Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Is it possible for a director to be too good at what he does? Or at least, too good for his own good? The question occurred to me after watching Drive Hard, the latest film by Australian auteur Brian Trenchard-Smith, a man who, in his own words, has committed “42 crimes against cinema.” In my own words, he’s directed at least four masterpieces (Turkey Shoot, Stunt Rock, The Siege of Firebase Gloria, Dead End Drive-In), three for-hire sequel assignments that he managed to turn into vehicles of witty personal expression (Night of the Demons 2, Leprechaun 3, Leprechaun 4: In Space), and two of the best kids’ movies of the 1980s (BMX Bandits and The Quest) — and he has never, I repeat never, directed a boring or indifferent film. His output includes disreputable exploitation movies and tender romantic comedies, documentaries and low-budget disaster movies, and episodic TV episodes ranging from Flipper and Mission: Impossible reboots to ’90s guilty pleasure Silk Stalkings. He has about three times the range of any major studio director currently working, and about one-third the respect.
That, I think, is because Trenchard-Smith is so broad in his interests and talents — he does so many things so well that it’s hard to pin him down, and thus his greatest strength as an artist is also his greatest liability when it comes to recognition for what he does. Not that he cares much; my impression of Trenchard-Smith is that he’s not in it for the glory or the money, but for the sheer damn fun of it all. For while it might seem as though the only thing Brian Trenchard-Smith’s films have in common is the fact that they have nothing in common, this isn’t entirely true. What they have in common, from the early Australian action films to the Hallmark Channel love stories and supernatural thrillers, is a sense of overwhelming enthusiasm. Every Brian Trenchard-Smith movie feels like it was made by a guy who loves making movies, and that love is infectious; I’ve never watched a Trenchard-Smith film and ended up in a worse mood than I was in when I began it. His films are uplifting in the best, truest sense — even when he’s dealing with tragic material, as in Firebase Gloria, the work is elevating and inspiring rather than depressing.
Trenchard-Smith’s pure passion for filmmaking has probably led to the other reason why he isn’t ranked among the top directors in the profession, even though he’s every bit as good as most of them. He’s acknowledged many times that he “never met a green light I didn’t like,” which means that in many cases Trenchard-Smith has taken on projects with problematic scripts and drastically limited resources, giving his oeuvre the kind of uneven quality that makes it easy for less imaginative viewers to dismiss. Yet his best work has attracted a devoted following that includes Quentin Tarantino (who once introduced a screening of Kill Bill by saying, “If you don’t like Brian Trenchard-Smith, get the fuck out of here!”), and he’s so good at what he does that even under the worst circumstances — as in the case of the ridiculous and woefully under-budgeted Tyrannosaurus Azteca — he manages to make the most of his limitations and embrace them rather than hide or flee from them.
Thankfully, there’s not much that Trenchard-Smith has to fight against or transcend in Drive Hard, a deliriously entertaining chase film that ranks with his best work. The script has a premise worthy of classic Walter Hill or Don Siegel: an ex-race car driver living a miserable existence as a driving school instructor (Thomas Jane) goes out with his latest client (John Cusack), only to be kidnapped by him and forced to become his getaway driver after a bank robbery. What follows is essentially a 90-minute chase, as Cusack and Jane are pursued by cops, feds and bank-hired assassins, all of whose intersecting storylines are kept in perfect balance by Trenchard-Smith and cowriter Brigitte Jean Allen (Chad Law and Evan Law receive story credit). The movie has a structural elegance reminiscent of Hill’s 48HRS or Callie Khouri’s screenplay for Thelma & Louise, as it impeccably juggles moments of high-intensity action with comic character scenes and a bit of social satire courtesy of Cusack’s character, who sees his robbery as a political act.
Cusack, in fact, is the best he’s been in years, as is Thomas Jane. Both actors wholeheartedly embrace Trenchard-Smith’s freewheeling style, which is confident enough to juxtapose moments of honest insight regarding the characters and relationships with outrageous set pieces involving biker gangs, gun-toting (and foul-mouthed) grannies and Mexican standoffs. The film is consistently, riotously funny, yet grounded in a surprisingly convincing reality as we learn more about the two lead characters and what has led them to this turning point in their lives. The movie has genuine philosophical and moral underpinnings reminiscent of the best of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. I’ve seen many, many buddy movies in my life and didn’t really think I needed another one, but Cusack, Jane and Trenchard-Smith bring new shadings to the genre; the two lead actors’ chemistry is unique and appealing, highly stylized yet never forced, and never derivative of the many films with which Drive Hard shares common ground. The movie belongs in the tradition of Midnight Run and 48HRS but doesn’t feel imitative of them — it’s a new, fresh take on a genre that seemingly had had the life completely drained out of it.
As one might expect from a director who cut his teeth on genre movies during the “Ozploitation” movement of the 1970s, Drive Hard delivers the goods when it comes to kinetic car chases and shoot-outs, but it doesn’t bludgeon the audience in the manner of so many Paul Greengrass-era action films — the action is light, fun and colorful, not loud, oppressive and gray. There’s not a wasted frame or a boring minute, yet the movie doesn’t feel rushed or confusing; it’s impeccably paced, expressing character through action so that the script is always able to accomplish multiple things at once, yet with a clarity that keeps the film from becoming chaotic. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wish studio executives had enough taste and intelligence to hire Trenchard-Smith for Bourne movies, or to helm a Fast and the Furious or Divergent sequel. He clearly has the chops of any A-list action filmmaker, and he’s probably a hell of a lot more capable than most of them at getting the optimum bang for his buck. Something tells me that if he was given even a fraction of the budgets studios spend on their franchise pictures, he would top not only himself but just about everybody else making action movies.