Although he's been acting since the early '70s, starring in classics such as 'Eyes of Laura Mars', 'Love Story', and 'Rolling Thunder', Tommy Lee Jones really hit his stride in the '90s when he starred in a string of blockbusters that included Oliver Stone's 'JFK', 'Men In Black' opposite Will Smith, 'Batman Forever', and of course, 'The Fugitive'.
In later years, Jones would shift towards weightier roles, in movies such as 'No Country For Old Men', 'In The Valley of Elah', and 'The Homesman'.
To celebrate his 75th birthday today, we're looking over some of his best scenes throughout his career.
5. 'UNDER SIEGE' - "You're gonna watch the end of the world on television, my man."
It's a testament to Tommy Lee Jones' professionalism that he was able to get through some serious mid-'90s clunkers like 'Batman Forever' and 'Under Siege', but he never once underplayed them. In fact, his performance in 'Under Siege' as disillusioned CIA operative Bill Strannix could sit comfortably alongside other terrific performances by talented actors in otherwise crappy action movies such as Dennis Hopper in 'Speed', or John Lithgow in 'Cliffhanger'. Jones is chewing the scenery in each and every scene, yet it's in the final fight with Steven Seagal that you get a sense for how messed up his character is, and why he's doing what he's doing. It's a terrific example of how Jones was able to elevate an otherwise flat movie into something special with an outsized performance, but when it was needed, he could do the same for a bland performance by Steven Seagal. "Behold, my finest work..." is a cracker of a line.
4. 'IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH' - "You're named after King David, your mother didn't tell you?"
Much of Jones' later career, as mentioned, has been made up of smaller indie films as well woeful straight-to-streaming action movies. In the middle of these sits 'In The Valley of Elah', a haunting crime drama about an aged military policeman who goes in search of his son's killers, who has himself just returned from Iraq on duty as a soldier. Paul Haggis skilfully navigates both the mystery elements and the raw, human emotions that play out in this. Charlize Theron and Tommy Lee Jones are the height of their powers, and their dynamic is electric. Yet, it's in this one small scene, that we see the real core of Jones' character, and how he manages to stay so resolute in the face of such dark, twisted things.
3. 'MEN IN BLACK' - "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."
Like most sci-fi movies of the '90s, 'Men In Black' had some out-there ideas, but were anchored by strong performances from veteran actors. 'The Matrix' had Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, and 'Men In Black' had Tommy Lee Jones as K. Jones' steely delivery of "Put your hands up and all your flippers" in the opening scene just set the tone perfectly. It was going to be goofy and silly, yes, but Tommy Lee Jones was going to play it completely straight. In this scene, K lays out the deal with alien life on the planet, and in doing so, provides a lesson on people that's readily applicable to just about any major event in human history.
2. 'THE FUGITIVE' - "Your fugitive's name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get 'em."
It's worth noting that nobody was more surprised that Tommy Lee Jones won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this than Tommy Lee Jones himself. By all accounts, the actor believed the movie to be just another action blockbuster. Yet, when you watch 'The Fugitive' back, it's aged incredibly well. Harrison Ford gives a taciturn performance as the hunted Kimble, while Jones is the outsized, jabber-jaw marshal out for his blood. It's in this scene that the stage is set and Jones rattles off his list of objectives in clear, precise terms with a commanding voice and presence. It's never been bested since. Go get 'em.
1. 'NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN' - "And then I woke up."
Plucked straight from the pages of Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, the final scene of 'No Country For Old Men' sees a listless Ed Tom Bell recounting his dreams to his patient wife. On the page, it reads like a lot of McCarthy's prose - distant but grasping. On the screen, Tommy Lee Jones imbues it with quiet dignity and aching humanity. It's done so subtly, and his performance is so understated, but you can tell just how questioning Ed Tom is of everything. Throughout the movie, we see him confronted with horrors, he feels constantly overmatched by it, and in the end, he ponders his place in it and what lies beyond for him. Jones' performance is poetic, human, and so natural that you can't help but feel the same sense of unease with the world that he is soon to depart from.