Saturday, June 5, 2010

Martin Campbell: Hollywood's Best Unknown Director

When you put your hard earned bucks down at the box office for a film directed by New Zealand-born/England-trained Martin Campbell you are generally assured of a very good return on your investment. Since the 1980s, Campbell has crafted a series of episodic TV episodes and motion pictures that actually put the motion back into pictures.

Campbell first came to my attention in 1983 when he co-directed the twelve-part series, Reilly: Ace of Spies about Sidney Reilly (Sam Neill), considered England's first and best spy. Set during the first 25 years of the last century, the show was both exciting and sexy. Campbell directed the most vital episodes, 2 through 4, 8 and 9 and the finale. The secret to this show (and every film and TV show he's made) was not the espionage and action, but the way that Campbell helped the actors construct their characters within the tension. Every show that Campbell has touched has always been first and foremost about the characters.

He next made an impact on me with another six-part series, Edge of Darkness (1985 - basis for the Mel Gibson movie just-released on DVD that Campbell also directed). Again the solving of the mystery of why Ronald Craven's (Bob Peck) daughter (Joanne Whalley) was murdered right in front of him took a back seat to the people. What mattered to Campbell was examining the grief and pain that Craven's character was living through as he tried to get revenge for his dead daughter (I'll talk about the remake later). Campbell's first film in the US, Criminal Law (1988), was a bit lame, but a lively cable movie, Cast A Deadly Spell (1991), that successfully combined the hard-boiled detective and fantasy genres (trust me, it worked) put him back on track.

His first real breakthrough came when he directed Pierce Brosnan in his first James Bond film, GoldenEye (1995), which I consider the only tolerable Bond Brosnan made. Campbell’s resurrection of another hero from the past came next with The Mask of Zorro (1998). This righteously entertaining and rollicking film not only established him as a director to watch, but it also put both Antonia Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones on the map. Campbell's other great strength is his casting: Sam Neil in Reilly, Peck and Whalley in Edge of Darkness, Fred Ward in Cast A Deadly Spell, Gary Oldman in Criminal Law, the aforementioned Banderas and Zeta-Jones in The Mask of Zorro, but also Rufus Sewell as the villain in the sequel, The Legend of Zorro (2005), all turned in career-making performances.

He's had a couple of stiffs during this period, such as No Escape (1994) and Beyond Borders (2003) - a snorefest starring Clive Owen and Angelina Jolie (but there's that casting again, because to that point Owen was by no means a leading man, but after that film he sure became one).

But probably his most exciting film was another Bond: Casino Royale. From the casting of Daniel Craig as the 'blunt instrument' Bond to the explosively entertaining set pieces, right through to the touching and believable relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green - only a bit irritating because of her bad English accent), it all mostly worked. All you need to do to understand how good a director Campbell was is to take one look at the travesty Marc Forester made out of the next outing, Quantum of Solace (2008).

Which brings me again to the Mel Gibson version of Edge of Darkness (2010). There have been many terrible attempts by Hollywood to adapt British six-hour mini series into two-hour features with mostly catastrophic results (State of Play, The Singing Detective, etc.). Yet with this, Campbell managed to carve a credible film out of the material. It is, as with the other examples, simplistic next to the original, but after Gibson's horrid anti-Semitic rant of a few years ago I never thought I'd want to see him in anything again. To say I was pleasantly surprised by Gibson's performance would be putting it mildly. What makes this film work is Gibson’s work with Campbell on moulding Craven. They've created a character so filled with numb self-loathing and grief that you practically smell it coming from his pores. It's a terrific performance that shows Gibson can pull himself back from the nutcase abyss when he wants to. And Campbell can also still crank up the set pieces when he needs to. One 'holy crap' moment came late in the film when a character is run down just as she steps out of Craven's car. The sequence is both gut-wrenching and elegant as hell, which is perhaps the perfect summation of what Campbell can and frequently does with a camera and a story.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

1 comment:

  1. Too bad Martin Campbell didn't/couldn't/wouldn't do Glenn Close in "Damages". Pity...