This latest installment of Down Under Flix’s Aussiewood series chronicling the adventures and misadventures of Australian filmmakers abroad deals with Russell Mulcahy. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Mulcahy on this website – see my review of his 2003 sports biopic Swimming Upstream – but it’s my first time writing about the director’s signature action fare. Following his inventive creature feature debut Razorback (1984) and the cult success of Highlander (1986), the stalwart music video director looked to be on an upward trajectory as a filmmaker. However, Mulcahy was fired two weeks into production on the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Rambo III (1988) because he wasn’t shooting enough close-ups of its hubristic star, and the subsequent production and release of the much-maligned (and deservedly so) Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) was a ghastly, pained process. Ricochet, Blue Steel, and The Real McCoy followed those professional debacles in quick succession, and these three films feel like exercises in directorial penitence: they’re moderately budgeted, straight-down-the-line mainstream features and are largely inoffensive, discounting the innately quippy immorality of the Joel Silver era of action cinema that Ricochet slots into.
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Lithgow, Ice T, Lindsay Wagner, Kevin Pollak, Mary Ellen Trainor
Ricochet opens with rising cop Nick Styles (Denzel Washington) arresting criminal Earl Talbot Blake (John Lithgow) in the most heroic and humiliating way possible. Blake gets imprisoned, while Styles ascends through the justice system to the station of Assistant District Attorney. Blake plots a juicy revenge behind bars, and following escape from incarceration he proceeds to exacts it, pushing Styles to the brink through slander, character assassination, and psychological torment.
The opening credits for Ricochet, unfolding against a nervy, jittery Bernard Hermann-esque score by Alan Silvestri, read like a roll call of late 80s/early 90s action technicians. In addition to Mulcahy as director and Silvestri – also known for scoring The Delta Force and Predator – as composer, Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad) shares a story credit, Steven E. de Souza (48 Hours, Commando, Die Hard) has a screenplay credit, and the imprint of aforementioned producer Joel Silver (of 48 Hours, Commando, Predator, Die Hard, AND Lethal Weapon, AND all their sequels, AND their parodies The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Hudson Hawk) permeates the film. The cast is even peppered with genre support players like Jesse Ventura (Predator, The Running Man) and Mary Ellen Trainor (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon). Such a cavalcade of action movie imagineers would have a hard time making a boring film, but in Ricochet’s case the film is hobbled by its mad desperation to entertain. From its opening scenes there’s little moderation or modulation of tone: everything is equally cranked to 11, from a friendly basketball game to the initial confrontation between Blake and Styles to co-star Kevin Pollak’s Captain Kirk impressions, and the film maintains that overwrought, emphatic tone for the next hour and a half.
As indicated above, the influence of Joel Silver is fairly evident, from Ricochet‘s heavy quip and pyrotechnic quota to its aforementioned cast and crew. Mary Ellen Trainor actually reprises her Die Hard role here as journalist Gail Warrens, hence Richocet technically inhabits the same cinematic universe as Die Hard, not to mention Commando, since that and Die Hard 2 both reference the fictional country Val Verde. It’s a shame cinematic universes weren’t in vogue until Marvel, because a crossover film featuring Die Hard’s John McClane, Commando’s John Matrix, and Ricochet’s Nick Styles could have been a blast. Unfortunately, not all films in cinematic universes are created equal, and against stiff competition Ricochet is only half as good as its Silver Cinematic Universe kin. But it’s twice as ridiculous and affords Mulcahy plenty of opportunity to indulge in highly theatrical, “look at me” filmmaking, taking cues from similarly OTT precursors ranging from Raoul Walsh’s White Heat to early Sam Raimi to the director’s own Highlander. Amidst all the shenanigans, Washington is characteristically solid and Lithgow is characteristically unbridled.
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Stars: Michael Caine, Sean Young, Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm
In Blue Ice, Mulcahy’s next film and his second in a row to carry the HBO imprint, Michael Caine plays retired secret intelligence man turned club owner Harry Anders. When driving home from a funeral Harry’s car is hit by Stacy Mansdorf (Sean Young), the elegant but troubled wife of a politician. Harry and Stacy embark on a relationship, and when Stacy asks Harry to perform a minor errand this leads to altercations with the criminal fraternity, propelling Harry back into the espionage game.
Where Ricochet is Mulcahy’s funfair hall of mirrors version of a Joel Silver action joint, Blue Ice is the director’s stab at a classier romantic espionage thriller (though there’s a slither of the Silver-verse here in Michael Kamen’s score, which utilizes some of the wailing saxophone that characterized his Lethal Weapon score). Caine’s character Harry Anders originated in a number of thrillers by novelist Ted Allbeury, but it wasn’t the first ‘Harry’ the actor had played on film: in the 1960’s he played Len Deighton’s working class anti-007, Harry Palmer, in The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain (and he’d essay the role twice more later in the 1990s). If you squint, Blue Ice plays like an unofficial, alternate Harry Palmer film. The film also shares some intertextual DNA with the British crime film tradition, bolstered by the presence of Caine (of Get Carter) and Bob Hoskins (of The Long Good Friday). Blue Ice does not rival its distinguished precursors, and unfortunately for a romance-tinged thriller there’s not much chemistry between its two otherwise capable stars, but it’s decent meat and three veg entertainment. The director mostly holsters the stylistic tendencies which got a bit carried away in Ricochet, but Mulcahy gotta Mulcahy, and here and there he indulges in his pulp inclinations and woozy surrealism. Cinematographer Denis Crossan, who also lensed The Real McCoy, shoots the film in hues of blue and grey, giving it an icy look consistent with its title.
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Stars: Kim Basinger, Val Kilmer, Terence Stamp
In The Real McCoy, Kim Basinger plays super-thief Karen McCoy. Following release from prison. Karen wants to make an honest living and walk the line. But former employer Jack Schmidt (Terence Stamp) has other ideas, abducting Karen’s estranged son and forcing her to carry out a major heist.
Between 1989 and 1997, three different actors played Batman on film (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney) and three different actresses were romanced by Batman onscreen (Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Nicole Kidman; sorry Uma Thurman). And like a posse of Gotham City swingers, these different Batmen and their romantic interests also hooked up in other films: Keaton and Kidman in My Life, Clooney and Kidman in The Peacemaker, Clooney and Pfeiffer in One Fine Day, and Basinger and Kilmer, who plays Jack’s nephew and Karen’s new partner in crime, in The Real McCoy. Unfortunately, The Real McCoy is the least of these match-ups: like Blue Ice, it’s a pairing of typically capable actors unable to generate a mutual spark onscreen. It’s also, sadly, the least of these three Mulcahy films under the spotlight: while Blue Ice is best in terms of quality, and Ricochet the most entertaining, The Real McCoy is simply bland. Like Blue Ice, it’s another 1990s update on a hoary classic genre, in this case the heist film. It also puts a 90s spin on the “women’s films” of the 1930s and 40s routinely headlined by Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. On paper that’s a tantalizing hybrid of genres, but the film never hits the high or even modest notes of either genre. Ultimately, The Real McCoy is textbook functional programming: well-made, mildly diverting, and likely to evaporate pretty quickly after viewing.
Following The Real McCoy, Mulcahy would flirt with bigger budget filmmaking with 1994’s The Shadow, another unsuccessful 1990s attempt to launch a pulp period franchise ala Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, and The Phantom (directed by another Antipodean, Simon Wincer). After The Shadow’s poor reception, compounded with the low grosses of the three films discussed above, Mulcahy hasn’t had much opportunity to play with the big toys, but he remains steadily employed across both film and television. There are some nuggets and gems amongst Mulcahy’s post-The Shadow output – I quite like Swimming Upstream, and Youth on the March director Mike Retter speaks highly of 1996’s Silent Trigger – and I’m particularly enthused about his upcoming Errol Flynn biopic, In Like Flynn. To paraphrase the director’s most famous music video, direct-to-video ain’t killed this radio star.
Next time: Scobie Malone (1975) and The Sum of Us (1994)