If You Build It, He Will Come Back: Kevin Costner Returns

costner_three_days_to_killIf he makes it, will they come?

That’s the question that persists about the wave of Kevin Costner films opening at your local multiplex these days.

Costner is mounting something of a comeback, after a few years of playing it low-key.

In fact, it’s doubtful you can go to the movies these days without seeing a trailer for a new film featuring the 59-year-old actor.

The launch of the “New Costner” actually started in 2012 with the actor’s showcasing in Hatfields & McCoys on The History Channel. The series about the iconic feud between two families in post-Civil War Appalachia drew high ratings, good reviews, and Best Actor trophies from the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild for Costner’s portrayal of family patriarch “Devil” Anse Hatfield.

Not a bad launching pad for a big screen comeback.

The follow-up was a major supporting role in the big-budget Superman adventure Man of Steel last summer, playing Clark/Supe’s father Jonathan Kent. The film was a successful reboot, with Costner making an impression with a younger generation of moviegoers.

“Beautifully played,” wrote Anne Hornaday of The Washington Post.

Earlier this year, Costner was seen in a key role in another high-profile film—Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a reworking of the Tom Clancy-created character featured in four previous films. The actor plays a world-weary CIA operative who schools the young Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) in the world of counter-intelligence.

The film underperformed at the box-office, so though it’s up in the air whether Pine-as-Ryan will return to the big screen anytime soon, it’s clear Costner will keep on coming.

In the recent Three Days to Kill, Costner tries the spy game once again, this time playing an ace CIA agent who is diagnosed with a fatal disease. After retiring from his job to spend more time with teenage daughter Hailee Steinfeld, Costner is pulled back into espionage by the mysterious Amber Heard, who promises him an experimental, possibly life-saving drug in exchange for his expertise in hunting down a terrorist.

McG, the flashy filmmaker of the Charlie’s Angels movies, is the director, but French action specialist Luc Besson produced the production. One wonders if Costner is drinking the same cinematic Kool-Aid as Liam Neeson, another middle- aged star who carved out a new career niche when he decided to star in the Besson-produced 2008 surprise hit Taken. In fact, Three Days to Kill opened days before Non-Stop, Neeson’s latest actioner. 

Just in case the moviegoing audience is not taken with Three Days to Kill, Draft Day is just around the corner. In this dramedy helmed by Ivan Reitman, Costner plays the embattled general manager of the Cleveland Browns, who has to jump through hoops in order to nail down the number one draft pick in the draft. Looks like a little Jerry Maguire, a little Moneyball, and a lot of Costner.

If that’s not enough, two other Costner-starring projects are slated for release later this year: Black and White, with the actor as a widower involved in a custody battle over his daughter after his wife dies; and McFarland, in which he plays a real-life track coach.

costner_hatfields_mccoysThis is an alarming spark of activity for a multi-hyphenate who kept a low profile for about ten years. Prior to Hatfields & McCoys, Costner was surely around, but not in the high-profile way that befits an Oscar winner and former box-office champion. From 2002 to 2012, he made some solid films—2003’s Open Range, which he also directed, was a top-notch, much underrated western that has garnered a following over the years, and 2007’s Mr. Brooks,  a disturbing thriller in which he played a serial killer with multiple personalities—but nothing  that really soared at the box-office. How much further Costner’s directing career—largely hobbled by the 1997 sci-fi-adventure/box-office disaster The Postman—will go remains to be seen. Costner has gone on record stating how much he would like to get back behind the camera for “the second part of my career.”

This Hollywood roller coaster has certainly has had its ups and downs for Costner, who has three small children with wife of 10 years Christine Baumgartner, a model 21 years his junior.

After an inauspicious start at the age of 26 in the teenage farce Sizzle Beach USA (aka Malibu Hot Summer), Costner came to be known as “the guy whose hands were in The Big Chill.” That’s because his role of Alex, the man whose funeral brings together his college friends and forms the crux of the film, was cut out from the rest of the 1983 major hit.

But director Lawrence Kasdan made good on his editing decision , casting Costner in a few of his films like 1985’s jaunty sagebrusher Silverado; opposite Whitney Huston in The Bodyguard, which Kasdan penned and co-produced;  and as the leading lawman in the sagebrush epic Wyatt Earp, co-starring Dennis Quaid and Gene Hackman.

Costner also found comfort with filmmaker and former minor league baseball player Ron Shelton in a series of sports films. He was veteran minor leaguer Crash Davis in Bull Durham, golf pro Tom McAvoy in Tin Cup, and turned in a cameo in the boxing comedy Play It to the Bone. His other athletic roles include the cyclist in American Flyers; the family man who reconnects with his father’s memory by way of baseball in Field of Dreams; and the well-worn pitcher reviewing his life while mowing down batters in For Love of the Game.

Costner, whose quiet but sturdy demeanor and All-American good looks have been likened to Gary Cooper’s, became a mega-star with the advent of 1987’s The Untouchables, in which his wholesome G-Man Elliott Ness went up against Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone. A strong run continued with his portrayal of a naval officer involved in Washington D.C. intrigue in No Way Out, as well as the aforementioned Bull Durham and Field of Dreams.

These four films gave Costner enough clout to get Oliver Stone’s JFK produced—for which he was cast as real-life New Orleans DA Jim Garrison. Despite Costner’s bizarre non-accent and mixed reviews for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves –“If you let a bunch of unskilled carpenters loose in Sherwood Forest, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a load of kindling,” began Vincent Canby’s review in the New York Times—the film was a smash, taking in $400 million around the world.

Along the way there have been interesting but not totally successful efforts such as Tony Scott’s Revenge, in which Costner falls for Madeleine Stowe, the sexy, younger wife of Mexican powerbroker Anthony Quinn;  A Perfect World, directed by co-star Clint Eastwood, with Costner  as an escaped con who builds a relationship with the boy he’s kidnapped; or most notoriously, Waterworld. The mega-budgeted H2O-bound science fiction saga that industry wags called “Fishtar” became shorthand for disasters of the critical and financial kind, even though it was better than credited and eventually managed to recoup its high price tag.  

costner_dances_w_wolvesOf course, those who regarded the actor simply as a laid-back pretty boy who charmed his way through sports stories and the occasional action film got more than bargained for with his directing debut, 1990’s Dances with Wolves. Costner starred as John Dunbar, a Union official who oversees a remote outpost in the Dakotas after the Civil War. After befriending the initially hostile Sioux Indians, Dunbar assimilates into their culture and gets romantically involved with Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a widowed white woman raised by the tribe.   

Dubbed “Kevin’s Gate” after its budget and schedule overruns, the film bucked trends regarding length (three hours), genre (Westerns were not popular at the time), presentation (much of it contained subtitled Lakota dialect), and disposition (there was a New Age-y/hippie vibe to it). But Dances with Wolves became a huge hit, amassing 10 Oscar nominations and seven wins, including Best Director and Best Picture.

By the close of the decade, however, the twin drubbings of Waterworld and The Postman caused his A-list status to fade as if it had entered that Iowa cornfield.

Will Kevin Costner ever regain his sheen again as a bankable star or an award-winning filmmaker? Or will his “second act” be relegated to continuing supporting roles in big—and not-so big –films of the studio and independent variety?

In other words, will he be Dancing with Wolves again, or has The Postman already rang twice?