He seems like a nice enough guy. Last time anyone checked, he wasn’t making massive tabloid headlines with his debauched behavior, nor had he been discovered killing kittens in some crack-soaked back alley. Heck, he even has a hot girlfriend (director drag and drop diva Milla Jovovich) and a baby girl. And yet ask film fans who their least favorite director is - nay, ask them to list the men who’ve made an abomination out of the motion picture medium - and his name instantly comes up. As frequently as Dr. Uwe Boll. With a directness reserved for Ed Wood or Coleman Francis. To listen to the disgruntled talk, he has systematically destroyed potentially effective projects, reducing long held genre hopes to squirming, squiggling junk.
So what is it about Paul W. S. Anderson that drives the critic to complain - and even worse, why does this friendly faced UK filmmaker receive so much fanboy wrath? The answer, sadly, remains rather elusive. It can’t be his actual moviemaking acumen. He’s certainly got a handle on the artform’s basics, unlike other hacks that can’t put two scenes together without struggling to make sense of the narrative structure. And as this week’s Death Race proves, he can manufacture fake action with the best of them. Sure, he edits like an insane person and piles on the flash when some focus would truly help. But Paul W. S. Anderson is not a bad director. He’s just had the unfortunate luck of taking on titles that get geek panties in a big fat workmanlike wedge.
His name wasn’t always a motion picture pariah. He first came to prominence in his native Britain, where in 1994 his violent thriller Shopping caused quite a stir. Its portrait of disaffected youth, stogy class conformity, and the purposeful destruction of property gave a smug England some harsh food for thought, and catapulted Anderson into the minor fringes of the mainstream. It also made him fodder for that notorious “next big thing” tag, something many foreign filmmakers get saddled with once Hollywood finally hears about them. As a creative cause celeb, Anderson was given immediate access to the hottest script in the studio system - the big screen adaptation of the video game smash Mortal Kombat. It would wind up being the first of his many career coffin nails.
Granted, it’s hard to screw up a martial arts movie in which characters compete in a ‘brawl for it all’ tournament to the death, but Kombat apparently gave audiences its first reasons to be concerned about Anderson. It wasn’t the lack of skill - again he is far more fluid in his filmmaking than any of the movie making misfits he’s frequently referenced with. No, where Anderson seems to stumble (both then and now) is in the all important area of ‘reimagination’. Unlike Christopher Nolan, who tweaks the Batman saga into a psychologically deep crime story, or Sam Raimi who tries to keep to Spider-man’s general spirit, you never know what to expect when Anderson is in charge. Sometimes, you get a reverent reinvention of the mythos. At other instances, the end results are unrecognizable to even the most ardent aficionado.
In Kombat‘s case, the reinvention process seems to totally forget the reason the movie is being made in the first place. It has to be hard for screenwriters to turn fisticuffs into fleshed out stories, but Anderson’s scribes treat it like brain surgery. Gamers loved Kombat because of its bone crushing battles bathed in buckets of blood. They loved the finishing moves and the easily identifiable characters. Trying to turn this all into some manner of Shaw Brothers knock-off was not the way to go, and yet Anderson and company strove to bring a kind of backstory viability to the concept. While many felt the reformatting failed, the title was still so commercial that even this subpar semblance of the game made money.
As usual, cash creates opportunities, and Anderson was allowed to pick his next effort. He chose the David Webb People script Soldier. Kurt Russell was pegged to star, and pre-production began on the potential sci-fi epic. The pedigree at least seemed secure - Peoples had co-written Blade Runner, received an Oscar nomination for his work on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and guided Terry Gilliam’s great 12 Monkeys. Soldier had all the elements of a potential hit - a certified cult star, an intriguing story, and a hot shot helmer behind the lens. Then Russell decided to take some time off, and the entire project was pushed back.
Anderson needed something to help him cope with Soldier‘s work stoppage. He barreled head first into the outer space horror film Even Horizon. The original screenplay by novice Philip Eisner offered an abandoned alien laboratory investigated by a party of Earth astronauts. Anderson preferred a more straightforward scary movie, and discarded the idea. Instead, the new Horizon storyline centered on a missing spacecraft that may or may not have traveled to the bowels of Hell when it disappeared for seven years. Loading the narrative up with sadomasochistic sex and gore-drenched violence, Anderson hoped to redefine both terror and the extraterrestrial. Instead, he was forced to cut nearly 20 minutes of the movie to get an “R” MPAA rating.
At this point, Anderson was two for two. Sure, Event Horizon was not a major financial hit, but enough in the business saw its polish and professionalism to give the director another shot at Soldier. Russell was ready now, and the film premiered to universal yawns in 1998. Many consider it to be the worst film of Anderson’s career, a braindead bit of bombast that trades on little of the premise’s promise and ideals. At the time, the filmmaker had hoped to update Roger Corman’s Death Race for an actual 2000 release. Instead, he had to suffer the blowback from creating a big time blockbuster bomb. It would be two more years before Anderson got a chance at another noted title.
The zombie video game Resident Evil had long been considered a cinematic slam dunk. There were even suggestions that the father of the undead film, George Romero, was eager to film an adaptation. But the job went to Anderson instead, and while the devotees dished over the stupidity of the choice, the director delivered. Even though it changed some of the console title basics, Evil was still a moderate hit. It led the way to Anderson’s adaptation of AvP: Alien vs. Predator, another solid success. Again, the faithful fumed over the liberties taken with the material, including elements not found in the comics or companion sources. Yet Anderson argued for his approach, highlighting his reliance on the original films as guidance and inspiration.
All of which brings us to this week’s box office dud Death Race. Coming in third behind Tropic Thunder and The House Bunny, Anderson clearly has lost a lot of his big screen buzz. Of course, no one was really clamoring for a revisit to Corman’s 1976 road kill epic to begin with, but the update is not as bad as the reviews suggest. Instead, it’s just big dumb action with lots of explosions and cars (and body parts) going v-rrrooooom. Indeed, there is nothing here to suggest Anderson is the Antichrist or incapable of delivering decided popcorn perfection. But as with many of his movies, the way he reimagines Death Race - an internet competition inside a maximum security prison run by a ruthless female warden with one eye on the ratings and another on her big corporation concerns - fails to fulfill the concept’s kitsch calling.
And there’s another argument that may or may not sway potential detractors. Anderson is one of the few filmmakers who is open and brutally honest about the editorial decisions he is forced to tolerate by mindless studio heads. Ever since Kombat, he has complained about interference, stating that if he could release a “Director’s Cut” of his frequently panned projects, the opinion of his work would change radically. Event Horizon is one of his particular sore spots, the aforementioned missing footage destroyed or lost by parent Paramount. Especially in this era of the digital domain, where DVD can indeed redeem a failed film, Anderson is angry that he hasn’t had a chance to do just that. There are supposed longer edits out there for every one of his marginalized movies, but due to their lack of success, the rights holders see no reason to rereleased his versions - if they’re even available.
And so Paul W. S. Anderson sits, marginalized by a business he’s frequently benefited. Personally, he says he’s sick of trying to explain the symbolism in Magnolia (clearly being mistaken for Paul THOMAS Anderson), and after changing his name to W.S. he hates explaining anew that he is not responsible for The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited. His next film is another video game adaptation - the more or less unnecessary Spy Hunter - and one assumes that even now, the arcade crowd is gearing up to undermine his efforts.
Until then, Anderson will continue on as producer, writer (Castlevania), and behind the scenes Resident Evil guide (the franchise appears headed for its fourth film). It’s also clear he will remain a ridiculed member of an easily outclassed collective. He’s definitely not the worst director in the history of film. But defending him gets harder and harder - especially in light of his less than spectacular past and present preoccupation with b-movie mediocrity. One day he might find a way to prove his detractors wrong. Until then, Paul W. S. Anderson will remain an easy if enigmatic target. Just like his films, figuring out what’s wrong with his reputation is not as simple or straightforward as it sounds.