lawn surrounded by a whole bunch of other cops. Talk about balls! All you need to know about Mr. Joshua is in his profession: the trigger-man for a retired General/drug-lord who’s looking to carve out a violent corner of operations for his heroin-schemes, L.A.P.D. be damned. Mr. Joshua is not only able to outrun Mel Gibson, he calmly dispatches cops, kidnaps innocents, and tortures with ease. Giving the world its first taste of G.B. in a villain’s role, the film surprises and delights at every turn, showcasing a shockingly thin Busey easily navigating the waters of treachery like he was born for the task. Mr. Joshua not only outlives his boss and caretaker, but also gets the “Die Hard”-baddie treatment in his climactic gun-grab and dual-hero kill-shot. The performance is the most perfect mix of bag-lady level insanity with measured, restrained scenes in which G.B. is firmly established as crazy, yet in a way that provides the character, film, and actor some level of dignity. Though it would have been unthinkably awesome to thaw the blonde bastard out for one of the three subsequent sequels, the succinct clarity of the performance is one of its charms: a perfect moment in Busey-time captured for all eternity without any threat of tainting or bastardly re-invention. Mr. Joshua is the James Dean of Busey roles—that which is heartbreaking to lose, yet too grand to survive with dishonor into unavoidable disrepair.