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Movie stars before they were famous

Movie stars before they were famous: well known names in not-so-well known titles

There is a certain appeal, if only judging by their popularity in the bargain bin DVD buckets, to seeing now-famous movie stars before they were famous. In an odd way, it’s like seeing an acquaintance in an old home video from before you knew them. You recognise them of course, yet they seem just different enough from the person you’ve come to know to seem off-kilter somehow.

Famous actors in unfamiliar roles

The three films that follow, starring now-famous actors before they were famous, have become favourites in my collection. Beyond their entertainment value, it is simply fascinating to see actors we’re familiar with acting in roles we’re so unfamiliar with. They offer an opportunity to see actors we know, but not through the well-coordinated and high-budget lens we have become accustomed to with them.

Of course everybody has to start somewhere, and what follows are a few early works of some of Hollywood’s best-known names which are – for one reason or another – well worth watching. So come and rake through the bargain bin of time with me as I list three of my favourite ‘actors before they were famous’ films.

Brosnan before Bond

Death Train (1993)

Many fans of the action movie genre will be readily familiar with the grizzled and chiselled chin of Pierce Brosnan from his successful rebooting of the James Bond movie franchise in 1995 with, in my view, one of the greatest films ever made – Goldeneye (1995).

However, just two years prior to that, he appeared in a film which most people who didn’t happen to have their TVs tuned in may have missed, as it was very much what you might call a ‘made-for-tv masterpiece’.

Pierce Brosnan before he was famous
Pierce Brosnan (pictured at Cannes Festival in 2002). Credit: Rita Molnar.

Death Train (1993) has, as all lower budget films of the era tend to have, an alternative title: ‘Detonator’.

While a bit less gripping, the title Detonator does give a little more insight into the plot: that a United Nations-led Interpol-esque crime-fighting team is tasked with stopping a train which has been hijacked in Germany, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. The passengers have been taken hostage, and the hijackers have… a nuclear bomb.

However, while entertaining, the plot is not the main appeal of this film. Instead it is the surprisingly big-name cast which normally has people asking to borrow a copy of this film from me.

It stars Brosnan in the leading role as Mike Graham, only a scant two years before his James Bond role, which is unlikely to be a coincidence. He is the American motorbike-enthusiast-stroke-Interpol special forces team leader trying to commandeer the speeding nuclear-armed train.

Is that who I think it is?

That alone, I would say, makes this film worth a watch, as it is undoubtedly the performance that secured his 007 rank not long after. However, quite surprisingly Death Train (1993) also stars Patrick Stewart, Christopher Lee, and Ted Levine. It’s not just that no-one has seen a film with these names in it, but the fact that almost no one has even heard of it that astounds me.

Patrick Stewart, Actor
Patrick Stewart (pictured 2019 San Diego Comic-Con). Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Patrick Stewart found several roles that year aside from Death Train (1993), including Robin Hood Men in Tights (1993), which I’d wager far more people reading this article have seen. Unsurprisingly, this filming period occurred during the down-time between seasons of Star Trek The Next Generation (1987-1994).

His role as the UN Crime team’s leader in Death Train (1993) sees him rarely leave a single room (probably to condense shooting into a day or two). However his classical training is evident, and he commands every scene he’s in.

Christopher Lee was no stranger to obscure or low-budget cinema, of course. He famously played Count Dracula in no less than 10 films, and appeared in at least 20 tangentially related to vampires, out of his more than 280 acting credits. While younger readers may know him from the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars Prequel series, each older generation subsequently remembers him for more and more obscure filmography.

In Death Train (1993) he stars as the ominous General Benin, a former Soviet officer who has helped procure a nuclear weapon. Through him the film asks poignantly about post-Cold War nuclear tensions – was the brand new Russian government really keeping that tight-a-lid on all of those nukes?

Actor Christopher Lee
Christopher Lee (pictured 2012 at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival). Credit: Siebbi.

Ted Levine gives an impressive performance as our antagonist Alex Tierney, an American mercenary whose motives are unclear in the high-stakes game of nuclear-train-poker.

Perhaps understandably, Ted Levine has been typecast as Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs (1991), despite regularly starring in pretty major blockbusters since, such as Heat (1995) and Shutter Island (2010). As such it’s hard not to hear the voice of Buffalo Bill behind his rather unique delivery, especially with Death Train (1993) being filmed just two years later.

Where have I seen this idea before?

Observant Bond fans may have read the plot synopsis – a nuclear bomb on a train travelling across Europe – and seen connections to the beloved spy franchise beyond simply featuring Pierce Brosnan. In that, you’re not alone. Even on the surface it’s easy to see how Octopussy (1983) influenced the framework of this film.

Indeed you could be forgiven for thinking, if you squint your eyes, that you’re watching a Bond film despite Brosnan’s adopted American accent. His performance in Death Train (1993), and its sequel Detonator 2: Night Watch (1995), were undoubtedly major influences towards securing him his Double-0 rank.

Throughout the film, several attempts are made by local police and army forces along the train’s route to stop it – but in the end only Brosnan and his hand-picked team of commandos can take the train back and stop the bomb from reaching its deadly destination.

I point to Death Train (1993) as evidence of the ‘undiscovered classic’, as well as to defend direct-to-tv movies. It shows there are good films out there that simply never made it to the big screen.

This film, at least partly, influenced the rebooted James Bond franchise, and has what would otherwise count as a star-studded cast.

Two men out of their depth in an African civil war

Danger Zone (1996)

While not exactly filmed that early in his career, Danger Zone (1996) was made long before Robert Downey Jr. was the household name he is today.

Downey’s career path and struggles with substance abuse may be fairly well known, but what isn’t so well known is how extensive his acting career was before his subsequent rise to prominence in Hollywood.

Robert Downey Jr. in the throes of addiction

Danger Zone (1996) represents the film he was working on right as his career began to dramatically suffer from his addictions, and for that reason alone any hardcore Downey fan should want to see it. Not for the purposes of ogling at a man in the throes of a dark period in his life, but as a testament to just how far he had already come in the acting world by that point.

Robert Downey Jr. before he was famous
Robert Downey Jr. (pictured at Iron Man 3 premier in 2013). Credit: Vincent Zafra.

Danger Zone (1996) is, as the title suggests, also an action film. It takes place in the pseudo-fictional location of ‘East Zambezi’ a fictional African country and, seemingly, a nod to the transient nature of many precarious nation-states given the troubled political situation in Africa at the time.

Sorry, where did you say?

An American mining engineer arrives in East Zambezi for a not-too-well defined role in a not-too-well defined business venture, only to get caught up in a civil war which, inevitably and predictably, was the product of international conspiratorial interference in African politics.

However, our plucky American protagonist in this film isn’t Downey, but rather Billy Zane, appearing in Danger Zone (1996) just a year before he would play Cal Hockley, better known as ‘the posh bad guy’ in Titanic (1997).

Actor Billy Zane
Billy Zane (pictured 2010 at the Cannes Film festival). Credit: Georges Biard.

He stars alongside Downey Jr. (who is often absent from scenes you would expect him to be in, for reasons we can guess at) in a film which is not a stand-out hit, but neither is it a total flop.

To anyone reading through the credits after the film, or the IMDb page, these are not the only two names which might flag your interest. Cary-Hiroyugi Takawa – better known as Shang Tsung from the Mortal Kombat (1995) movie, and Kwang from Licence to Kill (1989) – also make an appearance in Danger Zone (1996).

Fans of Takawa are rather aware of his eclectic filmography, as well as his typecast role as the ‘mysterious Asian antagonist’, but even so his sudden appearance in Danger Zone (1996) is quite a surprise on first viewing.

Sometimes life is stranger than fiction

Although interesting as an insight into Robert Downey Jr. himself, the film is a bit lacklustre towards its end. This film can instead be best appreciated as a study into Downey Jr. as an actor.

Of course, there is plenty of good action to be enjoyed in Danger Zone (1996), although the film does suffer somewhat from its evident lack of clear direction and, presumably, due to stated issues with one of its major cast.

For the big Robert Downey Jr. or Billy Zane fans out there, this would make good viewing for any quiet evening.

Neo Nazis on the Orient Express

Night Train to Venice (1993)

If you watched the above trailer and were expecting an action-packed and exciting romp, then a viewing of the film in its full ‘glory’ will demonstrate the misleading power of advertising. Night Train to Venice (1993) is an early work from the now-famous British actor Hugh Grant, who is, of course, well-known rom-com actor, but in the early 90s his career was just finding its legs.

However, Grant does not seem to share the same fond memories for Night Train to Venice (1993) that Brosnan has for Death Train (1993).

‘The worst film I have ever been in’

Indeed, Hugh Grant has gone out of his way to distance himself from the film in every way possible, and on at least one occasion described it as ‘the worst film he has ever been in’.

Hugh Grant before he was famous
Hugh Grant (pictured 2008). Credit: Tine Hemeryck.

In this film Grant adopts a fairly recognisable, if early prototype, of his now-famous ‘foppish English gentleman’ demeanour. Indeed, this came out just one year prior to Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), where Grant used it to much greater success.

He plays the role of an author about to publish a book on Neo-Nazis. His publisher is located in Venice, thus he’s travelling there from Munich aboard the famous Orient Express.

There’s no way that’s who I think it is… Let me see that DVD case!

This simply being a quirky film in Hugh Grant’s earlier repertoire wouldn’t be enough alone to warrant its mention here, though. Alas, it’s not just Hugh Grant they managed to rope into this film – somehow they got Malcolm McDowell of A Clockwork Orange (1971) fame.

A year later Malcolm McDowell would be filling the role of Soran in Star Trek: Generations (1994) alongside Patrick Stewart, in one of the biggest roles in his modern career.

Yet in the interim he was starring in this film, where he plays the role of.. well, actually that’s not very clear.

He might be the devil. He might just be a Neo-Nazi leader. At one point he does wear a white carnival mask, which some have suggested may be a reference to A Clockwork Orange (1971), but then any director who had ever seen that film would have no excuse for then making a film this poorly.

Hugh Grant’s character is, according to the IMDb entry for the film, ‘Martin’, but prior to checking, frankly I had no idea.

A ‘1 minute love story’ with Neo Nazis on the Orient Express

Martin must survive a perilous journey aboard the Orient Express as a group of malcontent ne’er-do-wells, impliedly Neo-Nazis, try to stop him from publishing his book; although in actuality they do very little to impede him, despite sneaking aboard expressly for that purpose.

Aboard, he meets the lovely Tahnee Welch, who you may recognise from Cocoon (1985). They fall in madly love over the course of perhaps a minute of screen time, sharing a total of about eight lines of dialogue in the entire film, after she helps bandage him when a Neo-Nazi lightly cuts Grant’s arm. They arrive in Venice in the throes of a burgeoning relationship, yet by this point the film is scarcely halfway done, as trouble has followed Hugh Grant there…

Hugh Grant and Malcolm McDowell are in it? What’s the catch?

Night Train to Venice (1993) is not undeservedly known as one of the worst films ever made.

I have challenged friends to note down every mistake they see during a screening and most give up after about forty minutes.

Actor Malcolm McDowell
Malcolm McDowell (pictured 2008). Credit: GabboT.

Indeed, there is apparently a drinking game associated with this film which I strongly recommend against playing for your own health. To play, drink every time you see stock footage of a train or Venice spliced into the film to pad out the run time. At current estimate at least half an hour of the footage in this film, quite genuinely, consists solely of stock footage of a train – or of the city of Venice. It is truly a marvel to behold.

Despite the plot being fairly simple, it is also incredibly difficult to divine – not aided by the terrible audio mixing, obscure and esoteric writing, frequent use of indefinite analepsis, and evidently poor direction.

Reviews include: ‘it seems like it was made by an alien who had only briefly been told what a film was’, which is as strong-a-recommendation as any schlock film can get. You can practically see the frustration on Grant’s face in some scenes, offering a delight to connoisseurs of schadenfreude.

I personally cannot recommend this film strongly enough, at least for the morbidly curious such as myself. I intend one day to show this film to a class of film students, if only so as to show those students precisely what not to do when making a film.