Ranking the Films of John McTiernan, Action Cinema’s Unsung Hero

In the late 80s, John McTiernan was a pioneer in action cinema, responsible for subverting expectations and redefining action heroes through a three-picture wallop rivaling the runs of some of the greatest directors. McTiernan’s eye for action was revolutionary for its time, eschewing biceps for brains, and ushering in a new era for action. Even his collaboration with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the jungle was a way for both John McTiernan and his star to purge themselves of the infallible hero which defined Reagan-era jingoism.

Despite his success early on, and a few solid entires later in the 90s, the shine wore off McTiernan. And then, in one of the stranger controversies in Hollywood, a wiretapping scandal and a bizarre trifecta of circumstances ruined the director, and he was sentenced to a year in Federal prison. Now that he’s out, he is working on a new film we know nothing about beyond it being in pre-production. Here’s hoping he can return to glory, and possibly redefine action filmmaking once again. Let’s take a look at the eleven films on his resume:

Rollerball

11. Rollerball (2002)  – This disaster was partly responsible for McTiernan’s imprisonment (that’s a long, confusing story for another time). His attempt to remake the 1975 James Caan sci-fi actioner systematically failed on every level. In an attempt to revitalize his style – which he didn’t need to do – McTiernan employed more frantic editing and empty-headed energy to the proceedings. The bland headlining trio of Chris Kline, Rebecca Romijn, and LL Cool J, with a villainous turn by Jean Reno who is sadly absent a mustache to twirl, merely scratches the surface of what’s wrong here. the film was pushed around on the calendar after negative pre-screenings, then edited to hit a PG-13 in the hope of recouping some of the budget. It didn’t help, and the film was a notorious bomb for McTiernan.

Nomads

10. Nomads (1986) – Never heard of Nomads? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. This pre-Predator debut film for John McTiernan came and went without much of an impact on popular culture in 1986. The film stars the very non-French Pierce Brosnan as a very French anthropologist who moves to LA, only to be pursued by spirits he conjured up when he was investigating an extinct tribe abroad. Sounds ridiculous, sure, because it is. Before being murdered (SPOILER!), Brosnan’s Frenchman shares his secret with a colleague, played by Lesley-Ann Down. It’s a miracle McTiernan was able to shine the way he did following this clunker. To be fair, he was still honing in his talents as a filmmaker, so by that regard it isn’t as atrocious as many directors’ debuts.

Basic

9. Basic (2003) – This is a strange, telling film regarding McTiernan’s increasingly paranoia-fueled personal life. Basic features a shirtless John Travolta, right before he transformed into a wax figure, as an ex-military DEA agent investigating the disappearance of a disliked Army Ranger drill sergeant, played by Samuel L. Jackson in flashbacks. Thrillers are often times built around convoluted plots, twists, and misdirection. Basic is the Carmelo Anthony of the thriller – if it sees an open shot, it takes it. The plot is beyond convoluted, almost to the point where halfway in nothing really matters anymore. This isn’t helped by McTiernan’s frantic editing, choosing chaos over nuance the same way he did in Rollerball the year prior.

Medicine Man

8. Medicine Man (1992) – All the ingredients were here for a fantastic action adventure. However, whereas McTiernan’s later films were hampered by rapid-fire editing and the director’s own paranoid mentality, Medicine Man labors through unnecessary exposition and clunky subplots which distract from the central story. Sean Connery is great as an eccentric doctor who may have found a cure for cancer in the Amazon, but loses it and must get it back. That sounds like a great start for an adventure film, but then everything gets bogged down in a romance subplot between Connery and Lorraine Bracco, who plays his assistant. This pushed forward McTiernan’s new 90s hero narrative he defined earlier in his career, but this time around it simply doesn’t work. On top of that, Medicine Man tries really (really) hard to be a “message” movie, and that comes off incredibly ham-fisted.

The 13th Warrior

7. The 13th Warrior (1999) – This barely qualifies as a John McTiernan film. Adapted from a Michael Crichton novel, Eaters of The Dead, McTernan’s original cut was deemed almost unwatchable. That forced producers to bring in Crichton himself to do re-shoots and edits to the picture, renaming it The 13th Warrior. The budget ballooned, setting the film up for failure. Despite the mess behind the scenes, there are some things that work here. And Antonio Banderas is surprisingly good in the title role. Viking films are few and far between, and the morose mood and darkness builds some wonderful atmosphere. That being said, there’s no telling what belongs to McTiernan’s eye and what belongs to Crichton.

The Thomas Crown Affair

6. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) – McTiernan’s other 1999 film (and his first remake of a Norman Jewish film, preceding Rollerball) is a sleek, surprising improvement on the original film starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Pierce Brosnan plays, well, Pierce Brosnan, a suave Euro playboy who also happens to be a master thief. It’s strange, the films Brosnan did during his James Bond run – they really aren’t much different from his 007 stints. On his trail is a detective, played by Rene Russo, whose sex appeal is on full display here. This was McTiernan’s last quality action film, a competent and sometimes gorgeous film with intelligent performances from Brosnan, Russo, and Denis Leary as a bitter cop.

Last Action Hero

5. Last Action Hero (1993) – And now for the most infamous film in John McTiernan’s catalogue. Last Action Hero was hyped to the gills prior to its release. It was McTiernan back together with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who could do no wrong at the box office up to this point. But this was not an 80s Arnie movie; McTiernan had no interest in those. This was another subversive action film, but it was way more than that. This was full meta, a convoluted telling of a young boy who is whisked into the world of his silver-screen hero, therein upsetting this false world and breaking down the tropes which defined early Schwarzenegger. It was a comedy, an action film, a satire, and a surprisingly dark film where a kid is murdered by a creepy (even more so than usual) Tom Noonan. It was a failure at the box office, and is generally regarded as a cautionary tale. I still contend the story was ahead of its time, several years before meta deconstruction became somewhat familiar with the Expendables films. Last Action Hero may not entirely work – the plot is messy and the tone is manic – but it still has a great deal to offer the action genre.

The Hunt for Red October

4. The Hunt for Red October (1990) – Following the one-two punch of Predator and Die Hard, McTiernan swapped out breakneck action pacing for the slow burn, political thriller genre. Red October is a patient suspense picture about a rogue Russian submarine commander (Sean Connery), who may or may not be bringing a Soviet sub to America. That’s what Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) must find out before it’s too late. Red October is the first Jack Ryan film, and one of the better submarine films. McTiernan, after breaking down walls of testosterone in his previous action thrillers, transfers his deconstructive storytelling from the biceps to the brain. This is a film tense not in action set pieces, but in the claustrophobic galleys of a submarine, and the fettered boardrooms of the CIA.

Die Hard With a Vengeance

3. Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995) – After Renny Harlin stripped the Die Hard franchise of any recognizable humanity in Die Hard 2, effectively “Renny Harlining” it up, Joel Silver brought John McTiernan back on board for the third (and what should have been the final) John McClane adventure. With a Vengeance beats up Willis’s McClane form start to finish, and the action returns to the textured tangibility of the original film, eschewing the gloss and gore of Harlin’s hired-gun sequel. Adding Sam Jackson as a sidekick breathed life into the action. While the plot is absurd to say the least – Hans Gruber’s even-more-eccentric brother (Jeremy Irons) is exacting revenge on McClane through a series of dangerous games and riddles while managing to rob the New York Federal Reserve – the pacing never allows the audience to question. This is also a wonderful utilization of New York, and a ton of fun from the opening title card to the end credits.

Predator

2. Predator (1987) – John McTiernan’s breakout film may look on the surface like another 80s testosterone-fueled macho movie. And it is, make no mistake. It is most certainly soaked in testosterone and swollen pecs. But the film itself, as Schwarzenegger and his crew of ruffians are pulled deeper and deeper into the jungle and systematically killed, steadily destroys those elements. All these tough guys are no match for the invisible space hunter stalking them, and as they are skinned, their heads and arms blown off, and their chests exploded, the very notion of the indestructible 80s action hero is ripped to shreds. Even Schwarzenegger, who ultimately thwarts the extra-terrestrial, is beaten to a bloody pulp. His victory comes through ingenuity, tricking the predator into a trap (side note: I once tried to remake in my backyard with a tree and a piece of firewood). Despite its big moments, Predator is an intimate deconstruction of the action star, a table setting look at “the hero” before he completely changed the game in 1988.

Die Hard

1. Die Hard (1988) – Die Hard is not only John McTiernan’s finest work, it is one of the greatest directorial achievements for any filmmaker who tried their hand at action. The balance of the film is phenomenal, the humor is brilliant, and the systematic development of plot points and character arcs create absolute perfection. this was the film that upended the notion of the action star; Bruce Willis’ arms aren’t sculpted, he doesn’t have a leg up on the competition from the start, he is rife with vulnerability the entire time. Now, an action hero could be a normal-looking dude with personal shit to deal with while trying to save the day. That being said, the action is still tremendous. John McTiernan knew how to frame shots with patience, to allow the events to unfold without polluting scenes with frantic editing. It’s amazing how patient he was here, given his decline in the late 90s owed itself to a frantic eye.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.

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