The first movie in which I ever noticed actor James Gandolfini was one of his earliest. In the Tony Scott/Quentin Tarantino action love story “True Romance”, Gandolfini played a low level mob enforcer who was sent by Christopher Walken’s Vincent Coccotti to track down a suitcase of drugs that had made its way from Detroit to L.A. He drives the brutal scene in which he beats Patricia Arquette’s Alabama nearly to death in a hotel room. It’s not a very big role, but that scene marked the entry of a powerful and charming actor into the major Hollywood spotlight.
Scott cast Gandolfini again in his 1995 submarine mutiny thriller “Crimson Tide” where he played a crewman loyal to Gene Hackman’s deposed captain. Scott also cast Gandolfini as the Mayor of New York City in his 2007 remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”. Gandolfini began his rise through the Hollywood ranks playing tough guy characters in fairly high profile movies like “Terminal Velocity”, “Get Shorty” and “The Juror”. But it was on television where he would really make his mark.
In 1999, HBO began a series that would change the face of television and the side of the law on which audiences would place their allegiances. “The Sopranos” changed everything. Nobody could’ve predicted that a show about a mobster and family man on a paid cable network would become an iconic television series. Much of the show’s success was due to Gandolfini’s performance as the Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano. Gandolfini often acted as an anchor for the show as his character anchored the family business depicted on the program. Suddenly, audiences were rooting for the criminal, the adulterer, the psychologically challenged; and a whole new television world opened up that would lead to such programs as “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, “House of Cards”, “Dexter”, “Boardwalk Empire” and many others. Gandolfini had changed the game.
During his six season run as Tony Soprano Gandolfini continued his film career. He used his television success to pick and chose roles that were more interesting and played against the typecasting as a mobster that seemed destined during his early career. He appeared in the Coen Brothers neo-noir “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, as a court-martialed general in Rod Lurie’s allegorical “The Last Castle”, in the holiday comedy “Surviving Christmas”, and in the remake of Robert Penn Warren’s political novel “All the King’s Men”.
Two of my favorite films from this period in Gandolfini’s career are two of his strangest. In Gore Verbinski’s “The Mexican”, Gandolfini goes back into hitman mode, but this time with a twist. His hardnosed hitman here is also a little light in the loafers. It’s one of his most charming characters, and kudos to Gandolfini and Verbinski for not succumbing to gay stereotypes in their depiction of this guy, who really has a pretty good heart for a hitman. The other is the little seen, but immensely wonderful “Romance & Cigarettes”. In it, Gandolfini plays an adulterer who cannot bring himself to leave his wife and daughters for his sex-crazed mistress. That might not sound so unusual, but when five-minutes into the movie Gandolfini bursts into a song and dance number with a chorus of sanitary men and other blue-collar workers it becomes apparent this will not be your average romantic comedy.
After “The Sopranos” ended it run, Gandolfini seemed to slow down a little, mostly taking smaller authoritarian roles. He was still up for challenges, however. He took on a surprisingly gentle and understanding role of a grieving father who takes a young woman under his guidance in the drama “Welcome to the Rileys”. He also voiced one of the famous monsters in the live action adaptation of the classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are”. Recently he appeared as the director of the C.I.A. in the Oscar-nominated depiction of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty”.