You can see Guillermo del Toro’s obsessive attention to detail in every frame of Pacific Rim, from the intricate designs of its monsters and robots to the layered backstory of its apocalyptic world. The precise splashes and drips of rain and ocean water off the robots’ metal plating, the coordinated psychedelic swirl of neon lights during a fierce battle through the streets of Hong Kong, the unnatural physics of the monsters’ bioluminescent spit—this is the work of a perfectionist. That perfectionism, though, seemingly didn’t extend to one crucial area:
Casting a lead actor who could speak with a convincing American accent.
Pacific Rim’s hero is a man named Raleigh Becket, who pilots one of the robots (called jaegers) into battle against the giant aliens (called kaiju) who appear from an interdimensional portal located at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The jaegers are controlled by an international coalition of soldiers: the group’s leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is English, Raleigh’s new co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), is Japanese. The three other key robots are crewed by Chinese, Russian and Australian teams.
Raleigh is the lone American in the bunch, but he’s played by Charlie Hunnam, who is English. That fact is particularly noticeable—and particularly distracting—in his opening voiceover, which is crucial in setting up Pacific Rim’s complicated mythology. We’re supposed to be absorbing all this information about the kaiju and the jaegers; how long this war has been going on, why the situation has grown so desperate. But all we focus on is the fact that Raleigh sounds like he’s been taking diction lessons from Christian Bale’s Batman.
Bale is from the United Kingdom as well, and variations of his flat, husky whisper—like a guy with a bad case of laryngitis and a mild speech impediment—have become the de facto “American” voice for a lot of foreign born Hollywood action heroes. Scottish Gerard Butler used it earlier this year as a Secret Service agent in Olympus Has Fallen; Australian Sam Worthington deployed it with varying degrees of success in Avatar and Terminator Salvation.
Some international actors lose their accents completely—when was the last time you heard Charlize Theron speak with a South African one?—and others seem to possess an almost preternatural ability to slip between dialects; the new Superman, Henry Cavill, is British, but you’d never know it from his note-perfect performance in Man Of Steel. Not so for Hunnam, who’s struggled with American accents for years. The less said about (or in) his Southern twang from Cold Mountain the better.
In most cases, these are bad accents, not bad actors, and in most cases the problem could be easily solved by letting them use their natural speaking voices. Invariably, a bad American accent is far more distracting than any plot questions raised by the presence of a foreign born American super-hero. Arnold Schwarzenegger played all kinds of U.S. cops, spies, and federal agents with his Austrian accent, and no one cared. The more comfortable the actor, the better and more natural their performance.
Yet we keep getting these uncomfortable performances from hunky international heroes like Hunnam, Worthington, and Butler, who look great but sound terrible. Maybe that's another manifestation of the rise of international box office as a driving force in Hollywood. Massive special effects travel; regional cultural nuances do not. Movies made for a global audience put spectacle at a premium over everything else. In most foreign markets, the dialogue is going to be subtitled or dubbed anyway, so the spoken word moves even lower on the film's list of priorities. People come to see Charlie Hunnam fight the monsters, not talk them to death.