Bill Paxton is one of the most prolific character actors that needs no introduction. He has a whopping 100 acting credits that include movies, TV, and even music videos. However, he was gone too soon, at the age of 61 in 2017. Paxton’s road to fame didn’t come overnight, as he got his underwhelming start in the mid-1970s through the early ‘80s as a struggling actor. It wasn’t until he made a fruitful working relationship with James Cameron in The Terminator in 1984. He landed a small role but was good enough to make a lasting impression. They would go on to collaborate three more times in Aliens, True Lies, and Titanic, each of which proved Paxton’s versatility in comedic and dramatic prowess.
Outside of Paxton’s collaboration with Cameron, he also starred in numerous noteworthy roles regardless of indie films, genre fares, or major Hollywood blockbusters. He was mostly cast in the supporting roles, but even so, he always gave it his all. He did get his chance to lead several movies, as seen in One False Move and Twister. Here are the top 15 Bill Paxton movies of all time.
1. A Simple Plan (1998)
Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton starred in this underrated 1998 gem of a neo-noir crime thriller, A Simple Plan. It also marked Sam Raimi’s radical departure from his usual horror territory. His surprisingly restrained direction brings out the best in Paxton and Thornton. They play brothers, and along with their friend (Brent Briscoe), discover a bag of $4.4 million cash from the wreckage of a snow-covered plane.
Paxton’s lead performance as the conflicted Hank is one of the best in his illustrious acting career. He started off as a decent and caring family man. But the subsequent discovery of the money bag sets the stage for Raimi’s dark morality play to explore the old adage that money is the root of all evil. How money changes an everyman like Hank into someone so morally corrupted, and here, Paxton pulls off the subtle complexity of his character.
2. Aliens (1986)
Believe it or not, Bill Paxton improvised the 1986 action-packed sequel’s famous line, “Game over, man!”. So, naturally, this Bill Paxton movie is one of the most notable ones. This proved how much faith James Cameron had in his actors, and Paxton delivers it. He stands out from the other Marines as Private Hudson, whose motormouthed personality becomes a fan favorite.
His character may have been a cowardly soldier at first. But Cameron gives him a worthy character arc that it’s hard not to root for him during his last stand. The latter sees him braving an ordeal against the aliens, even when he’s outnumbered. And yet, Hudson’s fight-to-the-end moment adds depth to his otherwise comic-relief role.
3. Frailty (2001)
Bill Paxton proves he can do as good behind the cameras as he does onscreen. Frailty sees him successfully pulling double duties as both director and lead actor. He plays a fanatically religious father who believes God sends him a message to destroy demons disguised as humans. It was a grim and disturbing premise, and so does Paxton’s character.
His committed performance from a loving family man to his two kids (Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter) to a delusional axe-wielding God’s killer is subtly portrayed, allowing Paxton to stretch his dramatic chops. His directorial prowess combines police procedural and mystery-horror with a Southern Gothic twist while doing a great job exploring themes of faith and obsession.
4. One False Move (1992)
One False Move marks Bill Paxton’s first leading role. He plays a small-town Star City sheriff, Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon, who is looking forward to making an impression by assisting the two FBI agents to catch the runaway criminals (Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Beach, and Cynda Williams). Beyond the gritty nature of its crime-thriller premise, the movie showcases Paxton’s layered performance – first as a laidback and endearing sheriff who likes to joke around and even get cocksure about catching the criminals.
His naivety soon makes him a laughing stock for the FBI agents, leading to a scene that it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for his character. Then comes his gradual character arc, which revolved around his past catching up on him. Paxton’s chameleon-like acting soon reveals his dramatic side, solidifying his performance as a versatile actor.
5. Near Dark (1987)
Kathryn Bigelow modernized the age-old vampire genre with a stylized neo-Western twist in Near Dark. Bill Paxton plays Severen, one of the family members of the vampire outlaws. He made the most impressions with his supporting character’s unhinged and sociopathic edge. He steals the scene even from Adrian Pasdar, who leads the movie as the hapless Caleb Cotton, and Lance Henriksen as the patriarch-like vampire Jesse Hooker. Among his best scenes takes place in a bar, as Severen talks trash and messes around with the roughnecks. Then, he starts killing people and sucking blood, leading to one of the movie’s most memorable lines: “It’s finger-lickin’ good!”
6. True Lies (1994)
The 1994 James Cameron blockbuster featured Bill Paxton in his supporting role as Simon, a used car salesman who scammed Jamie Lee Curtis’s bored wife into thinking he’s a spy. His comic timing is put to good use, and he has a knack for playing a sleazy scumbag. One of his best scenes comes from the one where he served Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker to go for a test drive. This leads to some of the movie’s best quotable lines, such as, “She’s like all these babes, you get their pilot lit, they could suck start a leafblower.”
7. Predator 2 (1990)
Like the Schwarzenegger-led Predator, the 1990 sequel boasts an entertaining cast full of different personalities. The leader of the police squad, Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover), is a no-nonsense cop. Meanwhile, Jerry Lambert (Bill Paxton) is a smarmy police officer with an attitude. Paxton’s role may be started out as comic relief.
He loves to talk big and enjoys flirting with his tomboy-ish colleague (Maria Conchita Alonso’s Leona Cantrell). But he’s more than that, as evidently seen in the subway-train attack sequence. He chose to stand his ground, making him an unlikely hero of the moment that his sacrifice feels honorable. This gives his character added depth, and Paxton makes the best out of it.
8. Twister (1996)
The tornado special effects may have been the scene stealer in Twister. But Jan de Bont’s action-packed disaster epic also boasts the acting caliber of Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. They play exes who are also storm chasers, and their love-hate chemistry is enjoyable to watch. Paxton’s Bill Harding perfectly contrasts Hunt’s reckless Jo Harding as a more sensible person. Twister also gives him a rare opportunity to lead a major studio blockbuster. It was also amazing that Paxton’s dedicated performance ensures the special effects don’t completely overshadow his role.
9. The Terminator (1984)
Bill Paxton may only appear in a small role in James Cameron’s The Terminator. But his appearance is unforgettable, thanks to his distinctive punk look, spiky blue hair, and tire mark-like facial tattoo. He plays the punk leader who mocked the stark-naked appearance of Schwarzenegger’s titular role and even tries to threaten him with a switchblade. Even for a brief moment, Paxton manages to make the best out of his limited screen time. Not to mention co-writer Cameron gives him some of the movie’s best lines, including “Hey, I think this guy’s a couple cans short of a six-pack.”
10. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
It sure feels fun watching Tom Cruise’s Major William Cage live, die and repeat while embarking on a suicide mission in this sci-fi take on a Groundhog Day-like Edge of Tomorrow. The movie also boasts Bill Paxton’s memorable supporting turn as Master Sergeant Farell, who enjoys dissing Tom Cruise’s character. His drill sergeant role is reminiscent of a PG-13 version of the late R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. He even holds his own against Tom Cruise and has a field day playing the character in a Kentucky accent.
11. Weird Science (1985)
The 1980s was the peak of John Hughes, excelling in teen comedies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But amidst his career-defining decade at the time, he also made the bizarre Weird Science. It has an added bonkers premise about two high-school nerds (Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary Wallace and Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s Wyatt Donnelly) creating their dream woman (Kelly LeBrock) using their computers.
The movie also includes an unforgettable performance from Bill Paxton as Chet, a classic bad guy and obnoxious big brother who likes to bully Wyatt and Gary. His role may have been brief, but he made a lasting impression with his perfect comic timing and spot-on sadistic personality. He even gets some good lines, too, like “You two donkey-dicks couldn’t get laid in a morgue.”
12. Nightcrawler (2014)
Bill Paxton’s supporting turn as Joe Loder is a perfect foil for Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom’s inexperienced but fiercely determined freelance photojournalist. He’s a veteran who’s been in the business long enough to know how it works inside out. And in Nightcrawler, Paxton has a particular scene worth mentioning here. The part where he tries to convince Louis to join his crew so he can show him the ropes, only to be outright rejected straight in the face.
13. Titanic (1997)
The Oscar-winning Titanic may have been James Cameron’s high-water mark at the time. Not to forget catapulting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into stardom. The movie is largely told in flashbacks, bookended by the modern-day scenes in the beginning and the end. The present-day moments may seem insignificant, particularly when compared to Jack and Rose’s majestic love story.
But it’s hard to ignore Bill Paxton’s commitment to his supporting turn as Brock Lovett. His role as a dedicated treasure hunter is crucial because of how Cameron framed him as a stand-in from the audience’s point of view. His pivotal dialogue of “Are you ready to go back to Titanic?” as he waited patiently for the elderly Rose (Gloria Stewart) to recap what happened on that fateful day effectively draws the audience deep into an epic 3-hour-plus cinematic journey.
14. Apollo 13 (1995)
Ron Howard’s acclaimed true-story drama of the Apollo 13 mission boasts a great cast, top-notch special effects, and deliberate tension-filled moments. Bill Paxton, who plays one of the Apollo 13 crew Fred Haise, pairs well with his co-stars, Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon. He shows emotional maturity and composure, playing the real-life character without resorting to overdramatization. His restrained performance proved that Paxton can carry a role well enough.
15. Tombstone (1993)
Tombstone may have been remembered for Kurt Russell’s no-nonsense performance as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer’s scene-stealing turn as Doc Holliday. In fact, it’s easy to dismiss Bill Paxton’s supporting role as Morgan Earp due to the nature of his character. Unlike the other two Earp brothers, Wyatt and Virgil (Sam Elliott), Morgan is more of a mild-mannered lawman. But Paxton manages to hold his own with his perfectly understated performance, making his eventual ill-fated demise all the more tragic and impactful.
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