SANTA MONICA, Calif — 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.
In 2006, Snipes was brought up on tax-related charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government (he was acquitted) and misdemeanor charges for willfully refusing to file a tax return (he was sentenced to three years in prison but is out on bail while he appeals). Since then he has been in a kind of B-movie exile, shooting direct-to-DVD movies with names like "The Detonator" and "Game of Death."
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, now in theaters, 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 (for whom) 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.
In a gesture at once sincere and conscious, he shoulders the blame — sort of. "Going through the trial woke me up to the significance of what I do," he says. "(The government) said it was the largest and biggest and most important tax case. And I thought 'Really? What am I missing here? Why would you say that, just because I make movies?' That was a wake-up call."
Snipes tried not to let those troubles get in the way of work, though the kind of work he's been doing won't get him invited to the Oscars any time soon. Snipes has been off in Africa and Asia making movies for people who, in some cases, in Snipes' words, "use filmmaking like they're selling toasters, toothbrushes or henna on the beach. You read some of what the fans are saying, things like 'Why is he now doing the B-movies?' and I was like 'My man. That's not my preference.'"
Fuqua decided to take a chance on him as a drug dealer opposite a host of cops in "Brooklyn's Finest." Snipes is part of the interlocking puzzle that has Richard Gere as a burnt-out cop on the verge of retirement, Ethan Hawke as a desperate officer trying to pilfer cash from an arrest to help his family and Cheadle's undercover officer trying to attain a promotion (and thrust into the morally questionable position of ratting out Snipes' Cassanova despite the pair's long-standing friendship).
With the part, Snipes says, "it's good to be welcomed home." And Cheadle said in an interview that Snipes has "got a real good soul, and he should get more shots" because of this film. But Snipes said he isn't really that interested in studio parts. Instead, he's developing a series of Web animation shorts called "Omandi Mech 5" that he "wants to scale out like 'Transformers' or 'Star Wars,' "although, after watching one, those comparisons feel like a bit of a stretch.
Turning to his personal life, Snipes can sound almost monkish. "I'm at a really good place. I've reduced a lot of the stress in my life. I've gotten rid of a lot of things. The light was turned on and a lot of the cockroaches started spinning. I swept them out the door. And sometimes you just have to throw things out because they carry a certain energy. Reboot. It's time to reboot."