This week, the guy who Geena Davis divorced for destroying her career, is back with his latest cinematic tour de force, The Covenant. It’s about — and don’t laugh — four prep-school teens with supernatural powers who struggle to keep their secret until a fifth student demands that they hand over their powers or (gasp) be destroyed. Seriously, that’s the pitch. If it doesn’t make sense, don’t look at me. Even Harlin’s own website can’t offer up a decent plot explanation for this future-modern classic.
Few in Hollywood manage to so consistently produce groan-worthy cinematic bombs that lose more money than most Third World countries’ annual GDPs, but Harlin — determined to be the best at what he does, perhaps — manages to outperform all of his peers in this department. After starting off his career with a bang — Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993) — he met and fell in love with Amazon Geena Davis and, perhaps in the midst of a post-coital embrace (during which she consoled his nagging sense of cinematic inadequacy?), he convinced her that playing a pirate would be a grand idea. The resulting debacle, Cutthroat Island (1995), torpedoed Carolco Pictures — we’re talking about the company that had only recently scored big with Terminator 2 — and sent them spiraling into bankruptcy. And not the kind you get out of. After producing a string of hits for more than a decade, Carolco was permanently sunk.
Was Harlin exiled for so incompetently squandering Carolco’s largesse? Did Hollywood turn its back on him and line their dogs’ cages with his headshots? Was even one fatwa issued against him? Absolutely not. Even worse, Harlin managed to convince both Davis and execs at New Line to work with him again, which is how The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) came to be. Now, Long Kiss was written by Shane Black, the guy who wrote the Lethal Weapon movies, so it isn’t a complete waste of your time. Plus, it’s got Samuel L. Jackson in one of his most ass-kickingest roles, which is cool, too. But the movie was a bomb, and (under the right circumstances) could’ve probably taken out a small city.
Proving he has the survival instinct of a cockroach, Harlin resurfaced in 1999 with Deep Blue Sea — again with Jackson in tow, but newly single (someone finally came to her senses). Like Long Kiss Goodnight, Sea is so brainless, loud, and silly that you kind of have to forgive it for actually being about three genetically augmented super-sharks out to kill their handlers. How does Harlin keep a straight face when he goes into pitch meetings? I mean, really. “Uh, it’s about genetically augmented super-sharks out to kill their handlers.” And, of course, the studio execs, the artistic giants they are, slap their hands against their thighs and declare, “Sounds like an Oscar gold mine. Sign us up!”
But guess what? It bombed, too, and so did Harlin’s next film, Sylvester Stallone’s ode to open-wheel racing, Driven (2001), (which, I think, was supposed to be inspirational, like Rocky). Unfortunately, the only thing it inspired was Hollywood’s apparent decision to turn its back on the star: Except for Spy Kids 3-D, Stallone
hasn’t managed anything except for direct-to-video flicks since. Harlin, on the other hand, got a free pass.
2004 saw him return after a three-year hiatus with two films, Mindhunters and Exorcist: The Beginning — both of which failed to recover their modest budgets. Hell, Mindhunters couldn’t even scrounge up $5,000,000. How does this get rewarded? In the Normal World, the world where you and I live, where employees are actually expected to perform, Harlin would, of course, be fired, maybe blacklisted, and/or mocked by David Letterman. But almost certainly, he would be stripped of his ability to make a living. That’s what makes Hollywood so special, though. There, in a land where Cristal bubbles forth from fountains and supermodels work clothing-store counters, Harlin is instead given The Covenant and two more projects to direct. I could list these other two by name, but that might encourage you to see them, and one has to hope — against hope, really — that eventually, the weight of this man’s failures will act as an anchor and drag whatever is left of his soul to hell, where, if there is any justice, he will be ass-raped for eternity by demon dogs wearing rubber Geena Davis Halloween masks.