Assassins is the last of four films starring Sylvester Stallone, released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video, and while the series’ focus is inevitably on the mumbling star (if not the increasing size of his pulsing temple veins, which grew to dangerous proportions between 1986-1995), each film also presents an opportunity to examine the work of four directors whose careers took decided different turns.
George Pan Cosmatos (Cobra [M]) should’ve been able to maintain a steady career making action films, but instead he picked the rival Abyss (1989) stinker Leviathan (1989) as his next great achievement; he agreed to direct Tombstone (1993) in name only (leaving the directorial chores primarily to star Kurt Russell); and after the conspiracy thriller Shadow Conspiracy (1997), too many years passed without a film, with Cosmatos passing away in 2005. Like Renny Harlin, his films weren’t intellectually deep, but he knew how to blow shit up really, really good in elaborately conceived sequences using the camera, editing, and music. The Cassandra Crossing (1976) is still one of the most fun virus-disaster hybrids, and is worth seeking out.
Marco Brambilla was extremely well-suited for Demolition Man [M] (1993) but he’s more or less stepped away from feature films, perhaps feeling the experience of a big budget Hollywood / Joel Silver production was enough (although the lousy Excess Baggage probably helped shift him away from Hollywood and its vain stars); and Luis Llosa (The Specialist [M]) eventually went back to producing, waiting until 2005 to direct the historical drama The Feast of the Goat.
Before Assassins, Richard Donner directed seemingly hundreds of TV series, spanning western (Have Gun – Will Travel), war (Combat!), medical (The Nurses), comedy (Gilligan’s Island), mystery (Perry Mason), and cop shows (The Streets of San Francisco), and in between his TV gigs, Donner made the odd feature film.
His first feature was the aeronautical drama X-15 (1961), followed by the comedy Salt and Pepper (1968), and the drama Twinky / London Affair (1970). None helped him break into the A-list of directors who could pick and choose material, or be among the top 5 considered for a prestige blockbuster, but then came Twentieth Century-Fox’s rival to Warner’s The Exorcist [M] (1973) - The Omen (1976) – which made millions, but more importantly demonstrated Donner had a knack for glossy, slickly produced drama in virtually any genre.
His years making TV and TV movies – as director and producer – ensured studios were getting a well-rounded filmmaker, and all he needed was a good script. Omen was succeeded by Superman (1978), after which Donner directed the non-blockbuster drama Inside Moves (1980), and then took a few pokes at other less explosive genres: comedy (The Toy), fantasy (Ladyhawke), and kidfare for producer Steven Spielberg (The Goonies).
Then came producer Joel Silver, who matched Donner with Shane Black’s hot spec script Lethal Weapon in 1987, spawning a franchise of which Donner directed all three money-making sequels. He was bankable, and could make anything, and so he did: the modern Christmas classic Scrooged (1988) which has strangedly aged into a surreal snapshot of eighties pop culture; the dramatically wonky Radio Flyer (1992) which impossibly balances childhood fantasy & wacky hijinks with drunken dad child abuse; and the strangely banal Maverick (1994), returning Donner to the western, but with a flat script by veteran scribe William Goldman (All the President’s Men [M]).
In between his less successful career choices were the Lethal Weapon sequels, Assassins, and the rival conspiracy film to Cosmatos’ Shadow Conspiracy, the uniquely titled Conspiracy Theory (1997), but after the fourth and final Lethal Weapon film, Donner took a while before he directed another picture.
Timeline (2003) returned the director to the fantasy / sci-fi realm, but studio-demanded recuts and the replacement of Jerry Goldsmith’s score didin’t boost the film’s box office appeal. Three years later Donner made the incredibly dull 16 Blocks, after which the only career blip was supervising the edit of Superman II (1980), the sequel in the franchise Donner was shooting in tandem with Superman before he was replaced by Richard Lester (The Three Musketeers) at the insistence of the franchise’s producers – Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind, and Pierre Spengler.
In 2006, Warner Home Video released Donner’s version of Superman II on DVD, but he’s yet to return to the big screen with another theatrical feature. Whether due to issues of projects trapped development hell or ageism (Donner’s now 81), it’s been 5 years since his last film, but he does have the chops to make another good movie.
He’s comfortable directing big stars and big egos, large or small budgets, and has a preference for taking scripts in which the purest elements of a genre – western, action, sci-fi, fantasy – are contrasted with humour, be it broad or stealth.
The Omen may be draped in death, doom, and an unholy conspiracy, but it’s peppered with black comedy, usually in the form of irony, or outrageously choreographed deaths (such as the bouncing / rebounding / pivoting decapitation seqience). Assassins is gloomy, but the character of Elektra is peculiar and eccentric, which allowed Julianne Moore to exchange some sharp barbs with Stallone.
His fusion approach doesn’t always work, but there is a particular combination of drama and humour which runs through Donner’s films, and Assassins [M], at least for now, is his last good movie, made from an early script by the Wachowskis (The Matrix), and co-produced by Joel Silver.
It’s a minor genre classic that deserves a peek, and coming shortly, I’ll look at the Superman franchise, where we can trace the its big screen birth and success as an international phenomenon, and the mis-steps taken by the Salkins as the producers tried to take the character further from its comic book roots and water it down into a banal product for mass consumption, with poorly conceived splinter productions like Supergirl (1984).