Villains, henchman, and heroines catch the eye of EW's Lisa Schwarzbaum

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 22, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Here’s a preview of the summer’s breakout film stars

In ”Shaft,” we know about Samuel L. Jackson. He IS Shaft, the cat who won’t cop out; he’s all that. Jackson delivers in a performance that only solidifies his A-level stardom. But Jeffrey Wright‘s performance as Dominican drug dealer Peoples Hernandez does something arguably even more exciting: It bumps this abundantly gifted actor (”Angels in America” on Broadway, ”Basquiat,” ”Ride With the Devil”) up the ladder of recognition.

There’s been heated talk, I know, as to whether Hernandez, as depicted, isn’t an overly flamboyant stereotype, and whether it’s appropriate for a non-Latino actor to be laying on the shtick. (Wright is African-American.) But those arguments are silly. EVERY character in ”Shaft” is over the top, a kind of swaggering caricature. What’s incontrovertible is that Wright’s is a breakout performance — the kind people talk about. And there are others this summer, from actors whose names we seek out when the credits roll.

There is, for instance, Jason Isaacs, who plays the sneering British nemesis against whom Mel Gibson musters all his passionate fury in ”The Patriot.” Easy to overlook in ”The End of the Affair” and ”Armageddon,” the 37 year old actor is unmiss-able playing a variation on the classic hateful British snob who inspires less class conscious citizens to rebel. Villains always make for attention getting roles, but Isaacs warrants the attention.

It’s Jennifer Ehle‘s moment this summer too. On Broadway, she stars in ”The Real Thing,” for which she recently won a Tony Award. On screen, she shines as Valerie Sonnenshein, who affects the lives of three generations of Jewish Hungarian Sonnenshein men in ”Sunshine.” Although Ehle built a small, devoted following for her splendid starring role in the 1995 TV miniseries ”Pride & Prejudice” (and additional admirers among the handful who saw her on screen in ”Paradise Road,”), ”Sunshine” illuminates her gracefulness.

Can an actress who excels in every film she’s in be considered a breakout star? Samantha Morton was impressive enough as a supporting actress in Woody Allen’s ”Sweet & Lowdown” to pull in an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress; now she’s mesmerizing in ”Jesus’ Son.”

Can an actress who provides the voice of an animated chicken scratch out a spot all her own among the rest of the hens? Jane Horrocks, who played Bubbles, the adorably addled office assistant in TV’s ”Absolutely Fabulous,” is a standout as the voice of Babs, the adorably addled, perpetually knitting member of the flock in ”Chicken Run.”

Clearly Clive Owen is breakout star material for his leading role in ”Croupier.” I’d even argue that while Kyle MacLachlan can’t exactly be classified as an up and coming unknown, the once very hot, then less hot former star of ”Twin Peaks” is on sturdier footing this summer based on his work on ”Hamlet” and ”Timecode 2000.”

Anyhow, there’s one new celebrity everyone would argue is a breakout hit this summer: I refer of course to Susan, the tough truck driver on CBS’ ”Survivor.” Gotta love Susan! She’s who I want when danger’s all around, no disrespect meant to Shaft.

Chicken Run

  • Movie
  • G
  • 84 minutes
  • Peter Lord
  • Nick Park