I’ve previously written retrospectives on three directors: Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, and Quentin Tarantino. So, looking out over the sea of film directors, I came across John McTiernan’s name. He’s a director I’ve known for his most popular work (Predator and Die Hard) but never really thought about holistically. So, sitting down to watch all eleven of his films was instructive.
For the other three, there were strong thematic concerns that connected all of their work, but any thematic content in McTiernan’s work is much more muted to the point of near irrelevance. He’s also the first who is not a writer/director, only having a writing credit on his first film, Nomads. He was largely a director for hire, but he did do writing on his films. He added the scene in Predator where the mercenaries fire pointlessly into the forest, and he had a large hand in the rewrite of the apparently very good original script to the Rollerball remake.
He’s also the only one to go to federal prison.
To the movies!
A Quick History
McTiernan was born in New York and attended Juilliard and the AFI Conservatory where he studied film, mostly under the tutelage of the Czech filmmaker Jan Kadar. He worked in commercials for a while to help support himself financially while he attended school. He pulled funding together for his first film, Nomads and cast an up and coming television actor, Pierce Brosnan, as the male lead. It’s not a particularly strong film overall, but McTiernan demonstrates an obvious talent behind the camera with good use of shadow to create a wonderful atmosphere. It’s not enough to save the film, but it was enough to get attention.
That attention came from Arnold Schwarzenegger who, along with Joel Silver, wanted McTiernan for Commando, but the script didn’t interest McTiernan. However, the script to Predator did. For all the positive qualities in Predator, the best way to appreciate it is as the culmination of two genres, the 80s action movie and the slasher. He followed that up with Die Hard which also has meta qualities about the state of the action movie at the time, moving from the superhumans like Arnold to the more everyman of Bruce Willis who can get beat up and bloodied by the end.
He then went from high to high to high when he made The Hunt for Red October, the movie that I consider his best. Large, assured, and taut, it’s McTeirnan using all of his filmmaking prowess at his most effective. Then, he made the largest mistake a genre director can make: he tried to get serious.
Things Get Rocky
Medicine Man is a topical film about cancer, deforestation, and sexism. It’s nominally a romantic comedy, but it’s more of a medical thriller where the movie tips its hand on the medical solution too early and too often, leaving the audience waiting for the supposedly smart characters to catch up. This really feels like McTiernan having made three of the best action movies of the 80s standing up and demanding to be taken seriously as an artist, but it’s a mess of a film. Aside from the aforementioned medical mystery that isn’t really a mystery, the central relationship doesn’t work as well as it should, and the deforestation element comes in super late with little buildup and feels extremely tacked on. It was not a particularly financially successful film, costing $40 million to make and only taking in $45 million.
He followed that up with another action movie, Last Action Hero starring Arnold. This movie has grown in appreciation over time, but it wasn’t that well received in 1993 and bombed when it came out a mere week after Jurassic Park. It’s a deconstruction of the type of movies that made Arnold famous, and it’s full of satirical takes on those action beats. Audiences, especially Arnold fans, weren’t that taken with the supposed disrespect the movie had for the films they loved. In order to help put his career back on track, McTiernan signed on to direct the third Die Hard movie after having passed on the second to film Red October instead. Die Hard with a Vengeance ended up being a great success financially and critically and McTiernan was back, baby.
Then things went south again with The 13th Warrior.
Things Get Really Bad
I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking either that you love The 13th Warrior or that it wasn’t his next movie, that was The Thomas Crown Affair. First, if you love it, great. I don’t hate it or anything. Second, post-production on The 13th Warrior took so long and he was so uninvolved that McTiernan was able to shoot and release The Thomas Crown Affair in the time it took Michael Crichton to finish The 13th Warrior. They were actually only released a few weeks apart with Crown coming out in early August of 1999 and Warrior coming out in late August of 1999.
What killed The 13th Warrior was its production history. An adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, Crichton was on as a producer and worked closely with McTiernan. By all accounts, the two clashed endlessly on set, McTiernan submitted his cut and a test screening was disastrous. Apparently due to the previous clashes with Crichton, McTiernan left the project, leaving Crichton to do extensive reshoots himself (he was a film director as well, having made the original Westworld). That sort of rocky production history does not endear one to other producers.
The Thomas Crown Affair came, received modest praise and good box office, and McTiernan moved to the production that broke him, Rollerball.
As referenced earlier, the original script for the remake of the 1975 film starring James Caan and directed by Norman Jewison was considered very good, even superior to the original 1975 movie. However, McTiernan was uninterested in the social aspects of the script and decided that audience’s wanted a more action focused film. The rewrite that stripped the film of its reason for being ended becoming unsurprisingly hollow, and it was wrecked by another messy production. The action is illegible (I think it’s because the size of the central set was smaller than they realized), the film had another set of disastrous test screenings that required more extensive reshoots, all of which McTeirnan stayed on for this time. But the production was running out of money and they couldn’t do what they needed to do. The most notorious bit is an extended night desert sequence that was filmed with a green filter that’s supposed to look like night vision but was done because they didn’t have the money to properly film at night. The end result is, quite seriously, Uwe Boll levels of awful. It might as well have been filmed by the German tax cheat himself.
This was also where McTiernan hired a private investigator to illegally wiretap one of the producers on the film, a crime that ended up tying McTiernan in the courts for almost a decade and in jail for just under a year.
Before that happened, though, he made one final film, Basic starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in a film that’s expressed purpose is to have an ending that’s unguessable. In order to do that, the script is full of lies to the audience and reversals that end up being confusing at the best of times, but sure, James Vanderbilt, the screenwriter, succeeded at making a movie where the ending can’t be guessed based on the clues that come before. So…success? To be fair, McTiernan’s job was to film the script, and he does that well, providing different visual cues in the different tellings of the same event. It’s well filmed nonsense, for sure.
And then the court stuff took over his life and he hasn’t made a movie since, though he did make a commercial for a video game a few years ago, so he’s go that going for him.
As a Whole, What to Say?
There’s no strong thematic connection that brings all of McTiernan’s work together, but that doesn’t mean that he’s got 11 random movies with no connection whatsoever. The most common thing that I found was the use of intelligent characters.
They can range from antagonists like Hans and Simon Gruber in the Die Hard films he directed, or in the titular character in The Thomas Crown Affair, or even John Travolta’s character of Tom Hardy in Basic, he gravitates towards characters who are smart. He wants people to populate his films who understand the world around them, and in order to challenge these characters, he has to put up difficult obstacles. It makes watching them generally fun as they weave through hurdles in ways that make sense and even have flair.
Another thing I noticed is his desire to tell stories that, in context of those that were released before them, try to advance the storytelling. It’s most obvious with Predator and Last Action Hero where he rather tellingly undermines genre conventions, the first is the combination of the action film and the slasher in a way that advances them both, and the second is a satire and deconstruction of action films in order to make action movies more than just explosions. Yet you can see it even in Die Hard with a Vengeance as it uses the conventions of the series up to that point, and inverses a lot of it, giving Simon Gruber tools to distract the police and occupy them so that John McClane can be alone in a believable way, but then also giving Simon a personal connection to McClane and giving Simon a reason to keep toying with McClane. This part of his filmmaking can be hard to discern and appreciate when viewing the movies in isolation, but stepping back from it all and it provides a new sense of appreciation for his work.
John McTiernan made some of the most important action films of the 80s. He also made one of the worst big budget action films of the last twenty years. His career was completely derailed by legal issues, and he’s probably never going to make another movie again. He’s had a new movie listed as “In Development” on the Internet Movie Database for a while, a science fiction film called Tau Ceti Four that was supposed to star Uma Thurman, but there hasn’t been any news about it in over a year and with the industry shutdown I have a feeling that studios aren’t going to prioritize an original film from a director who hasn’t delivered a hit in decades and is just coming off of jail time over safer bets.
His career is done.
It makes me sad, because it seems obvious to me with Basic, a film I don’t like, that he actually hadn’t lost his ability to make a movie. He just chose a bad script to work on. He’s a smart filmmaker who understands the craft of filmmaking seemingly better than narrative elements. He needs to be paired with a quality script in order to succeed, and there are surely plenty of quality scripts out there.
Maybe he can find a small script he could film cheaply, gather a small crew and a few no-name actors and just film something guerilla style, almost like he filmed Nomads.
But still, I’ll always have Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Last Action Hero, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and The Thomas Crown Affair Not bad for about 15 years of output.
4 thoughts on “John McTiernan – A Retrospective”
I agree that McTiernan is a talented director but he basically makes bad decisions.
Deconstructionalism is almost always a bad idea. I like bits of Last Action Hero but they are the bits where it’s closest to being a real action movie and not a joke. There are action comedies, but even those work best when both the action and the comedy is taken seriously…if that makes sense. (Jackie Chan movies are great action comedies, the Pink Panther movies are comedies with action…sometimes)
Likewise his story edits to several films are simply bad…but he did give us topless Rebecca Romjin lifting weights, but it came at the price of more Chris Klein.
His flaws are personal and then began to inform his work.
I would be interested to see how one final film from McTiernan would end up being. How does several years of federal prosecution after some of your greatest professional failures change how you approach your craft?
I doubt we’ll ever see it, but I’d be curious.
I’ve probably said this before, but McTiernan seems like a director who either doesn’t know a good script from a bad one, or who thinks that his talent can elevate a bad script into a great film. The films of his that work really work well, nice efficient machines. The ones that don’t, don’t.
And I love every bit of Last Action Hero. If someone said “Say, what was all that about action films in the 1980’s?” you could show them LAS as a perfect example of the action film’s ultimate form.
This video shows the affects that McTiernan could have on a script, and the change highlighted (creating the visual transformation from Russian to English on the word Armageddon) tells me that McTiernan at least understood the visual language of movies really well and could add materially in that matter.
His run through the 80s and 90s is simply too strong to dismiss him as a workman who can just effectively film what’s on the page. Even up through The Thomas Crown Affair he was delivering quality entertainment. Rollerball was such a cluster behind the scenes that it’s hard to completely lay it at his feet (there was spying that led to his federal wiretapping conviction because he and his producer apparently just hated each other). Basic isn’t good, or anything, but it actually feels like a movie, the lesser work of a talented filmmaker. I’m convinced that if he hadn’t gone to prison, his career would have continued in a similar way to Zemeckis’, lesser seen work that could possibly match his earlier work. I think he still had it in him.