Shill. Flunkey. Stooge. These are some of the more publishable adjectives which I have used to describe director Renny Harlin’s output over the last two decades. In an industry where a film director needs a degree of power and autonomy, it seemed to me that the Scandinavian dupe had taken more orders than Pizza Hut. I imagined him furiously scribbling notes at the focus-group script meetings for Die Hard 2…”Snow..uh-huh…no problem…Bruce gotta fix it all himself, no problem … his cop friend come back from first film… hmmmm … no problem … ejector seat? [very long pause] … no problem”.
While Alien3is far from the jewel of the Alien Quadrilogy (absolutely no Alien-related films having been made after Resurrection! None!), I shuddered to contemplate that Harlin had been engaged b(u)y the producers for a full year on the project, and scoffed at his claims that he had left it through some sense of personal integrity, owing to not wanting to just retread the ground covered by Scott and Cameron.
I laughed as well at the absurd heroics and appalling misdirection of Deep Blue Sea, which I held (and, despite the confessional nature of this column, still hold) to contain not only the clunkiest dialogue ever to make a good actor intone the mantra ‘straight to video…straight to video…please God, straight to video…’ but also the fakest CGI sharks ever to have been rendered on some 1980s abacus at ILM (though there’s one in Escape From L.A. that gives strong competition).
And somehow, I managed to hide from myself the fact that I went out and bought Deep Blue Sea on DVD, and not when it was in a sale either. Somehow I managed to blank out from my mind the belatedly-discovered fact that Harlin directed The Long Kiss Goodnight, an absurd thriller I love. It was all a mistake, all some administrative error that would be cleared up later, no doubt.
But it’s no mistake. Methinks the columnist doth protest too much. Sometimes you can fall in love with a person no matter how many teeth are missing, because they just have…something that accords with you. And God help me, I seem to like Renny Harlin’s films.
I feel I deserve a round of applause before sitting back down and looking for a ‘sponsor’ to help me cope.
The occasion for this Damascan revelation and abreactive crisis was my interview with Harlin collaborator Stellan Skarsgård earlier this week. Mr. Skarsgård, absolutely one of the nicest, most attentive and down-to-earth people I have ever interviewed or even met, contends frankly that he likes Renny a lot, perhaps ‘more than his films’. Since he was employed by Harlin in a thrown-away role in Deep Blue Sea and later in a more substantial capacity for the Exorcist prequel re-shoot , it’s an informed opinion.
Dazzled by my meeting with Stellan, I thought it might be fun to re-watch one of his films. I have quite a number of Skarsgårdian DVDs, but hmmm, somehow I ended up watching Deep Blue Sea. Again. And it occurred to me, as I winced at Sam Jackson proving that his career is bullet-proof by reciting the awful ‘accident on the mountain’ confession and going on to work again in movies, that my avowed classic favourites, such as Klute, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and The French Connection only get an airing from me every couple of years, whilst the dust is never allowed to settle on Deep Blue Sea.
Okay then, so I’m out (though not necessarily proud). I already knew I loved Kiss Goodnight, and despite my surviving conviction that Die Hard 2 is the worst of the series by a country mile, I would crawl over five showings of McTiernan’s original to get to it. I find Cliffhanger almost equally compulsive, even though I acknowledge that, in typical Harlin style, its script constitutes the origami shavings of a thousand better movies.
(I’ve been through this before, by the way. I remember watching Apollo 13 and thinking, ‘Wow, that guy looks a lot like Bill Paxton, only he’s a good actor’.)
Trying to fathom the appeal is a morbid exercise, but I’m compelled. One thing is weather – Harlin instinctively understands the emotional impact of extreme and visible weather conditions, as evidenced with his legendarily budget-busting attempt to create a snowy scenario in Die Hard 2. Too dumb, it seems, or too stubborn to learn from his mistakes, the snow-loving Scandinavian put tons of the white stuff in both Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight. In Deep Blue Sea, he wrestled instead with storms and Cameron-esque flood tanks. As someone who likes weather that is committed (even if it’s bad), I have to appreciate that Harlin mirrors my feelings on the matter.
Secondly, as someone who passed his childhood behind the lens of a super-8 camera, and who admits that neither journalism’s gain nor film-making’s loss amounts to much following the surcease of my Hollywood ambition, I feel that Renny is somehow my brother: the guy who – like me – had no real talent for making films or eliciting realistic characters out of actors, but just wouldn’t quit anyway.
Renny is ‘one of us’ – he’s no damn good at it, but he’s having a go anyway, and you can see the excellent film that should have been made with the great sets, prosthetic effects and great actors available to the likes of Deep Blue Sea, faintly overlaid on the infantile absurdity that Harlin coughed up in his excitement.
But it isn’t post-modern irony to say that I like Renny Harlin films – satire is an exhausted excuse for enjoying what’s ‘bad’. If you’re appreciating the knockers in some old Carry On film, it isn’t because you understand from a post-feminist perspective the historical value of the material in a cultural dialectic. It’s just because you like looking at knockers. And they’re quality knockers, so enjoy.
And so with Renny Harlin. Rejoice as he puts recitations of first-rehearsal quality into the final cut; as characters change direction with dizzying regularity to accommodate the plot and against all internal logic; as you listen to dialogue so hammy and wooden that Waitrose and B&Q fought for sponsor slots; rejoice, I say – because you either like it or you don’t, and I do.
Only Cutthroat Island can save me now – dare I look, having avoided it all these years?
Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.