Thursday, May 2, 2013
Director Essentials: Richard Donner
Donner is the kind of filmmaker who would have fit right in to the classic Hollywood studio system of the 1930s. He's a journeyman -- a guy who can work in any genre (and does!) and crank out movies that are slick and professional but never artless. He makes solid entertainment, succeeding sometimes much more than others. And while it can be difficult to recognize what a "Richard Donner film" is while you're watching one, when his directing credit comes on at the end, the reaction is always "Yeah, I can see that."
1. The Omen (1976) - Though Donner had already directed two films prior to this (X-15 in 1961 and Salt and Pepper in 1968), The Omen was his real arrival as a big commercial director. Still considered one of the best horror movies ever made by many, it's clear that Donner was using this as his calling card -- while never self-conscious, there are enough nice touches (like the glass breaking before Lee Remick falls) to demonstrate that he knows exactly what he's doing. This is one of Donner's more stylish movies, though it's mostly carried out with the workmanlike efficiency that 20 years of directing television will get you.
2. Superman (1978) - Here's the one that changed it all. Not only is Superman still one of the best comic book movies ever made, it basically created the entire genre -- even if it wouldn't really find its footing until the 2000s. Thirty years before we all fell all over ourselves to praise Christopher Nolan's "realistic" take on the superhero movie, Donner was doing it with Superman. The movie is grounded in great, well-realized characters and recognizable interactions, but still told with the scope and scale of an epic comic book myth. Despite the current glut of superhero films and all the advances in technology to have come since it was made, Superman is still one of the best the genre has produced. It's probably Donner's best film. If you want to understand just how crucial he was to nailing the tone of the movie, just watch Superman II again, which uses about half of Donner's material and half of Richard Lester's campy nonsense after Donner was fired off the movie. Anyone who says Superman II is a superior sequel hasn't watched it lately.
4. The Goonies (1985) - Donner's children's film is, like so many of his movies, an exercise in choreographing memorable set pieces, of which there are several. While my feelings about The Goonies are well documented on this site, the movie belongs on this list because a) it's one of Donner's most lasting efforts, and probably the movie that young audiences will continue to discover and b) it's one of the only times in his career where there was a strong authorial voice (in this case, producer Steven Spielberg's) laid over his usual straightforward style. Donner proved himself willing and capable of adapting without compromising what makes us love him as a filmmaker. "Waaaaaaaaaah!!!!" - Every line from The Goonies
5. Lethal Weapon (1987) - The runner-up to Superman for the title of Donner's best movie, Lethal Weapon showcases everything the director does well -- lots of practical stunts, humor, set pieces and solid second unit work that adds up to one of the great analog action movies. There would be three more sequels, all of lesser quality than the one that preceded it, and it's a rare case where the same filmmaker returned for every installment. By the fourth Lethal Weapon, everyone was just working for a big paycheck and the chance to hang out together again, but the first is one of the best buddy cop movies of all time (if not THE best) and one of the best action movies of the '80s. Donner is the film's secret weapon, finding the heart in Shane Black's script and directing the action just as well as a John McTiernan or a Walter Hill.
7. Radio Flyer (1992) - This is not one of Donner's best movies, but there's a reason for that: it wasn't his movie. Screenwriter David Mickey Evans was the original director on the film, only to be replaced by Donner during production. It's another testament to Donner's workmanlike skill as a director -- the kind of guy who would have flourished in the studio system of the 1930s -- but also speaks to his disassociation from the material. Radio Flyer doesn't fail because Donner isn't connected to the material, because he never really is. It doesn't work because the material isn't all that great to begin with. The movie provides a glimpse of the director-for-hire that Donner that could have been had Superman not hit so big.
8. Maverick (1994) - And here's Donner's western. With years of experience directing westerns for TV (he got his start doing episodes of The Rifleman and Wanted: Dead or Alive), Donner was a natural to direct this big-screen version of the classic James Garner TV show. Plot-wise, the movie is kind of a mess (there were major overhauls and stuff that was tossed out of William Goldman's script), but the three main performances by Mel Gibson, Garner and (especially) Jodie Foster are so sharp and fun that the movie is super entertaining. Donner's movies are all competent, but few are this enjoyable.
10. 16 Blocks (2006) - There is nothing special about this Bruce Willis/Mos Def action movie; it's exactly the kind of solid, well-executed movie at which Richard Donner excels. It's on this list because it's probably the last movie we're ever going to get from the director, who is now in his 80s; without it, his last movie would have been Timeline. Thank goodness for 16 Blocks.
This Director Essentials column comes via suggestion by Leo Logan (good one, Leo!). If you have a filmmaker you'd like to see covered, let us know in the comments below or email us at fthismoviepodcast(at)gmail.com.
More Director Essentials:
1. Michael Bay
2. Woody Allen
3. Ron Howard
4. Sidney Lumet
5. Paul Verhoeven
6. Steven Soderbergh
7. Tim Burton
8. Joe Dante
9. Robert Zemeckis
10. Michael Cimino
11. Wes Craven
12. Spike Lee
13. John Landis
14. Brian De Palma
15. Steven Spielberg
16. Tony Scott
17. Sam Raimi