'Sniper' star takes shot at violent films

February 19, 1993|By Todd Camp | Todd Camp,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

It's rare to find an insider in Hollywood who supports the belief that violence in movies has a detrimental effect on audiences.

Rarer still, that the criticism comes from 27-year-old Chicago native Billy Zane, who made his mark in movies with his role as a demented sea-bound psycho in the 1989 chiller "Dead Calm."

Mr. Zane's latest role in the action/drama "Sniper" is the performance in which he says he justifies his beliefs. He portrays Richard Miller, a silver medal-winning marksman recruited by the National Security Council to supervise a top-secret assignment in the jungles of Panama.

"It was the chance to play someone that ultimately lets greed get in the way of his better judgment," Mr. Zane said recently. "Because he didn't get the gold, he didn't have a career selling Product A and his face isn't on a Wheaties box. So he ends up accepting this offer, all the while going, 'Yeah, piece of cake, no problem, this I can do without much consequence.'

"And it's that dynamic that parallels what I feel to be a situation perpetuated by violence in the cinema," Mr. Zane said. "There's the assumption that these images don't mar the psyche of an audience. I personally think that they do; that unchecked gratuitous violence and moral ambiguity are detrimental."

It is the so-called "gratuitous" elements of violence in motion pictures that tends to bring on the most criticism. Parents' groups and more prudish moviegoers would blame society's escalating violent tendencies on films that glamorize death with heroes who dispense it like candy and victims who go unnoticed or largely unseen.

It was "Sniper's" use of violence with repercussions that attracted Mr. Zane to the picture. Audiences expecting a "Rambo"-esque jungle shoot-'em-up have been surprised.

"The nature of this picture means people assume it's one thing, but I think its charm is its element of surprise," Mr. Zane said. "People go in with one assumption and it's like, 'Whoops, I didn't expect a Greco-Roman tragedy with interesting characters.' It deals with the nature of what a bullet can do to both the shooter and the victim."

Arriving in Hollywood in 1983, Mr. Zane made his movie debut in Robert Zemeckis' "Back to the Future." After a few smaller roles, Mr. Zane exploded onto the movie scene with a knockout performance in Phillip Noyce's "Dead Calm."

It was his terrifying portrayal of the unassumingly psychotic Hughie Warriner that brought offers for dozens of similar roles, all of which Mr. Zane turned down.

"Once you've done something well, it always happens," Mr. Zane said. "Naturally actors get the opportunity to do the same thing again, which is very tedious -- the offer, let alone doing it, you know. You almost have to really work against it sometimes, wait, be patient and tighten the belt."

Mr. Zane followed up with a memorable performance in the World War II drama "Memphis Belle," and a series of independent films, including "Blood and Concrete -- A Love Story," "Femme Fatale," and "Megaville."

Mr. Zane has several other projects in the can, most of which will hit screens this year; the first one is "Orlando," adapted from Virginia Woolf's classic novel. Mr. Zane will also appear in "Posse," a western chronicling the history of African-Americans in the Old West and a bit part in "Poetic Justice," the new film

from "Boyz N the Hood" director John Singleton.

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