Despite a string of bombs, Renny Harlin keeps on ticking
Perhaps it's true, as H. L. Mencken claimed, that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. But the maxim breaks down if you substitute "lost wads of other people's dough" for "went broke." And therein lies the enigma of director Renny Harlin's career: No matter how badly his movies blow or how much money they lose, the Finnish action hack somehow never has to worry about getting his next big-budget, high-concept assignment.
None of Harlin's films are any good, but it must be allowed that some have made big money, notably A Nightmare on Elm Street: 4 (1988), Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), Cliffhanger (1993) and Deep Blue Sea (1999). Notice that two of these were white-hot franchise properties whose success was all but preordained. Between them, these two sequels also contain all the hallmarks of Harlin's unevolving style: Nightmare 4 is chock-full of shock cuts, cat scares, fright chords and similarly cheap bullshit, while Die Harder has such a stupefyingly low deaths-to-bullets ratio that it makes you wonder how a weapon as inefficient as the firearm ever caught on with the international terrorist set in the first place.
Balanced against these lame hits is a string of dogs that should have killed Harlin's career several times over. But it seems as if others have suffered in his stead. For example, the resounding 1990 flop The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (about a "rock & roll detective") signaled the beginning of the end for alleged comedian Andrew Dice Clay (kids, ask your parents). And Geena Davis was an Oscar-winning star when she married Harlin in 1993. The couple collaborated on Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, big-budget turkeys calculated to turn Davis into an action heroine rather than an intermittently employed TV actress, which is how things turned out for her.
Cutthroat, a $98 million swashbuckler in which Davis played a pirate captain, earned a puny $10 million in the U.S. and bankrupted its production company, Carolco. In any other year than 1995, it would surely have joined Heaven's Gate and Howard the Duck on Hollywood's roster of legendary bombs. Luckily for Harlin, its failure was eclipsed by an even bigger ocean-going fiasco, Kevin Costner's $200 million Waterworld (which, next to Cutthroat, looks like Citizen Kane).
After divorcing Davis in 1998, Harlin interrupted his losing streak with Deep Blue Sea, a Jaws-meets-Alien hybrid in which genetically modified ultraintelligent sharks chase good-looking, not-so-intelligent scientists around a flooded research station. The film's most inspired moment comes when curvaceous Saffron Burrows strips down to her bikini, then fends off one of the supersharks with a live electrical cable. (Electrical cables never stay on the walls for long in a Harlin film.)
Since Deep, Harlin has delivered nothing but mutts. Driven, a 2001 Sylvester Stallone racing drama, earned back barely half of its reported $94 million budget. The box office was also dismal for Exorcist: The Beginning, Harlin's 2004 prequel to William Friedkin's 1973 horror classic. A mess of cheap shocks and bad special effects, the film at least had an interesting production history. The first director associated with the project was art-house perennial Paul Schrader (Mishima, Affliction). Deeming Schrader's film too cerebral, the production company Morgan Creek shelved his footage and called in Harlin, the anti-Schrader, to remake the picture from scratch. Nobody has accused Harlin's version of being too cerebral, but William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel and screenplay, called watching it "the most humiliating professional experience of my life." A subsequent backlash of interest in the Schrader version has persuaded Morgan Creek to release the picture after all. Titled Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist, it opens May 20.
Harlin's new film, Mindhunters, opens with a classic example of bad faith in horror-movie technique: A pretty blonde sleeps behind the wheel of a car parked in a dark woods. From out of the shadows steps a man. While spooky music plays, he lasciviously traces the shape of her cheek through the window with a gloved finger. He cocks his fist...then knocks on the window and greets her familiarly as she awakes. Phew! Turns out he's good old Christian Slater, her friend and partner in the FBI's profiler training program! And it's all downhill from there.
The fact that Mindhunters' distributors pushed back the release date nine times since its 2003 completion indicates they smell another dud. But what could that matter to Harlin, who's already at work on his next would-be blockbuster, a Viking adventure called The Northmen? The picture promises to be a challenge for Harlin, inasmuch as it will be the first time he's worked without machine guns and electrical cables.
Mindhunters opens in theaters Friday 13 and arrives at local video stores soon after.