It is always interesting to me when watching films to pay attention to the supporting actors, the people in the background who can often give a much better performance than the leads. On the other hand, it’s also fun to watch actors who mostly star in cult movies and who may not be the most famous movie stars, but are often infinitely more entertaining. Bruce Campbell is such an actor. I have been a huge fan of Campbell as an actor for years, ever since I first watched the Evil Dead trilogy. He is a huge personality, and while he has not yet become a mainstream name, he has dedicated fan-base and is a nerd culture icon. I’m going to look at a selection of his best movies and explore what makes him, and them so damn entertaining.
The Evil Dead trilogy
Looking at the start of Campbell’s career, it is worth exploring the films that made him a name in cult cinema. The Evil Dead has a production history legendary to most film buffs. The film spent years in production, with shoots forced to halt several times as the director Sam Raimi tried to rustle up enough money to continue. Actor’s scenes were finished by stand ins, and even the most hardcore fan will admit that the effects were cheap. But the cheapness doesn’t detract from the visceral feeling those effects conjure. To this day the gooey, all too tangible makeup of the deadites is enough to make me squirm. And as many cult fans will tell you, cheap practical effects often add to the charm of a film if done correctly. There’s a fine line between crap and camp.
Bruce Campbell plays Ash, a young member of a group of friends who all get trapped within a cabin after accidentally reading from a strange book. It turns out to be a Necronomicon, a book of the dead, and summons evil creatures that take over the bodies of dead humans and wreak havoc on the living. As the movies progress, Ash grows from a scared young man in over his head into a hardened warrior, with enough ego and hilarious lines to please even a die-hard cynic. His character really comes into his own in Evil Dead 2. During the film, everything is thrown at him, as he first loses his girlfriend and then his hand to the forces of evil. Everything he experiences toughens him up, but it also turns him into an egomaniac, capable of making huge mistakes that only lend the growing comedy of the films. Evil Dead 2 is in my opinion, even better than the first film because it leans into the strengths of the star and director. Campbell is best when he is blending extreme physical comedy and action, and throwing out deadpan jokes that never fail to crack a smile on me. Ash has so many good lines, a mix of bad-ass and hilarious that feels like a natural response to the growing horror. Ash as a character feels like someone who has been forced to adapt fast and harden as a person. Oh, and did I mention the chainsaw hand? There’s a chainsaw hand.
Xena Warrior Princess (and Hercules)
Xena is a show that should collapse under the sheer weight of its own cheese. Being a swords and sandals adventure series set in the mythical days of ancient Greece, it somehow manages to manage its campiness and somehow deliver an engaging story. It has a lot of good fun action, and some awesome performances, especially from the wonderful Lucy Lawless. She gives off an effortless aura of bad-ass-ery (I know that isn’t a word) that makes her character really appealing. She has her share of great one-liners and dry wit, but the king of that style is of course, Mr Campbell.
Campbell plays the self-proclaimed King of Thieves, Autolycus. A character well suited to the actor’s style. In any other hands, this kind of character could be nothing more than a stereotype, the quippy master thief with a heart of gold. However, Campbell has spent a lot of his career honing that kind of character, and putting new spins on it. For Autolycus, he focuses on showing the heart behind the thief. He has a lot of arrogance and bluster, but plays it so that we can tell it is an act, a persona to keep up in order to keep people at a distance. Autolycus does have a massive ego mind you, one that gets him into bigger and bigger scrapes as he fails to recognise when he is in over his own head. But underneath it all we can see how he ultimately means well. It also helps that the writers give Campbell some fantastic one-liners, and a slew of great slapstick set-pieces. Autolycus shows up in both Xena and its sister show Hercules the Legendary Journeys, but I think he works best as a foil to the more stoic Xena. Campbell is clearly having a lot of fun with the role and it comes across onscreen. The character is a riot to watch, and has some surprisingly emotional moments to enjoy as well. I thoroughly recommend checking Xena out.
So we’ve seen Campbell in fantasy and cult horror, what about a crime procedural? Luckily, I have just the show for you. Burn Notice is a TV series about Michael Western, an ex-CIA agent played by Jeffrey Donovan. He has been “burned”, unjustly blacklisted from the CIA following mysterious circumstances. Now stuck in Miami, he must do small-time surveillance and spy work for cash in hand while trying to find out who burned him and why.
The first couple of seasons have some very dated editing and pacing that is slightly annoying, but it is more than made up for by the other strengths of the series. The best thing about this show to me is the scale of it. Western doesn’t take on the entire CIA or perform huge world saving spy missions. Instead he helps out local people caught up in legal matters they can’t deal with themselves. He frequently uses the only resources available to him, a small team of people with unique skills and connections. He also makes surveillance equipment out of random tech he buys in shops. On top of this rather unique concept, the acting is stellar across the board, and all the cast have great chemistry together.
The cast is rounded out by some great side characters, and of course, the one played by Bruce Campbell. Sam Axe, an ex-Navy Seal who gets by in Miami doing freelance work and helping out Michael. He is an over the hill veteran who takes every opportunity to booze it up, steal Michael’s yoghurt and casually deliver some of the show’s best lines. I love how Campbell tones his performance in the show. It being a fast paced traditional procedural, it wouldn’t make sense to go as over-the-top as Campbell is capable of, so he tones it down and keeps Axe very mellow. Axe tends to provide comedy most of all, but he is still very useful in the missions, helping get contacts that Western no longer has access to, along with using alter egos in order to gain information, which is always extremely entertaining. Despite the humour, this could be considered one of Campbell’s more serious characters and it shows that despite mainly starring in tongue in cheek cult films, Bruce is more than capable of doing some smashing acting when required.
(Apologies for the loud music)
My Name is Bruce
Campbell has directed and starred in many films that refuse to be defined. He directed a film called the Man with the Screaming Brain and starred in a film called Buba Hotep, which is about a secretly alive Elvis living in a retirement home until he must fight an undead mummy. The latter is considered some of his best work. But one of the strangest and yet most charming films he has made is one called My Name is Bruce. This is a film starring cult actor Bruce Campbell, playing cult actor Bruce Campbell. The entire film is something of a commentary on the actor’s career and it is equal parts bizarre and bonkers fun.
In the film, Campbell (the character) is brought to the town of Gold Lick by a fan of his movies, who wants him to fight an ancient evil that has terrorised the town. If this is sounding incredibly meta-textual, that’s because it is. The character Campbell is disappointed with his career, as he stars in B-movies with cheap effects, which isn’t too far away from the truth. Through the character of Jeff, we get to see the interesting relationship that Campbell has with his fans and how that can lead to unrealistic expectations. It also gives Bruce a chance to play a hilariously cartoon version of his own public persona, with even more cheesy one-liners, acting like a total coward, and somehow still kicking all kinds of arse. It isn’t a particularly nuanced or high budget film, but given the main character, that works just fine. This type of film is an acquired taste, as to enjoy it you need to know the actor’s career well and also enjoy campy B-movie comedies. Fortunately, I love all those things, and if you do to, I cannot recommend it enough.
Bruce Campbell is a unique performer. He has spent his career cultivating a certain persona, a blend of arrogance, quips and self-deprecation that makes him endlessly entertaining. He may not have mainstream success, but he has a loyal fan-base and a definitive niche that no-one else can touch. His movies may not all be high-art, but who cares? He makes fun films. I think he has an interesting legacy in cult film and his willingness to embrace this side of film-making is what has made him such a success in it. If you have been interested by any of the TV shows or films I’ve explored, then give them a watch and see what all the fuss is about.