These days, Finland-born director Renny Harlin is mostly known as Geena Davis’ ex-husband who directed her in the infamous Cutthroat Island. But his long and occasionally strange career encompasses way more than that. For instance: super-smart sharks!
Though his recent credits reflect his segue into the Chinese film industry—including 2016's Skiptrace, a buddy cop flick that paired Jackie Chan with Johnny Knoxville—his filmography is heavy on action movies, most of which don’t fall within the usual realm of “genre.” That’s why Die Hard 2 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane aren’t on here—sorry, Bruce Willis and Andrew Dice Clay superfans—but we’ll admit we did stretch the boundaries with a couple of these.
Also, we left off 2014's The Legend of Hercules (not the 2014 Hercules starring Dwayne Johnson; Harlin’s movie starred Twilight second banana Kellan Lutz) because it sucks.
In 2004 and 2005, two different versions of what’s basically The Exorcist IV (though both are prequels) hit theaters. Studio execs who weren’t pleased with Paul Schrader’s take on the material (in a film titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist) hired Harlin to “retool” the film into Exorcist: The Beginning, then ended up giving Schrader the cash to finish his film anyway. Neither film emerged the winner when it came to reviews—Schrader’s was generally deemed superior, but not by much—though Harlin’s film, which came out several months prior to Schrader’s and received a wider release, did better at the box office.
Fifteen-plus years later, all that directorial scrambling feels like just another silly footnote in Hollywood’s eternal quest to make a profit by any means necessary. Exorcist: The Beginning is set in 1949 and stars Stellan Skarsgård as a younger yet already supremely world-weary Father Merrin, though the actor was actually almost a decade older than an aged-up Max von Sydow was in The Exorcist. On leave from the Catholic Church, haunted by the Nazi horrors he witnessed in World War II, and struggling mightily with his faith, Merrin joins an archaeological dig in East Africa (a place portrayed with somewhat iffy cultural sensitivity) and discovers evil lurking amid the artifacts.
Honestly, The Beginning isn’t as terrible as show biz legend has made it out to be, though it’s middle-of-the-road enough to feel unworthy of its place in horror history. For one thing, it leans way too heavily into gruesome imagery—maggots, boils, pecked-out eyeballs, violence against children—yielding queasy shocks that carry none of the deep-crawling dread so perfectly conveyed by the 1973 original.
Admittedly, mountain-rescue thriller Cliffhanger is barely a genre movie, but there are a couple of elements that nudge it over the top. Sylvester Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay, stars as Gabe, a Colorado rescue ranger who blames himself for a devastating accident that sends a woman plunging hundreds of feet to her death (where was that level of pulse-pounding terror in Exorcist: The Beginning?) in the movie’s first act. Overcoming that guilt—and getting back in the good graces of supporting characters played by Janine Turner and Michael Rooker—is a motivating factor when Gabe agrees to help with a rescue call during a sudden storm.
That leads not to stranded hikers, but rather a gang of trigger-happy thieves—led by John Lithgow, flexing a “British supervillain” accent—who’ve crash-landed along with the $100 million they’ve just ripped off from the U.S. Treasury. Cliffhanger, which necessarily takes place almost entirely on a snowy mountain, is filled with jaw-dropping stunts and some equally jaw-dropping scenery—both of which bolster a plot that feels crafted from someone’s chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter idea involving a heist gone wrong and extreme winter sports.
Harlin and then-wife Geena Davis were roasted for this notoriously over-budget pirate yarn, which came out almost a decade before the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie turned swashbuckling into box-office gold. We’ve already gone to the mat for Cutthroat Island before, but to reiterate: it’s admittedly too big and silly, and certain things about it haven’t aged especially well, but it’s also a legitimately fun movie. How can you be mad at a film that gave the world Geena Davis as a saucy pirate?
You know we love those expensive pirates, but Harlin and Davis’ final collaboration before their 1997 split was easily their best. In this film scripted by Shane Black, Davis plays Samantha, a small-town teacher with a cute daughter and a devoted boyfriend whose life would be pretty perfect...except she has amnesia and can’t remember anything prior to the last eight years. As Sam soon discovers, with the help of a private eye played with great elan by Samuel L. Jackson, she’s actually Charly, a super-spy assassin who left some major loose ends dangling in her previous life and is in danger the instant her enemies realize she’s back in action.
The Long Kiss Goodnight offers some very satisfying action scenes in which the frumpy Sam discovers the badass lurking within, but it also gives Davis room to mentally puzzle through the two extremely clashing sides of her identity—as well as rip into the hyper-charged Charly character with relish.
A Nightmare on Elm Street’s third entry is often praised as the series’ best. This fourth installment takes a more lighthearted approach to creator Wes Craven’s slasher saga with Freddy Krueger, a full-blown cultural juggernaut in 1988, grinning and cackling his way through each kill. But you can’t argue with its weird upbeat energy, bolstered by a mid-1980s MTV aesthetic and prominently placed soundtrack jams (including the Fat Boys’ “Are You Ready for Freddy?”, featuring the villain’s own rapping skills) that make the whole thing feel more like a music video than a movie at times.
Though The Dream Master does land the cruel blow of killing off all the teens who managed to survive the third film—fun fact, future Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) co-wrote the script—there’s a wicked sense of humor running throughout, with wordplay (a character’s dog is named “Jason;” the heroine works at the “Crave Inn” diner) and exceptionally ridiculous murders, including one in which a bug-phobic girl is transformed into a cockroach and squished in a Roach Motel. Incidentally, the diner is also the setting for my personal favorite scene in any Nightmare movie, in which we see Freddy snacking on a pizza covered in meatballs that are actually the tiny, screaming heads of his victims—a magically gross moment only 1988's finest practical effects could bring to life.
A few years after The Long Kiss Goodnight, Samuel L. Jackson reunited with Harlin for a small role in this aquatic thriller that culminates in one of the greatest on-screen deaths in any movie, ever. That scene helped elevate Deep Blue Sea into the cult-movie pantheon, though the basic premise (sharks become terrifying geniuses after serving as guinea pigs for an experimental Alzheimer’s treatment), setting (a floating lab in the middle of the ocean, with a storm rolling in), and the rest of the cast (especially LL Cool J as the resident chef) are also extremely noteworthy. No list of superior shark movies is complete without this B-movie with a very toothy bite.
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