Notes toward a theory of the Dad Thriller
As with most things in my life, I’m very interested in evolutionary transitions. I’m less interested in the first human, but more the steps that existed before the group emerged fully formed. This taxonomy (and more importantly, the carefully crafted qualifiers) are a masterpiece. Your precursors (Predator, No Way Out, Frantic, Manhunter) are well chosen and on point. But I wonder if the first stirrings of the Dad Thriller began to emerge even before.
As you mentioned, the Dad thriller is very distinct from the Blockbuster, but I wonder if the DNA might not be present there in the blockbuster. A chromosomal forking of the road?
I’m thinking specifically of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (and NO OTHER Indiana Jones movie). Certainly it was Raiders more than any Star Wars movie that made Harrison Ford right for so many subsequent Dad Thrillers. He has a PhD in archeology but he was also a bit of a schlub. Nazis, shady American deep state elements buried in the government, a heroes purity of purpose while all forces are arrayed against him.
So many movies of the 80s and the 90s can trace their lineage back to that moment. Raiders might not be the actual moment that jumped out of the tree and started walking upright across the plains…but I think it’s a good place to start…
What a wonderful overview, and strangely it connects to a highly personal watchlist I was making on Letterboxd for 10 movies ordered chronologically: The Firm, In The Line Of Fire, Clear and Present Danger, Crimson Tide, Mission: Impossible, City Hall, The Peacemaker, Cop Land, Ronin and Enemy of the State.
These are my favorite movies from a specific category and released between 1993 and 1998: big blockbuster action movies set in real world locations and featuring characters dealing with the grime and grit of a world we believe is around us. Improbable escapes and deus ex machinas are kept to a minimum and scripts and dialogue are full of observations that we can connect to events from the news and recent history. These movies still have a whiff of the classic unresolved 70's movies about them, in that they're smart in the way characters make mistakes and either solve them messily (with a lot of 90's action and yelling) and also accept to live with a not so neat resolution (lots of Robert Towne script doctoring, and names like Steve Zaillian, David Koepp and David Mamet).
These 10 movies contain bits that are endlessly rewatchable (the ambush in Clear and Present Danger, all the car chases in Ronin, John Malkovich showing of his home made gun, Gene Hackman in everything). Besides my personal reason to connect these 10 movies from 1993-1998, they also connect because these more 'serious' and adult movies, combined with confusing doses of testosterone (these are not your 80's action stars) are no longer the money makers in Hollywood. There was a time and place for these movies to be big and beautiful, and they connect to my awakening as a cinephile during the 90's.
This is fascinating. In the '90s I was an editor at Avon Books, where I did the amazing THE GUYS' GUIDE TO GUYS' VIDEOS by Scott Meyer, which I told my daughter yesterday would be a blogpost today, and this is essentially it. So I love it. I was also the novelization guy at Avon, and my job was literally to read the scripts of most of the original movies above. I did, for instance, the novelization of BLOWN AWAY, and you are barely scratching the surface of possible dad thrillers, such as SWITCHBACK with Dennis Quaid (whose last 30 pages I had to write because the author refused). Best script I ever read was IN THE LINE OF FIRE. Right now the dad thriller mainstay is Liam Neeson, but the genre is largely dead. Why?
My theory is that while thrillers aimed at men used to be like Hitchcock movies: everyday guys thrown into extraordinary circumstances, now men want to read about and watch movies about not men they could be, but men they wish they were, that is, superheroes. One could look at how Tom Cruise's career evolved from Joel in RISKY BUSINESS to his Mission: Impossible character.
Fantastic article but you left off The Siege and US Marshalls.
I'd strongly second the nomination of "Russia House" (1990), which I recently rewatched. Connery/Pfeiffer may superficially give off an 80's vibe, but the Le Carré book and Tom Stoppard (!) screenplay adaptation are definitely firmly in "pretense of sophistication" territory.
I was more surprised by the omission of "Breakdown" (1997) - including from the comments! It's arguably something of a proto-Taken, I guess, but Kurt Russell's schlubby white-collar hubby is literally described in the trailers as "an ordinary man", and most of its (many) thrills are borne from the character's bewildering fish-out-of-water predicament.
I loved every bit of your work on this, btw - I just wish I hadn't missed it at the time of posting!
As a millennial, white, straight, male, with a graduate degree, who is himself the son of a boomer businessman and in turn now a dad as well… this whole blog post cut deep. Real deep.
My boomer parents took me to see Independence Day and Tomorrow Never Dies in the theater. I had a Jurassic Park lunchbox. Goldeneye, True Lies, and Air Force One were VHS staples at our from the local Hollywood video. Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever and I’m 90% sure the Hunt for Red October might be my most watched movie on Netflix.
I only object to Face/Off. Broken Arrow, fine, but Face/Off is way too weird.
Everything in bold is likely a tvtrooes.org entry
It's out of your time frame, but I think that Gorky Park has strong dad-thriller vibes -- maybe a bit more an an indie/art-house feel, but it has a lot of the right elements
Conspiracy Theory needs to be on this list
Honorable mention for The Siege (1998).
This is amazing. I feel like Volcano has to be included with Dante's Peak. It's got so much of the criteria: hard-working dads, shitty business men, race relations and a natural disaster.
I loved this so much that I immediately sent it to my dad, who says he has "no time" to watch any new TV but has dad thrillers and their successors playing on a loop all day long
Very very good.
Where is The Bodyguard tho?!
Of course there are roots in earlier films and fiction. But The Russia House ( Connery - not quite a dad but becomes one), Hitchcock’s North by Northwest where Cary Grant is the ordinary guy swept into international intrigue, The Man Who Knew Too Much with Jimmy Stewart as the Dad in international intrigue and of course that was a fictional form begat by Eric Ambler. His novels some of which became film - Journey into Fear 1940 is one - were the beginning of the Thriller as a form and of the ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances as a trope. This comment by a woman who is a dad thriller fan. Especially the good ones ;)
Nice, thoughtful piece - glad I’ve found your newsletter. Would you consider that the father (or grandfather) of the “dad thriller” is North By Northwest? Cary Grant as Roger Thorndyke is the quintessential schlub in a bad situation; except of course that he’s Cary Grant…