Thursday, 18 February 2016

Martin Campbell: New Zealand's most underrated Hollywood export

When one thinks of New Zealand filmmakers, a few names spring to mind: Peter Jackson, Jane Campion, Vincent Ward and Roger Donaldson. In terms of directors who have made the jump to big budget Hollywood and made a career, Jackson and Donaldson are seen as the ones who made it. One name you rarely hear mentioned is Martin Cambell. One of the most underrated action filmmakers of the last 20 years, Campbell has been handicapped by long spaces between projects and a few high profile duds (Green Lantern).

Considering where his career went, Campbell's eclectic early moves make sense: he started out in the early 70s with British sex comedies, developed his action chops working on The Professionals, and solidified his dramatic credentials with his work for the BBC during the watershed years of the 1980s.

Style & influences
There is not a lot of material out there on Campbell's influences, but a few things can be gleaned from what sources are available. During the commentary track for GoldenEye, Campbell repeatedly refers to the influence Sam Peckinpah had on his action staging (especially during Bond's escape from the Russian archives). In an article from Empire magazine from a few years back, he refers specifically to Sergio Leone as a primary influence on the way he conveys character through action.

Rise to prominence
Campbell's rise to respectability began when he directed the well-regarded BBC miniseries Edge of Darkness, which won multiple awards and led to his move to Hollywood (Campbell would later remake it as a movie in 2010 with Mel Gibson). After several years of toiling away at the lower end of the Hollywood machine, working on a variety of minor thrillers and action films, Campbell gained attention with his successful reboot of the Bond franchise in GoldenEye. This gave him the clout to land the job directing one of the best adventure films of the last 20 years, The Mask of Zorro.

Apart from his work on Edge of Darkness, Campbell has made three truly great films: 

GoldenEye (1995)

Campbell was against the wall with this movie. The series had been on ice for 6 years, the action landscape had completely changed with the release of Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and True Lies, the Cold War had ended... If it had not worked, this movie could have put the last nail in the franchise's coffin.

GoldenEye is not perfect. The story lags at points, 006 is more of an idea than a fully realised character and Brosnan has not quite got the measure of the part just yet, and Eric Serra's score is absolutely terrible. Yet the movie manages to work in a way that Brosnan's other entries never did.
A lot of why GoldenEye works so well is down to Campbell's direction. Phil Meheux's photography replicates the lush style established by longtime series DOP Ted Moore, Terry Rawling's editing is tight in a style that approximates contemporary tastes, and Campbell combines both elements in such a way that feels both mindful of the series's aesthetic, yet more visceral and dynamic -- if John McTiernan made a Bond movie, it would probably look a lot like GoldenEye.

Many have praised and criticised Casino Royale for breaking from the established style, but most of what Campbell does in that film is already present in GoldenEye. The way Meheux's camera is choreographed perfectly with Brosnan's movements as he slips into the Russian facility in the pre-title sequence is subtle yet striking. Like Leone, Campbell makes sure that his anti-heroes do, not talk, and while Daniel Craig benefits from this parred down approach, the same is true of Brosnan in his debut.

Brosnan is far less flippant than in the rest of his tenure, and his best comedic moment isn't even verbal: sneaking onto the yacht where Xenia Onatopp is staying, Bond runs into a sailor who he subdues with the aid of a handy towel. In only a few seconds, Brosnan goes from Mr. Smooth to professional killer -- locking the towel around the sailor's neck and throwing him down a stairwell. One beat to take in his handiwork, then a quick wipe of the brow with the towel and then he's back on task.

Brosnan's more subdued and athletic performance is a clear foreshadowing of the physicality Campbell would lend Craig's portrayal over a decade later. Just check out that final close quarters brawl between 007 and 006. You could swap out Brosnan for Craig and it would feel exactly the same.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Written by the same team as Pirates of the Caribbean, Campbell's first stab at Zorro remains one of the best old school adventure movies ever made. The cast are on form, the script is fast and funny, and the action is excellent.

And like his Bond flicks, Mask of Zorro manages to feel contemporary without losing that old-school flair. Campbell does not go for unusual camera speeds or lighting effects -- he just pares everything down to the essentials. It always feels like the camera is in the right place, the cut to another angle well timed, the camera move seamless and un-showy.

It's a story-driven approach that works well for the films highlighted here, but works less well when the material Campbell is working with is not so strong. There are a few strong directorial moments in his other works, but Campbell's style and approach cannot make up for a good script. It would take him almost another decade to find another strong showcase for his talents.

Casino Royale (2006)

One of the best action films of the last 15 years. I've written way too much about how great Casino Royale is, so I'll try to keep this short and sweet. This movie has everything a great action movie should have: Great action. Believable characters. A genuinely affecting love story. Granted, the movie feels like 3 movies stapled together, yet Campbell's sure hand pulls the whole thing together.

Final thoughts
I recently wrote an article on underrated action directors and I included Campbell. I'm hoping he puts a few more notches on his belt so that he can get away from the 'underrated tag'. Now in his 70s, that hope is probably a bit of a pipe dream. At the moment, he is in the middle of shooting The Foreigner with Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan, and he is set to re-team with Brosnan on an adaptation of Ernst Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees.

I've seen a few articles ridiculing the choice of Campbell, but I feel like his approach might be a good match up with Hemingway's economical style. Granted, it is not an action film, and the only real success Campbell has had with non-action material was his work on Edge of Darkness, and that was back in the 80s. However, maybe it will work out. The script is written by some fairly notable people, and when Campbell has a solid foundation story-wise, he is on form.

And if things don't work out, hopefully he has Eon on speed dial so he can jump onto Bond 25/26!

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