I'm going to air my dirty laundry and reveal in this (and maybe the next) post, the films I like that suggest I have poor taste.
Today, I'm reviewing the box office bombs that I like, putting me out of kilter with the rest of the movie-going public. There's some epic steamers here, guilty pleasures and a couple that surprised me!
The Thirteenth Warrior
Photo Credit Wikipedia5
I had to wait a long time from trailer to release to see this film -- well over a year in Australia. I've since learnt this was due to production problems, not least because author/producer Michael Crichton sacked the director, John McTiernan1 when the film was received poorly by test audiences.
The original book, Eaters of the Dead is a bizarre read, not least because Crichton tried (and largely failed) to write in the style of extant Arab literature. His original idea was based on Beowulf, but replacing Anglo-Saxons with Vikings, and Grendel with a tribe of Neanderthals.
In the movie, the protagonist, Ibn Fadlan2, played by Spanish actor Antonio Bandaras is a court poet, who's surreptitiously exiled to the life as an ambassador for catching the eye of a nobleman's wife. In his travels, he is reluctantly recruited by a bunch of Northmen to rid a Norse kingdom of an ancient evil. Imagine a mashup of the Dirty Dozen and Beowulf, and you'll get the idea.
The film bombed hard and critics hated it. It's very thin on plot and the characters about as wooden as you'll find -- Omar Sharif famously quit acting because he was so disillusioned by the film.
I on the other hand, enjoyed it for its awkward clash of cultures, dark atmosphere and production values. I thought Bandaras was okay, and I quite enjoyed Vladimir Kulich's portrayal of Buliwyf.
The movie has some genuinely entertaining scenes, namely the breakfast wash-bowl ritual and Ibn Fadlan's first use of the Norse language, in which he responds to a Viking's insult with a memorable retort.
My mother was a good woman, and I at least know my father's name. Unlike you pig-eating son of a whore.
As an action movie, it doesn't lack for pace or blood and guts. It's not exactly suspenseful though, as was McTiernan's Predator. The soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith was pretty good, and the CD version I have includes a nice write up about the composer's musing on how he blended the two cultures' music -- a considerable feat given that we know nothing about Viking music9.
A guilty pleasure, and one I still like to watch when ironing my shirts.
Photo credit Wikipedia6
Funnily enough, Sahara (2005) has something in common with The Thirteenth Warrior. It's based on Clive Cussler's novel of the same name, and you guessed it, the author took considerable exception to the film. Cussler was famously involved in a long-running legal battle3 with the film's producer, because he hated the script.
Now, I'm a fan of the Dirk Pitt novels. Sahara's a long book, with lots of subplots that were omitted from the film -- and for good reason, as they would have added far too much complexity and length.
So if the author hated it, and I like the books, why did I like it?
Well, I didn't read the books until after I saw the film, so I had no preconceived ideas when I planted my rear in the plush cinema seat. Leave the books aside and it's a decent adventure romp, reminiscent of a modern-day matinee adventure movie. It's very well shot, filmed in Morocco, the soundtrack is decent and the action is well-paced and not too graphic for younger viewers. The cast was decent -- William H. Macy as the crusty Sandecker stands out. I like Matthew McConaughey but I think he was out of his depth as an action lead, despite the chiselled abs.
Having since read Cussler's novels, I can now appreciate how widely different the film is -- not just the plot but also the characterisations. McConaughey's Pitt is nothing like novels -- this comes back to my point about him being a mediocre action lead. Pitt in the novels is a weather-beaten, hard-as-nails, brooding adventurer. Nor is Steve Zahn anything like Pitt's constant companion, the muscular Al Giordino -- even the banter between them feels forced and jarring.
Still, as a mindless action flick, it's good fun, and the toned-down deviations from the book make it safe enough for family viewing.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Photo credit Wikipedia7
I was really surprised this movie flopped. The original series was often repeated on TV when I was a kid, and I used to watch it after school. Like with many remakes (and reboots), I was sceptical and only gave it a shot because it was a Guy Ritchie4 movie. I really enjoyed it!
The film is nothing like the original series, having instead Guy Ritchie's unique take on a 60s spy thriller -- like a Sean Connery Bond but with much more moral ambiguity. Armie Hammer is a formidable (and slightly psychotic) Ilya Kuryakin and Henry Cavill's Napoleon Solo is suave and rather self-serving. The tension between them is great to watch.
The soundtrack is awesome, its stylishly shot and the costumes and sets are a meticulously crafted vignette of 1960s Germany and Italy. The uneasy tension between Solo and Kuryakin works very well, both are deeply flawed characters who manage to form enough of an accord to defeat the bad guys without killing each other.
So why did it flop?
Perhaps, the subject matter was a little niche. Also Ritchie's can be a little too intense for a lot of views -- this one is more violent than his successful Sherlock Holmes series.
Also, it was bloody expensive to make, being a rather lavish period movies. I have a theory that box office flops are becoming more of an occurrence because of rising costs to make, distribute and market. that it's getting tougher to make back the costs.
Surveying the list of box office bombs on Wikipedia, the majority of flops have occurred since 2010.
Still, this is honestly one of my favourite films of the last 10 years.
Photo credit Wikipedia8
Why the hell is Hudson Hawk on the list? As a kid I loved this offbeat action comedy. What's not to love about Bruce Willis staring as a catburglar with a penchant for singing -- trying to steal to the pieces needed to reconstruct Leonardo Da Vinci's La Macchina dell'Or. It even has a deliciously camp Richard E. Grant in the line up.
Honestly, it's like the Da Vinci Code but without Dan Brown's nauseating pretentiousness.
Part of the problem I think was down to marketing. Bruce Willis was establishing himself as one the leading action men of the 80s and 90s with the Die Hard franchise, but Hudson Hawk hearkens back to his comedy origins in Moonlighting. The film was initially marketed as an action move for the US theatre release, then as a comedy when it hit the home VHS market.
I remember enjoying when I first saw it -- I was probably 12 at the time. I still enjoy it today. Maybe it was badly marketed, maybe I have poor taste. I even liked Bruce's muscular numbers!
More film reviews?
I had fun writing this post -- and exposing myself as a tasteless hack -- so maybe I'll do more. I've gotten rather nostalgic in my old age, so if you'd like to see, just reach out and let me know!
My next post idea is to review a couple of films that made money but didn't fair well among the critics of the day. Also, I'll be focusing on the historical/fantasy films that have greatly influenced me as a writer.
Director of some of the best action films of the 80s and 90s ↩
A real explorer who travelled among the Rus Vikings for a time. I've read the origin text from which Crichton took his inspiration. ↩
Cussler eventually lost. ↩
His films are hit and miss, but the good ones really shine. ↩
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10771448 ↩
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1524534 ↩
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45376055 ↩
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7423195 ↩
He had to work on the assumptions people have about it based on older movies and Wagner's operas. ↩