Joel Silver is one of the most successful, recognizable and prolific film producers of the past thirty years. Throughout his career, he produced dozens of movies, earning more than $13 billion worldwide, including some of the most beloved franchises in cinema. Throughout the eighties and nineties, he pretty much reinvented the action and sci-fi genre respectively, while at the same time kicking off careers of several bona fide movie stars. While so far we’ve been dissecting folks more deeply involved in the creative process, such as directors and actors, it’s about time producers got some love too. Let’s get it on.
While it’s always tough to zero in on a single work of any filmmaker and call it their “best”, in this case it’s probably best to throw in the towel before even getting in the ring. If you need to ask why, here’s a select couple of titles produced by Silver in the eighties alone: COMMANDO, LETHAL WEAPON, DIE HARD, PREDATOR, 48 HRS... The list goes on and the man didn’t slow down in the nineties either. THE MATRIX, anyone? At first I actually planned to cheat my way out of choosing just one and pick several “best works”, but then again – what’s the point? They’re all brilliant films, you know that and I sure as hell know that. So, having said that, I decided to go with the one that affected me the most. And while PREDATOR is an all around awesome film and easily one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best, DIE HARD is a staple in the action genre that launched Bruce Willis into star status and THE MATRIX revolutionized many aspects of movie making, I’d have to go with the original LETHAL WEAPON.
It’s just such an all-around fun, engaging and memorable action flick – it’s got stellar action sequences that actually look and feel real thanks to some incredible stunt work, an enthralling pace, as well as just enough humor and light-heartedness, all expertly balanced out. While it didn’t necessarily break any new ground per se, as there’s been plenty of buddy cop movies before, LETHAL WEAPON took the basic formula and ran with it. Of course, it wouldn’t have worked as well as it did if it wasn’t for the stellar cast. The on-screen pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover was simply a match made in action movie heaven. While both were well-established actors at this point (Gibson was just done with the MAD MAX trilogy, while Glover had several notable performances in Oscar-nominated films like THE COLOR PURPLE under his belt), it was LETHAL WEAPON that fully established them as pop-cultural icons. Their on-screen chemistry lead to create two of the most memorable and likable characters in cinema history. Gibson especially was given a chance to develop as an actor, giving a performance that ranged from emotionally intense to charmingly funny - which would become his trademark for years to come. I don’t know about you, but to this day, when I hear Gibson and Glover, I think Riggs and Murtaugh. Last but not least, the movie laid down the foundations to one of the best and most consistent movie franchises.
As with any producer, no matter how successful, for every couple of hits there’s bound to be a miss. In this case, while there are several Silver-produced movies that may have been lackluster or disappointing, the dubious honor of the one that sucks the most ass must go to DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Before we get to the movie itself, I’ll give its creators some credit – adapting the most well known pen-and-paper role-playing game to the big screen was a clever attempt to steal Peter Jackson’s thunder and bring sword and sorcery back into theaters before THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It’s just too bad that the whole thing backfired like an old clunker with a dead cat stuffed in the tailpipe.
Alright, truth be told, Silver only worked as executive producer on this one, but the mere fact that he was involved with such a tremendous train wreck is probably the biggest stain on his resume. I honestly don’t even know where to start... The writing and acting in this movie are so terrible, it’s almost surreal. It’s like watching a bad spoof of the genre without the jokes, or a fantasy-tinged porno with all the banging cut out. About half an hour into the flick you start feeling like you’ve entered some twisted Twilight Zone dimension, where people communicate by waving their arms around and not making any sense. The most shocking thing about the film is that it actually has one hell of a cast, but to say they were misused is akin to saying Kim Jong-il was a somewhat unpleasant individual. Jeremy Irons overacts to such bizarre heights, you’d think whatever they doped him with to actually be in this movie hasn’t worn off yet, while Thora Birch delivers the most comically apathetic performance of her career. Then there are Justin Whalin and Marlon Wayans playing a wisecracking duo ripped straight out of some shitty teen comedy and Bruce Payne wearing blue lipstick for some reason. It all comes across almost Ed Wood-esque and I’m not even kidding – at several points throughout the film, the actors actually look straight into the camera and address the audience. Who the f*ck thought that was a good idea? If I were to praise this movie for anything, I guess I’d go with consistency, because the production values are just as laughable as everything else. You’ve seen better CG, make up and set design in an episode of Xena or a SyFy original. The flick allegedly had a budget of $45 million, which admittedly isn’t THAT much for this type of movie, but nowhere is that kind of money visible on the screen. The first LORD OF THE RINGS movie only had twice that budget. Watch that and put on ‘DUNG &DRAG’ right after. I rest my case.
There’s a lot to be said about Hollywood producers not liking to take risks, constantly pushing to tone down movies in order to get a more box office-friendly rating and favoring sequels of remakes of reboots, while being generally reluctant when it comes to original material. However, none of the above can really be attributed to Silver. Let’s take the rating angle, for example – the man pretty much reinvented the action genre in the eighties in a gloriously violent fashion. It would have been very easy (and tempting as hell, I’m sure) to shave off that edge, take out the blood and boobs, have Arnie blast away dozens of baddies off camera or make Mel say “dang” in order to widen the audience. But the man clearly understood that these movies warranted all those elements and to water them down would be equivalent to diluting their unique style. He took a risk and it paid off big time.
Same with the reluctance to working on original material – not the case with Silver. Sure, the man has produced tons of sequels, but they were all sequels to his previous films. Throughout his entire career, very rarely did he take an earlier work from someone else and simply feed off that. One of the best examples showcasing the size of the producer’s cojones is THE MATRIX. Just picture yourself as a successful movie producer. One day, you are contacted by two relatively inexperienced unknowns, who have this completely outlandish idea for a sci-fi flick and it’s going to take place in this dreamlike environment and people will jump across skyscrapers but there’s also robots with tentacles and they need $60 million to do it. Sure, knowing what we know today most of us would yell “Do it! It’ll be great!” and threw money at them, but back then, committing to such a risky enterprise took brass balls. But that’s Silver for you – he just has one hell of a nose for that stuff. And yes, he did continue to milk the franchise for two financially successful if unnecessary sequels, but that was just building upon his own well-deserved success.
Another interesting aspect to Silver’s career, and one that not that many people are aware of, is his outspokenness and frequent altercations with studio execs, which has lead him to be banned from working on several studio lots. In fact, when he played a parody of himself in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, he had to sneak onto the set incognito due to his previous run ins with Disney. Last but not least, he’s one of the few producers to actually have a specific, recognizable ‘image’, with his imposing stature and penchant for brightly colored attires.
It’s hard to point out a ‘hidden’ gem within a body of work than consists mostly of blockbusters, but let’s consider it a chance to discuss Silver’s forays into our beloved horror genre. While the man is better known for producing action than horror, he did branch out in 1999, creating (along with Robert Zemeckis and Gilbert Adler) Dark Castle Entertainment – a division of Silver Pictures devoted to scary movies. Unfortunately, Silver’s input into the genre has been largely hit and miss. To name a few – THIRTEEN GHOSTS had great SFX and make up but lacked an engaging story and scares, GHOST SHIP had a kick-ass opening sequence, but other than that it was largely forgettable, while GOTHIKA and remakes HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and HOUSE OF WAX were far too derivative to be truly interesting.
Having said that, there’s one little gem of a horror flick produced by Silver that I feel deserves this spot. That flick is Jaume Collet-Serra’s ORPHAN. While the movie has its detractors, I honestly don’t find much fault with it. The acting’s great, which is especially noteworthy considering that half of the cast is made up of child actors – getting a natural, believable performance from an eight year old is far from a given and if not handled right, can easily ruin a movie. Not the case here. The young actors do a terrific job, with Isabelle Fuhrman owning every scene she’s in. The script has its weaker moments and the tone shifts drastically towards the end, transitioning from slowly building tension straight into batshit crazy overdrive, but as a whole, it’s a very effective crazy kid flick. Easily up there with films like MIKEY and THE GOOD SON.
Silver’s career saw an interesting turn this year. Having ended his 25-year partnership with Warner Bros, the producer signed a 5-year deal with Universal. This time, however, he will be on his own when it comes to financing and he will also take the hit whenever one of his movies loses money. On the flip side, this new arrangement gives Silver a level of creative freedom rarely experienced in the industry. It remains to be seen if this bold move will allow the producer to relive the glory days of the eighties and the nineties. The next project we’ll see from him in the hearest future will be THE APPARITION – another genre flick created under the Dark Castle banner. The debut directorial feature from Todd Lincoln stars Ashley Greene and will hit theaters on August 24th.
Here’s the synopsis:
The supernatural thriller follows a young couple haunted by a supernatural presence unleashed during a college experiment.
Even though the 2000s weren’t nearly as good for Silver as the 1980s and 1990s, I would be far from dismissing him as having his best years behind him. While matching the level of success achieved with his earlier productions would prove one hell of a challenge, I’m sure many people said the same thing back in 1998, right before THE MATRIX blew up in our faces. I say – don't count him out yet. I know I'll be interested to see what he cooks up in the next five years and hopeful to be blown away once more.