Friday, May 15, 2009

A Leonard McCoy tribute

I feel like kicking myself from about two weeks ago. My name will forever be linked to doubts and suspicions about the new Star Trek movie. But, now that I’ve seen it, and the Star Trek hype train has slowed somewhat, I honestly don’t think I could love the film any more if I tried – flaws, typically faulty science and all. There has been the expected hoopla over both Chris Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock, and truthfully, it’s mostly all warranted. They’re not only better than I expected, they’re just damn good in their roles. Despite that, and the rest of the cast’s talents, one supporting actor always seems to get a bit lost. So, to end all that, I’ll forgo a typical review and make this into more of a tribute to Karl Urban’s slightly manic, but often hilarious depiction of Doctor Leonard McCoy. To warn you, there are some spoilers.

McCoy was without fail, Captain Kirk’s closest confidante, and in some cases, more of a sibling than merely a friend. McCoy was Kirk’s conscience, and his being Kirk’s voice of reason was no accident – his divorce left him world weary, and at times dangerously over-emotional, giving way to moments of irrationality. With J.J. Abrams’ reboot most of this is clear within the first few minutes of his and Kirk’s meeting aboard a ship. While Kirk is calm about their flight – McCoy is the polar opposite, and rattles off a list of horrifying, potential deaths in space ("One tiny crack in the hull, and our blood boils in 13 seconds"). He also, rather bitterly, mentions the divorce from a wife who keeps him from his child, who took everything and left him nothing except his bones. Though it’s Kirk’s relationship with Spock that gets most of our attention throughout the new movie, it is Kirk’s friendship with McCoy that starts first.

Although Karl Urban’s cast mates performances are nearly spot on (Quinto’s job being the hardest with Leonard Nimoy’s presence), Urban is the only actor who comes eerily close to his predecessor’s performance. It’s a near perfect match with DeForest Kelly’s McCoy, and everything from the rhythm of how Urban speaks to even his hand gestures are spot on. And yet, it would be insulting to call his performance an impersonation. It’s more like some sort of restrained possession, and even knowing some of Urban’s techniques (like using a dialect coach) isn’t enough to explain how it’s done. It almost feels like watching an actor’s magic trick, and there are moments when you feel he can’t possibly pull it off. Somewhere, somehow he will make a mistake – perhaps his accent will slip, or his line delivery will slow, perhaps this incarnation of Bones will be less cranky, less manic. But, it amazingly, never happens.

With Urban’s McCoy, it has become increasingly easy to see why some women and men, reject the Kirk or Spock adoration, and rather, fall quite hard for McCoy. This revived love for McCoy is more substantial than superficial (arguably more akin to Spock fans) even though Karl Urban himself is handsome. This love comes from McCoy’s sometimes inexplicable loyalty to Kirk, shown in one instance when McCoy smuggles Kirk onto the Enterprise even though Kirk has been grounded. This love comes from McCoy’s often unintentional moments of hilarity, the best example being McCoy’s attempt to cure Kirk of the temporary disease he gave Kirk in the first place. This love comes from the fact that Urban’s McCoy, like Kelly’s, gets the most memorable (not to mention xenophobic) lines, most of which are directed at Spock (“Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” “Green-blooded hobgoblin!”) If ever there were a salesman to bridge new Star Trek fans to the original show, it is Karl Urban’s McCoy. If he can’t hook them, nothing will.

I was surprised by the amount of humor in the new Star Trek movie, mostly because its misleading trailers have been so self-serious. But for all its action-as-filler, and idealism, McCoy is the movie’s humorous, world wise voice.

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  1. Nicely done. Bones has always been my favorite part of the Trek cast. People tend to focus on the Kirk-Spock relationship. But to me, the magic doesn't really happen until McCoy completes the troika. Urban was terrific. I agree, it'd be insulting to call what he does an impersonation. When I reviewed the new Trek on my own blog, I wrote:

    "Karl Urban captures the late DeForest Kelley's unique mannerisms, but does it so effortlessly that it never looks like an impersonation. The first time I saw him, it was like bumping into an old friend."

    I'm hoping he'll get a little more screen time in the sequel.

  2. "The first time I saw him, it was like bumping into an old friend."

    Well put. Urban was sort of the glue that held everything together for fans who loved TOS. A lot of aspects of the film feel sort of new, but McCoy made if feel like not much had changed which is something I think the new film needed.