Dear John McTiernan,
I hope you are doing well, or at least as well can be. I won’t waste time talking about what an outrage your situation is, as I imagine you are in a much better position than I to see that for yourself. Instead, I just want to say a few words about what you mean to me, and what you have meant to me almost all my life.
Like any American kid growing up in the home-video age whose parents forbade the slightest amount of sex in what movies they showed their child but approved viewing of any and all action movies without hesitation, I’ve more or less been weaned on you. I must have been 5 or 6 when I saw my first John McTiernan movie, Predator. Never one for horror, I don’t know what possessed me to watch some creature feature about “one ugly motherfucker” gruesomely tearing a bunch of soldiers apart, though I’m sure my then-fanatic devotion to Arnold Schwarzenegger must have been the deciding factor.
Sure enough, the movie unsettled me deeply, but not in the way I was used to from “scary” movies. There were few, if any, of the cheap jump scares I despise to this day, an impressive display of restraint for a movie about an invisible assailant in the symbolic invisibility and isolation of the jungle. No, not restraint, confidence. You didn’t use that monster just to jolt but to drag out our own base monstrosity, flipping the tables on the conflict of technologically outclassed primitives, invisible warriors and so often that eventually the distinctions between the two collapse and one of the great action films of a decade full of them also becomes a comment on same.
Of course, I processed none of that at the time, but even if I couldn’t put words to my feelings about Predator, I think it was an early influence on what I would look for in a horror film, an a standard to which I would hold action flicks. Still you influenced me: well before I had any concept of a director, to say nothing of an auteur, I shortly thereafter fell in love with Last Action Hero too, which, in retrospect, prepared me to reassess Predator later. After all, the generic critiques played so complexly and darkly in that movie are affectionate lark here. Recently, my friend Calum Marsh wrote about it, in which he rightly said that you respected the kids like me enough to pick up on its referential nature. I would go one further and say the whole movie is a cheeky, warm acknowledgement on your part that kids like me were getting to see ostentatious, R-rated action movies before we even got to our multiplication tables.
Once I got older and started getting into movies properly, I assumed work like yours would fall by the wayside, that I would put away childish things, as it were. On the contrary, every time I revisit an old favorite you made or fill another gap in your work, I am bowled over by the sophistication of your craft: so much of the contemporary action cinema I’ve since experienced obscures and fragments, but there is a totality of your frame that reminds me of the old masters, like Ford or Hawks. One could almost sketch the blueprints for the top floors of the Fox Plaza from watching Die Hard, and the sequel you directed maps out New York City like I’ve never seen. Even the actors benefit from your total control of the frame: Arnold gave his best serious performance and his best goof with you, and Bruce Willis never looked like more of a star than when you were making him one with every shot in Die Hard.
Before writing this, the last two films of yours I watched are probably the ones that hold the darkest memories for you, The 13th Warrior and Rollerball. But even these movies have something for the attentive viewer. The former gives us a civilized Arab among white savages, even if the Arab is really a Spaniard, and some moments (the line of fire crawling through the mist, the unpretentious skill of the Wendol cave sequence) are as breathtaking as anything you’ve ever done. I watched the latter after seeing Norman Jewison’s version for the first time as well, and it was no contest as to which was better. Jewison cannot hide his disgust for TV as an inferior medium, but that gives his insistent satire a counterproductive sense of superiority. Yours visualizes how TV has dragged cinema down to its level, and how Hollywood has only itself to blame. You criticize yourself as much as the mob and the corporate oligarchy which makes the criticisms hit so much harder.
You become part of the portrait instead of haughtily standing outside it, a common feature of your work. It might even be part of the reason I’m writing you right now: you have directed some of the biggest box-office smashes of all time, yet you fit so imperceptibly into the background that it was you they made an example of. But if Rollerball inadvertently set you on the path that led to where you are now, it also shows that quality you have that was such a gift before it became a curse. You are a true termitic artist who has been sorely missed these last 10 years as so many genre directors have ponderously tried to make their B-movies into prestige pictures instead of using the liberties offered by their chosen genres to get at subjects more subversively.
I have only returned to your work fairly recently, but I have already found as much instruction in how to pay attention to editing, color, placement and the like as I have with the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien. I, and so many others, have much to learn at your feet. I read you were planning a project before you began your sentence. I hope that goes well for you going forward, and I’m already looking forward to the day you bring true artistry back to the multiplex.