Wesley Snipes, out on bail while he appeals his tax case, has his first mainstream… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
When most of us last saw Wesley Snipes, he wasn't in his usual position as a hero on a movie screen. Instead, he was inhabiting a far less savory role, starring as both a news headline and late-night punch line.
Back in 2006, Snipes was brought up on enough tax-related charges to keep a fleet of IRS agents busy for years: conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, aiding and abetting the making of a fraudulent claim for payment and willfully failing to file a number of tax returns. He was acquitted on all felony counts but found guilty on several misdemeanor charges and sentenced to three years in jail; he is currently appealing, and is out on bail and free to travel for work.
But one of Hollywood's most compelling subjects is now attempting a comeback -- in the peculiar way that only he can -- with "Brooklyn's Finest," a bloody ensemble crime drama directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day"). In the Overture Films release, which hits theaters Friday, Snipes plays Cassanova Valentine, a former drug kingpin who's trying to go straight but whom the feds are determined to bust anyway, using an undercover cop (Don Cheadle) to do the deed.
"Part of what makes the character work is that it's immediately identifiable in the arc of my career," Snipes says. "And in the arc of my life."
IRS controversies aside, the Cassanova role serves as a bookend of sorts to Snipes' iconic Nino Brown character from "New Jack City" (1991). The difference is that instead of the megalomaniacal crime lord he played in that urban classic, Snipes' new character sits at the other end of the pipe, a man who's lived too hard and seen too much to want anything but out. It's a small part, but one that illustrates the movie's twin themes of redemption and one's inability to escape the past.
The Cassanova part is Snipes' first mainstream theatrical movie in six years. But in his inimitably quirky way, the 47-year-old actor says he isn't necessarily using his turn in the film, or the curiosity factors about the parallels to his own life, to land studio parts. Instead, his grand ambition these days is to become a . . . Web animation producer?
On an unseasonably warm February day at a beach-side restaurant in Santa Monica, Snipes isn't exactly dressed for a dip in the pool. Dressed in a hat that's cocked Andre 3000-style, a black sweater and bespoke leather coat, Snipes bites into a hearty meal of sausage and eggs, though, since this is Wesley Snipes, there is an unexpected touch as he drinks the very un-action hero beverage of hot chocolate.
Snipes' story would be improbable enough even if the last four years didn't happen. A classically trained theater actor who made his early mark two decades ago in comedies such as "Major League" and "White Men Can't Jump," Snipes got a boost from Spike Lee, who cast him in ""Jungle Fever" and "Mo' Better Blues," then won a professional golden ticket as Hollywood made him a go-to action star in studio vehicles such as "Passenger 57," "Rising Sun" and eventually the "Blade" trilogy.
Then, four years ago, it all went south. After his high-profile tax troubles, Snipes became an unlikely poster-child for the anti-tax movement and was essentially ostracized by Hollywood. Fuqua acknowledged in an interview that casting Snipes in "Brooklyn's Finest" was a struggle because some financiers were worried about his legal status. But the director says he was determined to put Snipes in the film because while watching the television reports of his tax trouble he was struck by how "it paralleled so perfectly" what happens to the Cassanova character. "I didn't want a guy who yells and screams. I wanted someone you feel fear but also sympathy," Fuqua says. "And then I saw Wesley going through what he was going through and I thought 'This is a guy who's living it right now.' "
So it's probably not surprising that Snipes sounds a little aggrieved with how the last few years have gone. But his tone is more complex, at once penitent and defiant, humble and grandiose. He bows at the end of the interview, like a martial-arts fighter -- which, oh yes, he also happens to be -- and thanks a reporter for his time.
"You try to be liquid, try to be like water, like Bruce [Lee] says," when asked how he's been coping with the criticism. "Some things you just let flow around you, some things you just redirect back." Then he sharpens the knives. "Sometimes you just sit and be patient and wait, and if you sit by the river long enough sometimes you see the bodies of your enemies floating by."
Thoughtful, articulate and flagrantly theatrical, Snipes is too savvy to place blame on anyone but himself. But it's clear that he feels Hollywood was too quick to judge him and still believes the government made an example of him.