Saturday, April 11, 2009

"There Can Be Only One"

When I first really got into cinema, when I realised that it was what I was going to be interested in, when I started to take it all seriously, back then Russell Mulcahy was still a contender.
That seems silly now. It seems almost ridiculous. But this was the mid-to-late 1980s. And Cinema was different in the 80s. American cinema was dominated by bad comedies, worse action movies and cheap horrors, with the Independent movement struggling and still in its infancy. The dominant movement in World Cinema in that decade was the "Cinema du look" from France. French cinema has never shunned a bit of pure style, granted, but this was cinema where there was nothing going on but pure style. Advertising imagery had gained a currency within cinema that it would never really lose, given a push by the ubiquity of MTV, where directors were given more time to explore the same looks and moods that had previously been restricted to ten or thirty second snatches. These directors were inevitably given control of motion pictures. Russell Mulcahy was one such director.

Mulcahy is the undisputed King of the 80s Pop Music Video. The videos he made are inextricably linked in my head to the songs they accompanied. I cannot hear either "Rio" or "Wild Boys" by Duran Duran, for instance, without seeing images of Simon LeBon on a yacht and a painted girl writhing on a beach or a load of post-apocalyptic road warrior types in some sort of thunderdome filled with dry ice. Add to those "Vienna" by Ultravox, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by Buggles (the first video MTV ever played), "True" by Spandau Ballet and "I'm Still Standing" by Elton John, and you get some measure of how influential Mulcahy's visual aesthetic was in shaping the way that decade saw itself.
So what was that aesthetic? Well, it was a profoundly slick and glossy vision of a world which was beautifully and precisely photographed. It was thrillingly cinematic, at least when encountered in the form of a music video. It was carefully designed, and nicely lit. It was empty.

In the 80s, that frankly didn't matter all that much. Mulcahy was a competent, frequently inspired technician. He had an eye for an arresting image. The choir with the glowing white eyes in the Bonnie Tyler video are creepy, startling and strangely beautiful. He could shoot a bright, nicely choreographed dance routine with a modicum of style and colour. "Wild Boys" may just be the most insane, ridiculous pop promo ever. How to describe it? How about: in a vast hanger filled with columns of fire and platforms of metal and a steel pyramid and a dark pool of water, a dance troupe perform in one corner amidst a sea of schooldesks. Meanwhile, Simon LeBon is tied to a Metal Windmill as it circles, periodically dunking him headfirst in the water. John Taylor is strapped to a car, turned on its end. Clips of Barbarella and horror films I couldn't identify play on gigantic screens throughout the dark space. Dry ice swirls everywhere. Men somersault from trapdoors over jets of flame. Other men with tales and forked tongues cavort half-naked on the floor. Other men wear metal wings and circle above. A giant animatronic head spits fire and turns from side to side. Everybody is dressed in rags and warpaint or in leather strapping. LeBon finally falls into the water, whereupon he is attacked by a swine-creature with big teeth, no eyes and tiny arms, which lives in the water. He escapes, because he is the singer. An extra is not so fortunate. It is all absolutely bugshit crazy:

But somehow Mulcahy pulls it off. The song was even his idea, since he was trying to get a film version of William S. Burroughs' book "The Wild Boys: A book of the Dead" off the ground, and had suggested to LeBon that the group could provide the soundtrack. He saw this video as a sort of trailer, and as such, it cost a then-unheard-of £1 Million to make on Pinewood's 007 Stage. All of this suggests just how influential he was at that time, and how sure of his vision. He was obviously adept enough to work in features, and indeed he already was. His "Razorback" (1984) is a taut and relatively nicely shot pulpy piece of Ozploitation with a streak of insanity running through it that acted as his Hollywood calling card. But his first real success came with "Highlander"(1986), a sci-fi action potboiler which now seems an intrinsically 1980s product despite its longevity as a franchise on film and TV.

Its flaws are not entirely Mulcahy's fault - but then nor are its strengths. He has a weakness for crane and dolly shots, and he just can't abandon those pop promo touches, but the script is frequently creaky, and Christopher Lambert is so wooden and awful that even Sean Connery pouring on the finest ham cannot make the casting balance. Especially when their accents are taken into account - Connery playing a Spaniard but making no attempt at an accent, Lambert playing a Scot and essaying a poor brogue. But Mulcahy's ambition does undo him in numerous scenes - there are sloppy cuts and bad framing choices which make it seem like the production ran out of money. Clancy Brown's villainous Kurgan is good value, and Mulcahy pulls off a couple of decent action scenes, and in the 80s, that seemed to be all that mattered. The film is a cult classic of sorts, by now. But it got worse, much much worse. "Highlander 2: the Quickening" (1991) makes the original look like a masterpiece. A horrendous, incoherent mess of a sequel that contradicts much of the original and crowbars Connery in for less than ten minutes of highly paid screentime, filled with bad acting, worse scripting and tedious action, it was a massive and deserved flop. Mulcahy issued his own, reportedly quite different (though not much better) "Renegade Cut", and then the whole thing was ignored by all of the subsequent Highlander films and TV shows, as if it was the Star Wars Christmas Special. Thats how bad it is. So bad its almost good bad.

But Mulcahy had moved on, seeking a mainstream career. "Ricochet" (1991) is, in its way, a perfect example of an early-90s action thriller. Tasteless, formulaic, ultra-violent, misogynistic and utterly empty, Mulcahy made it as flashy as he could and trusted in his classy leads (Denzel Washington and John Lithgow) to make it work. Lithgow is hilarious, enjoying himself as the villain, but Denzel is somewhat stranded, his usual brand of realist repressed emotion incongruous in such a gaudy fantasy world. Mulcahy was losing some of his Music video credibility and seemed increasingly like some sort of poor man's Tony Scott. His next movies only increased this journeyman status. "Blue Ice" (1992) is a drab London noir starring a bored Michael Caine. It could almost have been made by anyone. As could the equally generic "The Real McCoy" (1993), a confused caper with Kim Basinger and Val Kilmer that runs out of steam about halfway through and never recovers. "The Shadow" (1994) would seem to have been the perfect opportunity for Mulcahy to reassert the importance of visual style in his career, but instead it plays as if somehow castrated; never quite stylish enough, never quite dark enough, never going far enough in its design or story choices. The titular character is one of the great pulp creations of the 20th Century. Mysterious, frightening and visually bold, he should have been a natural for a film. Yet the chance was fudged, the iconography wasted, the Shadow barely a presence in his own movie. Mulcahy was still capable of an eye-catching sequence, a stunning shot here or there, but he was no longer the hot young director who had been so influential almost a decade before. And none of these films was a success. Mulcahy's chance had gone.

Over the next decade or so his career was a mess. He directed further generic feature films ("Resurrection" (1991), "Swimming Upstream" (2003)), many TV movies ("On the Beach" (2000), "The Lost Batallion" (2001)) and pilots and episodes for a variety of Television dramas ("Queer as Folk", "Jeremiah", "The Hunger"). Then, in 2007, Paul W Anderson gave him a "Resident Evil" sequel to direct. Seeing his name on that project was the first time I had even thought about Mulcahy in years. And thinking about Mulcahy, I was interested in a Resident Evil film for the first time, perhaps just out of nostalgia. Not interested enough to actually bother to see it, but you have to start somewhere. Mulcahy went back to TV movies.

But he has a forthcoming Feature in the can. "Give Em Hell, Malone" is a Private Detective Action movie starring Thomas Jane. From the promo trailer it looks like its semi-period, but not entirely. It also looks like a lot of pulpy schlocky fun. And Jane, one of the few American leading Men of his generation capable of playing old-fashioned masculinity convincingly, is almost always worth catching. And here, he gets to wear a hat and wave a revolver around. And the trailer begins with a Mulcahy crane-shot. Interrupted by a body flying out of a window. For all that he is now revealed as the hack with a sporadically nice eye he always was, its good to see Mulcahy back with decentish budgets and name actors. Where he belongs. Bringing dry ice back to the mainstream, hopefully...

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Blogger Monsterwork said...

That looks like...I dunno. It looks YouTube. Like it's not even a film, it's something some dudes made just for YouTube. Some students. Some stoners. It looks Bad Taste cheap.

R.M. should make a video for Neon Neon.

11:51 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Yeah, its not a proper trailer, more a reel of dailies cut together and leaked. The thing that freaked me out when I watched it was the mix of period trappings with modern cars and street furniture. Really dislocating. Plus the cheaper than cheap font on the titles. Ugh.

...But Thomas Jane is in it.

There really needs to be a Directors Series DVD on Mulcahy.

1:17 am  
Blogger Ross said...

30s/40s suit, 50s car, 80s van and a 21st century Japanese girl.

Jane and Aaron Eckhart are the more old school masculine types, and it's little coincidence that they're so similar.
This looks like it could be fun, or a little too messy like Shoot Em Up was.

Highlander lies with Terminator 2 and Lock, Stock for me: films which baffle me in their popularity.
I never 'got' them when they were released and still don't now, but they're lauded over time and time again. It's like I missed a meeting.
Highlander never stood out amongst a wealth of trashy 80s B actioners, T2 was a hugely empty string of set pieces and cgi-gasm and Lock, Stock a big fucking joke that isn't funny.

And thus ends my scathing critique of cod-lad culture cult cinema.

There really doesn't need to be a Directors Series DVD on Mulcahy.

9:19 pm  

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