Director Spotlight: Peter Hyams

This is a new series I will begin to devote some time to in the future. Oftentimes I get on a tangent about a director I just absolutely love while doing a review and end up spending more time talking about the director rather than the actual film itself. So here I will spotlight directors I feel don't get the credit or love they deserve.

Peter Hyams is a tremendously underrated director. He's tackled nearly every genre, nearly hitting the mark every time. He's directed films you may not even realize he was responsible for, and there may be several of his that you like, but never knew they were from the same director because he shifts genre's so often that you'd never put two and two together. But one thing is certain, he never wavers from his very specific visual style. They all "look" the same, and in an industry where directors constantly shift their approach and style, it's pretty refreshing. When he's on fire, he displays a very specific look to his films, an aesthetic that is awesomely consistent, and when you look at his career and track record, it's hard to believe that with so many films and so many different genre's, he's never changed his visual style in all that time. It's also important to note that he's one of the very few directors who also acts as his own Director of Photography/Cinematographer, meaning he has full control over every single shot.

I'm not going to bore you by naming every single film he's ever done, rather I'll touch on the ones I personally enjoy and love. I guess you can say I'd always been a fan of his without ever really knowing it. I love his films, and when I sit back and list them all, I can now understand why.

Outland (1981)
This is probably the first film I saw of his that really stood out and made me take notice of who actually directed it. It's a shockingly underrated science fiction thriller that delivers the goods tenfold. Visually, it's some of his best work, and the fact that it was made in the early 80's only adds to the films incredible overall aesthetic. It's been referred to as a sort of High Noon set in space, and I can see that. For me, it's pretty much a great thriller that just happens to be set in space, offering some outstanding effects work and a great cast. There isn't a single thing lacking in this film that I would add. It boasts a pretty great cast led by Sean Connery as a by-the-book officer newly assigned to a space station where a new drug is killing people. Incredible practical effects and a constant sense of tension elevate this above most of the sci-fi films of this time. It's just a great film all around and the blu ray is absolutely worth a purchase.

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
Here's another highly underrated sci-fi tale that I would go so far as to call a masterpiece. When I revisited this one recently, I was immediately enthralled by how strong it was as a film, and while a sequel to an already certified classic, still manages to live up to that reputation. You can't really compare the genius of Kubrick to the genius of Hyams, but as it's own film, it's pretty spectacular, offering up ample amounts of intensity as a thriller, and copious amounts of intelligence as a smart science fiction film. Of course, I think the best thing this film has going for it is it's incredible visuals, and again, being the early 80's, the design of everything is just amazing, but one thing that 2010 does and does well is make sense. As a sequel to a film that most people found utterly confusing, Hyams and author Arthur C. Clarke do a fantastic job of explaining the events of the first film so that it makes actual sense, and allows the events of this film to unfold in a more comprehensible manner. Another one of his films you can get very cheaply on blu ray and a must have for your collection.

Running Scared (1986)
After 3 consecutive thrillers, Hyams dipped his toes into the comedy genre with this highly successful and underrated action comedy. There are a lot of reasons why this one works so well. For starters, the script is pretty sharp, and does a fine job mixing action and thriller elements into the mix. The duo of Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines really make the film as successful as it is; they really play off each other exceedingly well. But what really puts it all together so well for me is Peter Hyams' solid direction. He infuses the film with a grittiness that you wouldn't normally expect from an action/comedy, but does it in a way that it works effectively well. One of the things I liked about this was seeing Billy Crystal semi-serious and handling the action like a seasoned pro. Seeing him shooting a gun, doing stunt-work and pretty much not being funny was refreshing. Running Scared is also a ton of fun from beginning to end, and if you're as old as I am, then Michael McDonald's "Sweet Freedom" theme song will make your day.

The Presidio (1988)
Here's one that I only barely got around to for the first time just about a year or so ago, and honestly, I kinda loved it. It's a very simple and straight-forward thriller about an investigation into a series of murders and a detective (Mark Harmon) and a colonel (Sean Connery) who do not get along but must work together to try and solve them. Like I said, pretty straight-forward stuff, and it is, but it's also pretty riveting and highly entertaining if you're in the mood for this kind of stuff. And me, I'm always down for a solid 80's thriller, and The Presidio does not disappoint. Again, it's all anchored by Hyams' solid direction and ability to give the film a consistent style that's both slick and gritty. On the surface, this could easily have been passed over to Made-for-TV territory, but Hyams delivers a thriller with all the bells and whistles, in effect, delivering a film that looks and plays out bigger than it actually is. Today it probably wouldn't be a film that would make it into theaters, only because we live in such a different era and unless they know for a fact that it's going to make them money, then they usually just pass these off to the DTV market or streaming sites. The Presidio is worthy of your time. There's nothing remarkable about this film in general, but sometimes that's okay.

Stay Tuned (1992)
Man, there's just not enough praise I can give this obscure hidden gem. It's so bizarre, and yet it's so awesome at the same time. Sure it helps that it's set in the 80's, but it's also highly clever, even if the story is a bit bonkers. When a lazy tv-obsessed family man is sucked into the tv by servants of hell, he must try and find his way back home. Through his journey we see a plethora of random and popular television shows and movies that have been spun with an evil twist, which are just hilarious. There's really no other way to describe this other than it's just a lot of fun, spirited, and very endearing. Seeing John Ritter in a starring role was icing on the cake, and a sad reminder of how we lost a real talent and legend. I think what will surprise a lot of people that surprisingly, this also works as one of Hyams' most visually impressive films. I know, strange since it's a comedy that didn't do very well or even hit theaters, but trust me, it's full of really clever sight gags and inventive camerawork that keep it refreshing throughout. I really can't get enough of this film. It's remarkable in such a quirky and unconventional way. You really just can't "not" have a great time with this one.

Timecop (1994)
Timecop would be the first of his one-two punch of Van Damme films back to back, and 2 of Van Damme's better films I might add. Based on a comic from Dark Horse Comics, Hyams takes the action/sci-fi story and adds a touch of class to the entire thing. Sadlly, this was around the beginning of Van Damme's downward spiral both in his personal life and box office appeal due to constant drug use and personal problems. There are films around these years where it's painfully evident, but luckily doesn't show up here. Though the film is enjoyable, it never really achieves the level of awesome it could, and that's largely due to an uneven script. Hyams once again delivers a great looking film, and Van Damme does a fine job in a film that relies less on his physical abilities this time around. Not a standout per say, but a very entertaining film, and one of Van Damme's better and more competent films.

Sudden Death (1995)
Of the 2 collaborations between these two, I love Sudden Death the most. It's nothing outstanding or remarkable or anything, but if you're in the mood for a solid Die Hard style action flick, then you just can't go wrong with this highly underrated Die Hard clone. In fact, of all the "Die Hard in a..." style films out there, of which there are plenty, I found this to be one of the best ones. I'm still not really sure why it doesn't get much love. It's a pretty badass and fun "terrorist takes siege of an arena" action film that has ample amounts of solid action, thrills, stunts, and once again, Hyams delivers some outstanding visuals that gives the film a professional look that most of these types of films are sorely missing. There really were so many of these films around this time, so I guess I can see how some just got lost in the mix. I actually think it's one of Van Damme's best films, and one that oftentimes gets overlooked. It's a great action film if you give it a chance.

The Relic (1997)
Surprisingly, this was a film I only barely saw for the first time just a few months ago. I'm not really sure why either. I love Hyams, and the fact that he's doing a monster film should have been the clencher, but I guess something about the whole thing just didn't click with me, so I never really actively sought it out. Too bad too because it's actually a very good film, and a big departure from most of his other films. Taking place primarily in a museum, the film utilizes it's dark setting to great effect. It always seems like there are never enough lights on, so the film is literally really dark. Lots of work with shadows and empty voids of darkness heighten the thrills and intensity significantly. Plus, seeing Tom Sizemore in a lead role as the grumpy, moody, smartass detective investigating a series of murders in the museum is always a thrill. The film itself is solid, and a welcome entry into the monster movie genre. What works for the most part is that Hyams combines both practical and digital effects, rather than just sticking with CGI, which is what most people would have done. He also keeps the beast in the shadows, so you never get a clear look at him till the end, which works really well for both the story and effects work. Had the monster been front and center for the entire ride, then you'd see some very 90's looking CGI that don't hold up very well today. Even still, that's kept to a minimum, thankfully, and the film as a whole is pretty fun, dark, violent, and thrilling.

1997 And Beyond

Sadly, this was Hyams' last great film in a stellar career. While he continued to direct up until 2013, nothing after The Relic ever matched his diverse and quality output from earlier in his career. Films like Schwarzenegger's lackluster and sometimes odd End of Days, the odd kung fu/swashbuckling The Musketeer, and a few more that no one remembers. He took a 4 year break before reteaming with Van Damme again for Enemies Closer in 2013. Though it would ultimately go straight to home video and streaming, I was pretty excited when I learned he would be coming back to the action genre, and also be reteaming with JCVD. However, once I actually saw the film, I found it a very bland and tedious film with no substance. What's worse, Hyams very specific way of shooting is virtually non-existent in here. Had the film at least looked good, that would have scored some points with me, but here he seems to fall prey to the lazy handheld camerawork that is so prominent in these films today. And while I always enjoy JCVD as a villain, it's just not very interesting here, making Enemies Closer a pretty forgettable film overall and his last directing gig.

Surprisingly enough, I saw Peter Hyams recently in the fascinating ESPN documentary OJ: Made In America. He had directed OJ Simpson in Capricorn One back in the 70's when he was trying to break out into films and had continued a long and lengthy friendship with the athlete and sometime actor until the murder of his wife made headlines. 

I hope that if anything, this will get some of you more familiar with his work, or in the least, will get you to revisit some of his films. He's a surprisingly versatile filmmaker, sometimes writing the screenplays himself, such as with 2010: The Year We Make Contact, where it was nominated for several Academy Awards in 1985. I've always considered him a favorite, and I hope you will too.

No comments:

Post a Comment