Somewhere between transcendent, legendary filmmakers and reliable, interesting directors, lies the career of Danny Boyle. While Boyle has never been consistently listed among the titans of the craft – Kubrick, Kurosawa, Scorsese, etc. – his work has changed the face of cinema a time or two. And he’s made a handful of great work over the years.
And, like most directors, he’s made some stinkers. It happens. T2 Trainspotting, the first sequel of his career (he was a producer on 28 Weeks Later) and his twelfth feature film, is out this week in wide release. And judging from the trailers and UK buzz, it has the potential to give the original a run for its money.
Let’s take a look at Danny Boyle’s work over the last twenty plus years, and see how they stack up against one another.
Like all of Danny Boyle’s films, Trance was loaded with ambition. But it was probably too loaded with ambition, and overloaded with moving parts. Just the premise alone – an art dealer who gets mixed up with crooks and killers teams up with a hypnotherapist to recover a lost painting – is a bit of a mess. James McAvoy gives it his all in a role seemingly made for his ability to chew scenery, but the mishmash of hypnosis and the real world makes everything too convoluted to care about in the end.
A Life Less Ordinary
Despite having Danny Boyle regular Ewan McGregor in the lead role, A Life Less Ordinary feels like the biggest outlier in his catalogue. What begins as a kidnapping drama becomes, tonally, about a half dozen other things. And none of them really work as well as they should. The introduction of the angels working to bring these two adversaries together in love is too much out of the Kevin Smith playbook for Boyle to be messing with here.
A 7-year old boy finds a bag full of Pounds from a recent robbery, mere days before the UK is going to switch their currency from Pounds to Euros. Like many Danny Boyle pictures, there is an element of magic realism surrounding Damian, the young boy who can communicate with saints, who feels his mother may be one of them, and who is shown the way the world works around him. It’s all saccharine in its execution and, like a lot of Danny Boyle’s lesser works, Millions‘ ambitious eyes are bigger than its stomach.
I personally enjoy The Beach more than most. It came at a tricky time for its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, who was working feverishly to shed his Tiger Beat megastardom following Titanic. The idea of him playing a pot-smoking scumbag confused too many teens going to the theater for it to be a successful endeavor. The Beach is a film that begins with terrific energy and a compelling story, but for most it flies off the rails into dark cynicism in the third act, when DiCaprio’s character becomes one of the more unlikeable protagonists in recent memory. That scene where Leo is on mushrooms running through the woods can easily take you out of the film (I like it), but there is still plenty here to enjoy.
Much like The Beach, Sunshine has the feeling of an incomplete film. What begins as a solid sci-fi film, then builds to a pulse-pounding thriller, completely unravels once the horror elements are introduced. Danny Boyle has never been afraid to shift tones in his films – he does it more regularly than anyone – and you can’t fault him for the effort. But when a film is singing as perfectly as Sunshine was for the firs two thirds, it’s just a shame everything devolved into some half-baked slasher picture.
Boyle’s involving true tale of Aaron Ralston (James Franco), the mountain climber who found himself trapped between a rock and… another rock… is a cringe-inducing, gut check of a film with Franco’s finest work on display from top to bottom. What is primarily a one-man show about a guy stuck on the side of a mountain before cutting off his own arm, isn’t simply about that gruesome moment (but that moment is definitely worth seeing), but about the way Ralston is forced to both survive, and come to terms with the trajectory of his life leading all the way up to that moment in time.
The biopic genre has been driven into the ground so intensely over the years, it’s refreshing when one comes along that tackles the story of fame in an all new way. Rather than the typical tired rise and fall and rise structure of the Apple genius, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin team up to tell us everything we need to know about Jobs shown through the filter of three of his biggest tech unveilings. This behind-the-scenes look at a troubled man is compelling thanks to Sorkin’s ear for sharp dialogue, and Boyle allows the story to unfold without many flourishes, a rarity in the director’s career.
It’s not necessarily Danny Boyle’s greatest film, but Slumdog Millionaire is his crowning achievement as a professional filmmaker. It took home a staggering eight Academy Awards in 2009, including Best Picture and Director for Boyle. Slumdog hasn’t sustained the sort of overwhelming critical praise it had in 2008, mostly because it was a fantastic snapshot of that year and that time in place. But at the same time, it’s also built on universal themes of poverty and fame, of love and loss, and of the never ending pursuit of the almighty dollar.
After a slew of television movies and tv series, Boyle tried his hand at feature films, and Shallow Grave shows the director as an eager, energetic young master of the craft. Shallow Grave echoes the Coen Brothers’ debut, Blood Simple, a small crime noir which, over the years, has appreciated greatly. Here is an intense thriller about a flatmate who turns up dead with a wad of cash, the three roommates who decide to keep said cash, and a clever series of escalating events a young Boyle handles with the confidence of a season vet.
Shallow Grave may have been Danny Boyle’s film debut, but it was Trainspotting that put him on the map. It hit like an atomic bomb on cinema in the late 90s, a hip, sometimes hilarious, often disturbing, hyper-stylized look at a group of friends and heroin addicts trying to get from point A to point B in their lives. Headed up by Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting is an episodic glimpse of a life most of us fortunately never experience, told through the lens of disgusting antics. Anyone who dismisses Trainspotting as a film that glamorizes drug use hasn’t ever really seen it.
28 Days Later…
Boyle’s zombie film could not have hit at a better, more somber, more unsettling time in human history. Following the events of 9/11, a movie about a zombie outbreak that (allegedly) wipes out humanity was full of shots of a decimated, empty London, and heaps of dead bodies and abandoned automobiles, struck an exposed nerve. Aside from the timeliness of the film, Boyle’s zombies reinvented the entire genre. These were fast, scary monsters, not the moaning, lumbering undead we were familiar with to that point in pop culture. Everything about 28 Days Later is pitch perfect, and it remains one of the greatest modern horror films.