Russell Ira Crowe seems from a bygone time in which an actor’s rugged masculinity was as important as his acting ability — or, more accurately, that they were indistinguishable from one another. The cultural impression of Crowe as an unsmiling, too-intense personality who takes his work deathly seriously used to be a badge of authenticity — that he viewed performing as a manly, sacred duty was among his most commendable attributes. The fact that he also played in a rock and roll band and allegedly went nuts in a hotel only further burnished that imposing persona. Everything Crowe does, he does 110 percent. That’s how committed he is: Anything less would be a compromise.
Funny how that kind of demeanor just seems tiresome in 2020. Which is why it’s been so cheering to see the Australian actor, who at 56 is far from the bankable superstar he was earlier this century, embrace his inner goofball a bit more publicly in recent years. That’s especially true with his social-media ads for Unhinged, his new gonzo road-rage thriller, which make him seem downright adorable. In an age when inflexible macho posturing seems less like a sign of true artistry and more an indication of a world-class bore, it’s delightful to see Crowe satirize himself a little.
The course correction was needed after a string of recent misfires that found him struggling to recapture the critical and commercial acclaim of movies like Gladiator, which won him Best Actor and cemented him as a new generation’s multiplex action hero. Of course, blockbusters were never the only thing he could do, and while compiling this ranking of his performances, we recalled just how good a dramatic actor he can be. (Sadly, he hasn’t found much material worthy of his talent in a while.) Below is a rundown of 33 roles, including that of Tom Cooper in this week’s Unhinged. Whether in Westerns or biopics, swords-and-sandals epics or sports movies, Crowe has an unmistakable swagger.
33. The Mummy (2017)
The Dark Universe never did get off the ground — hilariously so — and this movie is the reason why. Crowe plays Dr. Jekyll, who is somehow both orchestrating so much of what’s happening in the film and also the guy meant to set up the theoretical treasure trove of sequels. Jekyll is initially mysterious and cunning until suddenly CGI turns him into a monster trying to kill Tom Cruise.
The disaster that was The Mummy stopped Crowe from ever having to play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in his own spinoff film, and he should feel forever grateful. We know we sure are.
32. Unhinged (2020)
The movie that Crowe’s goofy, silly social-media ad promises is an over-the-top, cheesy, self-aware schlock-fest, the sort of go-for-it grind-house-style film that would be a perfect drive-in throwback. Alas, Unhinged isn’t like that at all. It’s much more boring and rote, the sort of slack, barely-even-trying hack job that you’d expect from a Dolph Lundgren straight-to-video low-budget yawner. Crowe plays Tom Cooper, who, unlike the Falling Down sort of broken-down aggrieved white guy the movie briefly pretends it wants him to be, is established as a sociopath monster in the very first scene, in which he kills his ex-wife and his lover with a hammer and burns down their house. (What a raucous start!) He then has a road-rage incident with a single mother (Caren Pistorious) and spends the rest of the movie trying to kill her and her family. And that’s it. That’s the movie. Crowe doesn’t seem very engaged and it doesn’t help that, well, he looks truly terrible in this movie: He’s less scary than bloated and sad. If this is the first movie to play in theaters after the pandemic, maybe it’s better that we all stay home.
31. Winter’s Tale (2014)
Akiva Goldsman’s famously terrible adaptation of the Mark Helprin novel is overheated, overlong, and so overly “fanciful” that you walk away feeling both undernourished and as if you have saccharine running through your veins. Lots of actors are stranded here — Will Smith’s one scene might be the worst of his whole career (and remember, we’ve seen the jellyfish scene in Seven Pounds) — but Crowe is particularly adrift as a demon/gangster who mostly just snarls and occasionally lights up some devil eyes. This is the worst kind of Crowe performance, one he often phones into big-studio pseudo-entertainment: the guy who feels he’s above this, but, in the moment, isn’t.
30. Fathers and Daughters (2015)
Crowe often is cast as writers and thinkers, and with rare exception, it never quite works: He has the shagginess of a creative, but you can’t help but notice the brute who keeps wanting to burst out from underneath. He attempts to combine the two sides here as an author who has a car accident that kills his wife, injures his daughter, and gives him brain damage — and then tries to pull his life back together. Unfortunately, Fathers and Daughters isn’t consistent enough to hold the delicate balance of those threads together. It features a good Amanda Seyfried performance as the daughter, and Crowe is moderately engaged, but this is too tough a needle to thread.
29. Broken City (2013)
As unmemorable as its title, this wan crime-thriller stars Mark Wahlberg as a disgraced cop who’s now a private eye, hired by close friend (and New York mayor) Nicholas (Crowe) to tail his possibly philandering wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Broken City might have been worthwhile if Sidney Lumet or Spike Lee had directed it, but instead we’re stuck in a pretty generic tale of political corruption. As soon as Crowe comes onscreen, you have zero doubt that his character is up to something, and the Oscar winner fails to do much interesting with our certainty that he’s crooked.
28. The Next Three Days (2010)
Crowe can sell just about any role, but it’s a bit of a reach for him to portray a mild-mannered college professor who, pushed to his limit, is forced to devise a plan to break his wrongly accused wife (Elizabeth Banks) out of prison. The Next Three Days is a brooding character study meant to show how any ordinary man could access his dark side to save the woman he loves, but Crowe plays this brainy teacher so convincingly that when the script sets him on a crime-thriller path — including associating with crooks to pull of his elaborate scheme — it just becomes ridiculous. He was paired with director Paul Haggis here, which made the film an embarrassing twofer of once-golden talents who had clearly lost the plot.
27. Robin Hood (2010)
It doesn’t speak well of this lumbering would-be blockbuster that the thing we remember most about Robin Hood is that Crowe got really pissy when reporters asked him about his accent. Reuniting with Gladiator director Ridley Scott, Crowe gives us the iconic English outlaw as the most joyless champion of the people you’d ever hope to meet. Clearly, the idea was to go for a more “realistic” depiction of the character after Kevin Costner’s crowd-pleasing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but Crowe’s performance, like the film, is a somber drag that will make you long for the lighthearted exploits of the old Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn pictures. Movies like this made it seem as if Crowe flat-out hated being a star — as if the very act of entertaining an audience was a torturous ordeal. Perhaps it wasn’t the worst thing that his A-list run was coming to a close.
26. Man of Steel (2013)
There is not much to enjoy about Zack Snyder’s take on Superman, and if you’d like us to elaborate on that, we would be happy to. But for all the good actors wasted in this movie (Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, even Kevin Costner), Crowe is actually rather solid in a role that Marlon Brando once made famous. Actually, Brando is a good contrast for Crowe, in that no matter how tempted Crowe might be to ham it up, he’ll never dial quite that high. Crowe makes his Jor-El cameo early but then keeps popping up throughout the narrative afterward. Maybe it’s the low bar set by the rest of Man of Steel, but … we strangely found ourselves looking forward to each Crowe return.
25. Virtuosity (1995)
Any actor who has been around as long as Crowe has is going to have a “computers and virtual reality are going to kill us” movie from the ’90s on his résumé. This is Crowe’s. He plays “SID 6.7,” a simulated villain who becomes a real one when he gets the personalities of serial killers downloaded into his software and takes physical form. He then, inevitably, tries to kill Denzel Washington. Virtuosity was Crowe’s second American movie, and his goal is to be as big and scary as he was in Romper Stomper and not to look particularly confused by all the dodgy special effects. He succeeds just fine in both, but one is definitely glad Hollywood eventually found something better to do with him.
24. A Good Year (2006)
Ridley Scott had always wanted to make a movie in Provence, France, where he had lived for nearly two decades. Crowe, who had been the lead in Scott’s biggest success with Gladiator, was looking for a more relaxed movie where he could be light, drink wine, and try to charm the pants off the audience. The result is a movie that looks like the director and star had a wonderful time spending millions of dollars of the studio’s money to essentially encourage the wealthier members of the audience to buy a place in Provence. There is nothing offensive about A Good Year, other than the opulence and irrelevance of it existing in the first place. Good for Scott and Crowe, though. We all deserve a paid vacation.
23. The Water Diviner (2014)
Did you realize that Crowe had directed a movie? We had completely forgotten about The Water Diviner, an Australian adaptation of a novel about a farmer who travels to Turkey after World War I trying to find out what happened to his three sons who were lost there. This ends up being Crowe’s version of a David Lean film, without Lean’s scope or ambition, but it’s not entirely terrible, either. The action scenes can be adequately harrowing, and Crowe is mournful and determined in the lead role. The Water Diviner’s politics are awkward and reductive — the film was protested by Armenians who said it ignored Turkish genocide — and Crowe should have to answer for that, but if you were only to direct one movie your entire acting career, you could do a lot worse.
22. The Man With the Iron Fists (2012)
If the idea of RZA and Russell Crowe doing a martial-arts flick together sounds appealing, you may be down with The Man With the Iron Fists, where Wu-Tang Clan’s sonic architect made his directorial debut by showing off his love of kung fu. Crowe plays Jack Knife — yes, that’s his name — who’s a mercenary joining forces with a blacksmith (RZA) to face off against the evil Silver Lion (Byron Mann). Crowe worked on the film primarily because of his friendship with RZA, and if ever there was a case where a movie of just the stars hanging out would have been more fun than the finished product, it’s probably The Man With the Iron Fists. This is the Crowe who wants to do something irreverent and breezy in between his serious roles, and it’s moderately fun to see him have a laugh in cheeky B-movie trash like this.
21. Rough Magic (1995)
A profoundly weird little ’90s movie; as Roger Ebert described it, “if ever there were two genres that don’t seem to fit together, they’re film noir and magic realism.” Bridget Fonda is a magician in 1952 who actually does real magic; Crowe, “in the Mitchum role,” as Ebert puts it, is the private eye chasing her. You’ll never guess whether or not they fall in love. The performance highlights an engaging combo of Crowe’s ability to be tough and also gentle-hearted, and it’s a nice test run for later, better movies he’d make. Rough Magic isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s a completely bizarre little number.
20. Noah (2014)
Darren Aronofsky’s famously insane, huge-swing, he’s-doing-what? epic is the sort of project a mad filmmaker takes on, flirting with catastrophe all along the way … and, of course, it became the highest-grossing hit of his career. Crowe plays the titular sort-the-horsies-by-twosies Noah, who is given a much more tortured human dimension in Aronofsky’s telling, though it’s best if you don’t think about how the world ends up populating itself after the boat lands. Crowe may have been a big enough star to get this made, and it’s not terrible, but ultimately, the whole thing, six years later, seems more trouble than it was worth for either director or star.
19. Body of Lies (2008)
Would you like to watch a movie where Russell Crowe talks on the phone a lot to Leonardo DiCaprio? Welcome to Body of Lies. Based on the David Ignatius spy novel, this mediocre Ridley Scott picture stars DiCaprio as a CIA agent on the hunt for terrorists in the Middle East. The agent has to check back with headquarters, which requires him calling his boss (Crowe) a bunch. Best viewed as a passing of the baton from one superstar to another — DiCaprio was on his way up, Crowe was on his way down — Body of Lies is a standard post-9/11 thriller that leaves Crowe little to do but seem authoritative. It is amusing to watch him rock a Southern accent, however.
18. Proof of Life (2000)
Russell Crowe’s other big movie of 2000 cast him alongside Meg Ryan, who plays Alice, a woman desperate to retrieve her abducted husband (David Morse). Crowe is Terry, a man with a particular set of skills, including extricating kidnapped husbands from dangerous South American guerrilla operations. How times change: When Proof of Life came out, Ryan was actually billed above Crowe, and likewise this thriller/romantic drama feels like it comes from an era when soapy, high-stakes love stories like this were bankrolled by studios. Crowe was still a hungry rising star at this point, so he brings a hunky, thoughtful energy, but that can’t compensate for a lifeless movie aimed at grownups.
17. Les Misérables (2012)
Fair to say, the reactions to Tom Hooper’s EXTREME CLOSEUP!!! take on the beloved musical are mixed to this day; this Les Misérables is definitely your best opportunity to see every single one of Anna Hathaway’s nose hairs. Whether you love it or hate it, though, it’s tough not to sort of admire what Crowe does here. He doesn’t have nearly the musical range of Hugh Jackman, obviously, but as the villainous Javert, Crowe unleashes his inner rock star and just full-on starts belting his songs. It’s an impossible task, and Crowe initially wanted nothing to do with it, but as it goes along, you start to appreciate how big Crowe is going … and how into the role he seems to be. Crowe isn’t always the most fun actor, which is why it’s such a gas to see him let loose here. And he’s still a fully jerky Javert, too. This might not be your bag. But for us, he works.
16. Mystery, Alaska (1999)
An enormously appealing sports-movie premise — a group of Alaskan buddies who play hockey together every Saturday end up facing off against the New York Rangers — is a little hokey and sitcom-y, perhaps not surprising in a film written by TV veteran David E. Kelley and directed by Austin Powers helmer Jay Roach. (Inevitably, Mike Myers has a cameo.) Yes, Mystery, Alaska takes every predictable turn you think it’s going to, but hey: It’s a sports movie, of course it does. And Crowe is very likable as the sheriff of this wacky town and captain of this wacky team. This got us thinking: Why hasn’t Crowe done more sports movies? He’s a Michigan football fan; maybe he’s waiting to play Jim Harbaugh?
15. The True History of the Kelly Gang (2020)
In 2020, the ideal Russell Crowe role would seem to be that of Harry Power, a real-life bushranger who tries to take a young Ned Kelly under his wing. Never mind that Crowe looks a lot like Power: Crowe’s bearded, gnarly demeanor turns the character into a violent nightmare, an anti-father figure for Ned, who’s about to discover how many more bastards he’s going to have to endure on the road to adulthood. Harry isn’t onscreen for very long, but Crowe makes the most of it, giving us a wretched sonuvabitch who lends an ornery, dangerous vibe to this idiosyncratic Western.
14. The Quick and the Dead (1995)
It remains bizarre that there was a time in movie history in which the following five human beings came into each other’s orbits at the same time: Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Sam Raimi, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Russell Crowe. (Oh, with script work by Joss Whedon.) The Quick and the Dead was Crowe’s American debut, and he was chosen personally by producer Stone because of his work in Romper Stomper. Turns out, he’s an excellent old-school cowboy in a movie that doesn’t have much old-school to it. To be sure, Crowe doesn’t entirely look comfortable, but with everything else flying around with this movie, how could he? Stone picked DiCaprio too, in case you didn’t realize how good at casting Sharon Stone was.
13. The Sum of Us (1994)
A quiet, cheerful charmer that was one of the last movies Crowe made before heading to America, The Sum of Us tells the story of a widower (Jack Thompson, considered by some to be the greatest Australian actor who didn’t go to America) who lives with his gay son (Crowe) as they both try to find love. The movie is warmhearted and optimistic and maybe a little preachy, but what’s most remarkable about Crowe here is how young and ’90s-innocent he seems. He looks like he could be on Friends! Look at that floppy hair!
12. Boy Erased (2018)
Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe have been friends for a long time, but before Boy Erased, they’d never worked on a film together. That knowledge adds extra poignance to this muted drama, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir, about a young man (Lucas Hedges) sent to a gay-conversion camp by his bigoted minister father (Crowe). Boy Erased focuses mostly on Hedges, but Crowe and Kidman, who play the boy’s parents, are lovely together, quietly communicating the lingering tensions in their strained marriage. (Kidman’s character isn’t nearly as judgmental as Crowe’s.) Although the minister starts off as unbendingly homophobic, Crowe delivers a scene near the end that suggests, deep down, this man will choose his son’s happiness over his own close-minded religious beliefs. It’s a tender moment from an actor who hasn’t shown such emotional richness in recent years.
11. Cinderella Man (2005)
Crowe broods beautifully in this biopic about boxer James Braddock, who became a folk hero during the Great Depression. Ron Howard’s film turns Braddock into a creaky metaphor for the common man, but it’s Crowe who makes you believe in that pablum. Beyond being physically commanding, the actor suffuses the character with bruised soul, showing how Braddock’s exploits in the ring were an extension of the passionate, fearless husband he was outside of it. Cinderella Man can be a little conventional, but Crowe’s too electric for it to become trite. He wills the movie to be better than it is.
10. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Of the three films Crowe has received an Oscar nomination for, this is both the worst movie and the least interesting performance. Nonetheless, he still brings plenty to this story of mathematician John Nash, a visionary plagued by mental illness. A Beautiful Mind is so insistent on being “inspirational” that it becomes reductive; it’s one thing to have hallucinations, it’s another thing for your hallucinations to look and act exactly like Paul Bettany so you can have A Big Twist. (Ron Howard is a wonderful guy and has made some perfectly nice movies, but mental illness just might not be his bag.) Crowe is still enough of a rusty nail to make it work; he’s able to take Nash to the edge, and then bring him back.
9. State of Play (2009)
This adaptation of a British TV series is a sturdy journalism thriller that pits old-school and new-school styles against one another — but, maybe just maybe, they can work together to break a big story. Crowe plays Cal, a crusty, ink-stained reporter who’s approached by his old pal Stephen (Ben Affleck), a prominent congressman whose mistress just jumped in front of a train. Stephen is convinced it was murder, and so Cal goes snooping, aided by the plucky blogger Della (Rachel McAdams), who initially represents Everything That’s Wrong With Modern Online Journalism because she understands the internet. Yes, State of Play goes in for a lot of “we need to respect the importance of roll-up-your-sleeves print media” bromides, but Crowe is very good as the embodiment of the no-nonsense writer who only seeks the truth. Is that a musty cliché? Utterly, but Crowe’s natural gravitas helps sell the trope.
8. American Gangster (2007)
Crowe’s onscreen stridency can, sometimes, undermine his performances. (Watching rigid virtuousness can get a bit boring.) But it works especially well in the true-life crime thriller American Gangster, where his Richie is a model cop who refuses to play along with the boys-club attitude of his corrupt fellow police officers. Oddly enough, that makes him well-suited to pursue Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a rising mob figure who, likewise, follows his own code — even though he’s a dangerous gangster. American Gangster was more than a decade after Heat — Exhibit A in “movies in which cops and crooks respect each other” — and it’s similarly a salute to principled men who understand one another better than anyone else around them does. Crowe and Washington are good individually in the movie, but they’re better together, and American Gangster’s scenes with the both of them give Crowe one of those rare opportunities to work alongside someone as steely and serious as himself. Happily, these Oscar winners had come a long way since first teaming up in Virtuosity.
7. The Nice Guys (2016)
The press tour for The Nice Guys was especially fun because it showed a side of Crowe we tend not to see: the impish, deadpan jokester. Maybe it was thanks to him being teamed up with the more playful Ryan Gosling, but the experience seemed to open up something in the actor, and it comes across in the film as well. The Nice Guys is a reliably Shane Black-ian action-comedy in which Crowe plays Jackson, a heavy who partners up with goofball private eye Holland (Gosling) to find a missing woman in late-1970s Los Angeles. Black always mixes violence with laughs, and Crowe is wonderfully understated as the straight man in this scruffy but winning buddy film. Crowe’s performance, like the movie itself, is a bit underrated — this light touch from him is rare but especially welcome.
6. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
In Crowe’s Hollywood career, Ben Wade stands as his most complete villain. The actor expertly ratchets up the tension in this remake of the 1957 western, in which Wade is an apprehended outlaw being transported to a train station on the way to his trial. Christian Bale’s Dan Evans has volunteered for the job of escorting this bandit, but the task proves a lot deadlier than he was expecting. It’s no surprise that Crowe brings a little extra to mano a mano movies like 3:10 to Yuma — he and Bale are the kind of actors’ actors who are all about demonstrating serious devotion to their craft — and he’s terrific as a bad guy who doesn’t worry about proving his evilness. Simply fixing Bale with an icy stare will do the trick.
5. Gladiator (2000)
Joaquin Phoenix is this movie’s secret ingredient — now that we’re looking back at Phoenix’s career rather than forward, it sort of feels like more of his movie than Crowe’s — but Crowe’s physicality, focus, and mournful rage give Gladiator a narrative propulsion that plows through any of its excesses and digressions. The film’s valiant hero, Maximus, may not be a dramatically different character than the sort that his fellow Australian Mel Gibson used to play, but Crowe grounds him more in the personal than the spiritual: Crowe is too proud and prickly to be made into a Christlike figure. Watching Crowe pounce and attack in the Colosseum is thrilling and riveting still 20 years later. We remain very entertained.
4. Romper Stomper (1992)
Russell Crowe has been better, more nuanced, more soulful, in other movies since his breakthrough in Geoffrey Wright’s controversial Australian thriller, but he has never been more purely alive and terrifying. Crowe, playing Hondo, a virulent racist neo-Nazi skinhead (based on real-life Australian Nazi Dane Sweetman), is almost overwhelming — a snarling, raging, truly horrifying force of evil. The actor uses his natural charm not to get you on his side but to illustrate how others would be drawn in by Hondo, and then he unleashes his brutality in some ghastly ways; the film remains repulsively violent nearly 30 years later. (Dylan Roof had a picture of Crowe-as-Hondo on his personal website.) Romper Stomper is not a fun movie to rewatch. But Crowe is unlike anything you’ve ever seen … and, mercifully, would see again.
3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
This Peter Weir epic gave Crowe his strongest role in the Gladiator mode after that Oscar win, and although Master and Commander isn’t as beloved, we prefer it — and the performance. He’s Jack Aubrey, a British naval officer who leads his ship into battle against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Both spectacular and intimate, thrilling and introspective, the film lets Crowe play to both of his considerable strengths: his effortless authenticity and his stirring charisma. Master and Commander juxtaposes its exceptional battle sequences with thoughtful conversations between Aubrey and his friend Stephen (Paul Bettany), who’s the ship’s surgeon but also the captain’s closest confidant, and for once, you feel like you really understand the complexity of a military man in terms of how he faces his external and internal worlds. This is a big, towering performance that’s never gotten its due. (Crowe wasn’t nominated.) The film is ripe for reappraisal.
2. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Crowe had appeared in plenty of American movies by 1997, but in Curtis Hanson’s bravura crime-noir classic, he somehow stood out as the most American of actors. Yeah, there’s some Robert Mitchum here, but also some Bogart, and even a little John Wayne: He’s the strong, silent type, but also a brute and a warrior and more emotional and sincere than he even himself realizes. The moment when Captain Smith unleashes him on Ed Exley — we wouldn’t want to be Exley for all the whiskey in Ireland — is electrifying; it really feels like Crowe’s going to eat poor Guy Pearce alive. But the moment when the two men come to terms, and realize who their true enemy is, is just as lasting: Crowe’s Bud White might not be smart, but he’s no dummy. L.A. Confidential is packed with terrific actors and fantastic performances, but it’s Crowe who emerges: He sure looks like a classic movie star.
1. The Insider (1999)
It’s ironic that Crowe’s finest performance came just as this kind of role would be something that would soon be in his rearview mirror. Based on the true story of 60 Minutes’ takedown of the tobacco industry — or, at least, of Brown & Williamson — The Insider starred Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand, a whistle-blower who wanted to tell the world that cigarette manufacturers knew their product was dangerous and addictive. Al Pacino (playing 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman) and Christopher Plummer (Mike Wallace) got the bigger, showier characters, but it’s Crowe’s nervous intensity that animates Michael Mann’s masterpiece. His Wigand is a supremely ordinary man — anxious, awkward, prickly, principled, a bit of a pain in the ass — and the actor just lets all that complexity wash over the viewer. As a result, this is Crowe’s most complicated hero, a loose cannon who wants to do the right thing but is also so volatile that we’re not sure if he’ll shoot himself in the foot. Right after The Insider, audiences would see Crowe in Gladiator, which would set him on a superstar career. He’d stop disappearing into characters quite like this. No matter: The Insider will always be here to remind us of how good he can be onscreen.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.