We all have to start somewhere, I suppose, even if the starting point doesn’t really reflect your successes. Take John McTiernen for example, the man responsible for changing the face of action cinema, twice, in one year with the unfathomable one-two punch of Predator and Die Hard that were both released in 1988. We’ve all celebrated this incredible, near flawless duo of movies, that’s a given, but did you ever wonder what McTiernen did before those films came along and made us obsessed with alien big game hunters and fighting terrorists in your bare feet – after all, this is Hollywood and everyone’s got a oddity hidden in their closet somewhere.
Much like James Cameron starting his journey to Oscars and beyond with getting fired from Piranaha II and Scream’s Wes Craven directing erotica under the rumoured name of Abe Snake, McTiernen’s debut, Nomads, isn’t one that hints of the hits to soon follow and (ironically, given its title) noticably stands apart on his filmography.
Mere hours away from ending a gruelingly long shift, physician Dr. Eileen Flax sees her day go completely down the shitter when a badly beaten man dies melodramatically in an emergency room in Los Angeles. However, before his spastic thrashing comes to an undignified end, the man whispers something into Flax’s ear before biting her hard enough to draw blood, but in a bizarre quirk, the doctor starts having vivid visions of memories belonging to someone else. While her colleagues and friend as worried about her sudden condition, Flax soon realises that whatever the phrase was her patient rasped into her ear it’s causes all of his memories to be transported in her head as as time goes on he starts to retrace the mystery man’s final days.
The man was Jean-Charles Pommier, a French anthropologist who had moved to the States with his equally French wife Nikki after spending years studying and documenting the rituals and beliefs of various tribes and one night his suburban home is vandalized by a group of vastly accessorised street punks. It seems that this group has taken a shine to their house due to some murders being committed there some time ago but Jean-Charles’ inmate curiosity leads him to notice similar behavioral patterns in both the way the gang holds themselves and the nomadic tribes he once studied.
When the punks, led by the attractively chiseled but lazily named “Number One”, aren’t hanging around and intimidating an increasingly obsessed Jean-Charles, the anthropologist is stalking them, snapping photos and becoming evermore curious about their subculture.
However, we already know that it all ends in tears and blood and as Flax’s vision quest becomes ever more disturbing and maddening, she tracks down Nikki just in time to find out that there may be something supernatural going on with the sinister gang.
With Nomads, McTiernen is obviously going for the kind super-stylish, seductively dream-like 80’s, supernatural/thriller that someone like Joel Schumacher could do in his sleep (both The Lost Boys and Flatliners share DNA with the film in question), but in practice a intriguing concept is mercilessly rendered into near-incomprehensible mud by a rambling plot, some over indulgent direction and some bewilderingly distracting performances.
First up, McTiernen admittedly manages to rack up some significant amounts of atmosphere on a very limited budget that milks the eerie visuals of LA at dusk for all it’s worth, but they’re framing a story that’s deliberately obtuse to the point of incoherent and any impact the movie may have had is drowned in endless slow motion and soft focus shots that forgets to bring any legitimate scares – however, on the other hand, the over stylised tone of the piece means that the movie makes extensive use of a distinctive Bill Conti score that maxes out the 80’s vibes to a near ridiculous degree. Unfortunately, all of the director’s box of tricks are rendered ineffectual by the fact that the Nomads themselves (actually soul claiming Innuit trickster spirits that are attracted to death – not that the movie makes that overly clear) are ultimately as threatening as the characters of The Big Bang Theory as they glare enigmatically under the leadership of a mercifully mute Adam Ant. It’s a shame, especially when you consider that the gang contains such cinematic weirdos as Frank Doubleday (far creepier in Escape From New York) and Mary Woronov (numerous Roger Corman productions), not to mention how much intimidation McTiernen later managed to wring out of the Predator or Hans Gruber’s international gang of terrorists/thieves. More gonads than Nomads…
Still, we’ve got the irresistible charisma of Pierce Brosnan to carry us through, don’t we, so how pointless can Nomads possibly be? Well, unfortunately thanks to two highly exaggerated lead performances by Brosnan and Lesley-Anne Down, whatever subtlety the movie is shooting for is driven into the ground like a wildly overacting lawn dart. While McTiernen later managed to channel Brosnan’s mid-Bond charm arguably better than anyone else with his middle-aged-is-sexy remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, here he’s saddled with one of the worst French accents heard in cinema since Peter Sellers hung up his Inspector Clouseau moustache that renders his dialogue into virtual gibberish despite his frequently exposed chest trying to soften the blow through a permanently half unbuttoned shirt. Still, as unintentionally chucklesome as Brosnan’s French/Irish mush-mouthing is, it’s positively Oscar worthy compared to the bug-eyed thrashing that Lesley-Anne Down turns in as she instantly annihilates every scene she’s in by choosing to channel a wild-eyed gazelle caught in the jaws of a predator as she jerks, twitches, yelps and virtually pops her eyes out of her skull despite everything in the film being relatively scaled back – think Stephen Lack’s impressive gurning in Scanners and you’re close.
Thwarted by it’s own style and not one, but two lead performances that accidently invoke more giggles than empathy or any scares, Nomads still manages to contain a couple of jarring instances (Jean-Charles awaking from a nightmare so violently he shatters the windscreen of his car with his head is a standout) and one final, last second revelation that manages to be legitimately surprising. But by then it’s far too late and we’re just left shrugging our way through the end credits as the whole confusing experience already fade from our memories.
In McTiernen’s often impressive filmography, Nomad seems to have no fixed abode.