The Films of John McTiernan
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Predator (November 24/04)
Predator arrived smack dab in the prime of Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie career - after The Terminator and Commando, before Total Recall and The Running Man - so it's more than a little disappointing that the film comes off as by-the-numbers as it does. Though it's far from a bad movie - it's packed with the sort of gratuitous violence and macho posturing that can only be found in an '80s action flick - Predator never quite justifies its cult status. Schwarzenegger stars as tough-as-nails commando Dutch Schaeffer, the leader of a group of equally hardened soldiers who've been assigned to retrieve some hostages from the jungle. They've been sent there along with Major George Dillon (Carl Weathers), a former colleague of Dutch's who may or may not have ulterior motives for tagging along. What should have been a routine mission quickly becomes something far more dangerous, as the men find themselves stalked by a mysterious and seemingly unstoppable killer. The biggest problem with Predator lies in its opening half hour, which fails to develop the characters in a manner that allows the viewer to care once they're slowly-but-surely knocked off - as screenwriters Jim and John Thomas have instead peppered the script with lots of tough-guy dialogue and extreme violence, postponing the emergence of an actual storyline for an almost unreasonable amount of time. As a result, it's virtually impossible to get into the movie until the titular creature begins hunting down each of the soldiers (this portion of the film is admittedly exciting and very well done). The film's been directed by John McTiernan, and interestingly enough, Predator marked only his second stint behind the camera (following the forgotten Pierce Brosnan vehicle, Nomads). He does a passable job of keeping things mostly coherent, though the supporting characters are awfully interchangeable (if nothing else, though, McTiernan's always been adept at staging action sequences). And then there's Schwarzenegger, playing the sort of role he excels in - a wisecracking, unstoppable badass. There's no denying that Predator has, in retrospect, become an important piece of science-fiction, one that's been endlessly imitated and copied. Yet that doesn't change the fact that the film just isn't all that good.
The Hunt for Red October
Last Action Hero (March 9/10)
Entertaining yet thoroughly uneven, Last Action Hero follows budding movie buff Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) as he's thrust into the cinematic landscape of his favorite action series after a kindly old projectionist hands him a magic ticket - with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently detailing the young boy's efforts at convincing silver-screen hero Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that he's actually just a character in a by-the-numbers actioner. Filmmaker John McTiernan - working from a script by Shane Black and David Arnott - has infused Last Action Hero with a fun, fast-paced sensibility that proves effective at instantly capturing the viewer's attention, with the inclusion of several celebrity cameos and self-referential bits of comedy perpetuating the film's atmosphere of over-the-top silliness. McTiernan's comfort within the genre is certainly reflected in the impressive array of brilliantly conceived and executed action sequences, and although O'Brien's relentlessly earnest performance often borders on obnoxious, Last Action Hero initially lives up to the novelty of its premise with impressive ease. It's only as the movie progresses into its less-than-enthralling midsection that one's interest begins to wane, with the increasingly tedious storyline (ie Slater's ongoing investigation into a relative's death) holding the viewer at arm's length right up until the admittedly stirring third act - in which Slater crosses over into the real world and crashes the Hollywood premiere of the film that he's the basis for (and, in the process, encounters his real-life doppelganger). It's a fun sequence that ensures Last Action Hero concludes on a relatively positive note, although it's ultimately clear that the movie would've benefited from a few more passes in the editing room (ie 130 minutes is just unreasonable).
Die Hard: With a Vengeance
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The 13th Warrior
The Thomas Crown Affair
Rollerball (February 10/02)
The history behind John McTiernan's Rollerball is almost more compelling than the movie itself.
Initially slated for a summer 2001 release, the film received a disastrous review from Harry Knowles (webmaster for Ain't It Cool News). Invited to a test screening by McTiernan, Knowles reported back to his site in the form of a long and scathing review. Shortly afterwards, the film was pulled from its June slot and rescheduled for this month - edited down from its R rating and into a more teen-accessible PG-13. So, the only question remaining is: Does it suck?
Surprisingly enough, not completely. Rollerball - which follows Chris Klein's Jonathan Cross as he finds himself mixed up in a dangerous new sport that mixes motorcycle racing, inline skating, and rugby to often fatal results - isn't a great film by any means, but for fast-paced thrills and larger-than-life stunts the movie delivers. After an opening sequence that really has nothing to do with the rest of the film (that luging thing), the movie takes us right into a Rollerball match. And for 20 minutes or so, we watch as players beat the living daylights out of one another and attempt to toss a metal ball into what can only be described as a big trumpet. Though the game really doesn't seem to have any purpose or linear progression, it can't be denied that it's thrilling to watch.
But then Rollerball tries to work in eye-rolling instances of social commentary, and this is where the movie fails completely. The point is made early on about reality television and where it might wind up (Rollerball's ratings increase only when players are hurt), but McTiernan keeps hammering the message over and over until it's impossible to care any more. Add to that a completely pointless mining subplot (don't ask), and you've got one heck of a conflicted action movie.
But the action is good and the actors aren't terrible (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, cast as a fellow player, offers up a surprisingly complex and compelling performance), so Rollerball just might be worth a look on cheapie night.
Basic (March 26/03)
Basic marks John McTiernen's first film since the colossal flop, Rollerball. And the ironic thing is, Rollerball was just a little bit better than this. It didn't start out that way, though. Basic has a heck of an opening half hour. John Travolta stars as Tom Hardy, a DEA agent who's currently being investigated for bribery when he's asked to assist with an interrogation at a military base. It seems as though something went very wrong during a routine training exercise, resulting in the deaths of five soldiers and their commanding officer (an unforgiving man named Nathan West, played by Samuel L. Jackson). Hardy, along with fellow officer Julia Osborne (Connie Nielson), now has to find out the truth about what happened - a task that proves to be a lot more difficult than either of them expected. The interesting thing about Basic is that it contains one of Travolta's best performances since Pulp Fiction, but the film itself isn't anywhere close to his level. He seems far more relaxed here than he has in a good long while, and for a while, his easy-going charisma and effortless charm propels the story forward - even though the story is dull and derivative. Clad in a tight black t-shirt (how else is he going to show off his newly-toned body?) and sporting a close-cropped hairdo, Travolta's energy is almost infectious; his character becomes someone we want to see more of, but as the machine-like momentum of the plot progresses, his creativity becomes redundant. He soon becomes just another cog designed to service the woefully overcranked storyline, which is (it goes without saying) hardly worth writing about. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt doesn't seem to care about exploring the various characters that inhabit Basic; he's more concerned with ensuring that there's a twist every 20 minutes or so. Basic is yet another riff on Rashomon, with the two surviving soldiers providing a different account of the same incident. We're not sure who to believe, and indeed, we don't find out what actually happened until the very end. But really, it's impossible to care. The majority of the flashback footage takes place during a stormy night in the middle of the jungle, which means that on a purely visceral level, all of this stuff is just unpleasant to watch. But more than that, the infighting and squabbling amongst the soldiers makes this aspect of the film a chore to sit through. By the time we find out what actually happened, we're so sick of these characters that we wish they had all been killed. But the interrogation scenes have a certain amount of slick energy to them, due mostly to Travolta's almost over-the-top performance and McTiernen's stylish direction. Still, it's not enough to disguise the script's desperation to keep us guessing; by the time the admittedly unexpected twist ending rolls around, the film's become nothing more than a third-rate Usual Suspects clone.