Nomads (1986)


USA. 1986.


Director/Screenplay – John McTiernan, Producers – Cassian Elwes & George Pappas, Photography – Steven Ramsay, Music – Bill Conti, Production Design – Marcia Hinds. Production Company – Elliott Kastner/Cinema 7 Productions


Pierce Brosnan (Jean-Claude Pommier), Lesley Anne Down (Dr Eileen Flax), Anne-Maria Monticelli (Nikki Pommier), Jeanne Elias (Cassie Radcliffe), Mary Woronov (Dancing Mary), Adam Ant (No. 1), Frank Doubleday (Razors), Josie Cotton (Silver Ring), Frances Ray (Sister Bertril)


French anthropologist Jean-Claude Pommier staggers into a Los Angeles emergency ward and grabs Dr Eileen Flax before falling dead. Following the incident, she collapses and has a series of visions where she comes to re-experience the last few days of Pommier’s life and realises that he has somehow transferred his memories to her via his touch. In the visions, she sees how he became obsessed with and began to follow a street gang, watching as they conducted random acts of violence. As the gang began to become aware of and then pursue Pommier, he discovered that they were in reality the Einwetok, Inuit spirits that walks the Earth in human form.

This fascinating ghost story was the first film from John McTiernan. Previously a director of commercials, McTiernan made his debut here. Although Nomads received little attention when it came out, it was enough to get McTiernan noticed and immediately netted him the helm of the big-budget Predator (1987). McTiernan then next went onto make in succession Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) and in so doing established himself as one of the finest action directors of the era. McTiernan’s work into the 1990s and beyond however has remained variable – there was the flop of the environmentally conscious Amazon rainforest romance Medicine Man (1992) and the disastrous fiasco of the otherwise wittily meta-fictional action movie spoof Last Action Hero (1993). McTiernan next retreated to the commercial safety of Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), and then the variably successful likes of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and The 13th Warrior (1999), the remake of Rollerball (2002), which was another big flop, and Basic (2003), before his career tanked with his jailing over lying to the FBI on the Anthony Pellicano wiretapping case. Certainly, McTiernan’s career in the 1990s has had more downs than ups, but otherwise he remains a solidly satisfying and underrated action director, indeed one of the few modern action directors not to get distracted with the business of blockbuster bombast and gratuitous spectacle.

With Nomads, John McTiernan succeeds in creating a film of engrossing atmosphere. The film seems to hover on the twilight edges of reality. Its entire mood is predicated on a hauntingly subtle move from a correlation between daylight equaling safety and rationality, towards night, which equals fear and the evocation of things of the imagination. McTiernan’s atmosphere is so subtle that when we fully enter into the otherworld of the phantoms, we discover that he has entirely ensnared one in its atmosphere without our even noticing it. The entire film is like a slow visual descent into photography that becomes monochrome and almost sepia-toned. The assimilation of the mood has a genuinely disturbing impact, as when McTiernan turns around and jolts us out of our absorption – like how Pierce Brosnan’s long, covert pursuit of the gang is abruptly shaken when gang member Frank Doubleday suddenly turns and looks right into Brosnan’s zoom lens. In one genuinely creepy moment, Pierce Brosnan encounters a nun in an almost monochrome lit derelict mission who suddenly turns and addresses him by name and leaves him with the haunting warning “they’ll take you into another world.” There is a genuinely startling scene where Brosnan is attacked by a biker while he look down from a tower railing with Anna-Maria Monticelli standing right beside him and he manages to throw the biker over the rail, all before Monticelli turns back to him without having noticed anything. The suggestion the film leaves one with is the extraordinarily eerie sense of a rubber reality where haunted things sit unnoticed alongside the everyday.

McTiernan slightly overdoes his slow-motion impact shots and Pierce Brosnan affects an incredibly silly fake French accent but these do not mar a film of entirely absorbing atmosphere. Disappointingly, Nomads was little seen when it came out and received only mediocre reviews. It is however a work that this author regards as seriously worthy of revaluation.

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