Ranking the Movies of Doug Liman: Bland Hollywood Journeyman or Inspired Auteur?
A few days ago, Dustin wrote a piece about a new Tom Cruise movie that will be coming out later this year—American Made. Dustin’s excitement for that movie was based on it being a Tom Cruise vehicle. And who can blame him? Shit, when I hear that Cruise has been training for the next Mission Impossible stunt for a year, I get excited too.
But there was another, even more potent hook for me when it comes to American Made, and that was the other name attached to the project: its director Doug Liman. No-one ever really gets excited when someone says, ‘it’s a Doug Liman movie’. I think that’s understandable, but not entirely deserved. Doug Liman is a writer, director, and producer whose career is a bit of a curiosity in Hollywood. Sometimes he feels like an accomplished crafstman (auteur being too strong a word for his slightly anonymous style); at other times he feels like the person who made Jumper.
Attempting a ranking of his movies illustrates this clearer than anything else. Look here:
9. Jumper (2008)
I mean, this movie is fucking hilariously bad. I will give it this: Jamie Bell is fun; Sam Jackson is Sam Jackson; and that teleportation sound/feeling is the tits. Like, if there was ever a movie that nailed what teleportation should sound and feel like, it’s Jumper. Well, that and X2. But the rest of this movie is absolute dogshit. Incoherent, awfully written, terribly performed dogshit. Let it serve as a timely warning of the era when it was thought a wise to have Hayden Christensen and Rachel Bilson play the lead couple in a movie.
7, 8. Getting In (1994), The Wall (2017)
I’ll be honest: I haven’t seen either of these films. Now, I know, not having consumed the full range of a person’s work would usually preclude one from ranking it, but here’s the thing: I don’t think anyone’s seen Getting In; and I was planning to see The Wall, but Rebecca’s review completely put me off. Hence if you take umbrage, blame Rebecca. I blame Rebecca. We should all blame Rebecca.
Even though I’ve not actually seen either Getting In or The Wall, I am still however ranking them higher than Jumper.
Because Jumper knows what it did.
6. Fair Game (2010)
Liman’s telling of the Valerie Plame scandal is an important and well-performed one. Naomi Watts especially, as Plame, shines. But apart from its acting and its import it struggles often to rise above ‘just good enough’. Yes, Liman does inject some well done immediacy into the proceedings, but one wonders just how much of the movie’s gripping nature is down to its director, and how much stems from the nature of the story being told. Make no mistake: A bad director can ruin even the most enthralling of stories. Doug Liman is not a bad director. But, more than anything else, Fair Game feels like a missed opportunity. It doesn’t seem vital enough.
5. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a ridiculous film. Two hyper-attractive white people, flinging zingers and firing guns—it might as well be called ‘Murica: The Movie. But that would be un-generous, because while yes, the movie would collapse instantly without the chemistry and charisma of its two leads, it has some nice touches that mean it isn’t all about Jolie and Pitt (even though it mostly totally is). It’s half an hour too long, and nothing to write home about, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith does have a genuine charm about it in parts, as well as a few well-staged action sequences too.
4. Swingers (1996)
Swingers is not as good as everyone remembers it being. Yes, it is a seductive watch the first time you see it, especially if you see it when you’re young; and doubly so if you saw it when it came out. Fundamentally however it’s an annoying ‘but’ movie: The script is witty in places but douchey-as-hell in others; the cast is engaging but infuriating; it’s got atmosphere but it’s not shot all that well. Re-watching it today one can’t help be struck by the fact that even more than actual movie, it exists more as a time capsule of a place that we’re not sure ever even existed. Nobody ever talked like that, did they? And Vince Vaughn definitely did not look like that.
3. Go (1999)
I’m a big fan of Go. Is it too indulgent to quote oneself from a previous piece? Don’t care, gonna do it anyway:
A largely forgotten 90’s gem, history has been unfair to Doug Liman’s 1999 follow-up to Swingers. Blame Pulp Fiction; or rather blame the idea that every 90’s movie that dared to deal in split narratives should forever be consigned to its shadow. It follows a group of Gen-X-ers who experience a night of bad luck, mishaps, and disasters following a drug deal gone wrong. Told from three different perspectives, Go features Sarah Polley, Timothy Olyphant, Katie Holmes, William Fichtner, and Jay Mohr among others, and while the the echoes of Pulp Fiction can be heard, it really is its own beast. Taut, kinetic, and clever (though not quite as clever as it thinks it is) it should be experienced with a lack of prejudice, though not without an acknowledgement of debts owed.
2. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
We’re big fans of Edge of Tomorrow here at Pajiba. Barring that slight misstep of an ending, it’s a really well constructed movie. Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances as the snivelling public affairs officer who gets stuck in a time loop during a futuristic alien invasion. While it is undoubtedly incredibly fun to see Cruise get killed over and over again in any number of ridiculous ways, it’s his character’s arc that actually resonates and grounds the movie. The stakes feel real, personally as well as strategically. It helps that Emily Blunt gives a badass-soldier performance for the ages. Liman directs the whole thing with wit, energy, humor and tension. There’s a lot going on in Edge of Tomorrow, and almost all of it works.
1. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Still the best Bourne movie. And that’s not just because of the novelty thrill of being plunged into this journey of discovery alongside Damon’s Jason Bourne. Identity is just a very well made, solid thriller that does basically everything right. It was also, almost singlehandedly responsible for a minor revolution in the genre. Paul Greengrass came along after, but the first, Liman-helmed entry in the series is the one that changed the game. A lot rests on Matt Damon’s pitch perfect portrayal of the titular Jason Bourne, sure, but it’s the perfectly framed action sequences, the at-times unbearable tension, and the sense of ominous momentum that really make The Bourne Identity shine. For that, Doug Liman still deserves applause. It’s the closest he’s come to a perfect movie.
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