Bill Paxton is one of the only men on this planet or any other to have confronted the holy trinity of an Alien, a Predator, and a Terminator. It went poorly for him each time. It was invariably totally awesome to watch.
To the Terminator, whilst flipping a switchblade and flaunting a ludicrous blueberry Mohawk: “Fuck you, asshole!”
To the Aliens, whilst firing a machine gun, maniacally but not unvaliantly: “Come on! Come on, you bastard! Come on, you too! Oh, you want some of this? Fuck you. Ahhhhhh. Fuck you. Ahhhhhhhhhh.”
To the Predator, whilst cornered in a subway car, brandishing a sword: “Come on, motherfucker. Let’s dance! Ahhhhhhhhhh!”
You can watch all three scenes in 1:06. Please do that now.
Sunday morning, the news came that Bill Paxton died, apparently due to complications from heart surgery. He was 61 years old. There is no greater tribute to his life and career than to revel in the various glorious ways he died, or was otherwise willing to debase himself, to be upstaged by anyone and anything. He would sacrifice his own dignity for the good of the whole, for the good of all. He made flailing around wildly look like dancing.
Aliens, from 1986, is probably the single greatest distillation of what a transcendent dope Paxton could be, arrogant and insufferable. “Check it out! I am the ultimate badass! State of the badass art! You do not wanna fuck with me.” And when the Aliens fuck with him, he crumples and despairs and whines in a believable, audience-surrogate sort of way: “Well that’s great! That’s just fuckin’ great, man! Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?” And then, iconically: “Game over, man! Game over!” His voice cracks pathetically, beautifully.
I don’t mean to just quote reams of his dialogue here, but he delivered his lines like he was King Lear, or King Kong. For example: “You’re stewed, buttwad.” This is the glory of the ignominy of Bill Paxton in 1985’s Weird Science, doing the Contemptible ’80s Villain role, slack-jawed and leering and prematurely balding and pornographically blowing cigar smoke. He got his own super weird and gross comeuppance. He also got his own T-shirt. He deserved his own Karate Kid dojo.
It was a joy to feel superior to Bill Paxton’s characters and to feel equally inferior to the man himself. There he was, a repulsive vampire in 1987’s Near Dark (directed by Kathryn Bigelow!), selling the line “Finger-lickin’ good!” with blood dripping off his chin, kicking drinks off the bar, and slashing the bartender’s throat with the knife in his boot. There he was, improbably surviving a gnarly shootout in the cult-favorite ’90s noir One False Move. There he was, selling the line “The ’vette gets ’em wet” as the oily used-car salesman in True Lies, antagonizing Arnold Schwarzenegger anew. The action movies of the ’80s and ’90s needed lots and lots of supremely punchable people. Paxton played the best of them.
He had his moments of total mainstream glory: He did Titanic, he did Apollo 13, he did Tombstone, valiantly bloodying up a pool table. The one he had the most to himself was Twister, playing the Laconic Hero in a Disaster Movie, tricycle lodged in his truck’s windshield, shouting at Helen Hunt in the rain. His most plumb, longest-running role was in the Mormon polyamory melodrama Big Love, which premiered on HBO in 2006 and ran for five seasons. On it, Paxton took an early-prestige-TV antihero and subtly infused him with heroic restraint, piety, and bewilderment, juggling three wives with as much nobility as he could muster, which was more than even his biggest fans might’ve imagined.
As an all-universe Paxton highlight, let’s go with 2001’s Frailty; he directed and starred in the mean and unsparing little thriller about a serial killer who believes himself ordained by God himself, the underside of a beat-up car transforming into the glorious vision of an angel with a flaming sword. There’s your metaphor, if you need one, watching the guy turn the mundane and workmanlike into something weird and unsettling and transcendent. His latest project was the CBS cop drama Training Day, which is … not good. But he was working hard in it, volatile and swaggering, salvaging lousy material, elevating yet another slimeball lowlife who might, in time, have earned a death worthy of the life of the guy who played him. Rest in peace, to a guy who always went out as loudly, as messily, as gloriously as possible.