With The Dark Tower hitting cinemas this year, his directorial debut Yardie having just finished principle photography, and John Luther set to fight London’s most twisted crime in an upcoming fifth season, Idris Elba is in the middle of a very prolific year. Elba’s always great, but some of his very best work to date has been in genre films, where he never fails to bring authority, humor, and intelligence to the role. Here are some of my favorites.
First up, a few honorable mentions. His work in RocknRolla is ridiculously good fun; in fact, the entire movie is. Gerard Butler, Elba, Tom Hardy, and Toby Kebbell as gloriously incompetent criminals must represent some kind of Brit actor singularity, and they’re all fantastic in the film, especially Hardy as Handsome Bob and Elba as the endlessly laconic Mumbles.
His work as Heimdall for Marvel is also impressive, as is his array of voiceover work. Then there’s his turn as tortured DCI John Luther, his work as Nelson Mandela, his mesmerizing role in Beasts of No Nation, and so on. But in genre terms, you don’t get better than his work in the following films—at least until The Dark Tower comes out…
Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Pacific Rim)
First off: BEST. CHARACTER. NAME. EVER.
Secondly, Elba’s turn in Pacific Rim is central to very nearly everything that makes the movie work. As Stacker, he plays a former Jaeger pilot who, it’s heavily implied, has been promoted off the line in order to keep him alive. Along with Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh he’s one of the only people in history to drive a Jaeger solo and live. Unlike Raleigh, it’s killing him, following a fatal dose of radiation.
This being Pacific Rim, and this being Stacker Pentecost, that mostly just annoys him.
Stacker’s persistence, years later, is the embodiment of the scrappy, bloody-nosed spirit of Pacific Rim. His speech to Raleigh about his job—“All I need to be to you and everybody on this dome is a fixed point—the last man standing.”—reinforces that. He is endurance and tenacity personified, the rock hard moral and ethical core that the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, and the movie itself, revolve around. He’s dying. He fights anyway. No one else has any excuse.
But where the character of Stacker really shines is in the way he interacts with other characters, most notably Mako (played by Rinko Kikuchi). His adopted daughter, raised in the Corps and with the tips of her hair dyed the blue of Kaiju blood, Mako is a clenched fist looking for something to punch. That’s on Stacker, and the film is at its best when it shows that he’s both a devoted father and one that struggles to be good enough. Their final scene together, separated by a mile or so of ocean and multiple Kaijju, could be interpreted as melodramatic, and I’m sure it strikes some people that way. For me, though, it’s painfully emotionally honest and sweet.
It’s not just Stacker’s interactions with Mako that bring out the depths in this performance, either. His relationship with Herc Hansen, the other old warhorse, is sketched in but no less poignant. Herc, like Mako, knows that Stacker doesn’t have long to live. He also knows, when Stacker takes his place in the final run, that the odds are good he’ll never see his friend or his son again. He lets them go, making his peace.
Then there’s Raleigh, for whom Stacker is alternately an immovable object and a scalable peak to strive towards. The two men have shared trauma, a shared past, and far more common ground than they see at first. For Stacker, Raleigh is a proxy, a man who can do what he knows will kill him. For Raleigh, Stacker is the embodiment of everything he’s run from and everything he once aspired to be.
Most of all though, Stacker’s memorable because he’s Henry V in an angry, mobile skyscraper. The “cancelling the apocalypse” speech doesn’t just work because it’s rousing, it works because Elba is able to show us every emotion Stacker is working through as he rallies his troops. He’s terrified. He’s serene. He knows for certain this will kill him. And above all else he’s bubbling over with satisfaction at finally being able to DO something. The closed fist he’s made of his daughter is being thrown, and he’s there to help set up the punch. He’s happy, as much as he’s enraged and impassioned, and that’s what really lands the speech. That, and the “I don’t remember it being so tight” moment, which always gets me somewhere between laughing and crying. Stacker knows time has passed. He knows his time is almost up. And he knows exactly what he plans to do with what he has left.
Here’s to you, Marshal Pentecost. We look forward to your son continuing the family tradition.
Captain Janek (Prometheus)
Arguably Elba’s most high profile film role (prior to The Gunslinger), 2012’s Prometheus saw him playing the captain of the Prometheus itself. Janek is the sort of blue collar space trucker that Parker and Brett from Alien would get on with. Or, at the very least, they’d enjoy some good-natured arguments together.
Janek works because he’s such an honest and straightforward character. In a film that, thanks to some mystifying cuts, frequently appears to be full of idiots (RUN TO THE LEFT, VICKERS! RUN TO THE L—ahh, DAMN IT), Janek is never, ever one of them. He’s a welcome control for the movie and one of the parts that genuinely holds the rest of it together. (Plus, he really does love that tiny Christmas tree. It’s endearing.)
Chief Bogo (Zootopia)
While my (Manx) island boy heart will always gravitate towards Moana and Lilo and Stitch as my favourite Disney movies, Zootopia is right up there, too. It’s not only a clever and subtle story about race relations and Nature vs. Nurture debate but also a smartly constructed thriller and the best mismatched cop movie since…the last mismatched cop movie you really, really liked (take your pick).
A huge part of the film’s success is the voice cast, all of whom are fiercely great. Ginnifer Goodwin’s endlessly perky, wry Judy Hopps is fantastic, and she and Jason Bateman’s fast-talking fox, Nick Wilde, bounce off one another brilliantly. J.K. Simmons as Mayor Lionheart and Jenny Slate as Bellwether are great, too.
Elba’s turn in the movie is a small but vital role, and interesting in a couple of different ways. As Chief Bogo, he runs First Precinct and is Judy’s commanding officer. That instantly sets up a fun size/power dynamic, as Bogo’s colossal Cape buffalo frame towers over Judy. However, as the movie goes on it, becomes apparent there’s much more to the Chief than just size. Bogo’s attitude is as biased and bigoted as Judy’s, but in subtly different ways, and the film takes both of them through the other side of that with surprising delicacy and perception. His reading glasses, too, hint at an interesting age difference/generational gap, but it’s when you realize that he’s a herbivore in charge of a squad largely consisting of carnivores that the character really begins to unfold in interesting ways. Bogo’s had to work just as hard as Judy to succeed in the force for different reasons, and that changes how he sees her. At least at first.
Bogo was originally written as a one-note character, but with Elba’s casting he was expanded to take on some more comedic elements and greater nuance. His colossal love for Gazelle is the big payoff to this, as is the implication Bogo may be gay (at least according to some corners of fandom). It’s never confirmed, but he and Clawhauser make an adorable couple and whether you subscribe to that reading or not, Elba’s work is impressive, sweet and honest throughout the film.
General Stone (28 Weeks Later)
Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 28 Weeks Later has none of the faux-Dogme 95 cinéma vérité stuff that chokes the life out of 28 Days Later. There’s no overbearing soundtrack, no ludicrously accurate drops of blood, and a definite change in focus. Instead of being a character-driven sequel, it’s an event-driven sequel picking up six months after the outbreak that began in the earlier film.
The result is a movie that feels like a hybrid of those moments in 28 Days Later that do work brilliantly (Jim’s parents, the contrail) and something we almost never get to see: what happens after the world ends.
An expeditionary force spearheaded by the U.S. Armed Forces has taken back a sizeable chunk of London and, with the Rage-infected population almost dead from starvation and attrition, resettlement has begun in earnest. The UK is a mass grave, streets deathly quiet, and the film follows one particular family group as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Inevitably, things go sideways and the action shifts to US Army medic Scarlet (Rose Byrne), Delta Force sniper Doyle (one of Jeremy Renner’s career-best turns) and chopper pilot Flynn (the always brilliant Harold Perrineau) as they race to get a pair of vitally important children out of London before it’s firebombed to sterilize the new outbreak of infection.
There is so much to be said about this movie—the interesting ways it builds on the original and just how badly it ultimately fumbles the landing—but that’s a story for another time. What’s particularly interesting is Elba’s turn here as the US Army CO, General Stone. Stone’s a gifted soldier and diplomat, and a man whose job clearly weighs heavily on him.
In a kinder movie, Stone would be a figure similar to the surprisingly nurturing and supportive Colonel Weber, as played by Forest Whitaker in Arrival. But he isn’t that lucky. Instead, Stone makes every right choice and it doesn’t matter. It’s a small role, but Elba gives it both the authority and dignity needed to make this smart, good, tragically unlucky soldier one of the movie’s most memorable characters.
To sum up: intelligence, charisma, humour, and, on occasion, colossal monster-punching robots, magical demon-killing six-shooters, or just a really great coat—clearly, Idris Elba’s got it all covered. When he’s the hero of the piece, there’s a good chance the apocalypse will be cancelled, permanently; can’t wait to see what he does next.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.