With Dredd 3D showing up at TIFF this year, and arriving in theatres country-wide soon, I got to thinking about Karl Urban and his weird and wonderful career. You may ask, “Karl who?” You wouldn’t be alone. Despite Urban’s appearance in blockbuster films like RED, Star Trek, The Bourne Supremacy and the second and third Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers and Return of the King, he is somehow still not a household name.
One of the things I really like about Karl Urban’s character choices is that they alternate back and forth between good and evil. He does both well — and somehow manages to be either the most sympathetic character on screen (bad or good), or the one who looks like he’s having the most fun. And though his career in Hollywood only spans about a decade so far, let’s take a look back at some highlights. I can already hear the echos of, “Oh, yeah. That guy.”
Lord of the Rings was made in his native New Zealand, and Urban was a natural fit for the role of Eomer, nephew to the King of Rohan. With long golden locks, a sword and a horse, and he rode around saving the day. He wasn’t a major character, and yet he had a great presence on screen, and some memorably lines to deliver (“Do not trust a hope. It has forsaken these lands.”). Epic.
Then came The Chronicles of Riddick, and this time Urban was absolutely and deliciously evil as Lord Vaako. He sported lots of eye makeup, slicked long black hair, and lots of silver and black armour. As one half of an ambitious Necromonger couple, he was ready to cut throats at every turn. Also, Dame Judy Dench and the talented Colm Feore were in this movie, adding a little bit of class to the overall goth action.
In The Bourne Supremacy, the second Bourne movie, Urban played a member of the Russian secret service/automaton assassin named Kirill. With closely cropped hair and a Matrix-inspired long leather coat, he was a brutal and worthy Jason Bourne adversary. And clearly enjoyed himself with a dark goth-inspired club, surrounded by babes and a throbbing, pulsing electronica beat.
It was shortly after these films that I myself, moved to New Zealand. And there, while enjoying New Zealand media and tutoring a course on New Zealand cinema, I encountered some of his earlier work; a Karl Urban I had never seen before. In The Price of Milk, a truly strange, fanciful, but rather charming romantic comedy, he played a stand up good guy named Rob, a recently engaged milk farmer with an agoraphobic dog (who ran around with a box over him). It was the first time I’d seen Urban on screen without a weapon in his hand. Just a guy baffled about his fiancee’s pre-wedding jitters. And then there’s the New Zealand horror film, The Irrefutable Truth About Demons, in which he plays a university professor trying to find out why his brother killed himself. An evil cult is involved. He is made to eat bugs (though I can’t recall whether it’s real or a dream).
And then, Out of the Blue (2006) was released, an absolutely stunning, haunting film from director Robert Sarkies about the 1990 Aramoana massacre (the country’s worst mass killing). Since I lived quite close to Aramoana, the film was naturally much talked about. A quiet, profoundly sad film in which a local man goes on a shooting rampage, keeping the sleepy coastal town’s residents hostage for 24 hours. And again, I saw a side of Urban I hadn’t seen before. He does an excellent and sensitive turn as the local cop who tries to come to the rescue. Definitely a good guy.
I was still living down under when Pathfinder came out, a film that is little known in North America, but was much bigger deal in NZ. Urban plays an out of place, adopted member of a Native American tribe, left behind by his Viking kin as a child. When the Vikings return in his adult years to raid again, he takes up the side of the Natives. Though not a faithful or in any way realistic depiction of either Vikings or Natives, it certainly is an entertaining film, and includes a scene where he uses a Viking shield as a toboggan. Hilariously, Urban is shirtless much of the time, despite it being winter. And he gets to use all those nifty sword-wielding skills he learned in Lord of the Rings.
Upon my return to Canadian soil, Urban was back on the screen in the highly successful J.J. Abrams’ remake of Star Trek playing the role of Leonard “Bones” McCoy. It was a pretty solid turn as the crusty and sarcastic USS Enterprise doctor. Urban brought in just enough of the old character’s manner and physicality to make it work, while still making the character his own.
And then there was RED, one of my favourite films of 2010, where Urban’s character gets to call Bruce Willis “Grandpa” and then have his ass handed to him by same. Urban is great as the very well put together CIA agent assigned to hunt down Willis. He starts out as an order-taking but well dressed thug, and ends up redeeming himself by helping Willis nail the bad guys.
Directly following the clean cut good guy in RED, was his role as a futuristic vampire priest. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Priest is a futuristic sci-fi vampire movie starring Paul Bettany as a warrior priest who defies his order to pursue the vamps who’ve kidnapped his daughter. The movie is not to be taken seriously, but it is seriously gorgeous to look at and full of fun good and bad guys shooting each other. Urban has a small role as the terminally evil “Black Hat,” which looked like he was having fun with.
And now we’re back to Dredd 3D in which Karl Urban plays Judge Dredd, another stoic good guy. A title and starring role for Urban, it might seem to signal his coming out of the supporting cast shadow and into the leading man light. I can’t really comment on the film since I haven’t seen it yet (though our TFS editor-in-chief has), I don’t know that this is the one that’ll help make him a household name – since, after all, he doesn’t even remove his helmet during the film. It remains to be seen. Perhaps one of his upcoming features – The Loft, Overdrive, and sequels to Star Trek and Chronicles of Riddick – will do the trick.
But none of that really matters to me. Watching Karl Urban play bad guys and good guys, swallow giant bugs, milk cows, wield swords, or fire guns just doesn’t seem to get old. Larger than life or down to earth, Urban’s characters, both bad and good, assure that we will keep watching.
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