Saturday, August 29, 2009

#68: Nomads (John McTiernan, 1986)

Nomads is the second film in a row I've watched for this site that I find difficult to write about. I don't know where to begin, simply because this film is so damn strange and talking about it a little reveals too much about it as a whole. I'm going to give it a try, though. I think I'll start with the filmmaker.
John McTiernan is primarily known as a capable director of sharp and stylish big-budget action movies. His three biggest hits are the three films that followed Nomads: the action/horror/sci-fi blockbuster Predator (which features former bodybuilder/future governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, former professional wrestler/future governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, and future unsuccessful Libertarian candidate for governor of Kentucky/ex-porn star Sonny Landham, not to mention Carl Weathers, who has yet to run for governor), the action/action/action blockbuster Die Hard, and the action/Cold War/submarine/espionage blockbuster The Hunt for Red October. He also made the underrated flop action/comedy/post-modern blockbuster parody Last Action Hero and the probably not underrated flop remake of Rollerball, as well as Medicine Man, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, The 13th Warrior, the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, and something called Basic I have no memory of starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. So, McTiernan is a mainstream filmmaker, but he's a mainstream filmmaker who mostly knows how to make quality entertainment in the classic Hollywood style as opposed to the Michael Bay school of disconnected, incoherent, sloppy narrative, editing, framing of shots, and direction of action, and complete ignorance of spatial relationships.

My experience with several of McTiernan's previous films did not prepare me for his directorial debut and sole screenwriting credit, Nomads. As I said above, this movie is strange. Incredibly strange. And, despite its overwhelmingly negative reviews and unsuccessful theatrical run, I think it's a scary, atmospheric, well made, enjoyable, unusual, ambitious, and slightly ridiculous movie. There is one major flaw that almost sinks the movie, however, and may ruin the film for someone else, depending on his/her tolerance for bad accents. Pierce Brosnan's French accent is so poor and so initially distracting that I had a hard time entering into the world of the film for about ten minutes. Then, I decided to just go with it, and my experience improved substantially. So, just go with it. If you can't, you're going to have a tough time, but you'll miss out on the pleasurable aspects of the movie.
I'll attempt to set up the story, though the film's experimental, dream-like narrative is just this side of linear and hard to summarize in a straight-forward way. Lesley-Anne Down is a doctor in Los Angeles working a 32-hour shift. Late in her shift, a bloodied, hopped-up, mad Frenchman, played by Pierce Brosnan, arrives in ER. He attacks her, whispers some French in her ear, then promptly dies. Yes, the main character dies, but I'm not spoiling anything for you because it happens in the first couple of minutes of the movie. The hospital thinks Brosnan was a crazy street person on PCP, but the autopsy reveals he had no drugs in his system, and they also discover that he was a famous French anthropologist who had just moved to Los Angeles with his wife one week ago to teach at a university. He studied nomadic tribes all over the world, and, according to a closeup on the cassettes on top of his stereo, was a huge fan of the solo work of Quincy Jones and the saxophone stylings of David Sanborn. Down gets some stitches in her ear after the attack and goes back to work, but she soon starts experiencing vivid hallucinations or visions of the final week of Brosnan's life, and the film cuts back and forth between her retracings of Brosnan's steps and flashbacks to Brosnan's final week.

Shortly after moving into their new L.A. home, Brosnan and his wife are menaced by a group of creepy street thugs, including Mary Woronov, Adam Ant, and Josie "Johnny Are You Queer" Cotton. These thugs are a little bit silly but also a whole lot of unsettling and creepy, particularly the always awesome Mary Woronov, who is scary as hell here and has a tremendous screen presence even though she barely says a word. Brosnan, instead of calling the police or finding a new place to live, starts following and photographing the thugs. He soon discovers that these street punks are nomads, too. They're always moving, with no fixed location of their own. Down in the present, and Brosnan in flashback, find out, to their horror and the detriment of their sanity, that these urban nomads are actually Inuit evil spirits who can take a human form. They are attracted to sites where violent death and destruction occurred, and they damage the lives of those who come into contact with them. I probably said too much already, so I won't spoil anything else.
I really enjoyed this movie. It deserves a better reputation, once you get past Pierce "Baguette" Brosnan's movie French.

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