Brian Cox has many things to commend him. A proven character actor with a gift for lighting up films like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, David Fincher’s Zodiac and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour in even short bursts, the Scotsman is equally accomplished in meatier on-screen roles, and on stage. His political leanings mean he’s capable of taking academics down a peg or two. We think he’s also a nuclear physicist and may have also been in D:Rream, although that may need checking (ED: Are you perhaps thinking of Professor Brian Cox?). Read on for our guide to his finest film moments.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Manhunter (1986)
The part that should have launched Brian Cox’s Hollywood career back in the ’80s, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor and Manhunter was followed by a strangely fallow period for the actor. TV gigs were faint reward for a majestically sinister turn as the serial-killing savant that Anthony Hopkins would later make into a household name (albeit with a slightly different spelling, since this one was changed for copyright reasons). Cox, recommended to director Michael Mann by Brian Dennehy, based his interpretation on Scottish killer Peter Manuel. “It’s one of the great roles,” he remembers of gel-haired jailbird Lecktor, criticising the character’s eventual descent into Hannibal-era purgatory. “For me it's like playing [The Third Man’s] Harry Lime. If you went on playing Harry Lime, Harry Lime becomes meaningless because the character is wrapped in his own mystery.”
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: L.I.E. (2001)
“A really important film for me,” recalls Cox of Michael Cuesta’s unsparing drama L.I.E.. His fearless take on middle-aged pederast – or “chickenhawk” - Big John Harrigan came against the advice of colleagues who warned of the adverse effect the part would have on his career… as if playing a man would preys on teenage boys while pretending to be a pillar of his community could possibly alienate audiences. But then, as is his wont, the actor manages to make the character just sympathetic enough to keep him from driving moviegoers into the nearest Kevin Bacon psychodrama. He and a young Paul Dano, the teen tearaway he strikes up a friendship with, are joint MVPs in an underseen gem.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: The Escapist (2008)
Man-nearly-on-the-lam Frank Perry is an all too rare lead role for Cox. The actor, who didn’t emerge as a big-screen force until his forties, inhabits the lined face of the jailbird with the fatigued grit of a man who knows that he has one final shot at redemption. Rupert Wyatt’s tightly woven thriller keeps the lifer at its centre but hides his sweat-beaded plans from the viewer, who’s jostled instead between suspicious screws, bullying inmates and unreliable co-conspirators. Will Frank make it to freedom and that longed-for rendezvous with his estranged daughter, or is it all just a desperate pipe dream? And why doesn’t he just drill a hole behind a Rita Hayworth poster like everyone else?
RECOMMENDED: The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
Brian Cox makes a satisfyingly reptilian psychocrat when he sets his mind to it, as he does in the first and second instalments of the Bourne trilogy. As CIA deputy director Ward Abbott, he’s blessed with an arc that peels away layers of subterfuge, bullshit and criminality like a particularly rotten Langley-based onion. Presiding over first Treadstone and then Blackbriar, he has never met a dossier he hasn’t wanted to burn or an ex-operative he hasn’t wanted to terminate. Cox plays the intelligence wonk with oily menace, gradually revealing just how deep the rabbit hole goes as Matt Damon’s superspy follows the clues he’s carelessly left lying about. While Cox is far too gifted to be pigeonholed as a Hollywood villain, he is very bloody good at it.
RECOMMENDED: X2 (2003)
William Stryker gave Cox his juiciest bad guy role since Manhunter and a chunky role in a film even Citizen Kane would probably call “the Citizen Kane of superhero movies”. His natural gravitas lends itself to the Bond villain-like schemings of William Stryker, the angriest colonel since that guy who used to chase the A-Team around, as he plots to bring Professor Xavier's school to heel and destroy mutantkind in its entirety. Like esteemed co-stars Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, he throws himself into the Marvel universe with gusto, delivering dialogue filled with neural inhibitors, adamantium and Cerebro like he knew this stuff backwards. Maybe he got a refresher from his professorial namesake and actually did.
FOR THE FAN: Ironclad (2011)
Ill-fated historical figures are something of a specialty for Cox. As King Agamemnon he ends up at the pointy bit of Rose Byrne’s dagger in Troy, and we all know how things ended up for Hermann Göring in Nuremberg (not well). His William of Albany scarcely fares better in Ironclad. He arrives at a famously gory death at the hands of Paul Giamatti’s unhinged King John. Before finding bits of himself catapulted across 13th century England courtesy of the mad monarch, Albany plays a medieval Hannibal Smith to an armour-clad A-Team despite claiming to be “a fat wool merchant with a henpecking wife and three daughters”. Judging by how badass a baron he turns out to be, we think this may be medieval for “I’m just a cook”.
ONE TO AVOID: Troy (2004)
It’s been suggested that, with the sound off, Troy is a masterpiece. After all, it’s the problems can be tracked to a cloth-eared script and an over-the-top score that would greet a humble trip to the loo with a trumpet fanfare if it could. Wolfgang Petersen’s blockbuster – less Das Boot than Das Sandal – is a self-consciously old school epic that ill-serves its actors, including Cox’s bellicose King Agamemnon, with lines like “I almost lost this war because of your little romance” and “Peace is for women and the weak”: not exactly Homeric. The buffed-up Scotsman meets a sticky end in the movie but escapes Troy with dignity just about intact, even if that haircut took some forgetting.