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What happened to Clive Owen? No, really - I wanna know. I thought he was it. The next thing. The return of the tough guy with a heart. Handsome but not delicate. Rugged but not thuggish. And for a while there, things were going so well.

Remember Croupier (1998)? Those brooding eyes, sunk deep into that tough-guy mug? And a British accent. Swoon. Plus, you know, gambling and tuxedos and desperate characters - a lovely little piece of modern noir.

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He showed up again in Gosford Park (2001), as a guy with murder on his mind, but still all matter-of-fact about it. Not crazy-psycho casual, just matter-of-fact: I am going to kill the bastard. Which made it more human, and more chilling. Especially because we are supposed to be swooning over him right alongside sweet, innocent Kelly Macdonald, and indeed we are.

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The Bourne Identity (2002) was a bit more conventional, but it was still good (and almost entirely wordless). Besides, it was a bit part, a toe dipped into the studio mainstream. Plus, he got a chance to die well onscreen.

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I didn't see I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003). Impression: small film, cool title, establishing tough-guy bona fides.

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King Arthur (2004) was an understandable misstep. Who wouldn't want to play King Arthur? And it had that "gritty exploration of the reality behind the myth" vibe - or at least, it was supposed to.

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Plus, Closer came out the same year, and gave Owen a chance to show some dramatic range in an arthouse production of a stage play.

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Okay, Clive, give me wounded yet resentful. Frustrated in a modern sort of way. Rattled, yet still egotistical. Perfect.

After all that airless drama, Sin City (2005) was a sensible move - something stylish and light. Plus, black and white!

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Which brings us to the high point: Children of Men (2006). A proper star turn. Plenty of action, but a heartbreaking high concept at the heart of things: nobody's getting born any more, and so humanity is doomed. Literary pedigree, political overtones, car chases, and some sneakily theological notions (love how he has to cast out into the deep at the very end...) Owen, c'est arrive.

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I dunno. Maybe Shoot 'Em Up (2007) was inevitable. Blowing off steam. "Okay, I'm an action star now. So I'll make the most ridiculous action movie I can." Fine, parody yourself; get it out of your system.

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But Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)? A studly Sir Walter Raleigh? This photo?

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No wonder he took a break in 2008. If only he'd taken another one in 2009, instead of making The International, a film I actually saw in theaters, just because he was in it. Boy, did I look silly, sitting there all alone. Well, almost all alone. The Wife thinks he's handsome, too. This wasn't a parody of international intrigue action flicks. This was just a bad international intrigue action flick. The kind you might see from a generic action movie star, only a hair more highbrow, what with the financial shenanigans and the shootout in the Guggenheim.

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The International helped me to understand Trust (2010). Small film, very human part (Dad fretting over inability to protect daughter from world). Owen even managed to be the secret star: the eye is naturally drawn to the daughter, because her sufferings are more overt. But Owen is the dramatic center of things, the one who has to come to grips with the world before the world destroys him. Unfortunately, I don't think the film even managed to get released.

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And that brings us to last year's Killer Elite (2011). The less said, the better. A bad joke of a film, insulting and loud. What happened? How did Clive Owen start playing in extended sunglass commercials?

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Comments

Valerie Scher Feb. 21, 2012 @ 4:45 p.m.

You asked a good question and provided an excellent answer. Clive Owen was so memorable in films like "Croupier," "Gosford Park," and "Closer" that it seemed reasonable to expect many more such performances. I still hope that will happen. I'm not giving up on Clive.

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Scott Marks Feb. 21, 2012 @ 4:59 p.m.

It appeared as though he was poised to be the new Robert Mitchum. Now we're lucky if he'll play the love interest in a new Jennifer Aniston picture.

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David Elliott Feb. 21, 2012 @ 5:05 p.m.

Ace reflections, Matt. Nice photo gallery, too. Maybe Owen is too subtle for the mass-meat market, not quite refined enough for the art-theater regulars (they're all at home, anyway, glued to 'Downton Abbey'). It isn't all that easy for good British actors to really "cross the pond" into big stardom. Owen seemed set to be a new, slightly more vulnerable Bob Mitchum (Stanley Baker tried for that, 50 years ago, but was too emotionally walled-off for it to work). Might still happen for Clive, if he can get a movie that really merges 'Brighton Rock' and 'Out of the Past.' I could see him pulling off Holly Martins or Harry Lime in a new 'Third Man,' but that movie is unrepeatable. He would have been a better Jason Bourne than Matt Damon is.

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