"Let's turn on the juice and see what shakes loose."
-Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice
Gung Ho (1986)
This is my favorite early Keaton movie. He appeared in some goofy classics (Mr. Mom, Night Shift, Johnny Dangerously) but this one saw a lot of replay action in my youth. Gedde Watanabe (whatever happened to him, eh?) co-stars in this hilarious Ron Howard comedy of manners in which a Japanese car company buys out an American plant. Keaton's Hunt Stevenson attempts to mediate the culture clash between his hard-working blue collar colleagues and the strict, labor-intensive, numbers-crunching Japanese owners. George Wendt, Mimi Rogers and John Turturro round out the likable supporting cast. It's moving, it's funny, and a highly underrated comedy of the 80's.
Despite playing the title character, Beetlejuice is not really a Michael Keaton movie. With only 17 minutes of screen time, what he does with this small role is remarkable. The heart of this movie belongs to Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis (a well-matched pairing) as deceased newlyweds who just want to be left alone in their new house. They enlist the aid of a wise-cracking con artist who is more than willing to cut a deal with our exasperated couple. Keaton is clearly having a ball, and you can't possibly imagine another actor in the role. It's an irreverent, inspired performance in one of Tim Burton's most memorable films.
Pacific Heights (1990)
I don't know, but I really liked seeing Keaton play a bad guy here. It's a straight role, nothing too showy. But what he does with it makes him a pleasure to watch. Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith are a young couple who rent out their dream house in order to help pay for it. Keaton is a tenant who is hellbent on making their lives miserable. It's not a great film by any means, but I remember seeing it after Batman came out and being rather impressed with Keaton's dark, maniacal performance. It was a nice stretch for him. Pacific Heights was also very pleasing to the eyes; John Schlesinger directed this beautifully shot thriller on location in glorious San Francisco.
My Life (1993)
Yes, it's saccharine. It's weepy. It's pure melodrama. But dammit, I fell for it, hook line and sinker. I was a sobbing mess by the end of this drama about a dying man (Keaton) trying to make the most of his last days on earth. Nicole Kidman, in a remarkable early-career performance, is in fine form, but take another look at Keaton here. He doesn't push it. He plays a well-read, intelligent man who simply does not know how to comprehend his feelings. It's an understated performance in an underrated film.
Jackie Brown (2007)
Like Beetlejuice, this isn't a full blown Keaton film. He doesn't steal the film, but he does stand out nicely in a smallish, delicious role (which he reprised oh-so-briefly in Out of Sight) as a Fed named Ray Nicolette. He wants his hands on a notorious arms dealer (of which he knows nothing about), so he focuses his energy on a flight attendant who may or may not be playing him. This is Tarantino's most underrated film which features career-best work by Pam Grier and Robert Forster, and one of Robert DeNiro's strongest performances in the last 20 years. It's a busy, bustling masterpiece, and Keaton, amid all of the greatness that is Jackie Brown, fits right in.