by Mel Valentin
"Nomads," John McTiernan's directorial debut (he also wrote the screenplay), is, as first films go, an ambitious, serious-minded horror/fantasy set in Los Angeles. "Nomads," however, may have been too ambitious, especially for a visually oriented director working from his own script. As expected from a director of McTiernan's pedigree ("Predator," "Diehard," "The Hunt for Red October," "The Thomas Crown Affair"), "Nomads" has one or two compelling set pieces. What "Nomads" lacks, however, is a focused, easily understandable storyline. McTiernan seems to have picked up some bad narrative habits from European art films (where ambiguity is preferred).Nomads opens dramatically, with the lead character, Jean Charles Pommier (a bearded Pierce Brosnan, struggling with a French accent), covered in blood and ranting in French, being brought into an emergency room at an unnamed hospital. An emergency room physician, Dr. Flax (Lesley-Anne Down, luminous, but wasted in an underwritten role), attempts to treat Jean Charles' wounds, even as he continues his rants. Grabbing and scratching her, Jean Charles imparts a few more words. Jean Charles expires. Dr. Flax, however, has been somehow infected with his thoughts and experiences. Jean Charles' memories begin to flood into her consciousness, causing her, at least at first, to go into a catatonic state (she revives).
"A meandering, muddled effort from a young director, John McTiernan."
Nomads then unfolds as an extended flashback, with periodic forays into the present as Dr. Flax attempts to understand what Jean Charles experienced before his death. Via the flashback, we soon learn that Jean Charles is a world-traveling anthropologist who's just taken a position as an academic at UCLA. Jean Charles and his wife, Niki (Anna Maria Monticelli), have spent close to a dozen years studying various nomadic groups around the world. Now, Jean Charles has decided to settle down, teach, and lead a more comfortable life with his wife. To that end, they rent a house in a seemingly quiet neighborhood. Soon enough, Jean Charles discovers a spray-painted message on the garage door (the words "Pigs" and "Kill" are prominently displayed). Apparently, neighborhood punks have made a shrine to a murder that occurred in the house they're renting. Unfazed, Jean Charles pulls out his camera and begins to follow the nomadic punks.
The demon/punks are led by Number One (Adam Ant), and include Ponytail (Hector Mercado), Silver Ring (Josie Cotton), Razor (Frank Doubleday) and Dancing Mary (Mary Woronov). [Note: the punks aren't given names in the film, only in the credits.] Jean Charles spends 30 hours following the nomadic punks, eventually spying them beating a man into unconsciousness (or worse) under an overpass. Oddly, Jean Charles gives himself away. They give chase, he escapes, but follows them again (all on the same night). They playfully pose for his camera. Eventually, Jean Charles discovers that he's seen too much. The punks are malevolent wandering spirits, but there's also something of the trickster archetype in their behavior. Jean Charles is easy prey (since they know where he lives), but they prefer to string out the chase, slowly driving Jean Charles toward madness (and violence). Meanwhile, Dr. Flax disappears and reappears, ultimately making contact with a distraught, grief-stricken Niki.
Nomads eventually turns on Dr. Flax re-experiencing Jean Charles' fragmentary last moments, but not before the spirits/punks illogically decide to attack her at Niki's home en masse (we originally see five or six punks, but the next to final scene features 30-40 of them, some on motorcycles). Oddly, McTiernan stages the final attack during the daytime, a decision that practically eliminates the horror or suspense aspect to the storyline. There's nothing unreal or surreal about the nomads. If they're frightening at all, it's due to their outsider status, their numbers, and their silence (we never hear them speak, even to one another). Nomads would have been better served by showing the nomads only at night, using lighting and shadows to suggest their supernatural nature.
McTiernan's idiosyncratic choices don't end there, however. Jean Charles confrontation with the nomads occurs primarily offscreen, with the exception of one or two brief shots that flood into Flax's mind at the climax to her storyline. It's difficult to understand the rationale behind the Dr. Flax storyline, outside of padding out the otherwise brief running time or, just as likely, to get exposition across to the audience. McTiernan also limits information about the nomads. We have some idea about their nature, but nothing about their origins or, more importantly, about their vulnerabilities or even how long they "live." Last, McTiernan ends Nomads with a laugh-inducing image (most likely "inspired" by the last image in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining).Ultimately, "Nomads" has little to recommend it to potential viewers (even hardcore horror fans), with the exception of McTiernan completists interested in seeing how he started. His visual stylistics, especially in the nighttime scenes and one scene involving nuns, seems to have been just enough to recommend McTiernan to the producers of "Predator" and "Die Hard" (the latter remains the standout film of McTiernan's career as a Hollywood director).
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originally posted: 10/09/05 17:24:49