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For 20 years, audiences have viewed Tom Hanks as a nice, average Everyman. Older audiences may remember that he got his start as a drag comic and childlike goofball. Either way, it may come as a shock to think of him as a tough guy who takes on modern-day pirates in the new thriller “Captain Phillips.”
And yet, seemingly under our noses, Hanks has been quietly building a resume worthy of a two-fisted action star, the sort of guy you’d want to have your back in a pinch, and who can be counted on to save the day. In fact, maybe we should stop thinking of him as Tom Hanks: Everyman, and start thinking of him as Tom Hanks: Badass!
Hanks’s drive toward badassery actually began early on, even when he was still playing goofballs. In 1985’s “The Man With One Red Shoe,” he gets involved with an international spy ring. That same year, in “Volunteers,” he casually mocks a Southeast Asian warlord and later takes on the warlord’s thugs, Communist guerillas, and American forces, all by blowing up a local bridge.
In “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” he’s a WWII pilot. In both “Dragnet” and “Turner & Hooch,” he’s a detective who helps put away homicidal bad guys. “The ‘Burbs” sees him play an ordinary suburbanite who rises to the occasion when he discovers his neighbors are a family of serial killers. He brings them to justice, destroying their house and surviving a murder attempt on his life in the process. Finally, Hanks ends this early phase of his career with “Joe vs. the Volcano,” in which he survives a shipwreck and a leap into an active volcano.
In the early 1990s, Hanks became a bankable megastar, starting with “A League of Their Own.” In that sports film, he’s a tobacco-spitting, hard-drinking, epic-length-peeing baseball coach who famously chews out a player with his “There’s no crying in baseball!” speech. For his character in “Philadelphia,” just surviving AIDS long enough to sue his law firm for wrongful termination shows incredible stamina and valor. (Plus, Hanks was comfortably heterosexual enough so that, even though he was convincing enough to win an Oscar for playing a gay man, he lost no credibility in playing straight romantic leads.)
His next character, Forrest Gump, may be an imbecile, but he’s also the perfect soldier, one whose Olympic-speed running helps him rescue several of his buddies during a Vietnam firefight, carrying each one out of harm’s way, one at a time, without any thought of his own safety. Even when a sniper’s bullet wounds him “in the butt-tocks,” he barely notices.
In “Apollo 13,” he helps steer a badly damaged spaceship back to Earth, saving himself and his two colleagues, without ever losing his cool. (“Houston, we have a problem” is a masterpiece of understatement.) He’s just a voice actor in the “Toy Story” series, but his Sheriff Woody is a natural leader and a man of valor throughout countless dangerous adventures, even if he is a stuffed toy with floppy limbs.
Over the last 15 years, Hanks has stepped up his macho quotient even further. In “Saving Private Ryan,” his Capt. Miller bravely leads his men through the absolute horror of the D-Day invasion, and that’s just the first 20 minutes of the movie; quiet battlefield heroics worthy of Gary Cooper follow for the next two-and-a-half hours. In “Cast Away,” he learns to survive alone on a remote Pacific island — building fire, cracking coconuts, and catching fish with a spear. (Hanks’ most Method performance, it required him to gain 50 pounds for the first part of the movie, take a year off to lose weight and grow his hair and beard, and then film the later scenes.)
Hanks was even an outlaw in a couple movies. In “Road to Perdition,” he’s a mob hitman who fires countless bullets from his Tommy gun and blows away many Chicago gangsters in order to protect his murder-witness son. In “The Ladykillers,” he’s the mastermind of an elaborate robbery, and he plots to kill his kindly old landlady when she starts to get wind of the scheme.
As Robert Langdon in “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons,” Hanks grows long, greasy hair and runs around all over Europe with a beautiful woman at his side, evading brutal assassins, solving centuries-old riddles, and exposing vast conspiracies. And last year, in “Cloud Atlas,” Hanks plays several different badasses across time; throughout the movie, he gets to poison a man in order to steal from him, write a book called “Knuckle Sandwich” and murder a critic who gives it a negative review, lead a dangerous expedition into the mountains, and rescue his niece from a cannibal chief, whom he kills.
In fact, the only recent Hanks movie that could ruin his action-hero cred is “Larry Crowne,” which sees him enrolling at community college and falling in with a gang of young bikers who ride Vespas. Vespas! Fortunately, no one saw that movie, so no real harm done.
So the only potential danger, then, to Hanks’s growing badass reputation is his upcoming role in the Christmastime release “Saving Mr. Banks,” as kiddie entertainment mogul Walt Disney. Then again, given what we know about what a ruthless hardball player Disney was behind the scenes, Hanks’s badass cred is probably secure for some time to come.