Tom Jolliffe looks back at the late Richard Donner’s career and pays tribute to a director who made millions fall in love with cinema…
You’ll believe a man can fly! It was the promise which preceded the release of Superman, the first major movie adaptation of a comic book character. This was a key moment. Jaws and Star Wars had begun a cinematic revolution that paved the way for the blockbuster driven schedules that fill most cinemas in the modern age. We wanted space, we wanted adventure and we wanted to believe a man could fly. In 1978 Richard Donner’s Superman delivered on its promise.
Like many kids growing up at the tail end of the 20th century, there were a number of directors that pretty much weaved a love of film into my DNA. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John McTiernan, Robert Zemeckis and Richard Donner. They revolutionised blockbuster cinema between them, or reinvented action cinema. As a kid I loved fantasy, adventure and even at a young age, the kind of action films I wasn’t supposed to watch. My Donner appreciation began, like most, with the aforementioned Superman. Alongside Star Wars and Indiana Jones, it was one of the defining hero films of the age (alongside my deep routed love of Masters of the Universe too).
Growing up in the 80’s, everyone saw Superman and the flawed franchise it spawned. Christopher Reeve became an iconic hero to many. Donner had an inherent gift to inject a sense of whimsy into every film (even his horror work, but more on that later). These were films for all. As a five year old I viewed Superman with wide-eyed awe. Later as an adult, I still get the nostalgic feeling of wonder, but whilst enjoying the irreverent humour the film also had. You start to appreciate the deft comedic skill in which Reeve played Clark Kent, as much as the chiselled, charismatic heroism of his Superman guise. As an adult I appreciated the comedic chemistry of Gene Hackman and the late Ned Beatty as Lex and Otis (Otisburg!!!???). The film deftly balanced adventure, comedy, and made us care too. It takes skill to perfectly balance those elements and to have the dramatic power to send a shiver down the spine when Superman roars in anguish later in the film, after being unable to save Lois Lane (before the whole, rewinding the Earth thing…). It’s a skill many blockbuster directors have failed to master in the modern era, with some elements ebbing away at others (comedy at the expense of grit for example). The current Marvel formula, which for the most part works, owes so much to Donner’s Superman.
When you’re young you’re not so aware of what a director is, or even their existence, beyond a quizzical wonder at those credits popping up. My awareness of directors was initially through recall. The opening credits atypically end with director and some names begin to pop up through childhood with regularity. Like Spielberg and a select few, Donner was one such name. The Goonies would become another staple of my childhood. It was a film that brought persistent enjoyment, no matter how many times I’d watch the VHS. Some 36 years and innumerable viewings later, and it still entertains. Once again, Donner wonderfully orchestrated a charming cast in a tale that gave you every emotion, and did so effectively. We’re talking about a director who seemed happy in the realms of genre and escapism and as such, never quite got the respect he deserved (like Carpenter). Donner on every technical facet around directing a picture, could and should have been recognised for major awards. Still, awards do not necessarily make iconic movies, and how many CVs are as boast-worthy as Donner’s? The Goonies, slap bang in the middle of the 80’s, was the kind of coming of age adventure film that defined the period more than any. It has something unique, that many others tried to replicate (countless films would become billed as the next Goonies) but couldn’t. Donner, apart from anything else too, never got a bad performance. A film resting on such a young cast too, could live or die on the charisma of its young cast. A huge part of the legacy is down to them being natural and likeable and a big part of that comes down to a director able to pull that from his fresh faced cast.
Ladyhawke with the late Rutger Hauer was another wonderful addition to Donner’s CV. Another childhood favourite. It’s somewhat forgotten, but unfairly so. A cracking fantasy adventure which came during a wonderful period for sword and sorcery in cinema. Then there’s Scrooged. It’s as much a Christmas staple for me as anything. Of every Scrooge adaptation, it’s my favourite and the one I come back to most. There’s a glee with which Donner throws in some macabre humour to films, and some silliness that never derails the dramatic elements. Scrooged offered a wonderful platform for Bill Murray to do his thing, in a film that is consistently and uproariously funny but will still bring a tear to the eye by the end (and it doesn’t feel maudlin). I can’t remember the last Christmas season I didn’t watch Scrooged in fact. Again, this love of the film began young and has never left. The enjoyment of some films you grow up with can wane in time, but with Donner’s staples, it never seems to happen.
A couple of films defined action cinema in my upbringing. The two biggest were Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. I was given an inherent love of buddy cop films because of Lethal Weapon. You have a great script from Shane Black and a perfect cast (then a great score from Michael Kamen/Eric Clapton). A fast, funny, buddy cop film needs bristling action, chemistry and stakes. On top of these elements, Lethal Weapon had a complicated and flawed hero in Martin Riggs, played brilliantly by Mel Gibson. He’s a great counter to the world weary cop, facing down the barrel of old age as he turns 50, in Roger Murtaugh (equally brilliant Danny Glover). Films can live or die by the direction. Someone needs to raise the levels of the cast, to pitch to their best, and to bring cohesion to every department. Lethal Weapon still remains to me, the definitive buddy cop film. The franchise it launched, all under Donner’s watch was consistently enjoyable too, even if the sequels lacked that psychological spark from the damaged Riggs in the first. Up until his passing, the rumours of a fifth film persisted. It was something I’d have been down for 100%. With Donner’s passing, it just wouldn’t feel right. It had always been increasingly unlikely given his age, but up till the end all reports suggested he seemed keen.
A little later in my teens I would begin visiting some acclaimed 70’s horror. Among those was The Omen. It wouldn’t be until the credit popped up that I, with wide eyed surprise, realised that Donner had directed this too. The film drips with atmosphere. It has a perpetual sense of dread. It lead to decades of persistent gags where the sight of any misbehaving young boy would be accompanied with some smart arse saying ‘Damien’ under their breath. In an era of great horror films, The Omen stands with the best of them. Once again, like most of Donner’s films, there’s just this underlying impish humour. A couple of the death scenes have a sense of scampish whimsy about them. Not so much that they’re playing it for laughs, but you sense that Donner is having fun orchestrating these moments he knows will get a chorus of gasps in the theatre (David Warner’s despatch in particular). I can only picture him sat with the editor, conducting the perfect timings, with a huge grin on his face.
Although Donner’s success rate would ultimately slow through the 90’s, he still had (among revisits to Riggs/Murtaugh) some enjoyable and underrated films. Assassins, which I’ve written about before, is flawed, weighted perhaps by a sagging middle, but still pretty underrated among mid-90’s action fare. For one, Stallone is on fine form, playing a variation on more haunted/introspective characters he was experimenting with in the 90’s (and probably the best version of this interchangeable variant that we saw in The Specialist and Daylight for example). He’s also pitted against Antonio Banderas who is superb. He’s on scene stealing form in the genesis of his own career as an action hero. Assassins has great set pieces, and whilst the Wachowski’s weren’t too happy with the final product, there seems to be plenty of their initial insight left in the final product. Some interesting character moments and duality they’d explore in their other earlier works. Conspiracy Theory and Maverick certainly had moments too, and all benefited from the assured hand of a master director. Donner always elevated and never negated.
Donner’s cinematic bow out also marks another film significantly underappreciated. For all its simplicity, 16 Blocks does what it says on the tin in a manner that only an action great could deliver. Donner’s age didn’t hold him back from injecting a simple concept with a consistent pace and creating an engaging dynamic between our alcoholic over the hill cop (Bruce Willis) and the mild mannered witness and low level criminal (Mos Def) he has to transport 16 blocks to testify. With a string of enemies intent on offing the witness, said cop must find the will to survive and rediscover his moral duty to get them both out alive. A lot may have been said about Willis’ questionable 21st century indifference, with a select few directors pulling the best out of him. Donner was one such and Willis was on top form here, bringing an added fallibility to the character in a period where his John McClane was becoming a caricature of indestructability. It might not have hit the levels of Lethal Weapon, but it still felt like a good way to bow out, with Donner’s directorial skill taking a simple but enjoyable concept from beginning to end with a master’s aplomb.
What’s your favourite Richard Donner film? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.