There are performances whose brilliance doesn't become evident until an actor has amassed a body of work big enough for us to examine with a critical eye. At a turning point in Wesley Snipes' career came The Waterdance, a small drama about paraplegics from directors Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg. Snipes was hot off of New Jack City, and about to spend the next ten years as one of America's leading action movie stars. The Waterdance marks Snipes' last appearance as a working character actor before moving on to movie stardom in 1992's White Men Can't Jump, and re-examining his role as Raymond Hill in the film reveals a versatility that Snipes seems to have actively shunned by choosing projects that portrayed him primarily as a hard-ass action hero.
The Waterdance stars Eric Stoltz as Joel Garcia (a surrogate for paraplegic screenwriter Jimenez) as he struggles to heal from a spinal injury that cost him the use of his legs. He shares a room with two strong personalities, each dealing with their handicap in their own way -- volatile, racist bruiser Bloss (played by William Forsyth) and Snipes' charming storyteller Hill. Garcia's journey of acceptance moves the plot along, but Hill's reverse arc provides the film with almost all of its best scenes.
Hill is introduced as a happy, adjusted man, despite finding himself recently wheelchair-bound. It's a stark contrast to the angry Bloss and even Garcia, who's still trying to make sense out of how he feels about never walking again. Post-accident, Ray's re-dedicated to God and his family, after a life spent womanizing and secret-keeping. We never get to meet the old Ray, just the new and improved Ray, who works through his injury with optimism and a new-found appreciation of life.
It's Snipes at his warmest and most likable. It takes charisma to become a movie star, and Snipes has that, but he's played too many parts where he's intense to the point of being stoic. The Waterdance is a reminder of the talent that Snipes has in him -- one removed from our recent impression of the star as a tax-evading fugitive and a strictly straight-to-video draw.
I'm not sure why Snipes as an actor seemed to actively avoid more dramatic roles (or comedies -- he's got skillful timing) over ones where he gets to shoot the bad guys. I can only speculate that sometimes actors get lost in their own product, afraid to deviate from what an audience expects from them, lest their career lose its movie star sparkle and box office appeal. Maybe this is the case with Snipes? At this point in his career, though, Snipes seems aware that things aren't what they used to be. My hope is that his personal comeback includes interesting character roles (which may be why Snipes took a smaller part in the recent cop thriller Brooklyn's Finest).
Ray's motivation takes a dramatic turn halfway through the movie, when his family turns their back on him for Ray's old ways. As it turns out, Ray's optimism was entirely fueled by his desire to return to his family's loving arms as a changed man. It was a fantasy he'd created in his own head to help him cope with the loss of his legs, and when the reality of his situation sets in, he turns to drink, and becomes depressed and suicidal. It's left up to Bloss and Garcia, as friends by proxy, to do what they can to stop Ray's sudden downward spiral.
Snipes handles the character shift with the same energy and consistency throughout the end of the film, because he's inhabiting the part of Raymond Hill -- not just playing happy when it's time to play happy, and sad when it's time to play sad. That ability to inhabit the role so convincingly is the mark of a great actor. I can't help but wonder how differently Snipes' career would've played out if he'd chased the scripts that let him become a fully nuanced character, and not just scripts that traded in on his surface-level charisma.