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'True Detective': Will the real Vince Vaughn step forward?

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Suzanne Tenner; Phil Bray; Richard Cartwright

The McConaissance was already in full swing when Matthew McConaughey agreed to star in the first season of True Detective with Woody Harrelson. But HBO and show creator Nic Pizzolatto are gambling that the hard-boiled anthology can serve as a rejuvenation machine for other treading-water actors aching to break out of a rut. HBO officially confirmed today that Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn will star in season 2—but not as partners, a la Rust and Marty. Farrell is a cop, but Vaughn will play a “career criminal in danger of losing his empire when his move into legitimate enterprise is upended by the murder of a business partner.”

Both actors could use the creative boost of HBO’s edgiest showVaughn in particular. The tall and jocular actor was so overflowing with talent and versatility in his early years in Hollywood that the industry truly didn’t know what to do with him. Before carrying his first major comedy blockbuster, 2004’s Dodgeball, Vaughn had been the dashing bro (Swingers), the Chris Pratt of 1997 (The Lost World), the indie stalwart (Clay Pigeons/Return to Paradise), and Gus Van Sant’s Norman Bates. Dodgeball landed right in the middle of a stretch of frat-pack comedies that included Old School, Starsky & Hutch, Anchorman, and 2005’s Wedding Crashers, which was supposed to make him and Owen Wilson huge stars.

The popularity of Wedding Crashers crystalized Vaughn, in the eyes of Hollywood, and studios have spent the last decade trying to replicate that vintage of the Vaughn character—a Bugs Bunny rascal skirting grown-up responsibility to the enduring frustration of girlfriends and wives. At his best, he may have been the closest thing to 1980s Bill Murray. But his subsequent films were mediocre and, worse, lazy: Fred Claus, Four Christmases, Couples Retreat, The Dilemma, The Watch, his reunion with Wilson in The Internship, and finally, Delivery Man. Though each have some funny moments, you could practically see the comic calcification take hold with each subsequent uninspired vehicle. In some of them, Vaughn himself didn’t look physically sharp, and it seemed to symbolize how he’d gone soft comically around the middle.

The frustrating thing for fans was the occasional evidence that Vaughn could still hit 95 on the gun when he had to, like his small but brilliantly Vaughn-ian role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. His ho-hum but occasionally popular comedies may have become golden handcuffs for a guy whose best talents lay elsewhere. True Detective will be his first real opportunity in years to flex those muscles again, to show the industry that he’s not just a motorboatin’ motormouth. In fact, it’s the perfect opportunity (and hence, why I suggested it last March): the show’s haunted tone and mood provide the perfect playground for Vaughn, an actor who’s always had a dark side. Go back and watch Return to Paradise and Clay Pigeons, and it’s a completely different Vaughn, holding his own playing morally challenged characters opposite Joaquin Phoenix.

Part of me was hoping Vaughn would be cast as one of the detectives, if only to put his frenetic verbal talents in the middle of the buddy-buddy antagonism that characterized season 1. But HBO hints that he isn’t the big-bad in season 2—he might even be unofficially working with three cops to “navigate a web of conspiracy in the aftermath of a murder,” per the announcement. So here’s a guy on the edge, caught in the middle of respectable society and the dangerous underworld. When you look at it that way, HBO couldn’t have cast a better actor, and the role couldn’t have arrived for Vaughn at a better time. He’s built for this.