Richard Donner, master of macho blockbusters with a human touch

Richard Donner was the classic studio director and an action blockbuster maestro, the Michael Curtiz of the VHS age; he was the great inventor, or reinventor, of so many Hollywood genres and styles. When Hollywood invented the “franchise property”, Donner was at the centre of things. His macho Lethal Weapon movies with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover were far from enlightened on sexual politics. But they gave a black man equal billing with a white man in a top-flight Hollywood movie: rare in 1987 and rare even now.

By directing The Omen in 1976, Donner was at the beginning of modern horror and with his Superman in 1978 and the acrimoniously semi-aborted Superman II in 1980 – starring Christopher Reeve as the legendary blue-eyed man of steel, daring us to “believe a man can fly” – Donner invented the modern superhero movie: bold, unapologetically mythic and deadpan-serious, showing off every single state-of-the-art special effect it possibly could.

After Donner, superhero movies weren’t just kids’ stuff like comic books or bubblegum cards, but big movie business, although Donner was also at the centre of a crucial debate about tone. He thought superheroes had to be played dead straight, but when he got fired from Superman II, Donner was replaced by Richard Lester, known for his wackier touch, and the debate about the mix of seriousness and comedy in superhero fare has continued to this day, together with the debate about how seriously to take it all in the first place. Donner became executive producer of many X-Men movies in the noughties.

But most spectacularly, Donner also reinvented the “buddy movie” in that robust era before sensitive “bromance” was thought of, by directing the outrageously over-the-top Lethal Weapon franchise. He directed all the LA action-thrillers from 1987 a 1998, starring Mel Gibson as on-the-edge badass Det Martin Riggs (somehow always ripping his shirt off) and African American Danny Glover as the quieter family man Det Roger Murtaugh. Just two guys, black and white, like an LAPD squad car, taking down the bad guys with deafening firepower and spectacular explosions. Donner was working with screenwriter Shane Black and producer Joel Silver – themselves legendary masters of 80s action. Nothing conjures up the 1980s like Lethal Weapon, and Donner directed those films with magnificent brio – and for all that everyone idolises the LA action work of Michael Mann, Donner put together some terrifically exciting chase sequences with enormous flair.

He started out in TV work, and after an early movie about America’s high-altitude aviation programme called X-15, Donner made a prototypical black-and-white buddy film, Salt and Pepper (1968), set in swinging 60s London, starring Rat Pack reprobates Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr as an unlikely pair of nightclub owners. Then in 1969 there was another British film, a gruesomely racy picture purporting to be about a serious issue with the young Susan George as the schoolgirl who entrances the late-thirtysomething porn writer Charles Bronson. It was called Lola (sounds like … Lolita?), though it was originally called Twinky and is also known as London Affair.

But Donner’s commercial smash came with the 70s mainstream-horror boom that followed William Friedkin’s magnificent chiller The Exorcist. Donner directed The Omen (1976), and created something that almost matched Friedkin’s film commercially (if not critically), working with a heavyweight cast headed by Gregory Peck. Donner couldn’t match the spinning head, but the decapitation-by-pane-of-glass scene was horrible enough – and this was Donner’s first encounter with a “franchise” property, though he didn’t direct any of the Omen sequels.

It was Superman and Superman II in 1978 y 1980 (actually filmed simultaneously) that put Donner in the thick of what was hot in Hollywood. People believed that a man could fly. The box office took off. But Donner controversially fell out with his producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and was fired three-quarters of the way through the second film and replaced with Lester. All of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Superman’s father Jor-El were excised as part of a cataclysmic row over his fee. The film was almost entirely reshot by Lester, but when the Richard Donner cut of Superman II was released in 2006 (two years after Marlon Brando’s death) the Jor-El scenes could be restored and Donner had the considerable satisfaction of not merely putting his auteur stamp on it, but releasing a new Marlon Brando film, of sorts.

The Superman fiasco had been a disappointment but Donner bounced back almost immediately with the Spielbergian romp The Goonies (1985), produced and initiated by Spielberg. It was a fantasy action-adventure about a bunch of smalltown kids from the fictional Goon Docks district of Astoria, Oregón, who discover a pirate ship with pirate treasure. Como siempre, Donner directed with marvellous elan.

Donner turned his hand to so many different kind of films and he had a Midas touch. Scrooged (1988) starred Bill Murray as a cynical TV producer visited by the various ghosts of Christmas. But actually, Lethal Weapon (like Die Hard) was also a Christmas movie, set in the Yuletide season. The sheer extravagance of the action scenes he put together from Shane Black’s script is almost surreal. It was uproarious and pointless and enjoyable, and the ending of the first Lethal Weapon is truly surreal, when Mel Gibson finally disarms the culprit but then throws his own gun away so that they can settle everything with an honest fistfight like real men, with all the other officers solemnly looking on.

Subsequent Lethal Weapons showcased raucous performances from big names: LW2 had Joe Pesci as the garrulous whistleblower, Rene Russo is the internal affairs cop in LW3 and Chris Rock and Jet Li show up in LW4 – the films always cheerfully stretched credulity and yet the shark was never entirely jumped.

In the 1990s, Donner directed the western comedy Maverick (1994), adapted by William Goldman from the old TV show, and Assassins (1995) was another action thriller that needed Donner’s sure hand. Conspiracy Theory (1997) showed Mel Gibson in his now familiar crazy mode, as a haunted conspiracy theorist. Donner’s later works still had some sparks: 16 Blocks (2006) paired Bruce Willis and Mos Def as the raddled cop and convicted felon forced together by fate.

The story of Richard Donner is the story of Hollywood from the 1980s onwards: horror, superheroes, action and franchise properties. Donner gave all of it a human touch.

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