Again Referendum: John McTiernan Edition

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned how some newly released works of art seem to initiate a referendum on the whole of the artist’s oeuvre. This was occasioned by the release of Wes Anderson’s latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel (which I have since seen, and which is fantastic, among my top Anderson films), but I came across this curious case recently, which marks an interesting case of the referendums. Jonathan V. Last lays down the gauntlet:

Proposed: John McTiernan is the most under-rated director of his generation, having helmed three instant classics (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, The Thomas Crowne Affair), one of which is in the running for Most Influential Movie of the Decade. Even his middling work (Predator and Last Action Hero) is really, really good.

First thing’s first, I object to the notion of Predator as a “middling” effort. That three movie run from Predator to Die Hard to The Hunt for Red October is nothing short of astounding, and there are a rarified few directors who can boast a similar run of classics. I’m less sanguine about Last Action Hero, though I will grant the notion that it was a movie that was way ahead of its time, probably deserves its increasing cult status, and is definitely worth a revisit. I really enjoyed both Die Hard: With a Vengeance and The Thomas Crown Affair, though I should probably revisit those films as well.

His work after The Thomas Crown Affair seems a bit lacking, but the general explanation there is mounting legal troubles which basically sidelined him for most of this century. This is basically one of the reasons that Last cites for McTiernan not getting the respect he so richly deserves.

The other reason he cites probably also plays a role:

McTiernan eschewed any particular visual style and instead concentrated on economy of storytelling. There are truly great visuals in his movies (see the opening series of shots in Thomas Crowne where the camera zooms down on the Met from space; a shot which seems cliched now, but predates Google Earth by nearly ten years) but these visuals don’t have any particular signature to them. Instead, you can tell a McTiernan movie by how skillfully it moves the story, builds tension, and uses every knife it lays out on the coffee table.

This is dead on, though perhaps a closer analysis of his work would reveal some signature moves. But I would add that he’s a director that doesn’t call attention to his filmmaking. Similar to how some of the best movie scores blend into the background while still playing an integral role, McTiernan’s clear visual style hits all the right notes without forcing you to notice them. This isn’t to say that great directors with bold styles can’t produce great works, just that this is a different kind of greatness.

In terms of the commonalities I found in this sort of referendum, McTiernan may not qualify for the “singular vision” criteria (though I suppose it’s arguable), but he most certainly does qualify for the “relatively small filmography” criteria. What’s more, it’s a really interesting filmography. He’s got multiple classics, a growing cult film, and several films that were legitimately “middling” (but in those cases, they are often better than they have any right to be – I’m looking at you The 13th Warrior).

I’ve lost track of when he is getting out of jail, but IMDB already has his next film listed, called Red Squad (about the DEA hiring a team of mercenaries to take on a Mexican drug cartel). Will the release of this film warrant the same sort of referendum that the likes of Wes Anderson receives? I suspect that Last is correct and that McTiernan is underrated, so I don’t think the referendum will be as universal as it is for Anderson, but I think it very likely that it will be common, especially if the movie is great. I suppose time will tell…

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