8. The Dark Backward (1991)
Adam Rifkin’s oddball showbiz spoof misfires for the most part, but Paxton fires on all cylinders in a rare full-blown comedic performance.
Set in a vile apocalyptic future that is part David Lynch and part Mad Max, it is a visually arresting subject with some stunningly disturbing imagery carefully created by Rifkin, yet sadly, the film is quite smug – constantly trying to be as weird or gross as possible for the sake of shock value and not much else.
Judd Nelson attempted a career shake-up with his introverted failure of a comedian who hits the big time in showbiz when he grows a third arm out of his back; regardless of his best efforts, he barely registers as a screen presence. Paxton, on the other hand, kills it as his obnoxious sidekick – on the surface he’s a happy-go-lucky ‘yes’ man, but beneath that, he’s a conniving and venomous backstabber. It’s really gobsmacking how far the performance goes (just witness him finding a dead female in a rubbish heap and use your imagination).
It must be said that it’s a flawed film that’s immensely in love with itself, with not much to say above its simple and familiar thematics. Still, the unique visual flavor and Paxton’s go-for-broke approach to his character manages to make this one quite a fascinating watch.
7. True Lies (1994)
This major blockbuster from 90’s dream team James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger naturally brought plenty of exciting action set pieces, but surprised most with its involving martial arts mishap humor as well.
The strongest and most memorable element in that arena was Paxton’s fake James Bond-esque character who attempts to wine and dine real super-agent Schwarzenegger’s bored wife (Jamie Lee Curtis).
The revelation that Simon is really just a used car salesman that lives in a trailer park is one of the film’s most hilarious moments with Paxton playing the obnoxious scumbag in fine form, with crassly improvised dialogue (e.g. “she’s got an ass like a 10-year-old boy!”) and fully embracing the pure spinelessness of the character. Once Arnie has had enough and hangs Paxton off a dam in his skivvies, Paxton’s pathetic confession is comedy gold, in what was one of several collaborations with Cameron.
6. Weird Science (1985)
The first time Paxton distinctly registered on-screen after a handful of minor roles was in this classic 80’s John Hughes comedy. The plot follows the ultimate teen wish-fulfillment, as a duo of dorky teens create their own gorgeous Kelly LeBrock with their computer (remember in the 80’s that was a feasible plot point).
One element that rained on said parade was the older brother from hell, Chet (Paxton), a military schooled moronic bully that hilariously gets his just desserts when LeBrock turns him into a farting toad monster.
Paxton really stamped his name on the screen as a hateable villain who could be endlessly entertaining to watch and chew up the scenery at every opportune time.
5. Aliens (1986)
Without a doubt Paxton’s most lovingly referenced and quoted characters out of his versatile backlog, James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 iconic sci-fi/horror film is an equal milestone in genre cinema, and hell – storytelling in general.
The director smartly opted out of the ‘spookhouse’ formula of the first film and focused on creating a ‘Vietnam in space’ parable, as a group of cocky Marines find themselves in over their heads and in the middle of a nightmarish Xenomorph nest, with little chance of survival.
In a testosterone-fueled troop of distinct 80’s character actors, Paxton’s Pvt. Hudson refreshingly stood out – at first a loud-mouthed braggart, and then when the shit hits the fan, he becomes a cowardly schoolboy. Things then turn around in a dash of courage as he turns into Rambo in his last glorious moments before a grisly death.
It was a captivating arc for a character that could’ve easily been throwaway or predictable, yet a young and hungry Paxton brought a heightened energy and depth to the character that stands as one of his most iconic and celebrated performances.
4. A Simple Plan (1998)
“Evil Dead” director Sam Raimi took a sharp left turn from B-movie thrills with this pitch-black morality play guised as a crime thriller. Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton (his mentally-challenged younger brother) find a suitcase full of drug money out in the woods, and against their better judgment, they divvy it up amongst themselves.
Things escalate towards a hellish and tragic ending, and no better beacon is that this is all accented by Paxton’s male lead. He’s a decent and respected member of his small town community and a loving family man, but by the film’s end, he’s a hollow husk of his former self, and the audience has been put through the wringer with him every step of the way.
Paxton shares some incredible chemistry with his co-stars; Thornton (the third time they’ve shared the screen together) as his sweet but troubled sibling, a relationship that builds from awkward resentment to a loving bond; and Bridget Fonda, a twisted update of Lady Macbeth, the simple small town wife who becomes a cold device of corruption.
Raimi and Paxton quickly hit it off after said film, but strangely they never collaborated again – both were too busy with the boost their careers took soon after this overlooked movie dropped. It’s a grand shame, since there was an exciting kinship between them that could have lead to more exciting projects down the way, but alas, this milestone collaboration will have to do.
3. One False Move (1992)
This effective little thriller directed by Carl Franklin (“Devil In A Blue Dress”), and co-written and acted by Billy Bob Thornton, marked a major boost for Paxton as an reliable leading man.
Thornton and Michael Beach play a pair of vicious criminals on the run with a bag full of drugs and money. All of this ties into Paxton’s simple small-town sheriff having to step up to stop them, and unwillingly face some dark history tied to the pair.
Brutal and gripping in its violence, yet “One False Move” is a surprisingly touching experience due to its endearing yokel main character. It’s a true testament to Paxton’s acting that out of the two separate plots, his slow-burn one is much more captivating over the more exciting aspects of the criminals’ story.
Paxton is all goofy ‘good old boy’ naivety and warmth as an officer clearly outmatched when paired up with a pair of city detectives. The actor has never pulled off such a heartbreaking scene as when he catches the pair laughing about his inadequacies as a cop, yet the film’s inevitable tragic depth is revealed to the seemingly one-note character, which leads to its devastating conclusion.
It was a role that opened up Paxton’s career in a major way, showing that he could deliver a solid dramatic performance instead just offbeat support – Sam Raimi and Ron Howard were both big fans, and cast him subsequent movies due to this fantastic low-key movie.
2. Near Dark (1987)
Out of all of his over-the-top scene stealers from his 80’s repertoire, there’s none more definitively badass then Severen – the wild card in Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire tale by way of a Wild West parable.
Depicting modern vampires as a ragtag family of dysfunctional outlaws in the dusty outskirts of America, Bigelow pulled off a coup by pulling half the cast of Cameron’s “Aliens” from the year prior to feature in her film – Lance Henriksen as the stone-faced leader, Jenette Goldstein as the tough maternal figure, and of course, Paxton as the off-the-handle younger sibling. Their camaraderie and history is instant, as Adrian Pasdar’s naive cowboy is pulled into their ruthless yet attractive existence.
It’s a wonderful and unique journey that was unjustly ignored at time of its release due to the enormous success of the similar “The Lost Boys”, yet Bigelow’s film is a dark, thoughtful, and emotional experience over Joel Schumacher’s sensational display of big-haired teens.
No better indicator to the pure genius of the film (as well as Paxton’s fiery performance) is the infamous barroom massacre. Paxton was dealing with an illness at the time of shoot, and was severely hopped up on flu medicine – it amounted to one of his most off-the-wall scenes as he turns the group of tough rednecks into chore boys through humiliating mind games with an unpredictable, highly improvised performance. He was horrifying yet endlessly fascinating to watch in the strongest of his 80’s work, in this worthy cult classic.
1. Frailty (2001)
Not only did Paxton display his most difficult work as an actor in this grim and disturbing murder mystery, but he also made an incredible directorial debut with said project.
It’s a rare film that grips from its opening moments to its twisty finale – as Matthew McConaughey walks into a FBI office on a dark stormy night, and reveals to Powers Boothe’s agent that he has the key to the identity of a mass murderer at large. From there, things get complex, as he reveals through flashbacks that his father (Paxton) trained him and his younger brothers to be serial killers, all in the name of the Lord.
It’s a gripping premise with plenty of deliciously dark material to delve into, but the most important aspects, aside from the interesting air of mystery, is a devastating story centered on a loving family falling apart in the most macabre manner possible.
The two child actors – Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter – are incredible, but are ably anchored by Paxton in his most complex job to date. He’s at first a warm and loving father to his children, but he soon has a vision from God, which takes their lives in a drastically different and possibly insane direction, yet somehow we never lose the understanding or heart of his character.
It’s an incredibly layered piece of work from the seasoned pro, and the fact that he balances it all with an assured debut behind the camera – lovingly old-fashioned and grippingly atmospheric – is a true testament to why this remains his most important role, and movie as well.