Rene Russo made much out of not always that much across a range of blockbuster movies in the 1990s: here’s a salute to her work.
I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of ‘ranking’ articles on the internet, but this feature nearly became one. Because appreciating that the 1990s offered slim pickings for women when it came to big roles in blockbuster films, Rene Russo managed several standout performances. Not that you’d necessarily know that from the billing of the films concerned, nor I’d imagine in some cases from how those roles appeared on the page.
What consistently impressed me was that across a range of sizeable studio movies, she made an impact. Her range was and is such that she could move seemingly effortlessly from action to drama to comedy, and blend them all together when required. Not always getting the credit she warranted for doing so.
For many, myself included, it was Lethal Weapon 3 – back in 1992 – that brought her to prominence. She was the main addition to the ensemble, alongside Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, in a sequel that proved amiable and successful enough, even it was some way shy of its two predecessors.
Russo’s role in that one, Lorna Cole, was originally written as male in the first drafts of the screenplay. A character who would have been a facsimile of Gibson’s Martin Riggs. It was the late director Richard Donner who was having no shrift with that, requesting that Lorna be female, and in a relationship with Riggs. She would get to kick ass – and did – but the film’s action quotient was still dialled down from those early drafts. It started its path to becoming a family comedy with action bits in by the end, yet Russo remained its breakout star.
Only in hindsight did I catch up on what I’d missed before. Her film debut came in 1989’s Major League, and she’d be back for the sequel to that. Likewise, as solid turn in the Michael Keaton-headlined One Good Cop was chalked up in 1991. But it’s 1992’s Freejack, starring Emilio Estevez, Mick Jagger and Anthony Hopkins, that I subsequently discovered and had a lot of fun with.
A troubled production this one, and Russo came to it late. Her role was originally given to Linda Fiorentino, who hit scheduling problems and had to walk away. Russo snapped it up, and whilst it’s not a great part, there’s a bit of ice to it that she has some fun with. A film worth seeking out, certainly.
With little doubt though, 1993’s In The Line Of Fire was a step up. Again she was left working with a character who would have a romantic entanglement with her leading man, but in the role of Secret Agent Lilly Raines she goes toe to toe with Clint Eastwood, with a streak of dry humour alongside the serious edge to the character. The resultant thriller is a tour de force of excellent performances anyway, and Russo is very much a core part of its success.
Two further hits followed in each of the next two years, although had fate taken a turn, she may not have got to some of them. She was in the running to play the romantic lead in 1995’s Batman film until Michael Keaton walked away. With a younger Batman cast in the shape of Val Kilmer, new director Joel Schumacher duly changed the casting around him too and would opt for Nicole Kidman in Batman Forever. I can’t help feeling Russo may have dodged a bullet there.
Batman’s loss was a different film’s gain. 1995’s Outbreak was a messy production, albeit one she got second billing on behind Dustin Hoffman. It was a reunion with her In The Line Of Fire director Wolfgang Petersen, and he cast wisely.
Dr Robby Keough is her character here, the former wife of Hoffman’s Colonel Daniels. The focus is primarily on stopping a virus though, and she’s the scientific expert at the heart of the investigation. A straighter, dramatic role this, and once again, Russo takes her place in a male-heavy ensemble. I’ve always been a bit up and down on the film, in truth, and haven’t had a particular yearning to rewatch it in the last year or two (although many did!). But the acting was not on my list of issues with it.
She seems to be having a lot more fun in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty though. She plays Karen, an actor stuck in B movies and wanting more, who gets drawn into the plans of John Travolta’s Chili Palmer. The two join forces, and the resultant movie gives Russo solid screen time. It’s a pair of roles again that go to the range Russo was bringing, with precious little acclaim heading in her direction, to her work.
If I was doing this piece as a list, my absolute favourite role of hers in this era came in 1996: Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup. Cast opposite Kevin Costner in a romantic comedy – and I’d happily argue this is Hollywood’s best romcom of the decade – Russo is just brilliant. Her perfect tonal delivery of sharp dialogue is exquisite, and her character rounded enough to make her warming to Costner’s McAvoy believable and very, very funny.
There’s a sequence of her cheering him on later in the film that never fails to make me guffaw. I think that if the wonderful Game Night had been made in the 1990s, Russo would have been perfect for the role Rachel McAdams smashed out the park.
Again though, I’m back to range, because she had two hits in ’96, and the other reunited with Gibson for Ron Howard’s darker than expected thriller Ransom. Here she plays Kate Mullen, the mother of Sean and wife of billionaire Tom. She’s at the moral heart of a film where Tom’s corner-cutting has given him a greyer edge, and left their son vulnerable. The role of Kate could have been played as screaming mum or loyal spouse, and there are minor dabs of both in her portrayal. But primarily, there’s humanity, emotion and drive, and I think, again, she’s terrific in the film.
That run of films stacks up against pretty much anybody’s in mainstream Hollywood back in the 1990s, particularly at a time where interesting characters for women to play were in such obviously short supply. Russo may have been a good chooser of projects, she may have had a good agent. Possibly both. The fact that directors wanted to work with her again says something too. I just wish the ecosystem of the era had been such that she could have headlined a big movie of her own.
Lorna Cole gave her another hit in 1997’s Lethal Weapon 4, that’d round the franchise off (at least for the time being). But crowing her 1990s was the character of Catherine Banning in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. John McTiernan’s movie is very much a two-hander, and given space and time to bring a playful, intelligent character to the screen, Russo is movie star gold again. I went back to the film a few weeks ago, and had forgotten how good the chemistry between the two leads is, and what a breezy, enjoyable caper the film remains.
Russo would take on fewer roles in the 2000s, moving into producing but ultimately deciding to step away from the screen for half a decade. She popped up in the Thor films, but I remember sitting down to a screening of 2014’s Nightcrawler with no foreknowledge of the picture whatsoever and finding amongst that film’s many brilliant assets a proper, fleshed out role for Rene Russo. And what do you know? She’s brilliant in it again.
Russo is working sporadically on screen, and has been open about her mental health too. She’s given a candid interview or two where she discussed that, and all power to her for doing so.
But all power too for putting so many memorable characters on screen, even as she was afforded fewer resources in some cases as her male co-stars to do so. I’ve gone back over pretty much all the roles I’ve talked about in this piece, and the worst she is in any of them is really good. Usually a lot more than that.
I’m still putting Tin Cup top of my list. But I’m also still holding out hope that someone will find her that elusive top billed leading role…
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