It was a night like any other. I was finished with school and scanning the movie channels for something decent to watch when I happened upon Michael Bay’s, “The Island.” A dystopian set action flick about a collection of human clones unknowingly being reared for their organs, it soon became apparent that whilst the concept had legs, the film was pretty typical Bay fare: heavy on the spectacle, a shockingly hot girl, lots of gratuitous shots of said hot girl, a highly implausible romance between hot girl and the comparatively average male lead and some vague political overtone which unsubtly hits you in the face every ten minutes or so. Around half an hour in I had already decided I was most likely going to snooze my way through the film and was getting ready to do just that, when something caught my attention.
One of the clones was being harvested for his organs and had woken up mid-way through the operation. His eyes wild and big with terror, he hurled his hulking mass off the surgeons table and set about trying to escape. Frantic and confused, tears streaming from his eyes and saliva dribbling down his chin, this beast of a man ran at full pelt down the corridor, levelling anything or anyone that got in his way. If you’ve seen a film directed by Michael Bay, you will know he has something of a penchant for big explosions but nothing I have seen in a Bay film before or since, matches the impact this man possessed in this one scene. His impressive build was belied by the genuine terror in his eyes, a terror which only heightened as he was cruelly caught by his oppressors. Listening to his impassioned screams of “I wanna live!” as he is dragged back to surgical theatre, there was something horrifying about watching a man of such stature screaming for his life with all the fragility and heartfelt emotion of a small child crying for its mother, and the sequence was to haunt me long after the film had finished.
I didn’t know it then but that was just one in a spate of incredible performances given by Michael Clarke Duncan.
Of course, most will remember him from “The Green Mile,” as the softly spoken John Coffey (like the drink but not spelt the same), a wrongly convicted prisoner on death row in 1930’s America.
In what had to be one of the most spot on casting decisions of the decade, Duncan turned in a performance that will forever succeed in softening the hearts of even the most jaded film critics. There was a strange beauty in his ability to convey vulnerability and childlike innocence in spite of his brutish appearance and as a former bouncer with no formal acting training, Duncan displayed an innate talent for acting that quite rightly gained him an Oscar nomination as well as the respect of his peers. Even now, despite the fact that “The Green Mile,” was released over ten years ago, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Duncan that many found so compelling. Maybe it was his distinctive booming yet slightly wheezy voice. Maybe it was the oddly graceful way in which he carried himself, or those big old puppy dog eyes. Whatever it was, it was a truly unique gift that he would thankfully reuse again and again in a range of roles. The 54 year old actor was something of a late bloomer, gaining his first role in a mainstream film at the age of 31. Whilst the majority of his roles depended on the undeniable draw of his imposing physical presence, you never got the sense that Duncan rested on this and instead displayed a surprising versatility that ensured he continued to secure roles in successful films.
Thinking of some of Duncan’s performances brings to mind a line in one of my favourite films, “Gattaca.” After the main character swims from one side of the sea to the other without stopping, a physical feat not thought possible, he is asked how he did it. He answers, “I never saved anything for the way back.” Duncan threw himself into his roles with this same fervent intensity and I have no doubt that the best was yet to come. I am thankful he decided to share his unique talent with us and I am sure this sentiment is shared with his many fans the world over.