Before he was Bond, Brosnan starred in Nomads.
|"Yes, I only have this beard|
because it's in style."
Briefly in the late-1980s, John McTiernan was one of Hollywood's biggest directors of action blockbusters, giving us Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October in less than four years. But before that, McTiernan began his career in a very different style of film, with the moody, high-concept supernatural thriller Nomads, which makes its blu-ray debut this week after years out of print, thanks to Scream Factory. It's a film with its share of flaws, but it certainly announces the arrival of a strong filmmaker with a talent for suspense.
Nomads is a ghost story of sorts, built around a pretty unique premise that incorporates a flashback/flashfoward narrative structure into the story itself. It is the tale of a young doctor (Lesley-Anne Down) who forms a psychic link with a murdered anthropologist (Pierce Brosnan), and gets caught up in the supernatural mystery of his final days as she relives them in hallucinatory flashbacks. The film cuts between both of their stories – which both involve a gang of sadistic Droog-like thugs, played by (among others) Adam Ant, Josie Cotton, and Mary Woronov. With a premise so fascinating and a supporting cast that provides such cult cinema cred, Nomads seems like a surefire horror classic, and it definitely could have been. But unfortunately, John McTiernan the talented director clashes against John McTiernan the mediocre screenwriter, and the film ends up being an uneven blend of spellbinding moodiness at its best, and unfulfilled potential at its worst.
McTiernan's script is full of fascinating ideas, and incorporates mythology and concepts of spirits in ways that really grab the imagination. There's a fantastic story in here somewhere; something with potential to be like the dark urban fantasy of authors like Neil Gaiman or Clive Barker – but he can't quite manage to find it. The plot threads are waiting to be pulled together into a really good film, but they keep slipping out of his reach, and ultimately end up unraveling. Too many things go unexplored or unexplained, and too often the script relies on a character doing something inexplicably dumb or unlikely to move events forward. Indeed, the entire story could have been avoided altogether if Brosnan's anthropologist – by all indications a very intelligent guy – hadn't done one or two idiotic things early on. McTiernan needed a co-writer to make up for his shortcomings and iron out the script's glaring flaws. Which is a shame, because his direction is strong enough to deserve something better.
|"...and cutaway to typical|
'80s dude in a hallway shot."
The suspense set pieces and rich atmosphere are where Nomads manages to shine. It has a style similar to the Italian horror films of the same era, with some clear nods to Dario Argento here and there. The lighting design makes prominent use of deep shadows and blue light. The heavy soundtrack features metal-ish guitar and drums blasting over the suspense sequences. Most of the film is set against the neon-lit backdrop of L.A. in the middle of the night, with its punk villains stalking seedy streets. And there's an outstanding sequence that conjures up some very spooky imagery involving nuns. Even as the script falters, this atmospheric world casts and eerie spell. Oddly enough, there's also a scene set around a building with major architectural similarities to the Fox Plaza tower that McTiernan used for Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard; could this be a sign of early inspiration for one of his subsequent hits? Maybe not, but that scene provides some major foreshadowing for the director's career.
In the lead roles, Lesley-Anne Down is a bit wooden, although she is stuck with the thankless job of essentially being a human framing device for Pierce Brosnan's flashback story, which makes up the main body of the plot. Brosnan, on the other hand, is quite good, bringing a panicked intensity to the plot while still having the coolness and charisma that would make him such a well-cast James Bond a decade later. He sometimes struggles with the fake French accent that the script forces upon him – a few times it bleeds into something that sounds more like Russian – but he best shows off his acting abilities in the largely dialogue-free suspense sequences anyway.
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This is the sort of film that somewhat benefits from a second viewing, when you know the underwritten script well enough for it to no longer be disorienting, and you can connect the dots and focus on the moody thrills. My initial reaction was a slightly perplexed “it was ok, I guess,” due to the flaws of the script. But the more I thought about it, the more its eerie spell sank in, and I realized that despite those flaws, Nomads has a definite power to it. It may not really work as a narrative, but as a mood piece it is very effective, and the story has enough fascinating ideas to linger in your imagination after viewing. Perhaps this means that it is best appreciated for what it could have been rather than what it actually is, but there is at least something about it worth appreciating. Deeply flawed, yes, but worth a look.
-Christopher S. Jordan