If in the past few weeks, you’ve gone to the movies, watched TV, surfed the internet, or tried to divine the future from a mug of tea leaves, you’ve probably seen Kevin Costner’s face. That guy is everywhere. Seriously. Costner went from an infrequent film actor and a guy whose glory days seemed almost certainly behind him, to an actor with no less than five major films coming out in 2014 alone. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. 3 Days to Kill. Draft Day. Black and White. McFarland. Every one releases this year, and of the five, Jack Ryan is the only one where Costner isn’t in the lead role.
So if you’re seeing movies, you’re seeing Costner. If you’re watching TV, you’re watching ads for Costner. And if you’re online, you’ve no doubt come across at least one of these articles, all with the same general thesis:
“Are We in the Midst of a Kevin Costner Comeback?” (The Daily Beast)
“Maybe Call it a Comeback: Kevin Costner is in Every Movie in 2014” (E! Online)
“2014: The Year of Kevin Costner” (Hollywood.com)
“How Kevin Costner Got His Groove Back” (Newsday)
That last one is my personal favorite, as it implies Kevin Costner is struggling to balance his life as a working mother alongside his relationship with the dashing, unbelievably Jamaican-named Winston Shakespeare. But besides sultry island romance, the thought on everyone’s minds is the same: Kevin Costner is on a comeback roll.
And sadly, that’s an idea that should probably be dispelled. First, though, let’s take a look at what lead Costner to the supposed comeback trail he’s currently on.
The Costner of Yore
Costner is a standard sort of all-American leading man. A guy who’s handsome but not staggeringly so, roguish but not quite Harrison Ford roguish. He’s got the vague air of a father figure, and sticks to wholly American characters. Cowboy. Sports Guy. Hero who Vaguely Resembles Indiana Jones. In the early nineties, that meant wads upon wads of cash. Costner gathered up an armful of Oscars for Dances With Wolves, and followed that up with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK and The Bodyguard, all of which either crushed the box office or received hearty acclaim from the critics. Then in ’95, Waterworld did neither in spectacular fashion. Two years later, The Postman did the very same.
And then the world more or less gave up on Kevin Costner. He’d pop up about once a year, usually playing one of his standard archetypes and usually in a film that never gathered much attention or acclaim. And in the seventeen years since The Postman happened, people have been grasping at the Kevin Costner comeback on a regular basis. Here’s a grasp from 2011. One from 2006. And a lone grasp from something called “Cowboys and Indians Magazine,” all the way back in 1999.
Costner’s star finally re-rose about two years ago, when he lead the History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. That led to Pa Kent in Man of Steel, and that, in turn, led to the Costner-studded 2014 we see before us. And now we’re all caught up on Kevin Costner’s last two decades. Which leads us to this question:
What Is a Comeback, Really?
Obviously, a comeback is where an actor, having fallen out of the spotlight, crawls his or her way back into that sweet, searing hot light and regains the public’s affection. But there’s a secret caveat to the Hollywood comeback: if the general population grew tired of your usual shtick once, you won’t win them back with the same material. Pick a comeback, any comeback, from the last decade or two. The actors who’ve managed to reroute a career slump did so only through a massive overhaul of their public persona.
Take Neil Patrick Harris. For the first decade of his career, he was Doogie Howser, M.D. It was his only hit, the one lead role that had any recognition. A cloud of innocence and ’90s boy genius pheromones marked every performance that came afterward. And then he pulled a complete 180, popping up out of nowhere in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, in a fog of hookers and designer drugs and extreme disdain for anything resembling a quirky boy physician. That was a Neil Patrick Harris that audiences could get behind; a guy who understood that people knew him almost exclusively as a man-boy in an ill-fitting lab coat, and who wasn’t afraid to make fun of that image. And it was the newly bro-verhauled Harris that landed How I Met Your Mother, in very much the same party dude persona. From there, his new image was secured in place.
The same goes for every other comeback kid. Matthew McConaughey was a nude, conga-playing stoner who coasted through romantic comedy leads without ever doing much in the way of acting. He went for the 180, started working really, really hard at this whole acting thing, and now the name McConaughey is synonymous with gravitas, depth of emotion, and only occasional nude conga-ing. John Travolta was an all-singing, all-dancing, pretty boy- until that got him nowhere. Pulp Fiction saw him throw away his romantic lead persona to become the cool gangster type we know today. Liam Neeson ditched the serious acting to be a cheesy action star. Mickey Rourke ditched the cheesy acting to become a serious dramatic star (even if his particular star has begun fading once more). The formula works – and more importantly, it applies to nearly every star comeback in the past few decades.
What Is a Kevin Costner Comeback, Really?
You can probably guess where I’m headed with this, because I’m not exactly being subtle about it. But here it is: A comeback doesn’t work if the actor keeps on doing the same stuff he did when the ship went down. And Kevin Costner, in every one of his myriad 2014 roles, is replaying his same material from when the hull started leaking.
In Jack Ryan he’s the mildly roguish spy. In 3 Days to Kill he’s…the mildly roguish spy. Draft Day and McFarland have Costner as Sports Guy – the manager of the Cleveland Browns and a high school track coach, respectively. Black and White sees him as a father figure, specifically a grandpa fighting an ugly custody battle over his granddaughter (and it’s worth nothing that all five of these films put Costner in the father figure role, whether it be over actual kin or a fledgling sports star/international spy). There’s nothing in 2014 that’s even a little outside Costner’s wheelhouse. The best you can do is 3 Days to Kill, in which Costner is going for a Liam Neeson-esque action hero, but considering Costner was always believable as an action hero (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Bodyguard), it’s tough to call that new territory.
What are audiences going to think when they see Costner’s many 2014 performances? Best case scenario, they’ll see Costner chugging along, and agree that he’s still got it- that same all-American star power that made him a superstar twenty years ago. That might be enough to give the Costner relaunch a secure foothold. But it’s not material that’ll generate headlines; not in the way “Kevin Costner lands five films in one year” does. And when his current buzz fades and there’s little to replace it, the outlook is not so good.
Then there’s the worst-case scenario: no one will even see him. Jack Ryan did not do terrifically at the box office or with critics, and 3 Days to Kill looks poised to hit the same territory. The reviews trickling in are not stellar, it’s opening head-to-head with another action picture (Pompeii), and The Lego Movie currently obliterating all other competition in a shower of 1×1 bricks and general awesomeness. McFarland is opening against the next Hunger Games (not much that can be done there). Black and White doesn’t yet have a release date, but it’s a low-budget drama about a custody battle, and it stars Costner and Octavia Spencer. The film may be terrific or it may be a total bust, but either way it’s just not the type of pic that kills it with audiences. Of his five films, only Draft Day has the potential to make bank, needing to fight off only Rio 2 and the second week of Captain America. Plus, that one had Super Bowl coverage. If 3 Days to Kill (which also had a Super Bowl spot) can make a good buck this weekend, Draft Day has a chance for success. If not, Draft Day’s outlook- and Costner’s chances at a comeback- may be significantly dimmer.
The Costner of Tomorrow
There’s still hope for the Coz (a nickname I’m assuming isn’t taken). If one of his next four flicks (most likely Draft Day) strikes a big enough chord with audiences, Costner’s name recognition will probably get a bump for the next few years, allowing him to keep nabbing roles that are high-profile, but not too high-profile. Stuff like Hatfields & McCoys, or smaller roles in big productions like Man of Steel. And he’ll definitely gain bonus points if he ever strays away from his usual Kevin Costner material. Something villainous, something funny, something where he has to do a foreign accent. If he hadn’t already done Man of Steel, a superhero movie would have been perfect- those things are tailor-made for actors to cut loose. Only in something like Guardians of the Galaxy could the schlubby guy from Parks & Rec play a chiseled hero, the serious award-winner play a wisecracking space raccoon, and the cast’s one bankable action star end up playing a tree with one line of dialogue.
Costner was this close to that kind of role just two years ago. He was originally up for Walton Goggins’ part in Django Unchained – Billy Crash, the trainer behind Candieland’s slave fights. You know, the scruffy fellow who nearly lops off Jamie Foxx’s unmentionables, and later befalls the same totally gross fate. Coming off of Hatfields & McCoys, a role which had its own villainous streak, this could have re-purposed Costner into a Westerner to fear, not root for. The classic American cowboy playing a creep so creepy that the real all-American hero must shoot him in the gonads? It would have been perfect. And given Quentin Tarantino’s tendency to give sagging actors a boost (see also: John Travolta, Pam Grier), a racist, testicle-obsessed Kevin Costner would almost certainly have nullified this whole “Year of Costner” before it ever became a thing.
But that’s not the case. Instead, we look ahead to a year where Kevin Costner plays Kevin Costner; only this time, he’s doing so more often than usual. No stretching, no experimenting, and no real chance of seeing Costner relaunch in a big way. It’s not perfect, but it’s the situation- and the Kevin Costner- we’re stuck with. At least until he can get a few roles that involve really hating someone else’s sex organs.