Tommy Lee Jones: A Viewer’s Guide

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Raised in a one-horse town in Texas – aside from a few years at Yale, where he befriended one Al Gore – Tommy Lee Jones has been bringing his growly charisma to the screen since the late ‘70s. He’s back on it this week in creaky-knee’d comedy Hope Springs alongside Meryl Streep, before moving on to a brace of real-life characters in Emperor and Lincoln later in 2012. What better time to revisit the Lone Star star’s career to date? Well, his birthday maybe. Guess what? It’s his birthday on Saturday! (September 15, if you’re sending a card).

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

A thoughtful, meditative Western that’s paced at a trot rather than a gallop, Melquiades Estrada is Tommy Lee Jones’ first and so far only directorial feature. On this basis, we’d love to see more. He handles the elemental tale of justice and revenge, themes almost as old as the sunburnt Texan hills of the movie, with unfussy flair. He’s more than solid on the other side of the camera too, bringing grizzled determination to bear as he hauls his dead friend and the man’s killer, Barry Pepper’s border guard, across the border for burial. We’re inclined to think that it was this film that clenched his casting in the similarly thoughtful, similarly excellent No Country For Old Men.



One of Jones’s greatest moments came playing misanthropic mitt-man Tyrus ‘Ty’ Cobb. The Detroit Tiger, baseball’s anti-Babe Ruth, used to stride out to the diamond with boos ringing in his ears, and this biopic sees Jones in suitably vinegary form. He disses Ruth (“He ran okay for a fat man”), bullies his benighted biographer (“You've never been this close to greatness, son”) and still finds the energy to go out looking for dames. A volcanic Jones is reason enough to hunt down this little-seen gem by sports-movie specialist Ron ‘Bull Durham’ Shelton.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: **The Fugitive (1993)

*With his zero-nonsense outlook, deadpan demeanour and low-frequency growl, authority figures have always come naturally to Jones. He’s frequently played official types, both civil (No Country For Old Men, Natural Born Killers, Lonesome Dove for CBS) and military (Captain America, Heaven And Earth, the upcoming Emperor), but rarely as memorably as The Fugitive’s relentless Marshal Samuel Gerard. He’s smart, pitiless and spectacularly good at organising hard-target searches. In fact, the only thing he isn’t* is prepared to throw himself off a dam, because, like, DURR.

RECOMMENDED: In The Valley Of Elah (2008)

A gnarled veteran coping with the death of his son in Iraq, Jones’s Hank Deerfield communicates his military background and emotional fatigue through a thousand tiny tics. The shoes gleam but the shoulders slope as his old-fashioned manners and odd gentleness tell of a man out of time. It’s an artful performance that doesn’t call attention to itself, as he sets about trying to deal with the catastrophe the only way he knows how: practically and with quiet dignity. Honourable mention, too, for another ex-veteran, the much more slippery Clay Shaw in JFK, a role that scored Jones his first Oscar nomination.

RECOMMENDED: Rolling Thunder (1977)
This tough-as-tungsten ‘70s thriller served as something of a breakthrough vehicle for a young TLJ. His character, ex-POW Johnny Vohden, is a kind of silent blueprint for some of the actor’s most taciturn roles. He ain’t saying much as he rides shotgun with Bill Devane’s vengeful vet, Major Charles Rane, preferring to let bullets do the talking. It’s Devane’s film, an angry post-Vietnam flick penned by Paul ‘Taxi Driver’ Schrader, but Jones brings steel from behind his Aviators. “I found the men who killed my son,” Devane tells him, “and there’s eight to ten of them”. “Let’s go clean ‘em up,” replies the Texan, packing his bag with ammo.

FOR THE FAN: Under Siege (1992)
Before Johnny Depp turned him into a buccaneering pantoholic in Pirates Of The Caribbean, the spirit of Keith Richards was channelled into a different kind of seafaring lunatic aboard the USS Seagal. Jones’s Keef-like bad guy, William Stranix, is the hammy heart of this action-doused quote-a-thon. His plan – which we think has something to do with blowing up Hawaii – is so overegged it might have well as leapt out of Pamela Anderson’s cake, but it gives Jones his most gleefully over-the-top role to date.

ONE TO AVOID: Men In Black II (2002)

On an CV unusually free from out-and-out duffers – unless you were one of the three people to see cheerleader ‘comedy’ Man Of The House – Men In Black II stands out like a poop in a playpen. It could be the sheer percentage of gags that fall flat, the plot that feels like it was fished from an intergalactic trash compactor or that bloody dog, but the franchise is leaning early, and hard, on Rick Baker’s creature design here. Jones’s grumpy deadpanning stands up and Smith still cracks wise with the best of ‘em, but neither is well served by this sequel. The sight of Jones’s knees only brings home the horror.