With some actors, it’s all in the eyes. Some performers need dialogue to boost their work, and others are able to use their physicality to get across some emotion, whether it’s happiness or sadness or fury or anything in between. But an actor who can just use their eyes to communicate a world’s worth of information is hard to find, and hard to top.

Such is the case with Ian McShane, who’s got himself a couple of major showcase parts out this month that represent the extreme depth he brings to any role, in the gun-fueled fantasia John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and the long-awaited revival of the drama that gave him a breakout part, Deadwood: The Movie.

A True Gem

Most actors, granted, who are lucky enough to have a breakout role get it before they turn 60. But arriving as a force to be reckoned with later in life is how it went for McShane, who’d accrued a series of smaller roles on television and in film throughout most of his career. Science-fiction fans might have recognized him from a part in the Babylon 5 franchise, and viewers from his native United Kingdom might have known him as the title character on a lighthearted detective show called Lovejoy. (Some American audiences, too, might have noticed him in Jonathan Glazer’s nastily entertaining Sexy Beast.) But it took until playing the role of real-life saloon owner Al Swearengen that most people sat up and noticed Ian McShane.

Seeing Al Swearengen again in Deadwood: The Movie is the kind of thing you almost can’t believe even as you’re watching it. (Very light spoilers for the film, which airs on HBO on May 31 and is generally excellent, follow.) In the revival film, set in 1889 as South Dakota celebrates its statehood, Al is still holed up at the Gem Saloon, overseeing both his own bar/whorehouse as well as the entirety of Deadwood.

But Al is also ill, suffering from the extreme amount of alcohol he’s drunk over the years. So, in spite of the return of one of his most vicious rivals, now-Senator George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), Al’s response to a threat to one of his old friends is more muted. As fierce as Al’s personality can be, he’s something of a wounded, if still somewhat loquacious, lion in winter. His eyes, once steely and sharp, seem a little wilder; Al’s condition, too, seems to be an intentional mirror for that of creator/writer David Milch, who has since gone public with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Though Al doesn’t have that specific ailment, it’s clear from the start that his faculties aren’t entirely with him, as he’s unable to get the day of the week correct.

A Lion in Winter

Contrast this with Winston, the almost serene manager of the Continental in New York City. Throughout the three John Wick films, Winston has rarely raised his voice above a whisper while also cutting a well-dressed, slick figure who you clearly don’t want to mess with. McShane, like his co-star Keanu Reeves, seems to say even less in Chapter 3 – Parabellum than in previous installments. What’s more, he doesn’t need to (spoilers for the film follow).

Just as John Wick goes on the run at the start of the film, Winston’s back is up against the wall by the oft-mentioned and never-seen members of The High Table of assassins. These mysterious characters punish him for having aided John at all, as a dead-eyed Adjudicator informs him. Winston’s given a week to get his affairs in order and step down; instead, he and John, along with fellow Continental employee Charon (Lance Reddick), fight back against the High Table in a bloody final act.

On Deadwood, there was plenty of violent action but just as often a surfeit of ornately profane dialogue. In the John Wick films, it’s the fighting that does the talking. Once John and Charon take the fight to assassins in the otherwise-deserted Continental, Winston calmly relaxes in a well-appointed panic room/private arsenal. He doesn’t say much at all — in one scene, John returns to reload and get some new weapons, Winston enjoying a drink and saying nothing in darkly comic response — but that’s because his eyes do all the talking.

These two extremes — the green-around-the-gills Al talks plenty in Deadwood: The Movie even though he doesn’t get nearly as bloody as he would in the TV series — are fine proof of McShane’s versatility as a performer. In the years after Deadwood, which was unceremoniously canceled by HBO in 2006, McShane was relatively sought-after thanks to his intense, complex performance as a shameless gangster and pimp who somehow managed to feel as three-dimensional and fully lived-in as any hero.

In the show’s early episodes, Al seems like the devil incarnate, able to strike fear with a single glance in gunslingers and drug dealers alike. By the time the show concluded, Al was a deeper, richer character, thanks to both the Milchian dialogue and McShane’s unique flair for delivering each line as naturally and eloquently as possible. But the kinds of roles McShane was offered have largely not utilized his talents as much as Deadwood ever did. The John Wick films are the notable exception.

Elevating Bad Material

In theory, for example, casting McShane as the fearsome pirate Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides makes perfect sense. He followed in the footsteps of Geoffrey Rush and Bill Nighy, both expressive and volcanic performers who could be as arresting as heroes as they are as villains. But the 2011 film makes ill use of McShane, all but squandering him amidst more of Johnny Depp’s now-obnoxious and overdone comic stylings, tons of special effects, and wig work. His eyes are as transfixing and creepy and intense as ever, but the film surrounding those eyes suffers by casting someone so fascinating and not grasping how to best use him.

The same can be said for another of McShane’s parts this year, in the reboot of Hellboy. (Generally speaking, I was not a fan.) In the Neil Marshall-directed film, McShane plays Trevor Bruttenholm, the adoptive father of the half-human, half-demon Hellboy, serving as a gruff mentor of sorts. The Hellboy of the new film is, for better or (entirely) worse, positioned as an overgrown rebellious teenager with Trevor as his annoyed, grouchy father. On the one hand, as I noted in my review, McShane is the bright spot of this otherwise terrible film, in part because he’s not phoning in a part that feels laughably underwritten. But it’s painful to have to watch McShane in roles that he elevates by sheer force, instead of being able to meet a great role in the middle.

That’s part of what makes watching him as characters as disparate as Al Swearengen and Winston so charming. In the latter case, thanks in part to the world-building created by the scripts of the three films, McShane is able to work with a character whose history is often teased at in compelling ways. With Al Swearengen, it’s a somewhat similar case – though he’s based on a real person, the Al of the show manages to talk often without always giving away every part of his personal history. (When he does, which is rare, it’s through Shakespearean monologues he delivers while receiving oral sex from one of his prostitutes.)

It’s something of a shame that the right role, that of the multifaceted Al Swearengen, didn’t come along earlier for Ian McShane, if only because it took so long for so many people to realize the depth of talent he offers in just one look. It’s not just the words he got to utter on the HBO show, or in the wonderful revival film airing this month. As he’s proved as far back as the premiere episode of Deadwood, which closes on an image of him in his bed, staring forward impassively but full of life, and as he proves in the third John Wick, Ian McShane is an arresting performer who even now deserves more credit than what he’s gotten before. It’s all in the eyes.

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