Risky blockbusters of the 1990s that underperformed

It's a risky business, filmmaking. Simon looks back at some bold, expensive 1990s movies where the gambles didn't quite pay off...

This summer’s blockbuster season has got off to a startling start, with Iron Man 3 being widely praised for its willingness to rip up the rule book a little, as it continues the story of Tony Stark.

In fact, there’s a subset of modern blockbusters – Nolan films, some X-Men features for instance – that are garnering increasing praise for taking bold choices with the material. That they’re wagering a lot of movie studio money on projects and stories that once upon a time would have struggled to get through the system.

However, we’d argue that the 1990s was rich with such gambles too, it’s just most of them never really made quite the levels of cash we’re seeing now. So, here’s a look at some of the riskiest blockbusters of the 1990s, that didn’t go on to make megabucks at the box office, and generate lots of sequels.

Some are blockbusters by nature of whose in them, some by the amount spent on them. But all of these films are big studio projects, released in the key windows of summer or pre-Christmas. And some are real gems…

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Conspiracy Theory (1997)

A fascinating, messy piece of work this, but one that has more to it than it’s usually given credit for. The big deal at the time was the casting: Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts were at the top of their careers when Conspiracy Theory came around. Meanwhile, Patrick Stewart was hired as the villain, and Warner Bros’ safe pair of hands, Richard Donner, directed.

Donner’s track record needs no justifying, even though it has the odd misfire along the way (Assassins, for instance, was a star-fuelled action flick, a reportedly very happy set, and a very dull film). Conspiracy Theory, though, took risks. Gibson’s performance in particular, as an obsessive compulsive taxi driver, is an underrated one.

The film has problems, certainly, and it goes on far too long. But it’s got interesting ideas, interesting performances, and a premise that just about gets the film through its bumpy moments. There’s an element of rose tinted specs to looking back at the movie, as even now, we can’t help but feel it was an opportunity missed. But it’s a fascinating miss, with one of Gibson’s best acting performances. For a film full of movie stars, it never really feels like a movie star vehicle (see also: The Mexican).

Hudson Hawk (1991)

To Bruce Willis, there’s an argument that Hudson Hawk didn’t feel like a risk. He came to the project off the back of reprising the role of John McClane in Die Hard 2, and all concerned expected it to be a massive hit. It wasn’t, as we’ve discussed in more detail here.

But digging through the rubble of Hudson Hawk, how can it not be classed as an off-piste risk? Leonardo Da Vinci, Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello singing, the most bizarre pair of movie villains in recent history, and a script that’s as tonally even as reactions to a Doctor Who episode would surely, had Willis not been involved, had people wondering who’d put blue pop in the vending machine.

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Hudson Hawk does tend to get lumped together with Last Action Hero as an example of a big star taking a risk at the height of their powers. We’re not sure we buy it, though. We’ve re-watched Last Action Hero, and while the narrative and conceit is interesting, we never really got the sense that Arnie was taking a massive gamble there. Rather, that he was trying to unite his action and comedy audiences in one picture. We say that as appreciaters of the movie, too.

Hudson Hawk? That was a genuine risk. And not, as the accountants at TriStar found at the time, a successful one.

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996)

How this ever got greenlit at Disney, we’re still not sure. But we remain delighted that The Hunchback Of Notre Dame did, and came through the process as such an edgy, fascinating animated picture.

Following the well-earned successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, it was Pocahontas that stalled Disney’s winning run. That said, in spite of mixed notices, Pocahontas made solid money. It just felt a lot less special.

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame made even less money, but it’s arguably as bold a piece of storytelling as Disney has ever attempted in animation. Sure, there are nods to a family audience here, with talking gargoyles, and some show-stopping numbers. But while Disney hasn’t been shy about darker subtexts in the past (as our lookback at Beauty And The Beast explored), the darkness is firmly out in the open here. Judge Frollo remains a terrifying villain, and the song Hellfire continues to generate goosebumps, as a Disney antagonist effectively sings about being consumed by lust, and not knowing how to deal with it. Throw in the moment where the Hunchback himself is vilified in public, and it’s a gripping, accessible exploration of themes you wouldn’t expect Disney to touch. For some time, it subsequently ran a mile from them.

Our fuller look back at The Hunchback Of Notre Dame can be found here.

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Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

It was little secret that Warner Bros had been trying for some time to get a sequel to Gremlins going. By the time it was nearly out of options, it dropped a call to the director of the original, Joe Dante, and gave him the licence to make the film he wanted. We talk about this summer’s Iron Man 3 being subversive. Gremlins 2, though, was ripping the rulebook up 23 years earlier.

It’s a delightful film, from a brilliant filmmaker who clearly had no intention at all of making a conventional blockbuster. Take the scenes that overtly aim potshots at the merchandising (a marked contrast to Jurassic Park sneaking in advertising for its lunchboxes three years later), or the cameo from Leonard Maltin, where the gremlins reap revenge for the savaging he gave the first film. These aren’t ingredients of traditional blockbusters, but they make it into the mix here.

Furthermore, Gremlins 2 also sidelines its most ‘sellable’ character, Gizmo, for large parts of the film, no doubt much to the joy of the merchandising department within Warner Bros at the time.

Joe Dante’s stated aim when making Gremlins 2 was to knock out any chance of there being a Gremlins 3. To this date, he has succeeded in his mission. And delivered a bloody good film as he did so.

Dick Tracy (1990)

In the days before Marvel revolutionised the comic book movie and turned it into a blockbuster institution, the idea of recruiting Warren Beatty to make an expensive film based on a not-widely-known comic strip property would have been madness (even though he had been linked with this one for some time before he actually made it). In fact, throw in the fact that Beatty wanted to restrict the palette of his film to that of the aforementioned Chester Gould comic strip, and it seems all the more bizarre that Disney stumped up over $100m, including marketing, to make it (Universal was amongst those who had previously rejected it).

To be fair, Beatty’s contact book did little harm in fleshing out the cast, not least an Oscar-nominated Al Pacino. The headlines centred around the casting of Madonna though, and Beatty’s ongoing relationship with her. So by the time the film hit cinema screens, the movie itself almost seemed secondary.

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But it’s a good film. Granted, there’s style over substance to it, and it changed the way Disney approached tentpole movies for nearly a decade (Jeffrey Katzenberg, then heading up Disney’s live action slate, wrote a legendary memo off the back of it). But it was arguably a precursor to the philosophy that Disney now, ironically, employs through its Marvel arm. Namely this: get interesting filmmakers to approach properties in interesting ways.

The Cable Guy (1996)

By most definitions, The Cable Guy wasn’t what you’d call a blockbuster. Certainly when the first screenplay was pitched, shepherded by a young Judd Apatow, someone surely couldn’t have foreseen just what it would become.

Because The Cable Guy became infamous for the salary of its star. Jim Carrey picked up $20m for his leading role in the movie, which was directed by Ben Stiller. However, it wasn’t Ace Ventura, Liar Liar or even Eternal Sunshine Carrey that the $20m bought. Instead, it was Carrey taking a risk, going edgier, and portraying one of his darkest ever characters, long before mainstream Hollywood comedy was willing to go in that direction.

Again, we can’t help but wonder sometimes if The Cable Guy‘s reputation is just a little rose-tinted. It’s a brave, bold film, but a muddled one, albeit with some great moments. It’s one that Carrey certainly helped get made, too, although whether he ultimately proved the right choice for it is open to debate. One thing is certain: unlike some of his comedy choices that he made in that era, The Cable Guy is still talked about, and primarily for positive reasons.

A Perfect World (1993)

A big November release for Warner Bros this, back in 1993, when both Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood were riding particularly high. Costner moved onto A Perfect World off the back of his huge success with The Bodyguard. Meanwhile, A Perfect World was Eastwood’s first directorial effort post his Oscar winning Unforgiven. Furthermore, in the summer of 1993, he’d also headlined the hit thriller, In The Line Of Fire.

A Perfect World wasn’t cheap, then, and it’s the sheer investment and star power that marked this one as a potential blockbuster, one with awards attention. But things didn’t work out like that. The film struggled at the box office, the awards weren’t forthcoming, and the US take of just over $30m at the box office was a real surprise. At the time, it was felt that Costner and Eastwood didn’t push the film enough on the publicity circuit. In truth, it was always a risky venture.

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A Perfect World is mainly worth seeking out for Costner, though, who gives a bold performance that couldn’t really be much further removed from The Bodyguard. Furthermore, T J Lowther, as the young boy he kidnaps in the film, is utterly convincing too.

It’d be remiss not to mention Wyatt Earp here, too, another bold Costner project from the 90s. And The Postman, that we talked about in more detail here. Neither of those films, on paper, should have been a blockbuster, but the sheer investment in both made them so. Both lost good chunks of money, too.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick’s final film didn’t seem to start out as a blockbuster movie, in spite of the casting of then real-life husband and wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. But by the time it was released, it was a headline-dominating event movie. Primed for a July release slot in the US, the sudden death of Kubrick just after he’d finished the film, combined with the media circus surrounding Cruise and Kidman, elevated it to something far more than a piece of cinema.

Inevitably, especially given the themes and issues Kubrick explored in Eyes Wide Shut, the end result wasn’t what most people were expecting. And whilst it’s a fascinating movie to watch and explore, Eyes Wide Shut is divisive, even amongst Kubrick devotees. 

For Cruise and Kidman, a parting of the ways would soon follow. For Eyes Wide Shut, it remains the most adult drama to ever get such blockbuster billing for our money. Daring, flawed, occasionally tedious and yet still something of a must-watch.

Toys (1992)

A film that’s been seemingly forgotten about in the annals of time, and yet Toys was, at one stage, positioned to be the big hit of Christmas 1992. Announced with a joyous teaser trailer that notoriously struggled to explain what the movie was (“What’s it about? About an hour and a half…”), Barry Levinson’s movie cast Robin Williams as the nephew of a toy factory owner, who is appointed as the new boss when his uncle dies.

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That points to a fairly conventional film to follow, but Toys is actually a bewildering mix of some wonderful, wonderful production design and effects work, and tame storytelling. Described as Willy Wonka meets Doctor Strangelove, the film had been in the works for nearly two decades, talked about as one of the best unproduced screenplays in the business. Yet come the final cut, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times pretty much nailed it: “An earnest attempt to create an enduring fable, it ends up a monument to tedium, the kind of soggy marshmallow that could make a Scrooge out of anyone”.

It’s still worth seeking out, as it remains glorious to look at, and it was and is a risky project for Robin Williams to take and Fox to back. It’s still not a great deal of fun to watch though, and became a sizeable flop.

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Wrongly cited as a reactionary movie to Independence Day when it first arrived on US cinema screens in December 1996 (the production of the two actually crossed over), Mars Attacks! was a surprise commercial failure on paper when it was first released. It made it to $101m at the worldwide box office in the end, but Warner Bros had given Tim Burton $100m to spend on it in the first place.

Yet one look at the script should have given the clues that this was nothing close to an Independence Day-style picture. Based on the trading card series of the same name, Mars Attacks! sees Burton taking a blowtorch to the expectations and conventions of the alien invasion movie. His aliens are brilliantly odd CG creations (back when CG creatures weren’t as prevalent in blockbusters), and he brought together a cast of big name actors, and proceeded to kill plenty of them off.

To call the cast eclectic does it no favours. To this day, it’s the only movie where you’ll find Tom Jones alongside two Jack Nicholsons, and the fact that there’s no hero in the end – the aliens are killed by Slim Whitman music – marks it as very off-the-beaten-track.

If there’s a problem with Mars Attacks!, it’s arguably just not funny enough, if we’re being picky. But it’s still a delightful blockbuster oddity that we can’t help but look back at with fondness.

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The Devil’s Own

Harrison Ford has been criticised in the past for making too many safe choices in the roles he’s picked, notably turning down the Michael Douglas lead in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Perhaps, though, the trouble he had with The Devil’s Own was a contributory factor.

The final movie of the late Alan J Pakula,  this looked a safe bet. Ford was months away from one his biggest ever hits with Air Force One, whilst Brad Pitt’s star was on the rise. Pakula, meanwhile, helmed the all-time classic All The President’s Men. What could go wrong?

Well, lots. Behind the scenes problems were rife, with an unfinished screenplay, reported clashes, Brad Pitt threatening to quit the film, and him ultimately declaring the film “the most irresponsible bit of filmmaking – if you can even call it that – that I’ve ever seen”.

We’ve put this last on the list for two reasons. Firstly, it was ultimately delayed to a March release, breaking our rule in the intro. Sorry. Secondly, on paper, we’d imagine lots of Hollywood executives would have given it the greenlight. Even the IRA-related elements of the material was unlikely to be an alarm bell, in the light of the grosses for Ford vehicle Patriot Games five years earlier. What’s surprising, though, is just how tonally unbalanced the material was, and how crassly it dealt with such serious issues in the midst of what was originally set to be a big blockbuster movie.

It still made a profit, mind…

And finally there’s…

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Fight Club. A huge risk, a flop at the time, but one that’s rewarded Fox’s investment since. Hence, we’re talking about it down here, rather than in the rest of the article…

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