Kevin: For such a memorable and well-liked character actor, the late Powers Boothe’s IMDB page is actually pretty thin when it comes to memorable and well-liked films. For every “Red Dawn” – where he steals the movie in his brief screen time as the Air Force colonel who whips the ragtag Wolverines into fighting shape – there are five more films and TV movies you’ve probably forgotten or never heard of. Perhaps though that’s proof that Boothe, who passed away earlier this week, was such a commanding screen presence that it felt like he was more ubiquitous than he actually was.
Tough Guy Digest has already highlighted one of his best big-screen turns in “Tombstone” as part of an amazing cast filled with equally memorable character actors. As Curly Bill Brocius, the leader of the villainous Cowboy gang, Boothe could have easily gone the stereotypical mustache-twirling-villain route. But instead his Curly Bill masks his evil under a veneer of boisterous good humor, constantly laughing at his own (not very funny) jokes, which makes it even more unnerving when he occasionally drops the façade and shows the monster underneath.
While Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Sudden Death” is probably one of the lesser “Die Hard” rip-offs to come out in that film’s wake, we did praise the film back in January for giving Boothe one of the most hilariously drawn out villain deaths in screen history:
And in our tribute to Bill Paxton following his equally untimely passing in February, we highlighted Paxton’s directorial debut “Frailty,” a subtle and unpredictable thriller that makes great use of Boothe’s ability to be both likable and menacing, sometimes within the same scene.
“Frailty” was one of those films that came and went from theaters without much fanfare, but has developed a loyal cult following since its release, and for good reason. In that same vein, another film on Boothe’s resume is equally deserving of a reappraisal: 1992’s “Rapid Fire,” which at the time was seen as a mediocre starring vehicle for Bruce Lee’s son, but in hindsight is actually one of the best action films of the ‘90s:
In the film Brandon Lee plays Jake Lo, a college student (although he looks like he’s on year seven of the eight-year plan) who witnesses a murder committed by drug lord Antonio Serrano (Nick Mancuso) against an associate of one of his rivals, Tau (Tzi Ma). Jake is put into witness protection, but after escaping an assassination attempt and being framed for the murder of an FBI agent, he has to depend on the help of a Chicago cop who has been after Tau for 10 years, the awesomely named Mace Ryan (Powers Boothe).
“Rapid Fire,” directed by Dwight H. Little (who previously directed Steven Seagal’s all-time best movie “Marked for Death”), did middling box office when it was released in August of 1992, and is mainly notable for being Lee’s last completed film before he was tragically killed during the filming of “The Crow” the next spring. I remember renting it in early 1993 and expecting nothing more than a cheesy but moderately entertaining martial arts flick like Jeff Speakman’s “The Perfect Weapon.” Instead I was surprised at how well-made and entertaining it was, and by the end I was really looking forward to seeing what Brandon Lee did in the future.
Then just a few weeks later the news came out that he was dead, ironically right before the release of the biopic about his father: “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” (directed by future “The Fast and the Furious” helmer Rob Cohen).
There are a number of reasons why “Rapid Fire” is a cut above most of the mid-budget studio action films of the early ‘90s: great use of Chicago locations (you could be forgiven for thinking this was made by Second City-loving director Andrew Davis from “Above the Law” and “The Fugitive” fame), solid supporting cast featuring Raymond J. Barry, Richard Schiff in a 10-second appearance, and Basil Wallace (Screwface from “Marked for Death”!) among others, and two really memorable villain turns by Mancuso as the amusingly unhinged Serrano and Ma as the much more ruthless and businesslike Tau. And as with Seagal in “Marked for Death,” director Little plays to his leading man’s physical strengths while minimizing his weaknesses as an actor.
Because as much as I hate to speak ill of the dead, Lee was certainly no great thespian by this point, although his performance here is Brando-level compared to his previous turn in “Showdown in Little Tokyo” with Dolph Lundgren. Even so, he was an engaging screen presence with movie star good looks and legit martial arts skills, with “Rapid Fire” being by far the best showcase of his talents on film. The fight scenes in the movie are inventive and well-choreographed, while the athletic Lee always finds unique ways to take out his opponents with his fists and feet rather than with guns:
The movie also greatly benefits from the presence of Boothe, who brings his usual gruff macho persona to the standard action trope of the cop who’s dedicated his entire life to taking down one bad guy, at the cost of his marriage, career, etc., etc. The minute Boothe swaggers into the movie and starts barking orders at his team, you instantly want to see a Mace Ryan spin-off (as well as wonder how great Boothe could have been in a role like Lt. Gerard in “The Fugitive”). If the movie has any real weakness it’s that it’s easy to hate Jake since he’s such a dick to Mace for much of the movie, although eventually he comes around and teams up to defeat the bad guys (including Al Leong, who finally graduates to main henchman status and gets to show off his skills in a great climactic battle).
(Note that this marks the fifth movie we have covered featuring Al Leong, after “Lethal Weapon,” “Action Jackson,” “Die Hard,” and an appearance on a television showing his scene from “Lethal Weapon” in “Last Boy Scout.”)
After Jake and Mace drive off into the sunset to the strains of the fist-pumpingly cheesy “I’ll Be There” by Hardline, the best ‘80s action movie song that actually appeared in a ‘90s film …
… the only thing that will suppress the giant grin on your face will be remembering that Brandon Lee and Powers Boothe are now gone, and they both in their own ways had a lot more to give as performers. And while “Rapid Fire” may not exactly be considered high art, it’s as good a showcase as any for why each of them will be missed.
Other thoughts on Powers Boothe from the Tough Guy staff:
Mike: Obviously he was great in “Red Dawn,” but more recently he killed it in “Sin City” and “Deadwood.” Great name too. If I was Ian McShane I’d be on high alert as the last actor with a truly badass name left in the world.
CJ: We’ve mentioned before about how Thanos from the Marvel movies is a terrible bad guy because no one listens to him and he is full of empty threats. Well Boothe had an arc on ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD” and he was one of the best bad guys Marvel has ever had. He was almost like the Smoking Man from “X-Files” who always was in the know. He also summoned an ancient spirit from another dimension, was part of a secret society, and then had an awesome bad guy voice. Oh and he had no problem killing people.
Anthony: Powers Boothe was amazing in … well, everything, but I’ll especially give him big props for playing Curly Bill Brocius in “Tombstone.” I hated him in that movie, and he chewed up the scenery with impressive gusto. He was born to play a bad guy, with his face and voice and just overall presence. He was despicable, intimidating, dripped machismo, and had a “I just wiped my ass with your dog” smile. Great actor. RIP.
Kevin: Speaking of roles he was born to play, he was also one of those actors who was obviously born in the wrong decade, as it’s easy to picture him being a huge star in the ‘40s and ‘50s playing detectives and gangsters alongside Humphrey Bogart and Burt Lancaster. But no matter what period he performed in, he would have made an impression regardless.