The film director Richard Donner died earlier this month. Beyond the obvious loss, there is no tragedy here: he was 91 and had led a full and productive life. His hand was at the tiller of some very good films. They were not necessarily Oscar-winning movies, but they were popular and boasted an unseen and perhaps unappreciated intelligence. This manifested in his feeling for the times and his capturing (in celluloid) the zeitgeist and spirit of the age. It could be argued that it was Donner who got the present obsession with superhero movies rolling, dabbled in horror - only to produce an enduring classic - and single-handedly rejuvenated the buddy-cop movie genre. Mostly I will remember him and his films for their heart. Like a pair of broken-in boots, his movies feel both solid and comfortable. They are experiences that people like to repeat because the emotional architecture of the storytelling is strong and stands up to repeat indulgence.
I love and admire his work in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. This started early with one of the best classic Twilight Zone episodes, the Donner-directed ‘Nightmare at 20,000 feet’ – starring William Shatner. You will find Superman, Superman II, The Omen, The Goonies and Ladyhawke on my shelf. Superman the Movie feels like a real cinematic event, with its startling visuals, John Williams’ rousing score and ambitious narrative – spanning both time and space. It is the king of origin stories. Between the potent charisma of the two Hollywood legends that bookend the film - Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman – is the astonishing Christopher Reeve, who not only makes you ‘believe that a man can fly’ but also does some of his best work as the oft-neglected aspect of the alter-ego, Clark Kent. Ladyhawke is no Superman, and indeed flopped at the box office, but is unfairly forgotten. With Rutger Hauer playing successfully against type and Matthew Broderick escorting us through the narrative with a fourth-wall breaking technique that would immortalise him a year later as Ferris Bueller, it is a warm, old-fashioned film that is a solid entry in the genre. The Goonies is pure, distilled, 80s adventure nostalgia.
In many ways, Donner is better remembered for his work on crime-oriented films and his association with peak Mel Gibson. It’s a shame that Gibson’s horrifying views and career meltdown should tarnish Donner’s output, but these films do stand on their own. Conspiracy Theory was underwhelming but Maverick was all kinds of fun. Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2 are fantastic entries in a series that perhaps went on too long. Donner does a brilliant job of giving viewers a reason to revisit the cop thriller genre and then in turn the two films themselves - both being highly rewatchable. They are also blessed with action-packed plots and memorable bad guys (‘This is Mr Joshua…’ / ‘Diplomatic immunity!’). Donner appreciated, however, that it was really the irresistible chemistry between the two lead character, Murtaugh and Riggs, that made viewers want to spend time with the Los Angeles Police Department. As the nexus between a great script, good actors and a genre ripe for a renaissance, Richard Donner is most responsible for the series’ enduring success - and as such, he will be missed.