Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Director Essentials: Peter Hyams

 by Patrick Bromley

One of the all-time greatest "that guy" directors!

I have loved Peter Hyams since the late 1980s when I first saw Running Scared and realized that the same guy directing was also the film's cinematographer, a common thread among his filmography. Since then, he has become one of my favorite journeyman filmmakers, a guy who works primarily in genre but who doesn't really have any auteurist trademarks outside of his tendency to act as his own DP. Revisiting a bunch of his movies recently (and seeing a few for the first time), I'm reminded of just how often his work has been unfairly dismissed and how many incredible bangers he's made. Let's take a look at some of his essential movies.

1..Busting (1974)
Hyams exploded onto the scene with this all-timer buddy cop movie starring Elliot Gould and Robert Blake as L.A. vice detectives on the trail of a crime boss. What feels at times like a lot of shuffling and mumbling is actually electric thanks to the chemistry of the two leads and Hyams' willingness to follow the story everywhere it goes, including tangential busts, all building to one of the great anti-establishment endings of the '70s. I'm not sure if this one sets the template of what a "Peter Hyams movie" is or not, but it does represent his ability to color outside the lines in established genres -- something he would continue to do his entire career -- and to lean hard into whatever story he's telling. Peter Hyams never half-asses it.

2. Capricorn One (1977)
A movie very much at home in the paranoid 1970s, Capricorn One is Peter Hyams' take on the supposed faking of the moon landing. Sam Waterston, James Brolin, and O.J. Simpson are a trio of astronauts forced to fake a Mars landing and then are chased by government agents attempting to tie up loose ends, with a welcome Elliot Gould (returning from Busting) as the journalist trying to break the story. Lots of interesting ideas presented sometimes presented a bit clumsily, but it's all so compelling and told with such a thick streak of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate distrust that it all works. This is pretty much the last time Hyams was this explicitly political.

3. Outland (1981)
High Noon in space! Hyams' moon-based western casts Sean Connery as a federal marshal assigned to an outer space mining colony where his life is threatened after he uncovers a drug ring. Hyams was still writing his own screenplays at this point, and you can feel him working out ideas and wanting to play with certain genre tropes. He had made his cop movie (Busting), his period romance (Hanover Street), his comic mystery (Peeper) and his paranoid thriller (Capricorn One); now was his chance to make a western. Thanks to Star Wars, though, he could only get the money for the film if he rewrote it as science fiction. The results work pretty beautifully. Connery grounds the material, but it's the supporting turn from the great Frances Sternhagen that really pops here. This is surprisingly quiet and patient for a sci-fi actioner, further evidence of Hyams being willing to take risks inside of well-established genres.

4. The Star Chamber (1983)
Hyams swung for big mainstream success with this thriller about a young judge (Michael Douglas) who becomes part of a secret society determined to take the law into their own hands when justice cannot be obtained through the proper channels. This is the kind of movie that would have been a three-star programmer in 1983 but when put into the relief of 2024 plays more like a five-star banger. Douglas hasn't quite found his movie star groove yet but is still very good as a man conflicted, ably supported by a strong supporting cast that includes Hal Holbrook and James B. Sikking. There's a middle section that's kind of missing but that doesn't stop this from being a fantastic B-level thriller directed like pure A-list by Hyams.

5. 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
Hyams finally scored his first big box office hit with this sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey -- on paper, an impossible proposition -- working closely with Arthur C. Clarke to adapt his 1982 novel 2010. This is much more a direct sequel than I ever realized, more Blade Runner 2049 than the in-name-only movie I was expecting. 2010 manages to be faithful and respectful to the Kubrick film while still functioning as its own thing. This is thoughtful, adult science fiction that, divorced of the expectations from when it came out, can be appreciated as one of Hyams' strongest efforts. It's not the Kubrick film, but what can be?

6. Running Scared (1986)
Only Peter Hyams could direct a better buddy cop movie than Peter Hyams. After helping to codify the genre with his first feature Busting in 1974, Hyams returns to the make one of the three best buddy cop movies of all time. Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines have incomparable chemistry together, scoring big laughs but feeling surprisingly at home in the action, too. They play Chicago cops (Hyams, who spent some formative years here, is one of the few filmmakers to get the city's winter right) who turn tail to open a bar in Key West when the pressures of the job no longer seem worth it. Of course, you can take the cop out of Chicago... What's great about Running Scared -- I mean besides the funny script, the winning performances, the photography (by Hyams himself), and the music -- is that it works as a cop movie that just happens to be funny. It doesn't lead with comedy and then expect us to take the story seriously whenever it feels like it. No, Running Scared has actual stakes and fantastic action -- in particular a car chase on the El tracks -- but manages to stay loose and amiable throughout. It's a true magic trick and maybe Hyams' best movie.

7. The Presidio (1988)
Hyams really flexes his "that guy" muscles here with another solid programmer thriller starring Mark Harmon and Sean Connery as a cop and a Lieutenant Colonel in the army who must team together to solve a murder at San Francisco's Presidio army base. It's great to see Hyams reuniting with Outland star Connery, but Harmon is the real surprise here; between this and Summer School, he should have been a much bigger movie star. Meg Ryan has an early supporting role as Connery's daughter who becomes romantically involved with Harmon. Like The Star Chamber, this one looks better in the present day when you realize they don't make them like this anymore.

8. Stay Tuned (1992)
The first out-and-out comedy in Hyams' filmography since Peeper in 1975 stars John Ritter as a TV-obsessed deadbeat who makes a deal with a servant of the Devil (Jeffrey Jones) and must survive 24 hours trapped in TV land or lose his soul forever. Or something. Originally intended as a Tim Burton film, the mostly toothless satire suggests Hyams' ability to stage a gag -- the movie is essentially one parody, one sketch, one bit after another -- but the jokes just aren't really there. Most of them involve flat imitations of existing shows tweaked to fit the "Satellite beaming from Hell" premise, so instead of "Wayne's World" we get "Dwayne's UNDERworld" and why aren't you laughing? The cast, in particular stars John Ritter and Pam Dawber, do everything they can to breathe life into the material and Hyams keeps things moving at a steady clip, but this type of broad comedy might not be the genre for which he's best suited.

9. Timecop (1994)
Hyams hit what might be his commercial peak with this pair of Jean-Claude Van Damme action films in the '90s, starting with 1994's Timecop. Based on the Dark Horse comic book of the same name, the film features JCVD as a futuristic police officer who must travel back in time to prevent a corrupt politician (Ron Silver) from seizing power and prevent the murder of his own wife (Mia Sara, or Sloane Peterson if you're nasty). Both the director and star are at the height of their powers, with Hyams hitting that sweet spot wherein his particular sensibilities line up with mainstream audience sensibilities for his biggest hit. The bubble had to burst, of course, because the movies kept getting bigger and Hyams has always been more at home in the middle, but for a while in the '90s it was glorious.

10. Sudden Death (1995)
Hyams re-teamed with Van Damme for this Die Hard imitation set inside a hockey arena, with JCVD playing the fire marshal attempting to stop a terrorist plot. Working again with an actor star at the height of his powers and a studio budget, Hyams crafts a slick, explosive actioner that distinguishes itself with an off-kilter sense of humor (much of it involving the Penguins mascot costume or JCVD suiting up to play goalie in the climax). The pacing could be a little tighter, but Sudden Death isn't afraid to go over the top and be silly, a quality that lends it a great deal of charm and once again demonstrates Hyams as a filmmaker not interested in by-the-numbers genre filmmaking. He does some of his best work as his own cinematographer here, too.

11. The Relic (1997)
When people complain that Peter Hyams' cinematography is too dark, this is probably the movie they're talking about. Penelope Ann Miller is a scientist and Tom Sizemore is a cop; both (and more)
are locked inside Chicago's Field Museum with a giant creature that wants to rip off their heads and eat the stuff inside. After making a number of cool science fiction films, it's fun to see Hyams go full horror and make one of the decade's best monster movies. Yes, it's lit very sparingly and hard to see at times, but I prefer to see the glass half full and call it "atmospheric." I love that Tom Sizemore (RIP) is given the rare chance at a leading man role, and both his casting and his performance are exactly what Hyams does so well in his movies: they're never exactly what you'd expect. I also love that Hyams is so loyal to Chicago and sets several of his movies here.

12. End of Days (1999)
Hyams returned to horror just two years later, trying to recapture some of that JCVD magic by teaming with the biggest action star of all time. Unfortunately, Arnold Schwarzenegger's career was on the decline by the time he worked with Hyams and End of Days is a slightly soggy supernatural horror about a depressed cop going head to head with the devil (Gabriel Byrne) to prevent an apocalypse. This would be pretty much the last time that Hyams was riding so high; though he made a handful more studio films in the 2000s, they never matched the scope or scale or even quality of what he does on End of Days

13. A Sound of Thunder (2005)
Hyams would still make two movies after this one, a good one (Enemies Closer) and a bad one (his remake of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), but this is the one that still feels the most like a Peter Hyams movie. Working from a short story by Ray Bradbury, the director returns to the time travel subgenre of science fiction with Ed Burns leading a team of time traveling tourists who interfere too much with the past and wind up altering the present is seemingly irrevocable ways. A terrific sci-fi premise and first half gets weirder and way less involving as it goes along, and even the stuff that does work is undone by some of the worst visual effects of any studio wide release of the 2000s. While it remains one of his weakest films, it's still characteristically offbeat in the way that so many of his movies are. I don't know if this is a case of Hyams losing his fastball or if he was handcuffed by a studio/budget, but it feels like the director's best days were behind him by this point.

1 comment:

  1. And the son is not too bad either. Though he never lived up to his Universal Soldier masterpieces