Total Recall

Total Recall: Laurence Fishburne's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Predators star.

by | July 9, 2010 | Comments

Laurence Fishburne

When Predators arrives in theaters this weekend, it’ll mark a renewal for a film franchise that has thrilled action fans for almost 25 years — and it’ll also be the latest chapter in the long and distinguished film career of Laurence Fishburne. Since making his film debut with Cornbread, Earl and Me 35 years ago, Fishburne has appeared in an incredibly diverse collection of projects, on stage (Thurgood, Two Trains Running), on television (CSI, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse), and, of course, the big screen. And while you probably remember many of his showiest roles, chances are you’ve forgotten just how many great movies he’s been in — so we decided now would be the perfect time to celebrate his biggest critical hits with a Laurence Fishburne Total Recall!


10. King of New York

There’s nothing quite like a Christopher Walken movie, and the idiosyncratic actor found a kindred spirit in Abel Ferrara for 1990’s King of New York, a cult classic in which Walken plays Frank White, a fresh-out-of-prison drug lord who decides he wants to build a children’s hospital — and is willing to slay anyone who stands in his way. Helping him achieve his goal by any means necessary, Fishburne plays Jimmy Jump, a ruthless lieutenant who enters the film by handing one of White’s rivals a suitcase full of tampons (“for the bullet holes”) before pumping him full of lead. (Steve Buscemi is the second gunman, because it’s just that kind of movie.) It only grossed a little over $2.5 million during its brief theatrical run, but King of New York has enjoyed a healthy second life on home video, as well as the appreciation of critics like Combustible Celluloid’s Jeffrey M. Anderson, who wrote, “Ferrara’s dangerous vision of the city at night goes beyond what most creampuff directors are capable of; he gets to the core of everything from the silent, dark windows of towering penthouses to the vicious rattling of crime-ridden subways.”


9. The Matrix Reloaded

One of the most eagerly anticipated sequels in recent memory, The Matrix Reloaded faced almost impossible expectations — and even if it fell short of meeting them, it still did a pretty good job of continuing the saga the Wachowski brothers started with The Matrix, not to mention earning plenty of money at the box office. While it may be bogged down with elaborate Matrix mythology, puffed-up drama, and straight-faced sci-fi silliness from characters with names like the Merovingian, the Architect, and the Keymaker, Reloaded also did what sequels are supposed to do: Use the framework established in the first chapter to tell a deeper, broader story. It also provided plenty of eye-popping action set pieces, lots more of Hugo Weaving’s sneering Agent Smith, and a crisis of faith for Fishburne’s Morpheus, who discovers that everything he’s believed about the Matrix might be wrong. “On balance,” argued James Berardinelli of ReelViews, “The Matrix Reloaded does an admirable job of filling the niche it’s supposed to — that of an action-oriented science fiction adventure.”


8. Akeelah and the Bee

From the instant you look at the poster, you know Akeelah and the Bee is going to be another one of those feel-good pictures about someone (in this case, a cute little girl) overcoming the odds to achieve an unlikely triumph in the final act. But as Roger Ebert is fond of pointing out, it isn’t a formula unless it works, and this is a perfect example of familiar ingredients being used in all the right ways. The story of Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), an 11-year-old girl whose gift for spelling earns her a shot at national acclaim — but places stress on her relationship with her widowed mom (Angela Bassett)! — Bee gave Fishburne a chance to play the wise-but-mysteriously-reluctant mentor role as her coach, an English professor with a tragic past. We probably don’t need to tell you how it all turns out, but what it lacks in surprises, it more than makes up in a smart script, some sensitive direction from Doug Atchison, and typically strong work from its cast. As the Denver Post’s Michael Booth put it, “Akeelah and the Bee carefully diagrams every cliche we’ve absorbed from sports movies, urban dramas, mentor flicks and precocious-children portraits. Yet it works.”


7. Deep Cover

Fishburne followed up his profile-enhancing role in Boyz N the Hood with a rare starring project: Deep Cover, a Bill Duke-directed crime thriller that pitted Fishburne’s undercover cop character against Jeff Goldblum as a sleazy, drug-dealing lawyer. It’s the kind of storyline setup that leads direct to video these days, but in the early 1990s, the genre still had a few fresh rounds to fire — and with Fishburne and Goldblum locking horns on the screen, and Dr. Dre (with a young Snoop Dogg in tow) making his solo debut on the soundtrack, this is a movie you want to reach for the next time you’re feeling tempted to watch a late-period Steven Seagal flick. As James Rocchi summed it up for Netflix, “Deep Cover was probably conceived as a quickie crime film, but thanks to Fishburne’s and Goldblum’s performances, it became much more.”


6. The Matrix

Head shorn, resplendent in shades and a black leather trenchcoat, Fishburne reached action deity status with his role as the formidable resistance leader Morpheus in The Matrix. Though Keanu Reeves — and, perhaps more importantly, the film’s cutting-edge special effects — gave The Matrix its marquee draw, the movie got its dramatic heft from Fishburne’s grim portrayal of Morpheus. After all, this is a character who not only led a long war against the sentient machines that took over the planet and reduced humanity to unwitting energy sources, but also snuck into the Matrix’s power plant and cracked open the pod containing Neo (Keanu Reeves), the “chosen one” prophesied to lead humans to victory. It’s a role requiring a certain amount of gravitas, which Fishburne supplied in spades. In later installments, Morpheus would travel his own storyline arc; here, he exists mainly to help set up the trilogy’s dizzying blend of sci-fi, martial arts, and pure visual wizardry. Declaring that “Dimension-hopping has never been so exhilarating and breathlessly lyrical,” Mark Halverson of the Sacramento News & Review applauded the way The Matrix‘s “brilliant visuals and bracing Hong Kong action stunts punch through lengthy streams of technobabble.”


5. Mystic River

With Clint Eastwood behind the camera, Brian Helgeland writing the script from a Dennis Lehane book, and a cast packed with reliable names like Sean Penn, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, and (of course) Laurence Fishburne, you’re pretty much guaranteed a terrific movie — and that’s exactly what filmgoers got with 2003’s Mystic River, which not only earned over $150 million at the box office, but won a pair of Academy Awards and a stack of honors from other organizations. Fishburne played Whitey Powers, Massachusetts state police sergeant and partner of Sean Devine (played by Bacon); over the course of the film, the duo investigates the murder of a girl whose father, Jimmy Markum (Penn), is not only a local gangster, but one of Devine’s closest childhood friends. Complicating matters even further is the nagging suspicion that the crime may have been committed by Dave Boyle (Robbins), Jimmy’s brother-in-law — and another of Sean’s old friends. It sounds like the stuff of bullet-riddled melodrama, but few mainstream authors spin literary gold out of pulp as reliably as Lehane, and with Eastwood’s flinty direction providing a solid foundation for his stellar cast, River deserved the praise of critics such as Cole Smithey, who pronounced, “American drama doesn’t get any more meaty and muscular than this.”


4. What’s Love Got to Do with It?

It’s one thing to be able to convincingly play a villain — it’s quite another to make that villain a three-dimensional character whose motivations can be clearly understood by audiences over the course of a film. And it’s altogether more difficult to do either of the above when the character in question is a real person. Give major credit, then, to Laurence Fishburne for his mesmerizing portrayal of Ike Turner in the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It? — though Ike’s abuse and tyrannical control of Tina during their marriage certainly constituted villainy, Fishburne’s layered performance revealed the jealousy and fear behind his reprehensible behavior. Not enough to make Ike a likable guy, but definitely a big part of why critics felt What’s Love was one of the year’s most compelling dramas, and enough to earn Fishburne a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Roger Ebert was one of many critics who applauded the film, writing “It’s a story of pain and courage, uncommonly honest and unflinching, and the next time I hear Tina Turner singing I will listen to the song in a whole new way.”


3. Boyz N the Hood

One of the most sadly prescient films to come out of Hollywood in the last 25 years, writer-director John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood illustrated the conditions in South Central Los Angeles during a time when most filmgoers didn’t know anything about the area. Singleton, who was 24 when Boyz was released and would ultimately go on to become the youngest person (and first African-American) to earn a Best Director Academy Award nomination, outlined the area’s struggles through the stories of a group of young men: Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Ricky (Morris Chestnut), and Doughboy (Ice Cube). As Tre’s father, the stern “Furious” Styles, Fishburne had the opportunity to play one of Hollywood’s few inner-city dads who isn’t a deadbeat — and he also got to deliver a couple of impassioned speeches about what’s wrong with the problems facing the community and how to repair it. A hit at Cannes, the box office, and multiple awards associations, Boyz presaged the “hood film” genre — as well as endless cycles of the violence it depicted. “Singleton had his fingers on the pulse of South Central at a time when it desperately needed help,” wrote Filmcritic’s Matt McKillop. “It’s too bad we didn’t listen to him soon enough.”


2. Apocalypse Now

When he was 14 years old, Fishburne lied about his age to snag a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now — and by the time the legendarily tortured production arrived in theaters, he was 17. Fortunately, it was time well spent; while Apocalypse Now may not be Laurence Fishburne’s best-reviewed film, it’s a classic of American cinema, and on a good many shortlists for the best movies of all time. Here, he plays Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller, the 17-year-old gunner’s mate whose brash personality doesn’t mix well with the increasing reticence of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen). Filming Apocalypse had to have been an eye-opening experience for Fishburne, who came to Coppola after a three-year stint on One Life to Live and roles in Cornbread, Earl and Me and the Gabe Kaplan basketball comedy Fast Break. The finished product was certainly shocking for critics, who expected greatness from Coppola, but were unprepared for Apocalypse‘s epic descent into madness. A cruelly harrowing look at the Vietnam War, released while the scars from the conflict were still fresh in the American psyche, it has earned its place in the cinematic pantheon — and earned praise from legions of critics, including Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote, “Apocalypse Now is a mixed bag, a product of excess and ambition, hatched in agony and redeemed by shards of brilliance.”


1. Searching for Bobby Fischer

A movie about chess sounds boring enough, but one about a young boy playing chess has got to be miserable, right? Not if it’s Searching for Bobby Fischer, Steven Zaillan’s 1993 drama based on the real-life story of junior chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin (played by Max Pomeranc). Superficially, Searching follows the same inspirational arc as any other movie that uses a competition to move its plot along, but look closer and you’ll see a film with some surprisingly thoughtful things to say about fathers and sons, the responsibility that goes with talent, and the fragility of youth. As Vinnie, a fast-talking chess player in New York’s Washington Square Park, Fishburne represents a more emotional, less visibly disciplined way of playing the game than that recommended by Waitzkin’s instructor (played by Ben Kingsley), and helps embody the conflict between doing things for “serious” reasons or simply for the love of doing them. It’s a powerful story that packs a dramatic wallop you might not expect from its premise (or the poster, which depicts the adorable Pomeranc peering over his knee), and although our well-entrenched indifference to chess kept most filmgoers from seeing it, Searching for Bobby Fischer was a favorite of critics such as Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who wrote, “What Bobby Fischer took away, dashing the hopes and the innocence of his acolytes when he spurned chess, may never truly be recaptured. But some of it has found its way to the screen.”

In case you were wondering, here are Fishburne’s top ten movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Matrix — 96%
2. Apocalypse Now — 96%
3. Boyz N the Hood — 94%
4. Mystic River — 92%
5. Searching for Bobby Fischer — 90%
6. Rumble Fish — 85%
7. Akeelah and the Bee — 84%
8. What’s Love Got to Do With It? — 84%
9. King of New York — 84%
10. Deep Cover — 81%

Take a look through Fishburne’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Predators.

Finally, here’s the trailer for Cornbread, Earl and Me, which features a very young Fishburne in his debut:

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