Total Recall

Renny Harlin's Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Legend of Hercules director.

by | January 9, 2014 | Comments

Renny Harlin

While the rest of us spend the weekend bundling up to avoid the polar vortex, Kellan Lutz will muscle into theaters on Friday with little more than his biceps and a toga to keep him warm — and while we anticipate a rather frigid critical reception for The Legend of Hercules, we knew we needed to take this opportunity to survey the career highlights of the movie’s director, Renny Harlin. He’s driven with Ford Fairlane, died harder, and sailed to Cutthroat Island, and he’s taken plenty of critical lumps along the way — but there are also some Fresh tomatoes in that action-heavy filmography. It’s time to Total Recall, Renny Harlin style!




10. The Adventures of Ford Fairlane

Eddie Murphy successfully made the leap from rude stand-up star to action hero, so why not Andrew “Dice” Clay? That seemed to be the thinking behind 1990’s The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, starring the famously foul-mouthed Clay as a leather-encased detective on the trail of a corrupt record exec (Wayne Newton) while trying to solve the murder of a heavy metal superstar (Vince Neil). In spite of Clay’s notoriety, its flashy cast, and a promotional campaign that included one of the most memorable music videos of Billy Idol’s career, Fairlane quickly tanked — but not before being pelted with critical scorn by the likes of the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who memorably quipped, “The person most likely to be entertained by The Adventures of Ford Fairlane need not be made aware of the film’s existence. He’s already on the screen.”


9. 12 Rounds

Nearly 20 years after Harlin directed Die Hard 2, he once again found himself at the reins for a picture about a cop (John Cena) racing against time to save his wife from bad guys. While times had certainly changed at the box office — unlike the late 1980s and early 1990s, movies like 12 Rounds had become almost exclusively the domain of direct-to-video stars and Nicolas Cage — the recent success of Liam Neeson’s Taken seemed to suggest that audiences might be warming to good old-fashioned action thrillers once more. Alas, filmgoers turned up their noses at the prospect of seeing Cena kick bad-guy butt, and for the most part, critics applauded their indifference, although 12 Rounds found one of its few defenders in 7M Pictures’ Kevin Carr, who wrote, “As a fast-food action director, Renny Harlin still delivers a fun movie.”


8. 5 Days of War

Tales of war correspondents caught up in life-or-death conflicts have been used as the basis for some terribly compelling movies, including The Killing Fields and The Year of Living Dangerously. If most critics felt Renny Harlin’s 5 Days of War failed to meet that lofty standard, it could hardly come as a surprise — and yet for all the flaws in this low-budget look at an American reporter (Rupert Friend) who finds himself caught up in the Russian occupation of Georgia, one can hardly find fault with Harlin’s heartfelt ambition, or his palpable frustration with international apathy in the face of displaced Georgians’ plight. As far as ReelTalk Movie Reviews’ Donald J. Levit was concerned, the movie offered “A finely realized depiction of war today and of the civilians who suffer the not always ‘collateral’ consequences.”


7. Cutthroat Island

Harlin’s Hollywood career can be roughly divided into two periods: the action hits that led up to 1995’s Cutthroat Island, and the tailspin that followed Island‘s historic flop. Filmed at a cost of nearly $100 million and heavily hyped as one of the motion picture events of the year, Cutthroat starred Harlin’s then-wife Geena Davis opposite Matthew Modine in a swashbuckling would-be epic beset with such poisonous word of mouth that its ultimate $10 million American gross helped capsize an entire studio, as well as Harlin’s immediate career prospects. It did shiver a few critical timbers, however; USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna argued, “If the sight of half-naked, tattooed sailors firing cannons at each other shivers your timbers, climb aboard. Even passable pirate movies don’t sail by every day.”


6. Devil’s Pass

Harlin entered the found-footage genre with 2013’s Devil’s Pass, using a still-unexplained real-life incident that ended in the deaths of nine Russian hikers as the basis for a sci-fi/horror hybrid combining screams, slaughters, and supernatural elements. Although Harlin’s take on the incident was at least partly based on months of personal research, a number of critics felt it was just as derivative and thinly scripted as any of his lesser efforts, and the movie’s U.S. release — which came during the cinematic dog days of August — came and went with little fanfare. Still, a number of scribes felt Devil’s Pass provided perfectly undemanding fun; as Miriam Bale argued for the New York Times, “The film is ridiculous and laugh-out-loud funny, though it’s sometimes hard to tell if this is intentional or not. Either way, it remains riveting because of its effective tropes.”


5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 – The Dream Master

A year after A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors pulled in an impressive critical and commercial haul, Harlin stepped in to take the reins for the franchise’s fourth installment, 1988’s The Dream Master. Picking up where the previous sequel left off, Master once again found homicidal maniac Freddy Krueger terrorizing a group of Elm Street kids, only to be (apparently) vanquished in the final act — and Harlin’s knack for set pieces proved a fitting complement to the series’ visually inventive spin on the teen slaughter genre, producing an installment whose one-liners were as wicked as its special effects. The top-grossing horror film of the year, Master failed to delight critics as reliably as it had audiences, but it got a rise out of the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who praised it as “Consistently watchable and inventive.”


4. Deep Blue Sea

Strictly speaking, there probably wasn’t any need for a movie about super-smart sharks. But hey, if you’re going to make one, you might as well hire Renny Harlin to direct and cast a reliable cadre of action vets like Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Jane, and LL Cool J. Example: 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, starring Saffron Burrows as an unscrupulous scientist/wacky shark breeder whose attempts to cure Alzheimer’s unwittingly trigger all manner of bloody havoc. “Call it silly,” offered the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle. “Call it obvious — there’s nothing more obvious than a shark attack. But this is one of the few big-fish horror films that still has the power to surprise.”


3. Die Hard 2

A big part of Die Hard‘s incredible appeal had to do with the fact that it centered on the incredible travails of a regular guy (Bruce Willis) who just happens to have the right skills to defuse a horrible hostage crisis when he’s caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s the kind of premise that makes a sequel an even more difficult proposition than usual, but that didn’t stop Fox from forging ahead with Die Hard 2, which replicated the original’s basic ingredients while amping up the action with a new round of big ol’ set pieces courtesy of our friend Mr. Harlin. The end result: more than $240 million in worldwide box office, even though the reaction from critics proved a good deal less enthusiastic this time around. Still, although Die Hard 2‘s 66 percent Tomatometer isn’t as impressive as the original’s, it has its ardent defenders — including Roger Ebert, who crowed, “This is terrific entertainment.”


2. The Long Kiss Goodnight

Renny Harlin’s movies aren’t exactly known for their character development, and 1996’s Shane Black-scripted The Long Kiss Goodnight is no different — in a movie this obsessed with rapid-fire quips, explosions, and piled-up corpses, you root for the good guys and cheer for the disposal of cartoon villains. Case in point: David Morse’s Luke, a.k.a. Daedalus, an arms-dealing heavy who makes things difficult for the amnesiac CIA assassin played by Geena Davis — first he’s nasty, then he’s dead. But if Goodnight isn’t exactly thoughtful, or even particularly memorable, plenty of critics thought it was good, dumb fun — like Michael Dequina of The Movie Report, who asked, “Who can resist the sight of Davis tossing her daughter from a hole in her house into the nearby treehouse or chasing after a car… while ice skating?”


1. Cliffhanger

By the early 1990s, there wasn’t much Sylvester Stallone hadn’t done as an action hero — and in the post-Die Hard era, the entire genre was starting to feel a little stale. The solution? Hire Die Harder director Renny Harlin to take the reins for Stallone’s 1993 hit Cliffhanger, which embraced action movies’ inherent silliness (by tapping the marvelously hammy John Lithgow as the villain) while taking them someplace semi-original (the top of a mountain). It certainly didn’t win any points for believability, but it did sate thrill-seeking filmgoers — not to mention critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who cheered, “Despite the don’t-look-down Olympian settings, Cliffhanger‘s spirit is brutal and earthbound. The movie is like one of those computer-designed simulator rides that whip you around until you’re dizzy and aching but don’t actually take you anywhere.”

In case you were wondering, here are Harlin’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Long Kiss Goodnight — 71%

2. Die Hard 2 — 70%

3. The Adventures of Ford Fairlane — 68%

4. The Covenant — 62%

5. Mindhunters — 58%

6. Cliffhanger — 51%

7. 12 Rounds — 46%

8. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master — 45%

9. Cutthroat Island — 41%

10. Cleaner — 41%

Take a look through Harlin’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Legend of Hercules.

Finally, here’s the video Harlin directed for LL Cool J’s “Deepest Bluest (Shark’s Fin)”:

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