What the Fuck Is Michael Madsen Doing with His Life?

The strange, slow star death of the actor who gave us Mr. Blonde from <i>Reservoir Dogs</i>, and American cinema's last real tough guy.

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Jul 24 2014, 10:20pm

Madsen in Reservoir Dogs (1992)

In every era of American cinema, there's been a laconic, visceral tough-guy actor whose persona has seemed to mirror the time they arrived in: Cagney, Bogart, Mitchum, Eastwood, De Niro, Rourke. Actors who were probably busy seeing the hard end of human existence in their youths, rather than learning how to dance and auditioning for zit-cream ads. Craggy, drunk, weird, violent young men whose faces told stories, which was useful, because they didn't really want to talk about themselves anyway. Actors whose personalities seemed so at odds with their day jobs, you got the impression it was all part of some extended community service sentence. Had it not been for acting, it probably would've been prison, gigoloing, or some godforsaken travelling rodeo.

In the 90s—an era best defined by actors like Keanu Reeves and David Schwimmer, who wore orange turtlenecks and put mousse in their hair—there was one actor who carried on that tradition better than any other: Michael Madsen, the lunking, squinting, heel-scraping, hyper-masculine star of Reservoir Dogs, Donnie Brasco, Species, and Free Willy.

Even in his prime, Madsen didn't make many great films, but his performance as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs alone ruined so many cozy date nights that he became one of the iconic actors of his time. At 6 foot 2, and built like a 1940s prize-fighter, he was totally believable as the charming, careless, terrifying bastards he played. Handsome, but not in the way that'd get him anywhere near a GAP campaign, he always looked like he'd been pulled from the holding cell of some backwater jail, still hungover and in the same cowboy boots he'd been arrested in. If Tom Hanks was the actor that captured the inherent decency of the ordinary American, then Madsen was the actor that personified the madness you find on the back seat of Greyhound buses, at late-night diners, in Raymond Chandler novels and Warren Zevon murder ballads.

Madsen in his most famous—and arguably most damning—moment

After Reservoir Dogs, Madsen became hot property. The go-to man for directors looking for corrupt cops, mob enforcers, bikers, deadbeat boyfriends, pissed off cowboys, and all manner of Americana stock characters. His career was following the same trajectory of many great actors before him; he could've been one of the greats, surely.

But unlike Cagney, Bogart, De Niro et al, Madsen did not become a legend. Nor did he crash and burn in the spectacular, romantic manner that Mickey Rourke or Dennis Hopper did before him. He just kept making terrible movies, and terrible decisions. Where his forefathers could flitter in and out of comebacks, veering between films you could only buy in gas stations and films that won Oscars, Madsen's later work has never really been able to crawl out of the bargain bin of popular culture.

How bad did it get? Well, just this week, the poor bastard appeared in the video for the new Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora tune, wandering around the set, wearing snakeskin boots, looking confused, playing what looks like a composite of roles he used to play in perhaps the most heinous collaboration since the Vichy government.

But that really is just the tip of this particular shit-berg. According to IMDb, Madsen has 25 films that have either come out in the last 12 months or are slated to come out by the end of the year. Last year, it was a mere 14, of which included Ace Of Spades: Bad Destiny, a Montenegrin drama and Piranhaconda (with Rachel Hunter), a movie that boasts the rare distinction of being a sequel to a rip-off of a parody. 2011 was a relatively quiet year for Michael, during which he starred in just ten films, the jewel in the crown probably being Not Another Not Another Movie. His slacking in this period is understandable; Madsen has been averaging over 15 movies a year for well over a decade now. His total IMDb screen credits currently total 238.

To put that in perspective, Robert De Niro, an actor with many, many years on Madsen—and who's certainly not had a problem saying "Sorry, I've got other commitments" in recent years—only has 101. Harry Dean Stanton, the perennial grizzled American character actor with a career dating back to the mid '50s, only has 189. Madsen has made over 200 more films than Daniel Day Lewis. Most of them in the last 15 years. None of which you will have heard of since Sin City, which he's great in, for about three minutes.

The trailer for A Matter Of Justice (2011)

Madsen—once the living emblem of the unreformed, unforgiving America—now makes the kind of films you'd assume were made purely for tax break purposes. He makes Russian-language movies where he is legitimately listed as "Makyl Medsen" and credited only as "Agent"; movies that star Vinnie Jones and Jamelia, movies that appear to have been made by high school students, movies where he plays characters with names like "Leo Ibiza" and "Colonel JT Colt", movies you just didn't think they made any more. He was in The Walking Dead video game, but not in The Walking Dead TV show. In 2012, he appeared in Celebrity Big Brother, looking stretched and spooked, his only contributions a kind of minor breakdown about not wanting to wear one of those bodysuits and a running feud with Denise Welch. His career is utterly, utterly depressing, and more so than even the demise of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, tells us how long ago the 1990s really were.

Like Buffalo Bill Cody, touring his Wild West show in 1903, he is a just-about-still-going American icon, making a quick and bad buck off of history. I've not seen any of the above films, but I'd be very surprised if at any point he plays a character with any more depth than "Mr Blonde, but a spy!" or "Mr Blonde, but Russian!" He is a soldier of nostalgia, plowing on through the bottom end of the entertainment industry, popping up on Encore or some other far-flung cable outpost to remind stoners of that bit in Donnie Brasco where they batter the waiter.

What went wrong for Madsen? A catalog of on and off-screen errors seem to have brought about his protracted star death. He was supposed to play the John Travolta role in Pulp Fiction, but he couldn't because he was too busy making Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner. He accrued $680,000 worth of debt in the mid noughties; he went to rehab for a drinking problem; he borrowed a million dollars off Quentin Tarantino. He beat up his son for smoking weed; he's rumoured to have leaked the latest Tarantino script to the press and he has written several volumes of poetry. His career is a quixotic guide to doing fame badly.

Madsen on Celebrity Big Brother (2012)

Usually, when our favorite actors fall into decline, we start asking ourselves "What went wrong?" at the same time as we're gifting them their comeback awards, or sieving through their TMZ appearances. But with Madsen, it really is a question of "What went right?" The last 20 years of his life seem to have been nothing but undiluted misery, and he seems to know it: "You get these horrifying straight-to-video things for very little money, then you go to the Cannes Film Festival and they got some poster of you, 40 feet high, in the worst movie in the world. You're like, 'Oh my God. Take the fucking thing down!'" he said TEN YEARS AGO, as a man who as we speak is probably signing a contract to make another one of those movies.

It's hard not to laugh when you see poor Mike propping up the cast in a movie like Dirty Dealing 3D or A Cold Day In Hell but for me, Madsen is an actor we should rue the loss of, rather than bestow a Nic Cage-esque meme-death upon.

There may not be much worth in his recent canon, but Madsen is the kind of figure modern American cinema could really do with right now. Yes, he is still alive, and he is still working. But in a movie culture in which the tough guys are played by 21-year-olds called Taylor or Chad or Zach—muscle Barbies who look like Abercrombie models and probably know a bit of Wing Chun—Madsen actually seems and looks like the kind of guy who'd be capable of cutting a cop's ear off. Whereas those guys built their physiques preparing for dance offs, Madsen seems to be in possession of the kind of pre-Friends American hardness that would put the absolute fear of God into anyone trying to date his daughter. He looks like he'd bite Alex Pettyfer's face off, basically.

Secondly, while the artistic merit of his post-Sin City output might pale beside Dennis Rodman's or Pauly Shore's, there is something undeniably admirable about the way he takes to it. Never in human history has an actor gone about their work quite like Madsen has in the last few years. He seems to complete movies at a rate most plumbers or clickbait journalists would be impressed with. And for all Tarantino's fetishization of the grindhouse, he is essentially somebody who dilutes it for the mainstream, a passing visitor, a fan. But it's Madsen who's really out there living that life, sleeping in motels, and helping rappers with their lines.

Madsen in A Sierra Nevada Gunfight (2013)

There is perhaps even a case to be made for Madsen being a kind of outsider artist, an actor out there in his own spiritual and professional Siberia, working with young directors and old actors, carving out this enormous back catalog, and fighting his financial woes. But he himself seems to have little time for the profession. "Is it really selling out if it feeds your family?" he once said.

And for that, maybe Madsen really is the embodiment of that American ideal, that vision of hard work and honest dreams that so many actors try and have tried to emit. So many of them would love to be the ordinary guy who just stumbled into this funny old game, only to have that illusion ruined by their pretensions and delusions. Madsen on the other hand is perhaps the ultimate American actor, not because he is the best, but because he believes that acting is about making a living, rather than furthering your career or finding some kind of artistic truth, even if that means picking up a check for fucking terrible films.

Time well tell if Madsen will ever have a comeback. He's still slated to appear in the next Tarantino movie, but he probably already played the role he'll play in that movie ten times last year alone. He supposedly cleared his tax debts last year, but that's not stopping him appearing as "President Ben Dover" in something called Unbelievable!!!!! this year.

I'd love to see Madsen get his Wrestler, his Magic Mike, his one last shot, but the problem is it's not his last shot. Unlike most washed up stars, he's the busiest he's ever been. If he wins an Oscar, he'll probably be off to make a film with Sisqo and Danny Trejo the next week, stepping out of the car he's using for a trailer, putting on his cowboy boots, screwing up his face, and getting ready to play Mr Blonde once again—like the sad, lost troubadour of American cinema that he is.

Follow Clive Martin on Twitter.

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