2/24/3: Brion James Tribute

Brian James in "Blade Runner"

There is a plot device in the movie, “Another 48 Hours” (1990) that concerns an unseen villain named, “The Iceman,” who controls the criminal events that Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy’s characters, Jack Cates and Reggie Hammond, must unravel throughout the film. Anonymous and clandestine, it is the Iceman who is responsible for much of the movie’s plot developments. His identity is kept secret from the film’s characters and audience and is only revealed to be Nolte’s friend and fellow officer, Ben Kehoe, at the climax of the movie.

Normally, the turn of such a character would have at elicited at least a subtle surprise in the audience. Trouble is, the producer’s of “Another 48 Hours” chose classic villainous character actor Brion James to portray Nolte’s detective buddy and future nemesis. Because audiences were so accustomed to viewing James portraying villains and all-around bad guys in movies like “Armed and Dangerous,” (1986) “Enemy Mine,” (1985) and “Blade Runner” (1982) the “surprise” at the end of “Another 48 Hours” was anything but. To see James playing a good-guy cop was out of character for the actor. To play a scheming and ominous drug kingpin was right up his alley. Thus, the big revelation at the end of “Another 48 Hours” was spoiled for longtime movie fans with the intelligence to put two-and-two together.

Bad casting decisions aside, James made a steller career out of playing villainous roles such as the Iceman. In addition to his roles in the films above, the 6’3”, mustached and rugged-faced James’ also played particularly nasty characters in movies such as the mini-series “Roots,” in which he played a slave driver, the film “Corvette Summer” playing the role of “Wayne's Car Wash Henchman” and in the 1987 Patrick Swayze-starred movie “Steel Dawn” in which he played “Tark, Kasha’s foreman.”

But, of all the films James played bad guys in, “Blade Runner” seems to be the film for which James is most remembered, for well-earned reasons. As a menacing artificial human known as a “replicant,” James' calculated blue eyes made his portrayal of “Leon” so unnerving that his acting sets the mood of the cult classic from the very first scene.

As terrifying as James’ portrayal of Leon was, it was rivaled by the sheer brutality depicted in the role of the slave driver “Stubbs” in the underrated 1985 sci-fi movie “Enemy Mine.” Growling and evil, James’ plays Stubbs as a villain who is just as interested in inflicting pain on helpless Dracs (an alien species at war with humans in the film) as he does carrying out his duties as a slave driver. In the climactic scene of the movie, Stubbs pursues a young Drac through the fiery and horrific pits of a slave vessel with every intention of robbing the sentimental character of his life. Evil personified.

Though villains were James’ ace-in-the-hole, he also played quite a few roles as rugged mechanical or outdoors types, policemen or military leaders. Roles like General J.W. Quantrell in “Steel Frontier” (1995), Sheriff Gordon in “Nature of the Beast,” (1995) Det. Eddie Eiler, Homicide in “Striking Distance” (1993) and a crapshooter in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1981) are just a few examples of the numerous authority figures and roustabouts James played throughout his career.

A prolific actor with over 100 films to his credit, James was affiliated with movies from a young age. His parents were the proprietors of a theater in Beumont, California and such stars as Gene Autry and others would often stop by. He graduated from San Diego State University in 1966 and later moved to New York to star in theater roles and films.

Unfortunately, James died of a heart attack in 1999, cutting short a long and masterful career. At the time of his death, James had starred in 114 films and was making seven movies a year. He is acting ability and screen presence is missed.

A Brion James fan site

Email Eli: eliasvict@asunderpress.com