What the Hell Happened to John McTiernan?
McTiernan returned to directing in 1999 with the mightily ambitious historical fiction epic, The 13th Warrior.
Based on the Michael Crichton novel Eaters of the Dead, the film starred Antonio Banderas as the Muslim explorer/sojourner Ahmad ibn Fadlan, sent to journey across Eastern lands to find Valhalla. He encounters many things before reaching a tribe tormented by mystic Nordic mythological werebears, essentially. Mysticism is a core theme of the film, as it sought to express the wonder of early mid-millenium exploration through magical realism.
The film’s production spiraled out of control after early test audiences reacted unfavorably. Crichton himself stepped in to direct reshoots, tussling with McTiernan over the film’s tone. Crichton wanted something more reflective and somber, while McTiernan wanted more rousing action. The uneasy mix of the two competing directions made for a generally muddled final product. While I confess to enjoying the film, this is mostly as I am a fan of the source novel, and a huge Antonion Banderas fan.
Critics, clearly not sharing in my predilections, saddled the movie with mostly negative reviews. Audiences steered clear, to where The 13th Warrior was at one point the most unprofitable film of all time, losing (with marketing) $135 million. Banderas, then playing Zorro, didn’t suffer a major blow, merely a ding, but McTiernan did. Even though he wasn’t in any position of power over the final cut. Luckily, he had one other 1999 release.
McTiernan once again turned to a previous collaborator, this time Pierce Brosnan, the then-reigning James Bond, for The Thomas Crown Affair. His star having exploded since Nomads, Brosnan starred alongside Rene Russo in the sleek, urbane heist film, a remake of a 1968 Steve McQueen-starring film. Brosnan played a very wealthy playboy art connoisseur, while Russo played an art insurance investigator.
The film was modestly budgeted at $48 million. This amount was nearly tripled, rendering the movie another nice success for McTierna, and a crucial success away from Bond for Brosnan. Critics thought highly of the film, for the most part.
Despite the success of The Thomas Crown Affair, the taste of the ill-fated The 13th Warrior was still on the tongues of Hollywood’s studios. McTiernan received another chance with Rollerball, but this was cleared a hired-gun posting for McTiernan, his trademark was nowhere to be found in the final product.
Starring Chris Klein from American Pie, Jean Reno, LL Cool J, and Rebecca Romijn, this action film was a remake of a 1970 sci-fi film. The remake and the original are both set in a mildly-dystopian future, where the sport of Rollerball is hugely popular. The game is a gorier version of hockey, in essence. As is often the case in such tales, a revolution is launched as the climax, and the frown of dystopia is turned upside-down.
The studio had zero faith in the film, dumping it in February like spoiled milk down the sink. At $70 million dollars budgeted, the movie had little chance of shocking the finance department and entering the black. Accountants were proven right when Rollerball barely made back a third of its production budget.
Critics weren’t kind: the film has a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert called it an “an incoherent mess, a jumble of footage in search of plot, meaning, rhythm and sense”, and Trevor Johnson of Time Out referred to it as “a checklist shaped by a 15-year-old”.
McTiernan wasn’t blamed for Rollerball and its dismal failure, which is of course positive but also indicated the state of his career. He was a gun-for-hire, no longer can pick and choose, much less develop projects of his own.
Next up for McTiernan, and, as of now, his epilogue, was Basic in 2003. It has been mentioned before on this site that Basic should actually be called Convoluted or Baffling given its constant shoveling of plot twists down audience throats. Re-teaming Pulp Fiction stars John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson seemed a good idea. Perhaps it would have been, given the right project. Basic wasn’t that project.
The movie underperformed at the box office, losing money. Critics weren’t kind, comparing the ending to a terrible shaggy-dog joke. Roger Ebert called Basic “not a film that could be understood”.
Above is McTiernan, dressed proper in a suit. He was not headed to a movie studio or to a film shoot, he hasn’t done either since Basic. He was actually headed to a trial case, where he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to just-shy of one year in federal prison. His perjury conviction stems from his hiring of a PI to illegally wiretap one of his Rollerball producers. His legal troubles, coupled with his underhanded, shady actions taken against his employer, have greatly reduced his repute in Hollywood. Despite this, when McTiernan filed for bankruptcy in 2013 while incarcerated, he identified two upcoming film projects that were denoted as likely sources of future income.
So, what the hell happened?
By two films, McTiernan was a highly sought-after director. By three, he had transformed his primary genre decidedly. With his fourth, he solidified his status as a top-tier director. With his fifth, he stumbled trying to hem and haw between genres. On his sixth effort, McTiernan slipped and fell aways down the mountain. On seven, he returned to form by returning to the realm of a previous success. Number eight was a catastrophic bomb that knocked McTiernan off his pedestal. The ninth film was a much-needed success, but failed to outweigh the failure of number eight. His tenth attempt bombed horrifically. Number eleven had potential, but was another turkey. We are still awaiting number twelve.
John McTiernan, unlike many directors who have seen arching rises and falls in their careers, really isn’t an auteur. McTiernan was the top of a field of directors who, in a manner of speaking, didn’t really leave their signature at the bottom of the canvas. Sure, some themes are common in McTiernan’s oeuvre. But without a cinematic signature, a set of characteristics that identified a film as John McTiernan film, he was susceptible to misfires. Sure, responsibility is lessened this way, but authority is even more so, leaving you with little control over the development and final cut, but still much of the responsibility for the results. Now, suffering from legal troubles and financial woe, McTiernan seems unlikely to ascend to the top where he once rested.
Posted on May 8, 2015, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Director and tagged Die Hard, John McTiernan, Last Action Hero, predator, The Hunt for Red October. Bookmark the permalink. 48 Comments.