Category Archives: Directed by John McTiernan

The 13th Warrior (1999, John McTiernan)

No one in The 13th Warrior seems particularly thrilled to be participating in The 13th Warrior. Some people carry it better than others—Omar Sharif’s cameo is the only “good” acting in the film, as he translates and interprets events for lead Antonio Banderas, who can’t speak the common language with the Vikings they’ve come across. Vladimir Kulich, as Beowulf (13th Warrior is an adaptation of co-producer and shadow director Michael Crichton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, which is a riff on Beowulf), is kind of fine. His presence is indicative of the problem with Warrior, which is no one wants to take it seriously and actually ask anyone to act, so they just get a handful of personable actors and a handful of romance novel cover models and put the band together. Kulich at least takes it seriously. Taking it seriously requires effort, which is on short supply.

And, really, on short demand. No one cares. William Wisher and Warren Lewis’s screenplay is not some poorly realized masterpiece. It’s a Viking movie with an Arabian guest star. With Antonio Banderas as a tenth century Muslim traveler—based on a real person, but the film… avoids treating Banderas as a real person. The script avoids Banderas as a person so much it isn’t until the last battle, which is a very noncommittal Seven Samurai homage because neither credited director McTiernan or uncredited Crichton are any good at the action. It’s particularly stunning from McTiernan considering he made Predator and the “monsters” in Warrior decapitate and camouflage too. Warrior’s almost willfully bad.

Anyway—the movie doesn’t show Muslim Banderas pray until the last battle scene. How Banderas is going to pray five times a day—at set times—while traveling with a bunch of Vikings on a mission to kill a monster and save a village? Exploring that culture clash would probably be interesting. But they can’t do it because it’s an action movie with what ought to be a pulpy premise but instead wants to get executed like a nerdy one and it’s not. Warrior either needs a compelling lead, compelling adversaries, or compelling cannon fodder (the Vikings slash samurai). It’s got none of those things. And it’s not even Banderas’s fault. He’s not good, but it’s very clearly not his fault. His biggest scene—outside that one prayer—is when he figures out how to speak Old Norse just from sitting around and listening to the Vikings talk for a couple hours. Now, if it’d been set over weeks and the journey had narrative weight, Warrior might have something going but of course it doesn’t because it’s terrible. And the whole translating thing really shouldn’t have been raised because initially it just makes you think Sharif’s going to be sticking around longer and he’s really just there to give the movie some actual Hollywood Middle Eastern star cred before turning it all over to not Middle Eastern Hollywood star Banderas.

Again, it’s a big shame as Sharif’s a lot of fun and he’s able to make Banderas likable in a way the film never repeats. Particularly not for Banderas’s romance with Viking woman Maria Bonnevie, which is one of those “in crisis” situation romances and lacks not just romance but any sense of humanity. Bonnevie’s not bad but you’re never happy to see her because the scenes are just bad and are somehow worse than the bad A plot.

The A plot never delivers. How two directors, cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., and editor John Wright managed to so completely fumble the action sequences—the Vikings hunting the monsters, the monsters hunting the Vikings—is inexplicable when you consider the professional pedigree and production budget. No one wanted to spend any time figuring out how to make this movie and instead they rely on slow motion a bunch of times. Including slowing down Kulich’s battle cries at one point, which is just cringe-inducing.

If they’d done in serious, it’d have had a chance. Not with this cast, obviously, but with a serious take and a better script. Or if they’d just done it exploitation-y, maybe they couldn’t gotten some energy. The movie’s not even boring as much as it’s exhausting. It’s exhausted, it’s exhausting.

No one looks as miserable to be participating as Diane Venora, who’s got the thankless role of being a recognizable female name for the opening titles and maybe even the poster but nothing else.

The 13th Warrior is a stunning waste of time for everyone involved, viewer included.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by William Wisher and Warren Lewis, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by John Wright; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; costume designer, Kate Harrington; produced by Crichton, McTiernan, and Ned Dowd; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Antonio Banderas (Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan), Dennis Storhøi (Herger), Vladimir Kulich (Buliwyf), Maria Bonnevie (Olga), Richard Bremmer (Skeld), Tony Curran (Weath), Sven Wollter (King Hrothgar), Diane Venora (Queen Weilew), Anders T. Andersen (Prince Wigliff), and Omar Sharif (Melchisidek).


Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995, John McTiernan)

Until the tacked on finish, Die Hard with a Vengeance can do little wrong. It doesn’t aim particularly high, just high enough–it’s a symphony of action movie action (and violence) set in New York City; the city’s geography (at least movie familiar geography) plays less and less of a part as the runtime progresses, but director McTiernan and his crew are doing a large scale action movie over a wide setting and a constrained time period. The film takes place, without the tack on, in maybe nine hours. With the tack on, a few more.

Most of the city in crisis action happens in the first forty minutes or so. New York wakes up to a bombing in a department store. The unidentified terrorist (Jeremy Irons) calls the cops to demand Bruce Willis perform various tasks to prevent further bombings. On his first assignment, Willis involves local shopkeeper Sam Jackson. Irons likes the idea of Willis having a sidekick, so Jackson stays on. Larry Bryggman is Willis’s disapproving boss, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, and Anthony Peck are his disapproving coworkers. Willis, separated from his wife since the last Die Hard, is failing about to be fired. Much of the first half of the movie is Willis complaining about his hangover; whoever’s job it was to make his eyes blood shot did great work.

Once they’re teamed up, Irons changes from tasks to riddles, giving Willis and Jackson this amount of time to get to this New York location and solve this riddle. Along the way, Willis and Jackson bicker. Despite it being Willis’s franchise, Jackson is there to be the audience’s anchor. For a while, McTiernan wants Vengeance to seem reasonable… plausible… not entirely unrealistic. Soon after Irons finally shows up on screen–with mostly silent flunkies Nick Wyman and Sam Phillips (the third tier East German guys make more of an impression–Vengeance doesn’t care about its supporting villains)–Willis finally catches on to what’s going on and starts shooting people. Only, even though there were a bunch of cops around, he and Jackson are on their own now. It’s just their action movie. Albeit one with a very wide setting.

The first stunning action sequence is when Willis has to jump on a subway train. Vengeance has been pretty up until this point. Lovely photography from Peter Menzies Jr.–the film takes the passage of the sun through the day rather seriously–fine editing from John Wright, excellent production design from Jackson De Govia. But it’s not until half an hour in and Willis pulling up a subway grate and jumping down does Vengeance show off its technical expertise. Once it does, however, the floodgates are open. The scale of the subsequent action varies, but McTiernan and his crew are always executing these grandiose, complication sequences with utter success. It’s a breathtaking ride. And a lot of fun, because Willis and Jackson are a fun pair. Sure, Jonathan Hensleigh’s attempts at solving racial prejudice through male action movie bonding is exceptionally naive and occasionally way too pat, but Willis and Jackson do manage to sell it. Their performances, even when the material’s thin–like the tack on finale–are outstanding.

Ditto Irons. Irons gets to relish though. Neither Willis or Jackson have relish-worthy material. Irons just gets to run wild. He’s the action movie villain in the “realistic” action movie. Only since he’s got all these henchmen doing the action villainry (for the most part), Menzies and McTiernan just have to make sure he never looks out of place and he’s fine.

McTiernan and editor Wright do well no matter what kind of action is going on. Willis surviving a flooded tunnel has just the right amount of tension, a bomb detonating in a middle school has just the right amount of tension. McTiernan toggles between the small scale Willis in a Die Hard movie getting out a situation with the very real terror involved in the school evacuation and so on. Though, in some ways, by keeping Willis (and Jackson) separate from that impending tragedy, Vengeance is able to cop out of having Willis in a “realistic” thriller. The real stuff is juxtaposed against his adventure with missing gold and fake accented Germans and whatever else.

Besides Willis, Jackson, and Irons, the rest of the cast is similarly superb. Bryggman especially. But also Greene and Camp, who slow burn throughout the film before getting their own big sequence. Peck’s good. Kevin Chamberlin’s fun as the bomb guy. Robert Sedgwick’s one of Irons’s thugs who makes more impression than Wyman or Phillips. Heck so does Joe Zaloom as the contrived action movie flunky Willis gets late in the film. Vengeance isn’t about the supporting villains.

Most of the Willis vs. thugs action is just bridging stuff between him and Jackson moving on to their next set piece, which is fine. It distinguishes Vengeance, especially since McTiernan and his crew excel more during the set pieces. The execution of Vengeance is just as important as the content executed, which is another reason the finale is such a disappointment. It’s an exterior night sequence, which–given any thought–fails all credibility tests (even for Die Hard with a Vengeance, though especially given the work put into the film’s procedural constraints). It’s a shame the finish doesn’t live up to the rest of the film, both in terms of narrative (it’s thoughtless) and execution (the big foil is a spotlight distracting Willis).

Not a worthy finish to the previous, sublime two hours.

But Vengeance is still a success. It can’t not be, not with the heights McTiernan and Wright reach; you can’t fault an action movie too much for having a perfunctory action movie finish. To be fair, the first ending–before the tack on–is phenomenal even in its absurd grandiosity.

Good score from Michael Kamen. Great production values. Excellent performances.

In five-dollar words, Die Hard with a Vengeance is so elegantly executed, it transcends the very tropes it functions on (as well as the script’s faults). Just not through the very end.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, based on characters created by Roderick Thorp; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by John Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by McTiernan and Michael Tadross; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Bruce Willis (John McClane), Samuel L. Jackson (Zeus Carver), Jeremy Irons (Simon Gruber), Larry Bryggman (Insp. Walter Cobb), Graham Greene (Joe Lambert), Colleen Camp (Connie Kowalski), Anthony Peck (Ricky Walsh), Nick Wyman (Mathias Targo), Sam Phillips (Katya), Kevin Chamberlin (Charles Weiss), and Joe Zaloom (Jerry Parks).


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Predator (1987, John McTiernan)

Predator has a lot going for it. Acting, directing, editing. But not usually all at once. The film opens with a quick introduction–Arnold Schwarzenegger and company are on a special mission in the jungle (after establishing an alien space ship in the first shot). It feels very macho and very forced, but the editing is so incredibly good, it doesn’t matter. Even when Mark Helfrich and John F. Link are cutting together Arnold and Carl Weathers’s male bonding moments, the film works great. It just moves.

Then, as the film brings in the rest of the supporting cast (Weathers or Shane Black give the worst performance and both of them are totally fine), director McTiernan establishes the film’s visual style. Predator doesn’t have much of an action style when the alien finally does show; McTiernan handles it matter-of-fact (cinematographer Donald McAlpine doesn’t appear to have the ability to do much else), so McTiernan instead stylizes the dialogue sequences with particular close-ups and, even more, how he shoots the actors in relation to each other and the jungle they’re in. Predator never looks flashy, but it’s always thoughtfully visualized.

There is one great sequence with Arnold and company running through the jungle before he goes mano-a-mano with the monster. That sequence has McAlpine’s best photography and McTiernan’s best action directing. It’s fast-paced, hectic, but comprehendible and rather sympathetic. The concept–these big muscle men terrified of the unknown monster–works. It makes a lot of Predator work. But only because of the actors.

In the supporting cast, Bill Duke and Richard Chaves are best. Duke’s got the most character arc while Chaves has near the least, but is just really good with it. Then there’s quiet, stoic Sonny Landham and he sells it too. McTiernan’s direction is really important for these performances. Jesse Ventura and Elpidia Carrillo are both good. And, like I said, Weathers and Black aren’t bad. They just aren’t doing anything special; however, given the silliness of Weathers’s character (super-buff CIA stooge), it’s impressive how much Weathers resists caricature.

Nice, memorable music from Alan Silvestri.

The movie falls apart a bit in the finale, which is a little rushed. But McTiernan and his editors turn it around satisfactorily. McAlpine’s photography, which is too flat–both for action and the locations–does contribute to the film’s success. Predator plays way too thoughtful. McTiernan takes it way too seriously. The story is never consequential enough, but McTiernan and the actors ably pretend otherwise.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Mark Helfrich and John F. Link; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, John Vallone; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver and John Davis; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Dutch), Elpidia Carrillo (Anna), Carl Weathers (Dillon), Bill Duke (Mac), Richard Chaves (Poncho), Sonny Landham (Billy), Jesse Ventura (Blain), Shane Black (Hawkins), R.G. Armstrong (Gen. Phillips) and Kevin Peter Hall (The Predator).


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Last Action Hero (1993, John McTiernan)

Though pre-Internet, one can still find all sorts of trivia about why Last Action Hero supposedly failed. Apparently the studio rushed the release, not allowing for editing or proper post-production. That rush might explain why some of the special effects appear far cheaper than one would expect (I’m thinking of the magic beams appearing drawn and the gunfire lacking definition). But those excuses don’t refer to the film’s real problem–the child star in the lead, Austin O’Brien, gives one of the worst mainstream child actor performances ever. Forget the Episode I kid… O’Brien makes you wish someone would run him over just so the movie could stop.

Otherwise, Last Action Hero still isn’t very good, but it’s far from terrible. Michael Kamen’s score is amusing, aping the composer’s other action movie scores. But the score does signal the film’s problem–it’s not really aping Joel Silver movies or most Schwarzenegger movies, it’s aping even lesser works. It’s a Joel Silver movie without Joel Silver. It clearly needed him.

McTiernan’s direction is subpar. He does well with the action sequences, making them exciting against the odds (they’re intentionally absurd and have no dramatic weight)… but when it comes to the emotional, he’s got that awful O’Brien performance and can’t defeat it. The magic stuff is just awful.

It’s too bad because Hero‘s probably Schwarzenegger’s best performance. And Charles Dance is amazing as the villain. His performances alone almost recommends it.

But I can’t. Not with O’Brien’s depthless awfulness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Shane Black and David Arnott, based on a story by Zak Penn and Adam Leff; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Richard A. Harris and John Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; produced by Stephen J. Roth and McTiernan; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jack Slater), F. Murray Abraham (John Practice), Austin O’Brien (Danny Madigan), Art Carney (Frank), Charles Dance (Benedict), Frank McRae (Lieutenant Dekker), Tom Noonan (Ripper), Robert Prosky (Nick), Anthony Quinn (Tony Vivaldi), Mercedes Ruehl (Irene Madigan) and Ian McKellen (Death).


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