John McTiernan has left a lot of movie fans puzzled this week after firing both barrels at modern action movies.
In a recent interview he dismissed comic book adaptations like Captain America as “movies made by fascists” and being full of “action but no human beings”. He also put the boot in to George Miller’s acclaimed Mad Max reboot and criticised the way Hollywood had been caught up in a “cult of American hyper-masculinity”.
Now, given that McTiernan’s cinematic CV includes Die Hard and Predator (a film where you can almost smell the testosterone) the criticism does seem hard to understand.
But the veteran filmmaker is actually a more thoughtful producer of action movies than he is given credit for.
Take for example Predator. Acted almost entirely by impossibly muscle-bound lunks totting unfeasibly sized weapons, few films seem to celebrate American masculinity quite as vigorously.
But if you listen to McTiernan’s director’s commentary for the film you’ll find he was more interested in deconstructing male virility.
Take for example the famous scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team mow down a swathe of jungle using machine guns after their comrade Blaine is killed.
In his commentary McTiernan says: “When I went to work on this project I had the feeling that people had a perverse fascination with guns firing, literally almost a pornographic desire.
“So I said to myself, OK, if you want pictures of guns firing I’ll give you pictures of guns firing.
“What I was really doing was taking the piss out of it, to quietly ridicule the desire to see pictures of guns firing.”
This sensitivity to the absurdity of male machismo is one of the reasons why Die Hard remains a classic of the action genre.
The film’s hero is a regular Joe. Yes, he’s a cop, but Bruce Willis isn’t rippling with muscles like The Rock and doesn’t have any Statham-esque martial arts skills. And while he has an enviable wise-cracking wit, he’s a relatable character in a way that a stiff-necked moralist like Captain America will never be.
But whether you’re a fan of comic book movies or not, the idea that McTiernan dislikes today’s action movies should not be a surprise to anyone who has seen Last Action Hero.
Ostensibly an action comedy, the film ruthlessly deconstructs the action genre, exposing its clichés, conventions and artifice. Released in 1993 it was a notorious critical and box office flop. It also left audiences, expecting a more conventional spectacular, thoroughly confused.
Now, the film is perhaps easier to understand. McTiernan has always thought critically about the tropes of action cinema and sought to subvert or remake them (Last Action Hero being his most overt effort in that direction).
It can be little wonder then that he views current blockbusters with such disdain: un-relatable characters, engaged in impossible feats, for non-real stakes, in a world with no consequences.
If only McTiernan had never made that Rollerball remake and more people might take his critique seriously.