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A leading craftsman of dynamic, large-scale Hollywood movies, John McTiernan first made his mark as a prolific writer and director of commercials. His first feature, "Nomads," was well received at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival and directly led to his first major studio action flick, "Predator" (1987). Set against a jungle backdrop beautifully photographed by McTiernan and his cinematographer Donald McAlpine, the film pitted a bickering interracial group of soldiers against an invisible alien enemy in a situation that was seen as a Vietnam allegory. "Predator" firmly established McTiernan's Hollywood bona fides, which he not only confirmed but exceeded with his next blockbuster, "Die Hard" (1988), the surprise action hit that catapulted TV star Bruce Willis into the feature big leagues. McTiernan exhibited firm command of the genre with his soon-to-be signature Blitzkrieg action, extraordinary stunts and expert timing. Though McTiernan had his share of flops - "Last Action Hero" (1993) and "Rollerball" (2002) chief among them - he managed to cement his status as one of Hollywood's most prominent action film directors.Born on Jan. 8, 1951 in Albany, NY, McTiernan attended the Julliard School in New...
A leading craftsman of dynamic, large-scale Hollywood movies, John McTiernan first made his mark as a prolific writer and director of commercials. His first feature, "Nomads," was well received at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival and directly led to his first major studio action flick, "Predator" (1987). Set against a jungle backdrop beautifully photographed by McTiernan and his cinematographer Donald McAlpine, the film pitted a bickering interracial group of soldiers against an invisible alien enemy in a situation that was seen as a Vietnam allegory. "Predator" firmly established McTiernan's Hollywood bona fides, which he not only confirmed but exceeded with his next blockbuster, "Die Hard" (1988), the surprise action hit that catapulted TV star Bruce Willis into the feature big leagues. McTiernan exhibited firm command of the genre with his soon-to-be signature Blitzkrieg action, extraordinary stunts and expert timing. Though McTiernan had his share of flops - "Last Action Hero" (1993) and "Rollerball" (2002) chief among them - he managed to cement his status as one of Hollywood's most prominent action film directors.
Born on Jan. 8, 1951 in Albany, NY, McTiernan attended the Julliard School in New York, where he studied acting with the illustrious John Houseman. He later went across the country to attend the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and study directing on a fellowship. He helmed a few shorts, including "Watcher," before spending the next decade writing and directing some 200-odd commercials. McTiernan made the segue into features with "Nomads," a supernatural thriller about a French anthropologist (Pierce Brosnan) who moves to Los Angeles and is followed by the evil spirits of an extinct tribe he uncovered, earning the director substantial recognition at Cannes. McTiernan was sure to parlay said recognition into a full-fledged career with his next feature, "Predator," a hard-charging action thriller about a commando team lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger that is systematically eliminated by an extraterrestrial hunter. The success of the movie - both in terms of box office and critical praise - put McTiernan firmly on the map. The only question was whether or not he could follow through again.
McTiernan indeed followed up in a big way with his next feature, "Die Hard" - perhaps the greatest action movie of all time. Starring Bruce Willis as a New York City cop trapped in a Los Angeles high rise taken over by would-be terrorists, "Die Hard" set the standard for action movies in terms of scope, snappy comebacks and absurdly entertaining violence. The movie spawned three sequels and untold numbers of facsimiles, while launching the film career of Willis and cementing McTiernan's status as a top director. As an encore, McTiernan completed his initial Hollywood trifecta with a well-crafted adaptation of Tom Clancy's best-selling Cold War novel, "The Hunt for Red October" (1990), starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. In addition to the sense of style and timing shown in "Predator" and "Die Hard," McTiernan brought the same detached intelligence to the movie version that Clancy wielded in the novel, elevating the story above mere thriller status to an exercise in military and diplomatic strategy - and in a tight 135 minutes no less.
McTiernan reunited with Connery - as well as cinematographer Don McAlpine - for the change-of-pace "Medicine Man" (1992), an uneven romantic drama about a doctor (Connery) who falls in love with his assistant (Lorraine Bracco), while trying to find a cure for cancer in the Brazilian rain forest. Though not reaching the cinematic heights of "Predator" and "Die Hard," McTiernan nonetheless turned in a solid effort. He did finally experience his first commercial and critical flop with his next film, "The Last Action Hero" (1993), the most expensive and most derided entry in the 1993 summer blockbuster season - the budget was said to be around $80 million - an astronomical cost for the times. Intended as a fun and lavish send-up of the genre, the movie - which starred old friend Schwarzenegger as an action movie hero trying to deal with a real-life boy stuck inside his action movie - failed miserably with a public that failed to appreciate its overly smug, tongue-in-cheek tone; though advocates considered it an underrated gem.
Having tried something different, McTiernan reverted to tried-and-true escapist formula with "Die Hard with a Vengeance" (1995), the third installment in the series - he had passed on directing "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" in 1988. With Willis at his macho best, and aided by the great action-sideman Samuel L Jackson, the film disappointed only those unwilling to suspend their disbelief and strap themselves in for a wild ride. McTiernan next wrote and directed "The 13th Warrior" (1999), a historical thriller about Vikings and cannibalism that boasted a cast headlined by Antonio Banderas and was based on Michael Crichton's 1976 novel, Eaters of the Dead. Reportedly, Crichton was displeased with the film and wrested control of it from the director, holding up its release and undoubtedly killing the prospect of McTiernan directing a proposed film version of Airframe. McTiernan moved on to helm the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1999) which pitted Pierce Brosnan as a millionaire art thief and Rene Russo as an insurance investigator hot on his trail. In his version, McTiernan turned up the romantic heat while allowing the audience into the criminal's mind in scenes with his psychiatrist (Faye Dunaway).
With his stock on the rise again, McTiernan went back to the remake well and drew a big bucket of flop with "Rollerball," a sorry, disjointed mess of a movie that was plagued by a long-delayed release and bad Internet buzz. Whereas the original was a futuristic dystopia about the corporate takeover of modern society, McTiernan's version was nothing more than a dumbed-down action flick about roller skating. Moving on after the critical and box office debacle that many felt probably never should have been made, McTiernan flopped again with "Basic" (2003), a derivative and implausible thriller about the mysterious death of a hated Army Ranger commander (Samuel L. Jackson) and several of his men that are investigated by one of his former subordinates (John Travolta). After "Basic," McTiernan struggled to find his creative footing, opting to look for a worthwhile project instead of jumping onto another disaster project.
While he was in preproduction on his next project, a lower-budget thriller called "High Stakes," disaster managed to find him in different ways. McTiernan was suddenly tabloid fodder when he was charged with lying to the FBI in the wiretapping investigation engulfing private investigator, Anthony Pellicano. Allegedly, McTiernan lied about using Pellicano to wiretap "Rollerball" producer Charles Roven, making the director the 14th person - though first celebrity - to be charged in the investigation. It was later revealed that McTiernan also hired Pellicano in 1997 to wiretap his then-wife Donna Dubrow to gain a tactical advantage during divorce proceedings. McTiernan pled guilty, which he later tried to withdraw with new council by claiming he was jet-lagged and under the influence of alcohol and medication. U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer denied the motion, sentencing McTiernan to serve four months in federal prison and pay $100,000 in fines for lying about his relationship with Pellicano. Though originally set to surrender for incarceration, Fischer allowed McTiernan to remain out of prison pending an appeal. Later, a federal appeals court voided his sentence and allowed a hearing regarding his plea withdrawal to proceed. McTiernan eventually withdrew his plea in early 2009, while the case remained open for prosecutors to file charges a second time.
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"I think the action genre is particularly ripe for this kind of movie. Some people think they can make action movies by formula and have repeated the same thing time and time again. As a result they have made the genre a fat target for a story like ours. Audiences have caught on to the formula, so to make things interesting again we're having some fun with that. We use the audience's knowledge of the genre as the basis for our jokes." --John McTiernan in the press notes for "The Last Action Hero"
"Well, if the break point on [a movie] going forward or not is that one of the five fat fish decides to do it, then you'll find a lot of people who'll decide they should write a story or cause a story to be written that happens to be about a 40-to-50-year-old white male who solves problems on his own and is the obsession of everyone else who's come in contact with him. You get screenplays to appeal to the egos of these five particular guys who are of course . . . [he pauses, his voice filled with irony] very mature, very sophisticated and generous in their outlook on other actors." --John McTiernan, quoted in Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1998.
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