Action/reaction: John McTiernan
John McTiernan (mubi.com)
"We hit nothing..." (heyuguys.co.uk)
"Just a fly in the ointment..." (nash-media.blogspot.com)
A major shift in action cinema during the last decade has seen tighter framing, provocatively loose hand-held camerawork and faster cutting used in the presentation of the fight and chase scenes that are the staple of such films. And yet enthusiasm for this ‘more realistic’ approach is now turning to criticism, with industry figures, audiences and critics suggesting that these techniques have reached a stage where coherence is slipping away and excitement, far from increasing, is being replaced by frustration and even boredom.
Within this debate the work of one director on three consecutive films from the late 1980s is increasingly being cited as a moment of clarity, a reference point for when action thrilled but character still led and the two fused seamlessly in service of the story.
John McTiernan’s direction of Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) is a lasting testament to the power of action and reaction, motion and emotion and dialogue between actor, camera and viewer. Memorable, visceral and beautiful, each film also contains a certain weight of drama. The genuine suffering of John McLane through glass, air and lead, the dismay of Dutch’s men when facing not one but two implacable foes and the terrifying implications of the dangerous game played by Marko Ramius and Jack Ryan ensure that action always carries consequence.
It might be considered McTiernan’s good fortune to have arrived in Hollywood when the action film was moving from B-movie filler to tightly-conceptualised, generously-funded prestige project, but it was his ability to bring a specific personal aesthetic to the scripts emerging from this change that propelled him to the front rank of the genre. A close consideration of location and a liquidity in his camera moves were paramount, but McTiernan achieved this whilst retaining a strong link to reality and acknowledging a cinematic legacy of craft and physicality.
More than twenty years later, the logic of action film-making appears to have disintegrated. Studios acquire the latest computer game or toy to franchise; the director becomes nominal, an anonymous figurehead for disposable product; visual content is formulated on a graphics tablet and parsed mercilessly on a keyboard.
All three of McTiernan’s films were critically and financially successful and remain touchstones of their type. It is therefore worthwhile to pause, rewind and examine what used to be, why, and what, perhaps, might come again.
John Campbell McTiernan, jr was born in 1951 in New York state. He attended the Julliard School of performing arts and was one of the first to graduate from the American Film Institute’s prestigious Conservatory. After directing many television commercials, McTiernan’s overture in the world of features was the assured Nomads (1986), a low-budget independent psychological drama/horror that he also wrote. It starred Pierce Brosnan – a near contemporary of McTiernan’s – as the Irish actor was ending his involvement in the popular television series Remington Steele. Though not a success, the film’s unsettling atmosphere and stylish visuals signalled promise.
Seeking more commercial work, McTiernan read a science-fiction action drama script by the Thomas brothers, at that point titled Hunter, concerning a member of an alien warrior race whose visit to Earth brings him into conflict with a military special forces team in Central America. Attracted to its possibilities McTiernan agreed to direct, clearly not phased by the step up to a multi-million dollar production for the vast Twentieth Century Fox studio with emerging star Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role as the team’s commander, Dutch. McTiernan also embraced the film’s challenging visual and creature effects, potentially troublesome foreign jungle location and inexperienced local crew.
Initial filming took place in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in 1986. Shrewdly, McTiernan surrounded himself with experienced colleagues, including Australian cinematographer Donald McAlpine, and even cast actor and then-jobbing screenwriter Shane Black in order to have a writer always on set. Black – who would later write Lethal Weapon – created lines for the new film whilst McTiernan himself modified the Thomas script in places. Its original ending was excised for budgetary reasons at McTiernan’s request (it would return in the sequel, Predator 2).
Tensions between McTiernan and veteran second unit director Craig R. Baxley, discussed in more detail later, caused difficulties. The shoot was then suspended after the abject failure of the first creature concept, with McTiernan driving its replacement via Stan Winston, acclaimed for his work on The Terminator. The inevitable studio concern over this hiatus as well as caution surrounding McTiernan’s lack of experience added to the pressure on the director. Filming resumed in 1987 with production moving to Palenque; both McTiernan and McAlpine, who McTiernan credits with much of the success of the finished film, dismissed the terrain there as inadequately representative of real jungle but had little choice in the matter.
Despite these difficulties the finished film, renamed Predator, was a massive box office hit. It also confirmed McTiernan’s directing talent, seen in supple camerawork intertwining with an immersive environment and highly original adversary, a richly envisioned character in its own right and not simply a monster.
The captivating pre-credits sequence sets out McTiernan’s economic but elegant approach. In a single fluid shot, combining whip-pan and tilt-up, the predator’s ship enters Earth’s atmosphere. McTiernan establishes a coherent geography, staying with the entry body of the ship and letting the booster disappear off-screen, trusting the audience to ‘get it’. The opening sequences in the jungle follow the team’s helicopter flight from their coastal base. In both, one of the keys to McTiernan’s directing style is revealed. He keeps his camera continually in motion, its penetration and constant exploration of the three-dimensional space that is his shooting environment always pushing our viewpoint – us – and the plot forward.
McTiernan deploys his actors with a similarly acute awareness of the depth and breadth of the widescreen Panavision frame, ensuring movement and interest is created within the scene. It is this coupling together of movement of camera and actors that, whether in jungle canopy or ocean depths, office block or submarine, induces a powerful sense of being there. And, in a point whose importance cannot be overstated, he does this whilst always ensuring the viewer is solidly bound to and acutely aware of that environment and its nuances.
McTiernan thus achieves a kind of bullet time where our viewpoint floats freely but our understanding is always locked in.
Further into the mission, McTiernan sets up the first action set piece of the film as the team encounters the guerrilla encampment. This is strikingly revealed to us in a single sinuous travelling shot that follows the lead character’s actions over the next minute.
We begin on Dutch – looking out of frame, over our left shoulder – silently dispersing his men through hand signals; without shifting his gaze, and in one graceful movement, he hands his rifle to a comrade, receives a pair of binoculars in return, drops to his belly and crawls forward to a ledge of ground, the camera moving down too, tilting down and tracking to follow him, pushing up with him and finally revealing the camp, before actually pressing forward a little, beyond the ledge, to simulate the intensity of Dutch’s view through the binoculars.
It’s a brilliantly conceptualised shot – like Dutch, we come to the situation anew and can only see what he sees, as he sees it – that immediately engages us in the action to come. And, like Dutch, despite seeing little of the opposition and not knowing the ground ahead, we understand completely what is about to happen, how and why. Overcoming the constraints of the location and studio concerns over budget, McTiernan here used an expensive and hard-to-emplace camera crane with remote-controlled head, unusually exploiting its capacity for horizontal movement and a low viewpoint rather than its vertical range.
Much of the camp attack itself was shot by Baxley and special effects co-ordinator Al Di Sarro, who had worked together on television series The A-Team. McTiernan has been dismissive of the “static” style of shot the pair produced, with locked-off cameras and slow motion stunt falls, and so sandwiched between their scenes are far more energetic sequences directed by McTiernan himself.
Thus Dutch and his men move through the camp, shooting as they go, and the camera walks with them, sometimes in front, sometimes behind. In the same shot a lead actor and extras appear, guns fire, impact hits are seen and the extra falls. Though hand-held, what the camera sees and records is always perfectly legible whilst still being compelling. You are there, to a degree not seen before. It is real.
We also see how each character can be additionally identified by his firearm, most obviously Blain’s Minigun. Ironically, McTiernan disapproved of the fetishisation of weaponry in films in this way and intended the later scene in which the surviving members of Dutch’s team open fire at the jungle in an attempt to kill the predator but hit nothing as a way of delivering “exactly the opposite of what I believe I was being hired to sell”.
Immediately after the attack, McTiernan uses camera mobility in a very different way to indicate the agility of the predator. Already unnerved by the mysterious high-angle ‘predator-vision’ that has observed Dutch’s team throughout, we are shocked by its unexpected dive down to the jungle floor to examine the aftermath of the battle. This shot is later neatly echoed by an equally impressive and brilliantly extended rise, rise, rise along a vine and up into the trees to discover a body. For McTiernan, the term ‘camera move’ is to be taken literally.
McTiernan explains his constant drive is to ensure that “more than one shot [is] hooked together, or the camera moves somewhere or it’s one image leading to another.” So even where no actual camera motion occurs, rack focus, actors’ movements and careful editing combine to imbue scenes with a sense of this. During the assault, a character in the deeply-focused background signals to one in the foreground, who nods and acts; in a pause after, a single shot begins on a figure well to the rear, tilts down, dollies back and then tilts down again to alight on a small detail. Elsewhere, the camera’s focus jumps in quick steps to illustrate a character’s realisation that a blood trail has been left by the alien and may lead to it.
This intimate linking of audience, character and scene occurs again as Mac slithers, twists and burrows himself into his hideaway, in grim parody of a child playing hide and seek, and we feel the slap of branches and leaves against him. Severe up-angle shots suddenly reveal the predator, foreshortened to emphasise its otherness, and mark his demise.
McTiernan also clearly values moments of stillness, “shots that sustain”, as he describes them. These provide the necessary calm before sudden, explosive action, and are found in all three films. In Predator especially, a genuine atmosphere of unease is achieved simply through long-lens contemplations of tree branches that dare the observer to find something, as the team begin to suspect. “What do you see?” asks a character of his colleague, and McTiernan of us.
At the climax of the film’s second act, Dillon confronts the creature (and himself) in a sequence of hypnotic power that reveals a shot whose specific mechanics must be considered McTiernan’s signature, for it appears in each of the three films discussed.
As the predator circles an aghast Dillon, a succession of shots has actor Carl Weathers turning in one direction whilst McTiernan’s camera moves in the opposite direction, culminating in his death. This spiralling duet of camera and subject might be felt to set up the cinematic equivalent of the Classical sculptural technique called contrapposto. This brought dynamic movement to