Like the previously featured director of this column Chuck Russell, Stephen Hopkins also got his start directing an ELM ST sequel. Hopkins mark was left with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD, the first film of the series at that point to not make a huge splash at the box office. The film was fine however not as good as the previous entries but you could see a real talent emerge. Hopkins has gone on to have quite an interesting career, working with actors like Danny Glover, Bill Paxton, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kiefer Sutherland, Gene Hackman, Tommy Lee Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Idris Elba, Val Kilmer and Gary Oldman. His unique style and vision has set him aside from all the rest. Let us take a closer look at this talented individual.
Hopkins best work in my opinion is THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS, a fantastic biography of a man like no other. It does not really fall into place here on the website so I’ll just tell you all to seek it out. Looking at his more genre orientated work, there are quite a few potentials for one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
After close examination I honestly think his best would be THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS. The film is based on the true story of the building of a railway bridge in 1898. Said bridge was being built in East Africa, and the men working on the bridge fall victim to lion attacks. Two lions in particular wreaked havoc killing over a 100 people during the time. Lt. Col. John Paterson the construction engineer of the bridge and hunter Charles Remington must track the lions down and stop the killings to complete the railway. It certainly is an interesting premise, and one that does not really sound true. Killer lions? But alas readers, this story is very much true with the exception of Charles Remington, the fictional side of things. But heck having a great hunter just makes it more interesting!
From the get go the film is interesting, and it definitely hooks in the audience as well. The pacing is spot on for this kind of story and each segment is very well handled. Things do pick up once Remington (played by Michael Douglas) is introduced, but the set up for him is great. Paterson is also is a really good character and one of my favourite Val Kilmer performances. His accent is a little off, but he makes up for it with everything else he does. The film is on his shoulders for a good portion of the running time, a risk yes but it paid off. I also have to commend Hopkins for directing Michael Douglas in such a way that it does not seem like Michael Douglas. The actor is solid yes, but he never really disappears into his performances it is always apparent that you are seeing him on screen. Here however he disappears into the character and you forget who it is and just enjoy it.
The story was well told, the lions were handled respectfully and overall it works. I liked this film back when I was younger and we rented it out the first week of release and upon a re-watch it is even better. It stands the test of time and is a really entertaining flick.
In all honesty I did not even need to think twice about what his worst work is, this is one of the biggest stinkers of the 90’s and I can’t believe Hopkins had anything to do with this. LOST IN SPACE, the remake of the TV series (as was the style at the time…wait it still is) should have been a big fun adventure film. Instead what we got is a film that is difficult to sit through and awful on every level. This sits hand in hand with BATMAN AND ROBIN on the awful scale, and basically becomes a ‘so bad lets laugh ordeal’.
What went wrong? Pretty much everything, the script to begin with was clearly a set up for a series, not a good idea in case you fail, which they did. The cast were all wrong for their roles and had zero chemistry between one another. Mimi Rogers and William Hurt made for the most unconvincing couple as this was a pairing that was painful to watch. Lacey Chabert and Matt LeBlanc both starred on hit TV shows, but placing them completely out of their element was a disaster. Heather Graham was very wrong for the role and even worse than the chemistry between the parents was the chemistry between LeBlanc and Graham. Jack Johnson was an ok actor but the material did not suit him. In fact the only watchable thing in this mess was Gary Oldman, but I could watch him watch paint dry and be entertained.
At the end of the day, this film seemed doomed from the beginning. Hopkins seemed lost as to what he should have been doing and this was wrong for his talents. Another failed experiment in the TV remake subgenre, this should be used as a ‘what not to do guide’ for filmmakers and actors.
When it comes to trademarks, Stephen Hopkins I’ve noticed does not have many. Each film is much different to the next however there is always a sense of a grand scale element to everything he does. Nothing is ever small or confined, whether it be a dream world or an alien wrecking havoc on a city. The setting is always larger than life, and at times this translates to the characters themselves (Peter Sellers being the perfect example). I really love that about his work, and no matter what he is doing, it always feels like this is a big sign of respect.
Hopkins is a comic book guy; he’s a fan of the medium and quite the artist himself as his films do feel very story boarded and framed with care. There is a real sense of technique with what he is doing, and in turn this certainly makes particular scenes stand out. He has a great eye for placing actors in the right positions and locations for a scene, and the action is always clear-cut. This is very apparent with his work on the series 24, his episodes made that show during the early days; the man had an amazing knack for handling the real time events as well. Visually his work is stunning, and once you see more of his work and those techniques you can tell he is the man behind it.
There are certainly a few films that have gone under the mainstream radar that Hopkins has made. However one sticks out to me more than the others, something I think gets judged unfairly and is better than most give it credit for. I am speaking of PREDATOR 2, the film that had the crazy idea to unleash an alien in Los Angeles with voodoo thrown into the mix as well. It was a very risky move, especially taking it out of that jungle environment, but at the end of the day this is a seriously fun film. From the set up with the police and the voodoo, to the realization of a predator on the loose, this is an insane ride. It does actually take the time to set things up, and I appreciated that. But once the Predator really starts to take focus, it goes in all sorts of weird and awesome places.
To be honest when I was younger I had no idea what to think of this film, as I got older I really began to appreciate it. PREDATOR 2 was different but at the same time it still had that tension in the air. It was bloody; there really was no holding back here at all. You want to see kills? This has those in spades, some rather vicious. You want a cool cast? This damn well delivers; you got Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Ruben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, Bill Paxton Robert Davi and even Adam Baldwin all thrown in. Their performances work on different levels and I really enjoyed everyone. The setting in the city actually worked, it was gritty and quite dark in tone. It took risks and I applaud the effort, the film is under appreciated and worth giving a second chance too. Look out for the alien cameo as well.
It seems Hopkins is dipping his feet more into TV these days, and if he is attached to a film I haven’t been able to find out. I sure hope so, or that he does make something else. I really would love to see something in the vein of BLOWN AWAY or even TRAFFIC from him, films like those are sorely lacking. No matter what he works on, that medium and project is lucky to have him, and I wish him well with that.
I really do enjoy the works of Stephen Hopkins, no matter what I may find it. He’s entertaining and he seems like a stand up guy. I applaud him for the career he has had and the risks he has taken. Sometimes they don’t work out but he always knows how to dust himself off and try again. If you are unfamiliar with his work, I urge you to check this man out. There is something in his resume for everyone, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. He really is a great talent, and it is a shame that he does not get as much love. Well Stephen I am showing you love right here, good job!