Irvin Kershner's ten best films: RoboCop2 and Star Wars among them
Rest in peace, Irvin Kershner, you director of RoboCop 2 and some film called The Empire Strikes Back.
Born in 1923, he died over the weekend at the age of 87 and left behind an oeuvre of great filmmaking -- including no small number of sequels. So it makes sense that this list begins, ends, and is populated heavily by, second chapters of some of filmdom's favorite properties.
10. RoboCop 2
Okay, so this 1990 sequel to the small-budget smash wasn't the best movie in the world... but it wasn't the worst, either. It had its moments, courtesy of not only Kershner, but famed comic book writer Frank Miller (Sin City, Dark Knight Returns, 300), who co-wrote the script. The film's plot isn't memorable (or even completely coherent), but its blend of humor and violence is actually years ahead of its time.
9. Last Temptation of Christ
This one is something of an exception on this list, since Kershner wasn't in a directing role in this controversial 1988 film, but rather made his acting debut here. In the role of Zebedee, the father of apostles John and James, Kershner made his small and rather unremarkable debut (though it did lead to another acting gig -- this time playing a film director in a Steven Seagal flick). Still, it was important to Kershner, who had long been devoted to the study of world religions.
8 Eyes of Laura Mars
This 1978 thriller starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones did decent box office numbers, but wasn't a critical darling at all, being dismissed by Roger Ebert as a typical "women in trouble" movie. Still, this was the movie that impressed George Lucas so much that he hired Kershner to direct his Star Wars sequel.
A small and intimate film about small suburbanites with intimacy issues, this 1970 film went largely unnoticed by the American audience, though critics found it intelligent and intense. It served as an obvious inspiration for the 1997 film The Ice Storm, which mimics not only its time period and its cultural significance, but also its emotional nature. (No word on whether The Ice Storm also borrowed elements from the frozen planet Hoth.)
6. Never Say Never Again
This 1983 James Bond film (which he apparently did instead of Return of the Jedi, more's the pity) was an unofficial part of the Bond canon -- this was the Roger Moore era of Bond, and Sean Connery's return to the role was received graciously, if not enthusiastically. Still, it was enough for some audiences to just see Connery in the tux, sipping a shaken martini again, genially slurring his Scottish brogue.
5. Return of a Man Called Horse
Kershner seemed susceptible to being saddled -- in this case literally -- by sequels. And too often, those sequels were poorer imitations of their originators. But this 1976 Richard Harris vehicle carries decent dramatic weight, and the directing was, as always, sure-handed. And you have to think that Kershner was cutting his sequel-teeth here, readying himself for one of the classic second chapters of film history.
4. Great TV
A catch-all category, for sure, but it's notable that Kershner did some of his best work for the small screen. From early TV series classics like The Rebel, Ben Casey and Peyton Place, to later TV work like Amazing Stories and Seaquest: 2032, Kershner brought his signature attention to the faces of his performers -- finding the depth of story in lingering reaction shots and close-ups -- to series television. Something he was probably a little frustrated with later on in trying to direct Chewbacca.
This 1974 movie does for the world of espionage what M*A*S*H had done for the Korean War four years earlier (and borrowed its two stars, as well: Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland). The comedy capitalizes on the disillusionment of the Watergate era and turns world affairs into dark humor -- something that admittedly isn't as tough now as it was then.
2. Raid on Entebbe
This TV movie from 1977 won two Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture, and Kershner was also nominated for its direction. And no wonder -- the cast alone was impressive (Charles Bronson, Peter Finch, Yaphet Kotto), and the execution of the real-life storyline was captivating. Yet another excellent sequel under Kershner's movie-making belt.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
The cliffhanger installment in arguably the most famous film trilogy of all time, Empire is widely recognized as the best film of the original three -- no small trick, considering that as the second act, it's not the most uplifting storyline. Still, the sharp dialogue, the sincere emotion, and the subtle humor in this 1980 film has made fans wonder for years just how much better Return of the Jedi might have been had Kershner been hired on to finish out the Star Wars saga.
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