Total Recall

Total Recall: Best Joel Silver Productions

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows producer.

by | December 14, 2011 | Comments

Joel Silver

This weekend, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law return to theaters in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, reuniting the duo that sleuthed up more than $520 million in worldwide box office receipts during their 2009 debut. But it isn’t just Robert and Jude who deserve credit for all this blockbuster detecting — there’s a whole team behind Hollywood’s latest incarnation of Holmes and Watson, including director Guy Ritchie and screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney (not to mention the characters’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). But today, we’re here to pay tribute to someone else: Joel Silver, a co-producer on the Holmes franchise and someone whose instinct for developing major movie hits has made him one of the industry’s most sought-after talents for the last 30 years. You know his name, you’ve seen it on the credits of countless films, and now it’s time to take a look at some of the most critically successful of the bunch. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. Sherlock Holmes

Over 100 years after he made his debut on the printed page, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective got the big budget Joel Silver treatment in the aptly titled Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as the intrepid sleuth and Jude Law as his faithful sidekick Watson. Joined by Rachel McAdams as the mysterious Irene Adler and assisted by Guy Ritchie’s action-heavy direction, Holmes made solving 19th-century mysteries cool again — and entertained critics such as Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic, who wrote, “Playing literature’s greatest detective as a sort of self-loathing action hero, Downey has an absolute blast. And thanks to his performance in Sherlock Holmes, so do we.”


9. V for Vendetta

The famously cantankerous Alan Moore disavowed the Hollywood version of his graphic novel, taking issue with the way the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta used the political subtext of the book — which was written in the 1980s — to frame an argument against neoconservatism. And Moore probably had a point, too — but as hard as it is to begrudge an author his criticism of an adaptation of his work, it’s also easy to understand why the gripping, stylish Vendetta was a critical and commercial hit when it reached theaters in early 2006. James McTeigue’s direction is at its most thrilling here, and the Wachowskis’ script manages to incorporate thought-provoking themes with good old-fashioned action. And then there was Natalie Portman, who had her head shaved on camera for her role as Evey Hammond, the ordinary citizen driven to vigilantism by a totalitarian political regime (as well as some remarkably persuasive speeches from a masked, yet still utterly charismatic, Hugo Weaving). V for Vendetta was so dark, and so unapologetically political, that it’s still a little hard to believe it was a $100 million-plus hit — but it certainly didn’t hurt that it provoked eloquent praise from critics like Jonathan R. Perry of the Tyler Morning Telegraph, who wrote, “V screams loudly and long, with visceral, kinetic fury and with style to burn. It’s so brazen, it’s kind of brilliant.”


8. The Matrix Reloaded

Four years after The Matrix earned $463 million at the box office, Silver and the Wachowskis got the band back together for The Matrix Reloaded, in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) starts getting to the bottom of the conspiracy that has enslaved humanity — and introduces audiences to the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and Persephone (Monica Bellucci). Though it didn’t offer quite as many paradigm-shifting thrills as the original, Reloaded outgrossed the first installment by a few hundred million — and impressed critics like Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who wrote, “For sheer exhilarating spectacle, The Matrix Reloaded is the film to beat this year.”


7. Predator

Like any great blockbuster producer, Silver knows how to smell a hit — and during the 1980s, that scent was Eau de Schwarzenegger. Silver and Ahnuld teamed up twice during the decade, and the results — Commando and Predator — are among any action fan’s favorites from the era. Here, Schwarzenegger must lead a team of tough-as-nails soldiers into the jungle on what’s believed to be a rescue mission for prisoners of war — but which quickly turns out to be a bloody fight against a dreadlocked interstellar hunter (played to perfection by the late, lamented Kevin Peter Hall). Silver’s pictures from the period tended to follow a certain formula, but at this point, familiarity hadn’t yet bred contempt — and anyway, if Predator lacks a surplus of moving parts, it does what it’s supposed to with cool precision. “It achieves a sort of sublime purity,” sighed an appreciative Tim Brayton for Antagony & Ecstacy. “It is Action Movie, nothing more and nothing less.”


6. Lethal Weapon 2

After the immense success of 1987’s Lethal Weapon, and the enduring popularity of the buddy cop genre it helped define, it came as no surprise to anyone when a sequel surfaced two years later. What was shocking, however, was just how much fun Lethal Weapon 2 turned out to be. Boasting further opportunities for Gibson to test the limits of action-hero funny business as nutty LAPD sergeant Martin Riggs, some of the nastiest bad guys in any late 1980s action thriller, and rapid-fire comic relief in the form of Joe Pesci, the second Weapon flew in the face of conventional wisdom by scoring with filmgoers and critics alike. In fact, some preferred it to the original — including scribes like Brian Orndorf, who called it “One of the finest examples of the genre, and, in my humble estimation, one of the greatest sequels put to film. Perhaps deranged hyperbole, but rarely does a follow-up outgun the original film as swiftly as Lethal 2 does.”


5. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

There’s no surefire way for an actor to guarantee that any given project will be a hit at the box office, but having Joel Silver attached certainly doesn’t hurt a movie’s chances for success. As evidenced by most of the other entries on this list, Silver is mostly known for his commercial instincts — which is why 2005’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a skewed noir comedy directed and adapted by Shane Black (The Last Boy Scout) came as such a pleasant surprise for critics. Downey, who worked with Silver on 2003’s Gothika, is squarely in his wheelhouse here, starring as a two-bit hood who repeatedly breaks the fourth wall as he stumbles from one circumstance (accidentally landing a movie role) to another (discovering a murder mystery) while trading quips with the private investigator (Val Kilmer) who’s helping him research his character. Kiss Kiss saw only limited release during its brief theatrical run, but it earned high praise from the likes of the Washington Post’s Desson Howe, who called it “the first movie since 1994’s Pulp Fiction not just to understand movie violence as a pop cultural form… but to play it like a virtuoso violinist.”


4. The Matrix

At the unlikely intersection of sci-fi, noir, and “whoa,” The Matrix postulated a future world in which sentient machines harvest energy from people housed in vast pod farms, with only a remarkably adept kung fu student named Neo (Keanu Reeves) standing between the human race and indefinite servitude. Taken as a whole, the trilogy might be uneven, but the Matrix movies blended sleek futurism, messy cyberpunk, and good old-fashioned action thrills with an original audacity that hasn’t been seen since. “If there has to be a quintessential film for the end of the millennium,” wrote Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal, “this is it.”


3. Lethal Weapon

Movies had been making cash out of the male buddy dynamic for decades before Lethal Weapon came along, so it would be a mistake to call it groundbreaking, but it was still one of the more influential (and successful) action flicks of the late ’80s. Of course, that influence was partially felt through turkeys like Tango & Cash — not to mention Weapon‘s three uneven sequels — but let us focus here on the positive: Gibson and Glover have the easy chemistry of two old friends, Richard Donner’s direction is at its sleekest, Shane Black’s script combines laughs and thrills in equal measure, and Gibson’s mullet was never more exquisite. The role of mentally unstable cop Martin Riggs wasn’t really anything new for Gibson (Time’s Richard Schickel cracked that the movie was “Mad Max meets The Cosby Show“), but it put him squarely in his wheelhouse, and introduced filmgoers to one of the more interesting and complex characters in the genre. “From a distance, Lethal Weapon might appear generic,” wrote James Berardinelli of ReelViews, “but a closer look reveals something special.”


2. 48 Hrs.

The movie that launched Eddie Murphy’s film career, Silver’s box office reign, and arguably the entire “buddy cop” genre, Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. overcame a stint in turnaround and countless rewrites to become one of 1982’s biggest hits. A number of Murphy’s most memorable silver screen bits are here, including his impassioned rendition of the Police’s “Roxanne” and the classic scene where he stuns a bar full of rhinestone cowboys into submission; in fact, you could argue that the template for his entire early film career — and the “classic” Murphy whose disappearance we bemoan so frequently — was molded from the impression left by the wisecracking Reggie Hammond. It’s temping to wonder what might have been if 48 Hrs. had been made as the Clint Eastwood/Richard Pryor vehicle it started out as, but as Roger Ebert noted, this is a film that transcends its rather limited set of ingredients because of its stars: “The movie’s story is nothing to write home about. It’s pretty routine. What makes the movie special is how it’s made. Nolte and Murphy are good, and their dialogue is good, too — quirky and funny.”


1. Die Hard

Later installments in the series may have taken the title a little too seriously, but when Die Hard debuted in 1988, it represented a return to reality of sorts for the action thriller genre. Unlike increasingly bulbous action heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis looked like a fairly average guy — and he acted pretty much the way you’d expect a good cop to act if he were trapped in a skyscraper with a pack of terrorists, which is to say he was bleeding, confused, and frightened for most of the movie. Audiences, meanwhile, were thoroughly entertained — and so were critics like the New York Times’ Caryn James, who wrote, “The scenes move with such relentless energy and smashing special-effects extravagance that Die Hard turns out to be everything action-genre fans, and Bruce Willis’s relieved investors, might have hoped for.”

In case you were wondering, here are Silver’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Die Hard — 91%
2. V for Vendetta — 88%
3. Predator — 83%
4. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang — 83%
5. The Matrix — 81%
6. Sherlock Holmes — 81%
7. Lethal Weapon — 81%
8. Lethal Weapon 2 — 75%
9. The Matrix Reloaded — 74%
10. RocknRolla — 72%

Take a look through Silver’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

Finally, here’s a star-studded tribute to Silver, who was named 1990 Producer of the Year by the National Association of Theater Owners:

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