Underappreciated directors: Jonathan Mostow

Should we be giving the helmer of Terminator 3, Breakdown and the upcoming Surrogates just a bit more respect?

Jonathan Mostow, Stan Winston and Arnie shooting T3.

I sat there, at the end of Terminator 3, gobsmacked. Not only because I’d just seen the boldest ending to a blockbuster movie that I’d witnessed in years, but also because Jonathan Mostow had pulled off something I never thought he would. He’d taken an iconic franchise, stayed respectful to it, and while never matching the heights of James Cameron, he’d served up an exciting, almost old-fashioned action movie, with a willingness to play out his stunts before a movie camera, rather than on a computer.

Now I’m not arguing that Terminator 3 is any kind of masterpiece, because it’s clearly riddled with problems. But have a think: can you come up with the name of any other director who could have done a better job? Mostow, as one critic noted at the time, had delivered the most respectful passing of a franchise from one director to another since, ironically, James Cameron took on the Aliens mantle from Ridley Scott.

But then Jonathan Mostow is a really good, and really underappreciated director. Take U-571. As a Brit, I was happy to join the chorus of boos at just what liberties the film took with historical facts, not least such heroic ones. Take the film aside, though, and it’s a bloody tense piece of work. It wrings plenty out of the claustrophobia of the situation, and Mostow is clearly a man who knows how to direct his actors too. He keeps the film tight, relatively lean, and genuinely gripping, and deserves much credit for it.

Yet, if you want the categorical evidence that Mostow is one of the most underappreciated directors currently plying their trade in Hollywood, just dig out a copy of the superb Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown. This is lean, tight filmmaking of the first order, with Mostow slowly but surely turning the screw and building up the tension, never resorting to gimmicks but understanding that good actors and disciplined shots were the key to telling his story. Breakdown is one of the very best thrillers that we got to see in the 1990s, and were the man to commit to doing another, I’d be there in a shot.

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Later this year, Mostow crosses into the realm of comic books with his take on Surrogates. Thus far, the film has garnered headlines primarily for Bruce Willis’ daft haircut. But don’t write this one off. Not only is at an intriguing looking sci-fi movie, it’s being helmed by a man with a good eye, and a strong hand in the editing room. It may just turn out to be the surprise of the year.

This isn’t an unequivocal love letter to the man, it should be noted. I can’t help thinking that Jonathan Mostow has yet to make his truly great film, and he seems to choose his projects sparingly. But he’s yet to make a film that’s not delivered on some level, and I can still pick holes in T3 with the best of them.

Yet the man still continually delivers, and I’ve never seen a film of his where I’ve felt anywhere close to shortchanged. Since I stepped out of a cinema in the late 90s after sitting through Breakdown, I’ve been convinced that he’s a director very much worth following. And that’s why if they were selling tickets to Surrogates right now, I’d quite happily get one booked.