With all due respect to Tracking Board columnist Neil Turitz, I’m resisting the temptation to call this part of my “Director Series” which has included a couple other Saturday columns. But yeah, I do like talking about some of the filmmakers I’ve met and spoken to over the years, whose work has always impressed me.
Doug Liman is a filmmaker whose work I’ve been aware of going back to the ’90s, probably Swingers and then Go. When I heard he was directing The Bourne Identity, my first thought was, “Well, that’s an interesting choice”… and by that, I meant both for Liman and the studio. I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie that kicked off a huge franchise for Matt Damon, but it definitely has grown on me. (Maybe I went into the movie with some baggage, knowing of the troubles they had in production, which is likely why Liman was replaced by Paul Greengrass on the sequel despite the accolades the movie received.)
Going from The Bourne Identity to the Brad Pitt – Angelina Jolie action thriller Mr. and Mrs. Smith was less of a leap, and at that point, Liman had earned a rep for doing bigger movies, which made him a likely candidate for the sci-fi adventure Jumper, which I’m sure Fox was hoping to turn into a franchise. The movie had its problems but it also has its fans… and you have to give Liman credit for putting Kristen Stewart in a cameo role during the height of Twilight frenzy.
Liman then flipped the script and directed Naomi Watts in the topical political film Fair Game, which got those who saw the movie thinking, “Hmm… maybe there’s more to this guy than we thought.” That should be obvious from the trajectory of Liman’s career and some of the films he both directed and produced, although surprisingly, he hasn’t written much.
There was another four years off before teaming with Tom Cruise on Edge of Tomorrow, a movie that maybe didn’t do as well as hoped but still received enough accolades and interest that people wanted to see more. Indeed, Liman has already said that they’re moving forward with Live Die Repeat and Repeat (the sequel’s title coming from a previous title for Edge that was used for the home release). That will be interesting to see how that works out since the first movie cost $178 million to make and grossed just $370.5 mill. worldwide. That’s just barely profitable.
Liman kept fairly active in the time since Edge of Tomorrow to the point where he had two movies this year, the military thriller The Wall with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the recent release American Made, reuniting Liman with Cruise. Originally called Mena, it was a very different movie than I expected as it told the story of pilot and drug smuggler Barry Seal in a way not unlike the work of Martin Scorsese, particularly Goodfellas and Casino.
20th Century Fox
This isn’t a documentary or a History Channel retrospective of Liman, so let’s get into the nitty gritty of why the above achievements makes me feel Liman is still very much underrated compared to his peers.
Liman’s most recent film American Made is probably my first bit of evidence, because obviously Tom Cruise is front and center when it comes to marketing the movie, but it’s a much better directed movie than the Jack Reacher films and even the most recent Mission: Impossible and yet, Liman’s involvement as director has been somewhat downplayed. Sure, it might be due to the fact that not many of LIman’s recent films have broken out or been huge blockbusters, but if you watch some of the films mentioned above, you can see there’s a throughline of quality filmmaking and evolving filmmaking from one movie to the next.
The fact that American Made is by the same director of Edge of Tomorrow, let alone some of the movies before and after, shows Liman to be incredibly versatile in never sticking with one style or genre between films. Every director says they want to switch things up between movies and genres but very few of them pull that off in the way Liman has.
The fact he’s currently taking on the sci-fi Y.A. epic Chaos Walking with Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland might be proof positive of this, with it being the first time he’s working with younger actors since Jumper and Go before that. How this movie turns out compared to other similar Y.A. adaptations is going to be pivotal in backing up my claims of Liman being underrated compared to other directors. If the movie turns out great will he get the credit for it?
Then again, Liman is also notorious for signing onto projects then leaving them, such as Fox’s Gambit movie and the long-in-development Justice League Dark (or whatever they’re calling it now), so it’s not like he isn’t in-demand. More it’s just that he’s incredibly finnicky about what projects he takes on, and I’m not sure anyone can blame him for that.
Unfortunately, Liman has also developed a reputation for going over budget which goes back to the problems on the Bourne Identity set, but a lot of that is just having budgets bigger than a movie deserves. Did American Made really need to cost $50 million with Cruise being the only big name? Is most of that budget going to Cruise and Liman? Jumper only cost $80 million so it wasn’t that big a disaster when you incorporate overseas money but it’s still not thought to be hugely profitable.
Liman’s also long been developing a project called Luna Park (formerly called Moon) about a group of astronauts who travel to the moon to steal an energy source. This is something he’s developed for ten years now while focusing on other movies. It sounds like a great premise but maybe one that’s too expensive to do well even if he convinces Tom Cruise to join the cast. Even the thought of doing Live Die Repeat and Repeat seems a little daunting due to the budget constraints that might be put on a sequel to get it greenlit. (It’s obvious now that having Tom Cruise in your movie isn’t always worth paying Tom Cruise’s price to get him involved.)
Liman is also attached to a number of other projects including a Splinter Cell movie, based on the Tom Clancy espionage video game, which could in theory break the video game movie jinx depending on certain factors. Other projects include a mix of historical films (Attica) and more sci-fi action (Time and Time Again), so it will be interesting to see what Liman decides to do after finishing Chaos Walking sometime next year. He has a lot of options and choices, and the direction he decides to go might determine whether he starts getting the respect as a filmmaker he deserves sooner rather than later.
For now, I think Liman will continue to be a filmmaker whose movies you can watch many times and get more out of each viewing, even if it’s just the inspiration they’ve had on other films and filmmakers who rarely will mention Liman’s name when talking about their inspiration.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor