It’s Time to Start Appreciating Craig Fairbrass

Craig Fairbrass often says, “I don’t worry about being typecast, only not cast.” The actor, who is known for playing gangsters and hardmen in low-budget British crime flicks, is as down to earth as they come. It’s part of his charm and why he deserves his success. However, he has more range than his aforementioned comments suggest, and the more highbrow corners of film culture are finally starting to realise that.

Fairbrass’s most recent outings, Villain and Muscle, have earned rave reviews from upmarket publications. Critics have praised the actor’s sublime performances in both films, with The Guardian noting that he’s going through a “Fairbranaissance.” That’s because the actor is out to prove that there’s more to his arsenal than “punching people.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with punching people, mind you. In fact, some of the crime and action pictures that Fairbrass is primarily known for are excellent. His hulking presence and gritty sensibilities make him an ideal leading man for films of this ilk, and he always brings his A-game. Even rubbish Fairbrass films boast a strong performance from the Londoner. 

It’s also worth noting that most of his meat-and-potatoes genre flicks are genuinely thrilling. Movies like London Heist, St. George’s Day, and Rise of the Footsoldier deserve more recognition outside of niche genre circles. Even just for people to realise how good Fairbrass is in them. But they’re an acquired taste, so it’s understandable why it’s taken until Villain and Muscle for the actor to earn some long-overdue recognition. Those films have some crossover appeal, and they both suggest that Fairbass is being pickier with his roles these days. 

The Philip Barantini-directed Villain, on paper, reads like a conventional British crime drama. Fairbrass plays an ex-con who wants to live an honest life. But his character is pulled back into the old ways when his brother gets into debt with some shady characters who threaten to destroy everything he’s grafted hard to build. Just when he thinks he’s out, he gets pulled back in. Such is the mobster way.

At the same time, Villain isn’t a run-of-the-mill film about guns and gangsters. There’s more to the story than a bunch of tough geezers engaging in crime and banter. It’s about a man seeking redemption and the lengths he’ll go to in order to protect his loved ones. The story is interested in exploring the grey areas that drive people to make poor decisions, and the consequences they face as a result.

Greg Hall and George Russo wrote a nuanced three-dimensional character for Fairbrass to sink his teeth into; one that plays to his strengths and lets him showcase his range with aplomb. The veteran performer instils the role with enough compassion and pathos to make the viewer sympathise with his character’s plight. He does batter some thugs with a hammer, but there’s justification for every act of savagery he displays.

Villain isn’t the first movie in which Fairbrass has brought depth and nuance to tough characters, though. The Devil’s Playground, an entertaining flick in which he portrays an infected mercenary during a zombie apocalypse, was a turning point for the actor. The movie is a paint-by-numbers undead horror yarn, but it saw Fairbrass begin his fascination with roles that allowed him to play damaged badasses.

He continued this trend to great effect in Breakdown, which sees him star as a PTSD-stricken hitman who must defend his family from his ruthless employers. The movie adheres to DTV thriller beats in many ways, but Fairbrass still manages to bring some humane vulnerability to a character who’s otherwise a straight-up killer. More fans of action-thriller fans should be aware of Breakdown. It’s a peach.

Villain is certainly a cut above The Devil’s Playground and Breakdown in terms of quality. However, all three are similar in the sense that they demonstrate how Fairbrass has a knack for finding humanity in darkness. Villain just gave him an avenue to explore these ideas with more depth and grace, in a film that’s more accessible for mainstream consumption.

Gerard Johnson‘s Muscle, on the other hand, is a highlight reel of the actor’s greatest strengths and so much more. He plays Terry, a hands-on personal trainer who takes a lost soul (played by a remarkable Cavan Clerkin) under his wing. But Terry has a sketchy past and a nefarious agenda. This results in an anxiety-inducing descent into drugs, orgiastic debauchery, and toxic masculinity that plays out like a nightmare.

Muscle was shot entirely in black-and-white and contains an arthouse flavour, making it unlike any other film in Fairbrass’s oeuvre. But the Terry character further showcases his propensity for playing larger-than-life, intimidating rogues with more believability than most performers working today. The role also allows him to show off some of his darkly comedic chops, which he’s demonstrated in a few films.

However, Muscle also sees Fairbrass subverting expectations. He’s known for playing damaged characters who are unabashedly masculine, but Terry is emblematic of this mentality at its worst. The movie is a deconstruction of machoness, and Terry gives Fairbrass the opportunity to go to some unexpected places.

The relationship between Terry and his protégé is rife with homoerotic overtones. It starts off with Terry injecting some steroids (“man juice”) into his buttocks. But a later incident that takes place at a sex party brings this element of the film to the forefront. Fairbrass tackles this aspect of Muscle fearlessly, resulting in some of the most compelling work of his career thus far.

At its core, Muscle is a relationship drama. For all Terry is an unhinged monster who represents Fairbrass at his terrifying best, he’s a complex character. There are also sombre moments in which he’s insecure and alone. His faux friendship with Clerkin’s protagonist creates a few moments that suggest Terry is longing for connection. At least that’s what he manipulates his victims — and the audience — into believing. During these scenes, however, Fairbrass’ performance adds a tragic layer to the monstrous roid head.

Fairbrass has been teasing these types of morally complex roles for years. We’re just finally starting to see him land parts that focus more on psychology than action. That’s exciting, as it will create more opportunities for a talent who has, in many ways, been criminally overlooked in the grand scheme of things for decades. Hollywood should take notice.

I hope Villain and Muscle pave the way for Fairbress being given a diverse selection of roles moving forward. I also hope that they convince some viewers to reconsider his other work. British crime movies are unfairly dismissed, and Fairbrass’s are among the most entertaining ones out there. May he continue making those flicks for years to come as well. Whatever he decides to do, I’ll be watching.

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  1. Craig is making it real , that’s how it really is ,great acting, brilliant stage presence. Keep it up Craig .

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