Ben Affleck: A Movie-By-Movie Guide

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As a wise man once sang, “Life is a rollercoaster”, and no-one in Hollywood better exemplifies that than Ben Affleck, a man who’s experienced enough highs and lows to keep him going several lifetimes. With heist thriller The Town taking him back to his old Boston stamping ground, we’ve run a forensic eye over those moments of glorious triumph and incredible career catastrophe. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

There are worse movies to kick off your feature career in earnest than a role in Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused, and worse roles than that of Fred O’Bannion, a dim-witted jock who likes nothing more than kicking (or batting) freshman ass. The seminal slacker-com also helped launch the careers of Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey and Adam Goldberg, but have any of them got an Oscar? Nope, so Ben’s had the most impressive rise from these humble beginnings.

Kevin Smith’s Clerks follow-up cast Affleck as another villain, this time of the sartorial kind, as Shannon Hamilton, clothing store manager and all-round nemesis of the mallrats. Disproportionately aggrieved at Jason Lee’s no-buy ethos (“I have no respect for people with no shopping agenda”), he hatches a scheme to seduce the slacker’s ex-girlfriend. The movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but Affleck is brilliantly uptight and unpleasant in a role that sparked bigger and better collaborations with Smith…

…Not least this brilliantly skewed rom-com, possibly Affleck’s most fanboy-friendly outing. He’s completely at home amid the blizzard of pop-culture references (“Lando Calrissian is a positive role-model in the realm of science-fiction”) and some seriously un-PC chat about lesbianism. For Kevin Smith’s most heartfelt role he picked someone who really got him, bringing a certain lovelorn delicacy to a potentially tricky role. A showcase of comic talent that we’ve rarely seen since.

Bored of waiting for a great script to light their fire, Affleck and his old Boston neighbour Matt Damon decided to write their own. Acclaim and Oscars followed. Damon hogs the limelight as maths-genius-with-a-chip Will Hunting, but Affleck is excellent in the small but pivotal role of Will’s blue-collar best bud. And he does write himself some grandstanding dialogue along the way. “Look, you’re my best friend, so don’t take this the wrong way, but in 20 years if you’re still livin’ here, comin’ over to my house, watching Patriots games, workin’ construction, I’ll fuckin’ kill ya.” So good he almost makes us forgive him those shell suits he’s wearing. Almost.

In the first of two Michael Bay collaborations, Affleck played two-dimensional space jockey A. J. Frost, who makes doe eyes at Liv Tyler while asteroid splinters blow a variety of world cities to smithereens. While he’s every inch the all-American hero and looks natty in an orange spacesuit, it’s a role probably most notable for the cheesiest love scene ever committed to celluloid. In NASA terms, animal crackers + Liv Tyler’s belly + ropey Steve Irwin impression = epic cinematic fail.

Putting the ‘ham’ into Hamlet, Affleck has a ball as Elizabethan Russell Brand-alike Ned Alleyn, ramping up the thespianism to wild and woolly levels, and royster-doystering to his heart’s content. Yes, the faint American accent is a bit incongruous in sixteenth century Cheapside but he throws himself into the fray and steal scenes in what should by rights have been a bit-part cameo. Perhaps the least likely Shakespearean casting since a heavily-oiled Keanu Reeves turned up as the bad guy (and Denzel Washington’s half-brother) in Much Ado About Nothing, and equally memorable.

A meta-satire on religion and Catholic guilt that will probably earn all concerned a gajillion years in purgatory, Dogma aimed (sky) high and hit some – though not all – of its targets. But it’s no fault of Affleck who is in laconic form as fallen angel Bartleby. Working with old muckers Matt Damon and Kevin Smith must have felt movieland’s equivalent of Friends Reunited. The cosiness rubs off on screen in a movie that often feels like a loose posse of great ideas and interesting cast members searching frantically for a coherent plot.

Affleck is more than convincing as a broking firm’s alpha trader in this off-Wall Street thriller, amoral in a borderline sociopathic way that would make Gordon Gekko cluck with pride. Spitting dialogue that won’t win any poetry awards (“Never pitch the bitch!”), venom oozing from every capitalist pore on his sharp-suited body, he unleashes Jim Young on the world in a whirlwind of testosterone and T-bills. The moral vacuum he oversees plays like Entourage directed by Oliver Stone – Glengarry Glen Ross apparently counts as a training video at J.T. Marlin – but a refreshingly nasty Affleck steals scenes with FBI-alarming regularity.

Like a pre-Gigli tremour, here was a script that should have had Affleck hunting for a new agent, or, at the very least, checking the prescription of his reading glasses. Soppier than a bathful of puppies, Don Roos’ romance pairs him with his offscreen partner of the time, Gwyneth Paltrow, at whom he moons hopelessly for 100 minutes as an unfulfilled saleman who – you guessed it – finds true love. The terrible secret that threatens to keep the pair apart turns out to be disappointingly unterrible. The movie turns out to be more ‘splat’ than Bounce.

It seems glib to write off $500m worth of box office as a shameful waste of talent, but, heck, we’re going to do it anyway. Michael Bay’s CG epic put Affleck in the cockpit of a Spitfire, arms him with dialogue lunky enough to confound the Luftwaffe (“Returning from the dead wasn't all that I expected... but that's life,” he mind-boggles at one point), and makes him the apex of possibly the dopiest love triangle in cinema history. He strives manfully as cocksure aviator Rafe McCawley, pulling his best puppy face when he discovers his best friend (Josh Hartnett) has been seeing his gal while he was feared lost, but the romance is so overwrought he must have been secretly hoping the Japanese would just hurry up and attack.

The Bostonian stepped up a gear in this underrated revenge thriller that pitted him against Samuel L. Jackson’s aggressively harried salesman, after a minor fender-bender on a New York freeway sparks a brutal dispute. While Affleck seemed an all-too obvious choice to play an ambitious attorney (or broker/analyst/anyone-who-wears-a-suit-to-work), he embued his grasping lawyer with enough emotional turbulence to make us care. Sure, an intelligent script helped him with that, but, to borrow a phrase from his beloved baseball, this was the actor batting .300. It was, as Empire’s reviewer noted at the time, the best performance of his career to date.

Following in the footprints of Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin, Affleck makes a credibly rebooted Jack Ryan: younger, more naïve and with more immaculate hair than his wizened predecessors. He’s a convincingly greenhorned CIA analyst trying his darndest to prevent America from getting blown back into the Dark Ages by a combination of nuke-armed neo-Nazis and about 6000 Russian ICBMs. Admittedly, amid the nuclear paranoia, the role largely demands him to pull faces that run the emotional spectrum from ‘quite alarmed’ to ‘very alarmed indeed’, but he does show off a rather snappy Russian accent. He rarely looked likely to carve a niche as an action star, cerebral or otherwise, though, but this very pre-9/11 thriller was already outdated by the time it was released, and was overshadowed by his old mate Matt’s first outing as Jason Bourne.

Humble lawyer by day, bionic-eared superhero by night, Daredevil sticks out on the Affleck résumé like a wombat in a catsuit. He made a sufficiently lantern-jawed hunk, and added realism to the action scenes by doing as many of his own stunts as the insurance bods would allow, but still seemed a fairly leftfield pick to squeeze into Marvel’s flame-red suit. Far from a bad one, though. People magazine’s reigning ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ flaunted his athleticism as Matt Murdock, dealing radar-guided righteousness across New York by night and practicising criminal law by day. His one and only comic-book outing (unless Daredevil starts freelancing for the Avengers), overall it’s a more winning effort than you’ve heard – especially if you can catch the director’s cut – although, let’s be honest, that suit is a little camp.

The height of the Bennifer phenomenon and a low-point in Affleck’s career, and possibly the entire history of cinema. Despite a pedigree director in Martin Brest, classy support from Christopher Walken and Al Pacino, and, you’d assume, plenty of real-life chemistry between Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, the result is a film so bad you’d throw it down the nearest mineshaft if you didn’t worry Chilean miners might be at the bottom. You’d have to have drunk a lot of Kool-Aid to think that the pair would make believable Mob enforcers. They realIy, really don’t. Credit to Affleck for keeping a straight face when Lopez delivers her “gobble, gobble” line, but that’s as far as it goes. Gigli ended up earning enough rotten tomatoes to make a serviceable pomodoro and won Affleck a well-deserved Razzie. If you ever happen to bump into him, probably best not to mention it.

Despite the giant turkey that was Gigli, Affleck was still a $10m-salaried leading man a year later. He plays mildly against type in this unusually gentle Kevin Smith comedy (Only one masturbation gag? Huh?), as a Big Apple publicist who loses everything when his wife dies, only to find it all again under the sofa. Or something along those lines. It’s easy to lose track amid the schmaltz, although Ben (now blessedly shorn of the ‘–nifer’ tag) is winningly low-key and generates enough chemistry with his young co-star, and onscreen daughter, J. Lette, to deliver real emotional beats too. He proves he can deliver ‘likeable’ with his eyes closed. Sadly, the world already knew that and went to watch something else instead.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it’s a former A-lister on the road back. Sopranos veteran Allen Coulter coaxed Affleck’s career back to life with this noirish biopic of TV Superman, George Reeves. Affleck gained 20lbs to play the ‘60s telly Man of Steel (there goes the whole “faster than a speeding bullet” thing) and gains a weighty soul, too. Reeves’ death – murder or suicide? – is played in reverse, with Affleck stripping layers off a man whose complexity and melancholy demand a gravitas not required for, say, Armageddon. It’s a fascinatingly meta role for an actor who’s always been at odds with his own fame. In a not-entirely-coincidental case of life imitating art, Affleck really gets his teeth into a man who tried to find balance between the white heat of celebrity and the demands of his craft. Succcessfully, too. He won the Best Actor award in Venice.

Steering his brother Casey into darker terrority as a P.I. on the case of a missing four year-old and floundering way out of his depth, Ben Affleck completed his rehabilitation by directing a sombre, gloss-free procedural that, thanks to his taut direction, grips from the get-go. He shared scripting duties with writing partner Aaron Stockhard (his Beantime pal and collaborator on Good Will Hunting) and injects Dennis Lehane’s novel with his own experience of south Boston’s blue-collar tenements. Uncomfortable parallels with the Madeleine McCann case gave the film extra resonance on this side of the pond – and pushed back its release – but the twists keep you guessing and make this more than worth a look. One to make Mama Affleck glow with pride.

Excellent as Congressman Stephen Collins, a role David Morrissey seemed to have defined in the BBC miniseries, Affleck is in his comfort zone as a sharp-suited political crusader with a tragic flaw. That’s not to underplay a role that definitely pushes him – witness the scene when Collins learns of Sonia Baker’s death, played with expertly muted emotion – or downplay his success in more than holding his own in his scenes with Russell Crowe (crumpled crime reporter Cal McCaffrey). In limited screentime, he’s terrific as a man whose weaknesses set him at odds with his friend, his wife and his own ideals. We’re still not sure quite how Stephen Collins could be college pals with Cal McCaffrey, a man eight years older than him, but we’ll let that slide.

Charlestown, Massachusetts, the bank robbery capital of America, is the suitably gritty setting for Affleck’s sophomore directorial project, a crime thriller that shows off his writing, directing and acting chops in one splurge of pulse-racing action and complex characterisation. It’s good stuff – four Empire stars good – and begs the question: where the hell did Affleck learn to direct like Sidney Lumet’s long-lost son? At 37 years-old he’s got time on his side (Clint Eastwood didn’t direct his first feature until he was 40) and talent to burn, not to mention an eye for casting. After all, John Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Blake Lively and Chris Cooper ain’t a bad line-up.

Affleck’s sales hot-shot Bobby Walker, stunned to be fired from his job and left brutally re-evaluating his place in world, swallows his pride to go to work for Kevin Costner’s builder-stroke-mentor where life lessons no doubt ensue. It’s topical stuff for the post-subprime era – not so much Up In The Air as stuck on the roof. It’s the kind of role Will Smith used to crack into with his eyes shut, but perhaps a bolder choice for Affleck, giving him a meaty lead part that demands he rise above the usual road-to-redemption clichés. And nothing sorts the wheat from the chaff quicker than appearing alongside the likes of Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones. Apart from maybe an actual wheat/chaff-sorter.

This was the love that dared not speak its name, at least not without a host of megastars, a gospel choir and a We Are The World-style sing-along. Ben Affleck and ABC chat show host Jimmy Kimmel tit-for-tat dating was designed as revenge for Matt Damon and Sarah Silverman’s passionate ‘affair’, itself designed as revenge for Kimmel regularly bumping Damon off his show, itself revenge for... well, we’re not really sure. It’s pretty funny, though. “I’m gonna take from you something you love,” Kimmel gloats to Damon. Yup, that’ll be Ben Affleck. This is one actor not afraid to send himself (and his old buddy) up. For further proof, check out Kimmel’s Handsome Men’s Club in which Affleck joins Matthew McConaughey, Josh Hartnett, Rob Lowe and a host of heartthrobs in Hollywood’s answer to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Trust us: these are worth taking the time to watch.