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5 Underrated Movie Performances by Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox is best known in films as Marty McFly, the hero of the Back to the Future franchise, and while he’s made an even larger impact on television with a number of series and cherished roles, he has a long list of parts in movies. A talented comedy actor, Fox has also starred in a fair share of dramas. While his popularity has best been defined by his TV work, in film, he’s made a substantial contribution, even though many might be forgotten. Here are five underrated performances that you need to see.

Light of Day (1987)

Michael J. Fox

Fox plays Joe Rasnick, brother of Patti (Joan Jett), a rock & roll sibling act that faces some major challenges when a family crisis both pushes and pulls them apart. Patti has a young son from a father she won’t name, and when she and Joe go on small tours, staying in seedy dives while playing for a few bucks, he disapproves of taking the child with them. The problem is that Patti and their mother (Gena Rowlands) are like oil and water, their relationship threadbare and steadily disintegrating. When the mother becomes seriously ill, things begin to shift and decisions must be made. While the Paul Schrader directed film is a little uneven, the performances are strong, with Fox truly impactful as the son and brother trying to hold the family together, trying to be whatever they need and neglecting what’s best for himself. Fox is gripping in the dramatic role, sincere and surprisingly moving, especially when considering that at the time we was known for light comedies and television sit-coms. With some great music and fantastic chemistry between he and Jett, this film fell to the wayside and disappeared, many dismissing it as an MTV-generation pop flick, but it’s much more and deserves a second look.

Life With Mikey (1993)

Michael J. Fox

Fox plays Michael Chapman, a former child star who nows runs a children’s talent agency with his brother (Nathan Lane). His career in film and TV has washed up, and his agency is mostly held afloat by ‘The Cereal King’ (David Krumholtz), an arrogant but successful kid actor who specializes doing breakfast commercials. That changes when he meets a street urchin pick-pocketer (Christina Vidal) who wows him with a heart-rending tale of hard luck when she is pressed by police to explain her actions. Chapman immediately signs her to a contract and the story follows the ups and downs of their relationship as he becomes the father figure in her troubled life. Directed by James Lapine, Life With Mikey is nothing new and is a collection of tropes but is held above water by the great pairing of Fox and Vidal. Fox is strong as the has-been vicariously living his past through the experiences of his new client, but also learning some valuable lessons about real life. The weakest film on the list, it is still one to watch.

 The American President (1995)

Michael J. Fox

While far from an underrated film, most remember it for the charming performances of Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, the two leads who play the President and the controversial new woman in his life who has become a target for the opposition. Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, the film is a wonderful mix of drama and humor, and as Douglas and Bening rightfully carry the story, there are several supporting roles that blend into the background. Fox plays Lewis Rothschild, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, and though his role is limited, he is extremely powerful as a voice in the Oval Office that questions the President and demands leadership. The role is vital as Fox inherits the audience’s position, seeking to understand the motivations behind the President’s behavior. Fox is full of passion as Rothschild, fired up as he defends the President outside his company and demands answers while in it. An extremely satisfying movie, The American President is only a supporting role for Fox, but he is crucial in developing the President’s character.

The Hard Way (1991)

Michael J. Fox

Fox plays Nick Lang, a pompous, pampered Hollywood actor famous for a slew of popular but unimportant films now wanting to be the lead in an upcoming police drama that might change his reputation. Pulling some strings with the Mayor of New York City, he gets permission to be the partner of Lt. John Moss (James Woods), a tough-as-nails, belligerent cop who gets the job done. Moss hates the idea but is forced into it as his own public outbursts have smeared the reputation of the police force. Told to drop a big serial murderer case, Moss ignores the order and does his best to lose Lang whenever he can, but of course, as time passes, the two begin to click and work together to catch the killer. Both Woods and Fox are great together in this solid mix of comedy and action, with Fox especially well-cast. His gift for timing and physical gags really works well here, the perfect complement to Woods’ angular and purposefully hostile portrayal. Directed by action master John Badham, Fox holds his own in a genre he is wholly not known for, believable as an action star, but the rapid-fire banter between the leads is far and away the real draw. A long forgotten film, The Hard Way is real gem.

Casualties of War (1989)

Michael J. Fox

Fox plays Max Eriksson, a Vietnam War veteran who flashes back to a harrowing incident under the command of Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). After a lengthy time without any leave, Meserve grows impatient and orders his men to kidnap a young Vietnamese girl, whom they hold as their sex slave. Ericsson is the voice of dissent and refuses to participate, calling for her release, which garners extreme ill-will between him and the men that do. A taut thriller and horrifying psychological drama, Fox is remarkable as he faces off against Penn, who is chilling as the embittered and vile soldier. Directed by Brian De Palma, Casualties of War was released during a glut of dark Vietnam War films that painted service in less than favorable lights, lost in the shadow of several like films that garnered broader critical appeal. It remains one of Fox’s best performances.


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