The Good, The Bad & the Badass: Richard Donner

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

Last week, we took a look at the career of character actor Keith David – a tough guy in many eighties and nineties classics. This week, we go behind the camera to examine a director who gave us some of the best action cinema of that era…

Richard Donner

pierre spengler marlon brando richard donner

Richard Donner has had one of the best careers in Hollywood history. While never a household name (at least – not among the masses) Donner's been consistently delivering hit-after-hit for more than forty years, and if he ever wrote an autobiography, it would no doubt be one of the great ones. As a TV director in the fifties, he worked with Steve McQueen on “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, before working as a director on the post-Rat Pack Peter Lawford/Sammy Davis Jr vehicle SALT & PEPPER, a hit despite its less-than-stellar reviews. Nonetheless, Donner was back doing TV until he was in his mid-forties, when he finally hit the big-time directing the horror classic, THE OMEN, which was so successful Fox is still exploiting it's legacy forty-years later with the new TV show “Damien”.

the omen

The movie that arguably makes Donner one of the most important directors of his era is SUPERMAN-THE MOVIE. The fact that he took the material seriously, shooting the film as a full-on epic rather than a cheap comic-book piece of pop (something his successor Richard Lester was guilty of) set the tone for the slew of superhero movies that followed more than twenty years later. Bryan Singer was so inspired by Donner that his slavish devotion to the man's style actually became a problem with his SUPERMAN RETURNS.

richard donner danny glover mel gibson

While a multitude of issues meant Donner was fired from SUPERMAN II after shooting most of the footage (only to reconstruct it on DVD years later), he still didn't lose a beat, going on to direct the warmhearted INSIDE MOVES, as well as two adventure classics, LADYHAWKE and (everyone’s childhood favorite) THE GOONIES. His greatest success came in 1987, when he signed-on to direct LETHAL WEAPON, which made him the top action director in town, shooting three immensely successful sequels, as well as other Mel Gibson vehicles like MAVERICK and CONSPIRACY THEORY, while occasionally branching-off into comedy (SCROOGED) and drama (RADIO FLYER). Donner's never been a flashy director, being more in-line with the journeymen directors of old Hollywood, but no matter the assignment, his movies rarely failed to deliver and while he's now in his mid-eighties, I'd love to see him make a comeback (preferably with a highly unlikely fifth LETHAL WEAPON).

His Best Work

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I always flip-flop back-and-forth about whether I prefer LETHAL WEAPON 1 or 2. It usually depends on which one I've seen last, which in this case is 2. While many took issue with the fact that Donner and company softened Mel Gibson's Riggs up as the series went on, to me LETHAL WEAPON 2 struck the perfect balance between action and an increasing move towards comedy. Gibson and Danny Glover were both on-point, as was co-star Joe Pesci as the motor-mouthed Leo Getz, who would be somewhat shoe-horned into later installments. What's more – when the action kicked in, it kicked-in hard. The last act, which kills off Riggs's love interest (Patsy Kensit) and concludes with his near-death is jaw-dropping, and superior to the somewhat contrived “rain fight” between Gibson and Gary Busey in the first film. It helps that Shane Black was still on-board at this point, although disagreements with the studio over the ending (he wanted Riggs to die) meant this was the last film of the series he would be involved with.

His Most Overrated Film

richard pryor the toy

While apparently a box-office hit back in 1982, to me THE TOY is Donner's worst film as a director. An “only in the eighties” plot has Richard Pryor (shortly after his near-fatal accident) being bought by Jackie Gleason as a live-in toy for his son. It has to be one of the weirdest comedies to ever come out of Hollywood, with a slapstick ending revealing Gleason's character is raising money for the KKK, only to suddenly have him turn into a warm and cuddly curmudgeon by the time the credits roll. I can only assume this thing got mangled in post-production. Nevertheless, it was a smash-hit and a staple of TV syndication in the eighties.

His Most Underrated Film

rutger hauer michell pfeiffer ladyhawke

Donner's adventure epic, LADYHAWKE, was apparently a box-office disappointment in 1985. As a child, this was one of my favorite films, and I've always found it to be an exciting romantic epic, where lovers Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer are victims of a curse where he's a wolf by night and she's a hawk by day, meaning they can never truly be together. It has some problems, notably the Alan Parsons Project score and the fact that somehow Matthew Broderick as a pick-pocket emerges as the movie's star, but nonetheless, it's an often-ignored gem (although it gets lots of love in Ernie Cline's Ready Player One.

His Best Scene

No matter how many people wear the Man of Steel's cape, to me there will always only be one Superman, and that's Christopher Reeve, who Richard Donner deserves a massive amount of credit for discovering. Probably the most classic scene is his introduction, set to John Williams's famous theme as he rescues Margot Kidder's Lois Lane from a helicopter disaster. It's a classic movie moment.

His Five Best Films


Up Next

Donner seems to be more-or-less retired these days, which is understandable. Still, I'd love to read his memoirs or have him do one-last old school actioner with frequent producer Joel Silver.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.