Good films by supposedly bad directors

Some directors quickly get lambasted as rubbish, and their films labelled as must-avoid. But perhaps that's not entirely fair...

Michael Douglas in Falling Down

There are some directors who the mere mention of sends eyes heading to the ceiling, and gets people planning to go anywhere but to the movies that night. But among the brigade of so-called bad directors – and we’d debate whether some of the chaps we’re about to discuss are bad directors – are actually some surprisingly good films.

Just take a look…

JAN DE BONT Speed

Jan De Bont is routinely dismissed by many as not being a strong modern-day action director, and his curriculum vitae gives a number of reasons why. Twister, Speed 2, Tomb Raider 2 and The Haunting are, in their own ways, poster childs for the failings of the Hollywood system (clue: good scripts really, really help), and as De Bont now works on the mooted Point Break prequel, it’s fair to say that his card doesn’t tend to get near the pile when studios are looking for a hot action director for their latest project.

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But it didn’t used to be so. For after a career as cinematographer that had seen him shoot films such as Die Hard, Basic Instinct, Lethal Weapon 3 and The Hunt for Red October, he stepped into the director’s chair for one of the finest action films of the 1990s. Say what you like about the slightly underwhelming third act of the film, but Speed remains one of the most exciting and adrenaline-fuelled action spectaculars that the decade threw up.

And while some dismiss it as a fluke from De Bont, if we all had flukes like that, then we’d be very rich people.

PAUL W S ANDERSON Event Horizon/ Death Race

A trickier one to justify in some eyes, given that the mere mention of Paul W S Anderson tends to bring to the fore what the man did to the worlds of Aliens vs Predator and Resident Evil. Neither, it’s fair to say, were his finest hour (yep, we’ll splutter at the understatement there, too).

Announcements of his new projects are generally greeted with an air of vitriol, and while his films continue to make money, his directing style continues to – with some justification – attract criticism.

So let’s look at two films that, combined, at least offer some sort of defence. Event Horizon undoubtedly blows it when it enters its final act (and blows it big style), but seen on the big screen with a quality surround sound system, it’s really quite an impressive spectacle. Granted, Sam Neill helps you buy what’s going on, but from the opening shot onwards, there’s at least a feeling of a director who knows what he wants here. And, whisper it, this writer thought it was a pretty decent flick.

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The remake of Death Race that Anderson churned out last year, replete with Jason Statham as an added comfort blanket, hasn’t made it before my eyes yet, but even that, I’m reliably informed by a couple of colleagues, is really quite good fun. Again, we’re not suggesting that it’s any kind of classic, just that it goes against the grain of Anderson’s reputation somewhat…

Help yourself to Mortal Kombat, Shopping, and the aforementioned Resident Evil and AvP movies, though.

MICHAEL BAY The Rock

The Michael Bay argument is inevitably a divisive one, and personally, I’d go along with the argument that his camera leers at his subjects far more than it directs and shoots them. But the films that he manages to churn out are, generally, at the very least quite entertaining, with a couple of exceptions.

Most of us know someone who, for instance, will make the case for Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon (and sign me up for the last two), and for a ‘bad’ director, he does manage to get across some fun, dumb and loud blockbusters. We’ve thus picked The Rock, for all its bloated running time and extensive period in the first half when Sean Connery is kept off the screen for no good reason, as the film to show Bay doubters. There’s no guarantee it’ll convert them, but it is damn good fun. Personally, I’d go for Armageddon, but my ears still ache from the last time I stuck up for it.

Ironically for this writer, it’s when he got more ambitious with The Island that the man’s limitations became all the more clear. Bay is, thus, back on safer ground in the summer, with Transformers 2. He gets to blow shit up in that, and he’s proven to be really quite good at it, warts and all. He might want to take heed of this letter we wrote, though.

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JOEL SCHUMACHER Falling Down/The Lost Boys/Grishams/Tigerland

Joel Schumacher’s CV has some startlingly bad duffers on it, for which he’s primarily remembered. The two Batman films take pride of place (and for us, Batman Forever was just as bad as Batman & Robin), but then there’s the pissing away of a great concept in Phone Booth, the extreme yawn-fest that was The Phantom Of The Opera and his tired De Niro-Seymour Hoffman two-hander, Flawless (a film that yearned for a safer pair of directorial hands).

But heck, he made The Lost Boys! He made Flatliners! He did the really strong Falling Down! And even while he was doing the Batman movies, he snuck in two of the strongest adaptations of John Grisham books to the big screen to date. Both The Client and A Time To Kill are really quite good blockbusters, and then he also managed to ‘discover’ Colin Farrell, giving him the leading role in the impressive war flick Tigerland.

Schumacher is a frustrating director, and his ratio of bad films to good is worrying. But there really are some far better films on his resume than he’s generally given credit for.

RENNY HARLIN Die Hard 2/Cliffhanger/Deep Blue Sea

Again, you can debate all you like about the merits of Renny Harlin, but his back catalogue reliably manages to throw up some really good films.

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His strongest run came in the 1990s, when Harlin was a go-to-guy for good, solid action flicks. His Die Hard sequel, for instance, was a fine follow-up to the original, that actually bothered to keep its spirit intact. Then there was his Stallone career revival vehicle, Cliffhanger, shot in many places at great altitude. And while it’s a fairly standard action flick at heart, the surroundings and spectacle of it lift it well above the norm.

Then there’s the constant Den Of Geek pleasure, Deep Blue Sea. Genetically modified sharks are as daft as they sound, and Harlin damn well knows it. Thus, he makes his film fun and funny. As simple as that. Some will happily cheer about The Long Kiss Goodnight too for as long as you’ll let them, and they may well have a point.

Granted, in recent years Harlin has fallen off the radar slightly for high profile productions, and the thought of sitting through Cutthroat Island again is not a happy one. But this is a man who deserves just a bit more than a hack director tag.

Heck, we’ve not even mentioned Ford Farlaine either…

STEPHEN SOMMERS The Mummy

Sommers doesn’t get namechecked too often in a bad directors list, to be fair, but some of his films are regularly appearing in collections of not very good movies. Examples? The Mummy Returns is an absolute shambles, and we say that as Brendan Fraser fans, while Van Helsing looks like a videogame gone wrong, pissing away an abundance of great characters on a dumb and not very fun special effects extravaganza.

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But then there was The Mummy, and it’s easy to forget just how much fun this was (there was Deep Rising too, if you’re so inclined). The first film since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to capture the spirit of an Indiana Jones film (Crystal Skull included), it was funny, a bit too long, had impressive effects that supported rather than interfered with the film, and has plenty of rewatch value. And Sommers deserves real credit for that.

To be clear, though: the sequel is a travesty.

MICHAEL WINNER Death Wish

To be fair, modern cinema should be eternally grateful that Michael Winner isn’t allowed near a movie set any more, and instead spends his time eating posh dinners and then writing about them in the paper. His list of films over the past 20 years reads a bit like a ‘what to avoid in Blockbuster’ guide. Parting Shots? Dirty Weekend? Bullseye? Every one of them not just a duffer, but an absolute disaster.

But spare a thought for Death Wish (although not its sequels). The first film actually had something to say, was well made, and while time inevitably dates it, it was a good, solid action flick based around a good, solid star. It was, whisper it, quite well directed too. If you’re lucky, Winner might tell you about it over dinner, too. We hear he always picks up the bill….

EDWARD D WOOD, JRGlen Or GlendaInfamous for his low production value sci-fi movies, and for making what’s regarding as the worst film of all time in the shape of Plan 9 From Outer Space (it clearly isn’t), Ed Wood directed this 1953 film was originally supposed to be about a sex-change, but instead became about transvestism, a pastime of Wood’s.

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It’s now considered by many to be one of the best ‘bad movies’ ever made, and its fans include David Lynch of Eraserhead fame. To keep production costs down Woods used one of his infamous techniques, with 20% of the running time being composed from stock footage.

The edge to all this is Wood’s own transvestitism, which only became public knowledge after the production, as such it’s seen as his filmic admission of his interests. Only in this movie can the handing of an angora sweater to a man, have such significance.

Granted, the man’s back catalogue is hardly Scorsese-esque, but there’s at least a passion to his work, and something of interest to take from many of his films.

And a couple of directors that we tried to, but couldn’t help…

Uwe Boll – although Sarah launched her defence here, and we’ve had the genuine pleasure of interviewing the man here.

Brett Ratner – Simon quite likes The Family Man (but not enough), but trying to find someone to stick up for the Rush Hour trilogy, Red Dragon and X-men 3 is too great a task for us. Sorry, Brett.

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27 January 2009