So, someone finally wised up. Some suit, probably lacking the usual double de-caf latte that keeps his brain in perpetual denial for hours at a time, finally saw the light and fired Stephen Sommers - well, at least that is the rumor. With his latest turkey GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra a mere month and a half from hitting theaters, Aceshowbix.com and several other sites are reporting that Paramount, angry at receiving “the lowest test scores in the history of the company” have relieved the director from further directorial duty on the proposed blockbuster. An editor is being brought in to try and “fix” Joe, though it looks like a massive red ink write-off is in this film’s future. Of course, this could all be hype, preplanned positioning to turn a tough sell into a box office curiosity. But with something that seemed only saleable to a certain isolated ‘80s geekdom, Sommers’ dismissal doesn’t seem so strange. It was his hiring that continues to perplex.
There are a lot of unpleasant descriptions associated with the man behind The Mummy - hack, vacant, superficial, untalented - and his rise in Hollywood has been a real head scratcher. In 1989, the 27 year old USC Film School graduate (with a Masters no less - yikes!) wrote and directed Catch Me If You Can - no association with the Spielberg/DiCaprio romp. Considered a cult favorite by some, the story of high school car racers received enough notice in Tinsel Town to greenlight his take on the Mark Twain classic The Adventures of Huck Finn. From there, he took a crack at another literally gem, a live action take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. With home video providing enough commercial clout to warrant his continued employment, he struck genre gold with the monster movie spectacle Deep Rising.
Indeed, the Treat Williams actioner about a luxury liner overtaken by a giant sea creature brought Sommers to the attention of mainstream movie fans. Many saw his brash, blow shit up style as perfect for a dreary cine-shlock showcase, and it wasn’t long before the powers that be took a liking to his over the top antics. With the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and the limited appeal of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), Universal was looking for a way to reinvent even more of their horror icon catalog. Sommers was hired to handle perhaps the most difficult macabre myth of them all - the Mummy - and in 1999, his take on the title terror became a huge box office hit. Looking back now, the reasons are quite obvious.
The Mummy was a gory goofball joke, Indiana Jones without all the Saturday Matinee serial preening and lots of Brendan Frasier cracking wise. Toss in the emerging effectiveness of CGI, the overall polish of the production, and an early Summer audience’s need for some mindless entertainment (the film opened in May), and Universal was elated. As the ticket tallies continued to climb, the studio jumped into bed with Sommers, giving him the go ahead for both a Mummy sequel and a Rock-starring prequel. In 2001, the bloated, over the top The Mummy Returns hit theaters, excesses easily on display for eye candy starved viewers to sup upon. A year later, a Sommers’ co-scripted look at The Scorpion King (directed by the filmmaker’s picture polar opposite, Chuck Russell) arrived. Both movies made money, which increased the director’s creative carte blanche.
But it was his next project that offered the true beginning of his eventual end - allegedly. Sommers was seen as someone who could easily revive the “fun” aspects of the entire Universal horror canon. Given unlimited resources and the commitment from Aussie hunky meat Hugh Jackman, the filmmaker fashioned his most ambitious concept to date - Van Helsing. Taking the vampire hunter from the Dracula legend and refashioning him as a swashbuckling steely man of supernatural ass kicking didn’t seem like such a silly idea at the time, and as images leaked out during the production, fans seemed won over by the look of the various fright flick icons. With another early May opening on the books, Van Helsing was set up to be one of 2004’s biggest givens. Sadly, it turned out to be one of the year’s worst films.
Again, the reasons were obvious. Sommers never says, “Yes” to another excess. He grabs surplus by the shorthairs and hordes it like an ant amassing seeds for winter. Everything about his motion picture gluttony is on display in Van Helsing, from the need to keep things constantly moving in front of the camera to the notion that there is no such thing as too many monsters. This is especially true during the narrative denouement, when we learn that Dracula is hibernating an absolute army of winged demon babies (don’t ask) and then watch as literally billions of these eggs “hatch”, complete with computer enhanced buckets of goo. Given this obsessive need for ‘more’, it’s not shocking that Universal balked when they saw the final product - and the returns. With an estimated budget of somewhere near $200 million, the $120 million gross domestically guaranteed that Sommers would see some “downtime” before advancing on his next project.
Indeed, it’s been five years since that Jackman junk, and along the way, the director has been penned in for several high profile projects. He took over for Steven Spielberg when the superstar auteur dropped out of the When Worlds Collide remake, and he’s also been linked to a Jason and the Argonauts revamp, as well as a take on Tarzan. According to the Aceshowbix.com report, that ape-man update may be where Sommers finally lands, if only temporarily. It’s rare when a high profile director can survive such a concerted diss from a studio (whether it turns out to be true or not, someone from inside the production is floating the story around) - and Sommers is no Oscar winner. Indeed, aside from a couple of fluke successes, his movies are considered glorified garbage - disposable and often indefensible.
So it’s about time someone told Sommers to ‘suck it’. He’s been a less than stellar luminary within the popcorn movie artform. Once again, this is all speculation, and like most innuendo and hearsay, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra could be just another dumb action film, and those usually don’t tank too badly come Summer screening time (right Terminator Salvation?). Backtracking has already started - the offending information, apparently taken from a producer’s messageboard, has since been deleted - and be fully prepared to hear Paramount put on the bravest of faces when it comes to “discounting” the stories (right, just as Fox did when it turned out the workprint of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the final cut of the film, sans F/X). Either way, Joe better make some dough, or Sommers will indeed be the latest in a list of Tinsel Town cast offs. Oddly enough, he may be one of the few that truly deserve it.