Face Off: Paul Verhoeven vs. John McTiernan

In last week's Face-Off column, the WWII "men on a mission" movies INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and THE DIRTY DOZEN went up against each other, and the overwhelming consensus seemed to be that I was essentially insane for giving Tarantino's movie the edge over the Lee Marvin tough-guy classic.

With the remake of ROBOCOP stomping into theaters this week (to some less than enthusiastic reviews), let's cast the light on Paul Verhoeven, the man behind the original 1987 genre masterpiece. We'll put him against another director of outstanding action movies from the 80s and 90s, John McTiernan.
Verhoeven made his first major big-budget Hollywood movie in grand style, skewering the media and corporate politics in gleefully savage style with ROBOCOP, and then sending Arnold Schwarzenegger on an exquisitely brutal head-trip to another world in TOTAL RECALL.

After getting sex out of his system (mostly) with the smash hit erotic thriller BASIC INSTINCT, Verhoeven took his eye for propaganda and slaughter into deep space with the brilliant STARSHIP TROOPERS, followed by a sparse stretch and the underappreciated WWII spy thriller BLACK BOOK.
PREDATOR and DIE HARD are stellar (some might say perfect) examples of genre filmmaking, with the latter actually creating its own subgenre of action movies. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER launched the Jack Ryan franchise and was the director's biggest box office hit (even if DIE HARD became his most famous).

McTiernan also gave us the last decent John McClane sequel, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, and 1999's THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR was a breezy improvement on the 1968 Steve McQueen romantic thriller.
After finding success and acclaim with a number of Dutch films (several with actor Rutger Hauer), Verhoeven made his American debut with the grimy medieval sex-and-swords tale FLESH + BLOOD.

While SHOWGIRLS has somehow achieved a considerable cult following, that doesn't dismiss the fact that it's not a particularly good movie. HOLLOW MAN featured some impressive (and Oscar-nominated) special effects and an invisible Kevin Bacon causing havoc, but otherwise just turned out to be kind of a disappointing slasher flick.
Before jumping onto the A-list with PREDATOR, McTiernan got his start with the laughable Pierce Brosnan horror movie NOMADS. His MEDICINE MAN was a dreary reunion with HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER star Sean Connery, the remake of ROLLERBALL was justifiably vilified, and BASIC was a glossy but nonsensical attempt at a RASHOMON-style thriller. And at best, THE LAST ACTION HERO could be described as an interesting failure.

Coincidentally, McTiernan and Verhoeven both made a troubled and poorly received (but now admired by some) R-rated, slow-burning medieval adventure filled with mud and misery. McTiernan's was THE 13th WARRIOR, an adaptation of Michael Crichton's book EATERS OF THE DEAD. The author ultimately took over the final edit on the out-of-control production, with McTiernan's original cut likely never to be seen.
Though Verhoeven gave her a juicy part as wife-turned-villainess in TOTAL RECALL, it was Sharon Stone's seductive cooch-flashing murder suspect in BASIC INSTINCT that thrust her into stardom (which, aside from CASINO, she never really capitalized on completely).

And before Rutger Hauer began making an impression on American audiences in movies like NIGHTHAWKS, BLADE RUNNER and THE HITCHER, he got his first role on a Dutch TV series thanks to Verhoeven, who also then cast the actor in several features, including the excellent WWII film SOLDIER OF ORANGE.
The then-surprising casting of "Moonlighting" co-star Bruce Willis in DIE HARD shot him to the top of the A-list (the role was initially turned down by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Frank Sinatra, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford and Don Johnson). Alan Rickman also made quite an impact as DIE HARD's unforgettable villain Hans Gruber -- the actor's first feature film role.

Before THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, Alec Baldwin's biggest successes were BEETLEJUICE, WORKING GIRL and the primetime soap "Knot's Landing". While he never reprised the role of Jack Ryan or achieved the demand (or paycheck) of Willis, it helped make him a recognizable face and name, and he's been working steadily ever since.
Verhoeven took advantage of Schwarzenegger's cartoonish size and delivery for the splatter-filled sci-fi epic TOTAL RECALL, which pretends to be a cerebral mystery before Arnie gets his ass to Mars and causes grisly chaos before saving the Red Planet.
Remarkably enough, Arnie was nearly matched in the macho department by his supporting cast for PREDATOR, not to mention having to deal with an eight-foot-tall spaceman with a fatal hobby.

It's more than enough to forgive THE LAST ACTION HERO, an attempt to parody the hyperviolent action genre that Schwarzenegger came to symbolize. That kind of satire is best left to someone else... like Verhoeven.
At the time, the squib-loving Verhoeven was truly testing the boundaries of the R-rating with the exaggerated violence of ROBOCOP (with additional mayhem in his director's cut), TOTAL RECALL, and the pure intergalactic carnage of STARSHIP TROOPERS.
We got plenty of bullet-riddled terrorists in two DIE HARD movies, in addition to an extraterrestrial skull collector with some vicious weaponry in PREDATOR and a fair amount of gushing crimson and decapitations in THE 13TH WARRIOR.
BLACK BOOK has been Verhoeven's only feature in over a decade. The director has been attached to numerous projects, and while nothing has been officially announced, he was most recently rumored for a potential Arnie reunion on the sequel THE LEGEND OF CONAN.
McTiernan is serving a 12-month sentence in a federal minimum-security prison after years of legal entanglements regarding his alleged involvement in the Anthony Pellicano wiretapping and racketeering scandal. Though he hasn't been behind the camera since BASIC in 2003, he already has a project lined up to direct once he's released: an independently financed mercenary action movie called RED SQUAD.
I realize some may get annoyed when Face-Offs wind up in ties, but the truth is I generally just select two subjects and don't know who will end up victorious until I start actually writing my way the column. And in this case, the realization slowly dawned on me that I probably wouldn't be able to decide on a clear winner, as both directors gave us true genre classics while in the prime of their careers -- some of my favorite all-time movies!

Both filmmakers redefined the action genre in the era before CG overkill, McTiernan with his masterful pacing and explosive style, Verhoeven with his fierce pessimism and satirical sensibilities. Their finest efforts were influential and enduring to this day -- Verhoeven's popular releases have spawned a bunch of remakes, sequels and spinoffs both theatrical and direct-to-video (and some that should have been direct-to-video), and we got four more DIE HARDs and four more PREDATOR appearances after McTiernan's gems turned them into franchises.

Agree? Disagree? Which filmmaker is your favorite?



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