Laurence Fishburne brings confidence to roles -- ''Bad Company,'' ''Just Cause,'' and ''Higher Learning'' are all ready for video release

By Glenn Kenny
Updated July 28, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Laurence Fishburne brings confidence to roles

Rare is the actor of such ability and confidence that he doesn’t mind making his character elusive, portraying him in a way that raises more questions than it answers. Laurence Fishburne is precisely such an actor, which may perhaps explain why he’s not a bigger star. Even when he’s playing his most sympathetic roles — as a loving but stern father in 1991’s Boyz N the Hood or as a street-smart chess whiz in 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer — Fishburne insists on introducing a mercurial touch that renders his characters impossible to wholly embrace. But the pleasures of such performances are deep and lasting.

Fishburne’s riveting work gains impact on home video, where every now and again you’ll want to zip back the tape or laserdisc to see just how he lit that cigarette, or check out his facial expression before he fires that gun. And as testament to his productivity, this month sees the near-simultaneous video releases of his most recent pictures — the triple-cross thriller Bad Company, the swamp suspenser Just Cause, and the campus panorama Higher Learning.

The sleeper of the bunch, and the one that boasts the most mesmerizing Fishburne performance, is Bad Company. He plays Nelson Crowe, a former CIA operative who takes a job at a firm that specializes in shady covert operations for fun and profit. Almost immediately Crowe falls into bed with his boss (Ellen Barkin), who proposes that the two team up for a very hostile takeover of the company. The scenario’s amoral players multiply like rabbits before they fall prey to unpredictable passions. While Barkin does her best steely, smirky strut, Fishburne’s Crowe is one of the most compelling movie enigmas in years. He’s no good guy, that’s for sure, but how bad a bad guy is he? What does he want? In one scene, he responds to that question monosyllabically: ”Out.” Okay, but to go where? To do what? Looking into his eyes in the film’s final shots, you understand the inevitability of his fate; but the questions remain. The bristling ambiguities with which Fishburne layers his performance give the movie a haunting quality most mainstream thrillers would kill for.

At first glance, Fishburne’s role as Tanny Brown, a cheroot-chompin’, porkpie-hat-wearin’ Florida Everglades detective in Just Cause, seems showier, and it is. As he sadistically coerces a child-slay confession out of a terrified local (Blair Underwood), Brown comes off as a boilerplate yahoo. Then the story flashes forward eight years, as law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) begins an effort to exonerate the condemned convict. Brown, naturally, tries to dissuade him, and it’s in the multiple confrontations with Armstrong that Fishburne’s performance takes its surprising shape. The scene in which Brown drives Armstrong to the scene of the murder and confronts him with grisly autopsy photos is magnificent: Fishburne modulates his tone from simple sadism to simmering rage to quiet grief, never once doing anything to violate the character’s surface cool. (In this respect, the performance harks back to the actor’s breakthrough as Ike Turner in the 1993 Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It.) By the end of Just Cause, you’ll be wondering if the world really needed a second remake of Cape Fear. But its first two thirds are tense if not exactly taut, and Fishburne’s performance is a lesson in how a truly inspired actor can breathe quirky life into a tired cliché.

Fishburne’s role in John Singleton’s Higher Learning is also a stock one: the omniscient sage. While the character, political science professor Maurice Phipps, has only 20 minutes of screen time, he’s clearly the glue meant to hold together the unwieldy story of university strife. Phipps counsels both the black track star with the chip on his shoulder (Omar Epps) and the white coed who falls prey to date rape almost as soon as she hits campus (Kristy Swanson) and occasionally reappears to make pithy statements. Fishburne’s West Indian accent fades away every now and then, but his strong silences speak volumes; as he cradles Epps in the movie’s penultimate scene, his stoic professorial mask slips oh so slightly, revealing a secret history of pain and struggle. It’s an extraordinary moment that, for a few seconds at least, lifts Learning above its clumsy polemics. Fishburne’s next big-screen role will not, thankfully, require him to rise above his material — it’s Othello, whom he may well have been born to play.

Bad Company: B+
Just Cause: C+
Higher Learning: C