Directors in Focus – John McTiernan

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If I had to pick a personal top 5 favourite movies of all time I could easily choose all five films from director John McTiernan’s filmography. As a director he is probably not as high-profile as Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino but I think it would be fair to say that he as has films as well-known as anything produced by either Spielberg or Tarantino. Below I have chosen five stand out films that are a must for any film collection.

1. Predator (1987)

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McTiernan’s first studio film following his 1986 debut, Nomads, sees Arnold Schwarzenegger and a crack squad of elite special forces dropped in behind enemy lines on a rescue mission that turns out to be something very different.

Apart from the opening shot of an alien spacecraft launching a pod towards the Earth you could easily forget that this has anything to do with the sci-fi genre. The first half hour is a full on American military kickin’ ass war movie. You could roll the credits after the attack on the guerilla compound and package it as a sequel to Arnie’s 1985 film Commando. This of course sets up that what we have is a highly skilled group of hunter/killers, the best of the best, who we soon learn that they are actually the prey to an alien head hunter on a safari adventure holiday.

Despite having troubles with budget/crew/studio and the special effects McTiernan crafts an action movie that has been the template for many action movies since. Mimicked often but rarely equalled. He also demonstrates with the first of what would become a substantial franchise with multiple spin-offs (Predators) and Tie-ins (Alien Vs Predator), that despite advances in special effects, and huge budgets being thrown at these films; a solid script, good characters, and a well crafted story are key to making a memorable film.

2. Die hard (1988)

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Having made one of the greatest action movies of all time with Predator, McTiernan’s next film Die Hard set the template for virtually all action movies made since and which led to  the summary explanation “Die Hard on a….” The film sees Bruce Willis star as Detective John McClane who has flown to L.A. to try to patch things up with his wife and spend Christmas with his family. This plan goes out the window when a group of terrorists take over the building where his wife is working and it is up to a barefoot McClane armed with nothing more than a hand gun, his wits, and an increasingly grubby vest to save the day.

We are also in introduced Hans Gruber, the German radical in a sharp suit, played with relish by a pre-Snape, Alan Rickman.

Die Hard is also the greatest Christmas movie of all time, with that in mind I recently asked myself “is it too early to watch Die Hard?” of course it took less than a second for the answer to pop into my head “It’s NEVER too early to watch Die Hard”

3. The Hunt for Red October (1990)

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Next up is The Hunt for Red October, the first outing for reluctant hero Jack Ryan, Hollywood’s attempt at having an American James Bond, and a role made most famous by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger. Kevin Costner was first considered for the role however he had committed to other projects, he would return to the world of Jack Ryan by co-staring in the 2014 reboot ‘Jack Ryan; Shadow Recruit’.

In this film Alec Baldwin plays the role of C.I.A. Analyst Jack Ryan with Sean Connery playing the submarine captain of the titular vessel. McTiernan creates a fantastic, fast paced, suspense filled Cold war thriller about a cat and mouse battle between the U.S.A and the U.S.S.R.

The film boasts excellent performances from its stars Baldwin and Connery with an outstanding supporting cast including Sam Neil, James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, Tim Curry, and Stellan Skarsgård.

4. The Last Action Hero (1993)

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John McTiernan teams up again with Arnold Schwarzenegger in this action-comedy in which a kid with a magic cinema ticket ends up being trapped in an action movie. Not quite the success they had hoped for upon release it has since garnered quite the cult following. I for one am surprised by its lack of success, I saw it in the cinema at least four times.

In many ways the film is a love letter to the Hollywood action movies of the 1980’s and the sense of magic you get as a kid going to the cinema. The film also boasts more cameos and Easter eggs than a Marvel box set.

5. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

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Remakes are tricky things as people will inevitably compare them to the original, the original Thomas Crown Affair was released in 1968 so enough time had passed to warrant a remake unlike today where a remake can get greenlit before the original makes it to DVD.

The film tells the story of a bored billionaire, played by Pierce Brosnan. who steals a painting from a museum and the insurance agent, played by Rene Russo, hot on his heels. This is a great fun, heist movie, with Pierce Brosnan playing it cool showing that there is life after Bond.

McTiernan’s experience with Thermal imaging cameras in Predator would prove invaluable when plotting out the heist sequence at the start of the film.

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All 5 movies are available on DVD and Blu-Ray and well worth checking out, most of the films have directors commentaries offering great insights in to how these films were made and I would highly recommend them to anyone studying film.

Further Viewing:

Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)

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Arguably the only decent sequel in the Die Hard franchise sees Detective John McClane on his home Turf of New York dealing with another band of thieves posing as terrorists led by Jeremy Irons as the crazed leader of the bad guys. Keep an eye out for the Pacific Courier (peaceful messenger) truck, there is also one in Die Hard, they tend not to live up to their name.

Basic (2003)

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Following the success of Pulp Fiction this got a lot of hype for reuniting John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson staring in this military thriller. The film has many twists and if you fail to follow what is happening don’t worry about it. It’s the kind of film that you would watch after a night in the pub and discover this has just started on the telly.

Nomads (1986)

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Debut feature filming Staring Pierce Brosnan, with a Haunting theme by composer Bill Conti. McTiernan would again call on both Brosnan and Conti in his remake of the Thomas Crown Affair. Probably the weakest film on this list but one to watch for completest.



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