Mainstream Monday: The Wild Card

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The Wild Card

There’s no “I” in team, but there is one in “Film”. This week in Mainstream Monday, we’re discussing that singular character that every team in film history MUST possess: the wild card. No matter how detailed and controlling the leader or organization may be, there’s always at least one member of the group who just can’t seem to straighten up and fly right. You never really know what they’re going to do next. And even though obvious wisdom dictates they be removed from the group, for some reason or another the leader never seems to realize what must be done until it’s too late. The “Wild Card” flies off the handle, with little or no warning. The “Wild Card” is capable of taking normal situations and pushing them to the extreme, just by nature of their personality. They refuse to follow orders, choosing instead to march to the beat of their own, sometimes crazy sometimes literal (see below) drum. Below I’ve listed a few of my favorite cinematic “wild cards”. Read, enjoy, and fill me in on your favorites in the comments!


Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Casino

Why not start at the top? Joe Pesci’s characters in Martin Scorsese’s duo of 90′s gangster films Goodfellas (Tommy DeVito) and Casino (Nicky Santoro), form the quintessential “wild card”. You never know when either character is going to fly off the handle. In perhaps the most memorable scene in Goodfellas (a film full of them), Pesci’s DeVito spends an inordinate amount of time pretending to react negatively to an imaginary slight, silencing the room with a simple, “Funny how?”. You’re wise to walk on eggshells around Tommy DeVito, even if you’re just a waiter. In Casino, Pesci resurrects the persona of DeVito in the form of Nicky Santoro, a casino enforcer with just as quick a temper as DeVito. In one of the most startlingly violent scenes of the film, Santoro loses his cool and murders a man with nothing more than a ballpoint pen. He’s such a wild card he finds himself banned from the casinos and strikes out on his own. Sadly, his death is just as violent and sudden as his approach to life.

As is typical of most Foster characters, Prince is a ticking time bomb of psychotic ultra-violence, waiting to be released.

Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 To Yuma

The remake of the classic western 3:10 To Yuma pulls a fast one on its viewers. You think you’re tuning in to watch a big bad villain played by Russell Crowe, but Crowe’s outlaw Ben Wade isn’t even the baddest dude on his own team! When Wade is captured and being marched to catch the train to prison in Yuma, his lackeys come after him, led by the altogether insane Charlie Prince (Foster). As is typical of most Foster characters, Prince is a ticking time bomb of psychotic ultra-violence, waiting to be released. It’s clear he will stop at nothing to set Wade free. At one point he interrogates the only survivor of a decoy wagon to learn where they’ve taken Wade. Once he’s got the information he wants, he sets the wagon aflame and walks away, leaving the survivor to burn inside. When he tracks Wade and Christan Bale’s Dan Evans down in Yuma, he offers the townspeople cash money for every one of Wade’s guards they kill. In traditional wild card fashion, the only one capable of reigning him in is Crowe, which makes for an interesting final twist.

Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz in Inglourious Basterds

If you had to pick one “Basterd” who was the most “Inglourious”, you would probably have to go with Hugo Stiglitz. (Though “The Bear Jew” is certainly in the running) Til Schweiger plays Stiglitz as mostly quiet, but capable of explosions of brutal vengeance. It’s hard to stand out as the “wild card” among a team of borderline sociopaths (to put it nicely), but Stiglitz manages to do just that. Stiglitz is the rarest of “Basterds” as he is an ex-Nazi soldier himself, who decided to wage his own small war on the German Army. After his brutal attacks land him in prison, the Basterds break in and set him free to join them in their NATzi-killin’ business. And business is…well, you know. His name is enough to strike fear into the hearts of Nazis everywhere. His knife makes good on the promise of his name. Stiglitz stands out in true wild card fashion in his final scene: the basement-bar standoff. Whereas Michael Fassbender’s Lt. Archie Hicox calmly positions a gun pointed at his German counterpart under the table, Stiglitz is a little less subtle, forcefully grabbing Nazi Major Hellstrom and jamming a gun into his nethers. Stiglitz eventually goes down in the chaos that follows, but not before delivering one of the most memorable uses of the phrase ‘auf wiedersehen’ in film history.

Musical performance, at any level, is all about synchronizing several instrumental elements into one well-defined sound. Unfortunately for Atlanta A&T’s marching band, Cannon’s Devon Miles is a drummer who ironically refuses to stay in rhythm.

Nick Cannon as Devon Miles in Drumline

Most of the candidates for “wild card” on this list will rightfully hail from action and mobster movies, but a list examining some of the most unpredictable characters in film would not be complete without this musical malcontent. Musical performance, at any level, is all about synchronizing several instrumental elements into one well-defined sound. Unfortunately for Atlanta A&T’s marching band, Cannon’s Devon Miles is a drummer who ironically refuses to stay in rhythm. Convinced he’s the greatest drumming talent since…well, some famous marching band drummer, Miles refuses to take second chair to anyone, even the leader of the rhythm section. Time and time again, he attempts to take over live performances by stepping out of the line and forward in an attempt to turn all eyes on him. His out of control ego finally catches up with him as he’s forced to find a way to lay his “wild card” nature aside and fall in line….the ‘Drumline’. Get it?

Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs is my favorite Quentin Tarantino piece, and as you can see by it being the second Tarantino on this list, he’s known for loading his films with a cast of “wild cards”. In this film about a heist gone wrong, Madsen’s Mr. Blonde (which, let’s face it, isn’t really a color), stands out as the most unpredictable, even if he seems to exist in a perpetual state of calm, cool control. Mr. Blonde becomes a lightning rod for criticism when the group of thieves gather back at a predetermined meeting spot and begin to dissect what went wrong. Mr. Blonde took things too far, as “wild cards” are wont to do, executing several innocent bystanders and taking a police officer hostage. When left alone with the officer and a wounded Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde proceeds to torture the poor man to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You”, which will always remain one of Tarantino’s signature moments. It’s a terrifying scene that illustrates why Mr. Blonde is one of film’s most infamous “wild cards”.

Sean reveals that Ryan is his ONLY mission by killing them both with nary a moment’s hesitation. I suppose that’s what you can expect when you put your trust in a “wild card”.

Sean Bean as Sean Miller in Patriot Games

Sean Miller is a member of a radical faction of the IRA who, along with his team, leads an attack on a British official. When Harrison Ford’s heroic Jack Ryan saves the day (killing Sean’s little brother Patrick in the process), Sean’s mission shifts from terrorism against Britain to vengeance against Ryan. When their original attempt at revenge fails (who would’ve guessed shooting a car while hanging out of the side door of a van on an interstate might not work?) Sean vows to continue his pursuit of Ryan. His team leader manages to sidetrack him for a while with other missions, but Sean isn’t satisfied. An opportunity to kill two birds with one stone arises when the British Official attends a party at Ryan’s house as a thank you for saving his life, so Sean and his team crash it in full tactical gear. Ryan manages to outsmart Sean and his two cohorts with a decoy speedboat, but when they realize the ruse Sean refuses to leave off pursuing Ryan. His leader demands Sean turn the boat around, reminding him that Ryan is “not the mission”. Sean reveals that Ryan is his ONLY mission by killing them both with nary a moment’s hesitation. I suppose that’s what you can expect when you put your trust in a “wild card”.

Jeremy Renner as Jem Coughlin in The Town (*SPOILERS*)

Studying Jeremy Renner’s turn as Jem Coughlin in my recent re-visiting of The Town actually inspired this article. So if you don’t like it, blame Ben Affleck. Jem is a “Wild Card” from the moment he appears on screen to the moment he faces down a crowd of cops and SWAT members in a scene reminiscent of the downtown shootout in Heat. Jem’s unpredictable behavior causes both the set-up for the film’s plot and its resolution. When the team takes a woman hostage from the film’s opening heist, Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) sets out to befriend her in order to learn about the investigation. He learns that she has seen Jem’s tattoo and can identify him. All of this is enough for MacRay to want to leave town. Jem throws a wrench into his plan, as “Wild Cards” often do, learning of his relationship with the former hostage and strong-arming him into the infamous “last job”. MacRay acquiesces even though the job is seemingly doomed from the start. Jem is predictably out of control here as well and chooses to go down in a hail of gunfire rather than return to prison.

…he challenges Gary Busey (!!) to a no-holds barred rain-soaked front lawn fistfight. Because that’s how cops settle things, apparently.

Mel Gibson as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon

Though the Lethal Weapon franchise eventually devolved into typical buddy-cop action comedies, the original features an uncharacteristically dark (at least at that time in his career/personal life) Mel Gibson in the role of Martin Riggs. Riggs is the titular “weapon”, a highly-skilled former special forces officer, who finds himself in the homicide division, naturally. Riggs is as much a danger to himself as he is to criminals at this point, suicidal over the recent death of his wife. This allows him (and Gibson) to recklessly throw himself into every situation, with no regard for his own safety. He “helps” a suicidal person down from a ledge by handcuffing himself to him and leaping from the building. He routinely dislocates his shoulder to win bets. Craziest of all, he challenges Gary Busey (!!) to a no-holds barred rain-soaked front lawn fistfight. Because that’s how cops settle things, apparently. He’s a “wild card” in every sense of the word. To it’s credit, though the darker elements of the Lethal Weapon franchise are toned down in future installments, the Riggs character remains a wild card to the very end, teaming up with Murtaugh one last time to take on Jet Li in one of the coolest hand-to-hand sequences in recent action history.

Chris Evans as Johnny Storm (aka the Human Torch) in Fantastic Four

Johnny Storm is a hot-headed (figuratively, and at times literally) punk who abuses his superpowers to gain international stardom. While the other members of the doomed and now mutated astronaut crew busy themselves seeking a cure for their new powers, Johnny is out performing motorcycle stunts and turning snow-covered hills into impromptu hot tubs for his lady friends. Although he’s definitely the least responsible, the team does owe Johnny for their new nicknames and the awesome line of action figures he develops. So at the very least his “wild card” personality resulted in a few royalties checks. Considering what direction a “wild card” with supernatural powers could take, I would say things worked out pretty nicely.

…wondering what she’ll say or do next. Whether it’s suggesting “Fight Club” as a reasonable theme for a bachelorette party, or doggedly insisting an airplane passenger is an Air Marshall…

Melissa McCarthy as Megan in Bridesmaids

As one of the funniest side characters in one of the funniest comedies in years, Melissa McCarthy shines in Bridesmaids. As Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) future sister-in-law Megan, McCarthy is rowdy, raunchy and sometimes ridiculous. She’s completely unpredictable. When she appears on screen you’re forced to pay attention to her, wondering what she’ll say or do next. Whether it’s suggesting “Fight Club” as a reasonable theme for a bachelorette party, or doggedly insisting an airplane passenger is an Air Marshall, McCarthy’s Megan is always good for a belly laugh or two. Perhaps what cements her “wild card” status, however, is that she, being the least likely source of wisdom in the film, becomes the person responsible for talking sense into Kristen Wiig’s Maid of Honor Annie. Of course she does it with her own brand of “tough love”, but it’s undeniably effective. Here’s hoping Melissa McCarthy follows up this breakout role with a few more “wild cards” in the future.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb in Inception

Inception offers us the rare privilege(?) to peer inside the subconscious of the “Wild Card” when we journey into the psyche of DiCaprio’s dream thief Cobb. Just as we might expect, the mind of a “wild card” is intense, confusing, and fraught with danger. Whether it be the murderous projection of Cobb’s deceased wife Mal, or the occasional street-plowing runaway train, there are more than enough variables to the inner workings of a “wild card” to keep you on your toes. Ellen Page’s Ariadne rightfully points out that the instability of Cobb’s subconscious (again, at any moment he could “bring a freight train” through their living room) is a threat to them all. Inception is a difficult enough trick to pull off as it is; doing so while Cobb is populating your world with his deepest fears and regrets? Keep dreamin’.

Wherever he may be at any given point in the film, you can rest assured Maverick is going to be his own man…

Tom Cruise as Maverick in Top Gun

If we learned anything from John McCain and Sarah Palin, the word ‘Maverick’ describes someone who refuses to follow party lines…or something. That being the case, it’s the perfect moniker for one of Tom Cruise’s most memorable characters in the 1986 action hit Top Gun. Maverick is a young fighter pilot in training who refuses to follow formation. [Side note: someone should watch Drumline and Top Gun side-by-side, just to see if they sync up] When he’s not busy letting his ego ‘write checks his body can’t cash’, Maverick is flying in the face of the former number one gun: Ice Man (Val Kilmer). When he’s not busy doing that, he’s playing shirtless volleyball. Wherever he may be at any given point in the film, you can rest assured Maverick is going to be his own man, making him a memorable entry in the “wild card” category.


Those are some of my favorites, but there are hundreds more in the canon of film, so be sure to point out a few of your faves in the comments below!

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About Author

Host of Next Projection's ongoing Mainstream Monday series. I enjoy the occasional film, but most of the time I just watch movies. I'm no film student; just an old-fashioned homemade addict of cinema.