When a foreign filmmaker strikes big in their home country or internationally with a film, it can provide the opportunity to present their work to a wider audiences. Some lucky few (or unlucky depending on who you ask) might have their film picked up by a foreign distributor to exhibit in other countries, while others get the chance at something that most young American directors don’t get in their lifetimes: the offer to make a big-budget film with English-speaking actors to appeal to the largest possible audience. By doing so, the filmmaker usually receives a budget that normally dwarfs what they’re used to, with financing coming from a studio or production company looking to make a hit.
Not all cases have proven successful, with many flopping their English-language debut for all kinds of reasons. A lot can get lost in translation, and a filmmaker’s sensibilities might not work for audiences outside their native country. More commonly, they’re unable to adjust to the demands of the studio system, and as a result, they produce a shabby end product that ends the possibility of future collaborations.
When this type of news hits the trade, it’s almost always met with concern, especially if the filmmaker is beloved. As much as I adore the Hong Kong films of Tsui Hark or Wong Kar-wai, I can’t say the same for their English-language debut, since those films turned out to be Double Team (Hark) and My Blueberry Nights (Wong).
But despite all that, there are many directors who survive the transition. In some instances, it’s almost graceful, almost suspect in that they might’ve secretly done this beforehand, far outside basic testing and pre-production. A lot of these filmmakers would go one to make some of Hollywood’s most iconic films, some even winning Oscars. Sometimes, the director will acknowledge the effort and return to making the films they enjoyed. Regardless, here are some of the best English-language debuts that work well as a look into a filmmaker’s career before and after their big break.
18. Hard Target (1993, John Woo)
Film prior: Hard Boiled (1992)
Nat Binder (Yancy Butler) travels to New Orleans to locate her veteran father. Hitting nothing but dead ends, Nat finds herself accosted by some thugs who attempt to rape and rob her. From nowhere, she is saved by a mullet-sporting badass Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Based on his actions, she hires Chance as a private investigator (sort of) to help find her father. As they navigate the town together, this puts them in the crosshairs of Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his assistant Pik (Arnold Vosloo), two criminals not only responsible for the death of Nat’s father, but the organizers of a deadly game for rich clients.
When John Woo made the transition to English-language films, he did it with the hottest action star at the time. Upon release, Hard Target was a critical and financial success. Today, Hard Target doesn’t hold up well in considering the way modern action films are produced. It’s slower, ridiculous, and just plain cartoonish in a lot of cases. The script is also kind of crap. That said, it’s absolutely terrible in a good way.
Van Damme’s indecipherable accents make every line feel like an awkward one-line. Even better are scenes of dialogue when it seems like the actor remembered his line mid-delivery. His character is the best and worst detective, even getting actual detectives killed because of his actions. Speaking of one-liners, the villains chew up the scenery like crazy. For guys who market themselves as international businessmen, they act like straight up psychopaths, even to their own henchmen. John Woo’s slow-mo is so overused that eventual freeze frames seem absolutely pointless. It’s definitely style over substance, one that will define Woo’s action career in America, but also be one of his largest criticisms.
It’s crazy how the action in Hard Boiled (arguably his masterpiece) still holds up, but his following film a year later feels incredibly dated. Still, Van Damme is a fine surrogate Chow Yun-fat, selling the action well enough to make Woo’s world come alive. There are a few genuinely cool stunts in this film, and it’s usually when the film combines elements of both men. Whether you’re a fan of the gunplay or Van Damme’s insane legwork, Hard Target has both and then some for the action fans.
17. Flesh+Blood (1985, Paul Verhoeven)
Film prior: The 4th Man (1983)
Following a coup on his city in 1501, the ruler Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) seeks the help of mercenary leader Hackwood (Jack Thompson) and his lieutenant Martin (Rutger Hauer) to retake his land. When Arnolfini convinces Hackwood to betray Martin, Martin retaliates by sacking a caravan that belongs to Arnolfini’s son, Steven (Tom Burlinson), also kidnapping his betrothed Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Martin rapes her during the night, but rather than staying prisoner, Agnes helps Martin and his men take a castle infected with the plague. Soon after, Steven and Hackwood discover Martin’s location and they amass a small army to retrieve Agnes.
Paul Verhoeven’s English-language debut didn’t cause the hysteria like his following film Robocop, but the filmmaker’s medieval action flick is about as straightforward as it gets, aside from a few directorial tweaks. Much like his film before this, The 4th Man, and many that followed, Verhoeven adds a female character who’s more than the damsel in distress.
Even though the character starts that way, Agnes’s motivations put her alongside the several femme-fatales that occupy Verhoeven’s filmography. Not one to hold back during the action sequences, he does medieval violence justice by making it bloody and unflinching, while shooting the scenes with a great sense of pacing, space, and spectacle. The siege on the castle is an amazing sequence, one of many in this film sure to impress.
Historically it might not be the most accurate film, but Verhoeven’s filmography suggests that the man aims to entertain with his films more than anything. The joke about a script requiring sex and/or violence to succeed is something that I feel Verhoeven follows as gospel. He could’ve gone crazy with the world like he did with Robocop or Total Recall, but here, Verhoeven strips it down and presents a violent feud between nobles and mercenaries. And while it might not contain dragons or wizards, it’s pretty damn entertaining.
16. Desperado (1995, Robert Rodriguez)
Film prior: El Mariachi (1992)
El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) is wandering stranger out for vengeance in the slums Mexico, holding nothing but a guitar case. Great with a gun — even better on the guitar — Mariachi continues his quest to find and kill Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida) for murdering his lover and shooting his hand. With the help of a bookstore owner Carolina (Salma Hayek), Mariachi will blast his way through hordes of bandits, criminals, and assassins to stop the drug lord from furthering his reach.
Sometimes, foreign filmmakers will remake an earlier film of theirs in English. In some cases, the originals just cast too large a shadow (George Sluizer’s Without a Trace and Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge) while sometimes it just seems pointless (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games). Even though Desperado is widely considered a remake of Rodriguez’s debut-indie, El Mariachi, the director utilized his larger budget and enhanced what made the first film so special outside the punk-rock production tales.
Whereas the former film had to use jump cuts for its shooting scenes, here Rodriguez can put his inspirations on screen as he brings in elements from John woo and Sam Peckinpah in the action, but Banderas also channeling the cool of Chow Yun-fat. While El Mariachi and Once Upon a Time in Mexico are both a lot of fun, Desperado is the one that showed the rest of the world how Banderas and Rodriguez play.
15. Hammett (1982, Wim Wenders)
Film prior: The American Friend (1977)
Language: German / English
Based on the novel by Joe Gores, Hammett is a fictitious take certain events in 1928 San-Fransisco that would shape the writing of Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest) and his detective fiction. When old friend Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle) requests Hammett’s (or “Sam’s”) help in locating a missing Chinese cabaret dancer named Crystal (Lydia Lei), Hammett will slowly uncover a plot that’s deeper and much more convoluted than a simple missing-persons case.
Wim Wenders sort of had an English-speaking debut with The American Friend, but that’s only since it happened to star an English-speaking Dennis Hopper in one of the lead roles as the Tom Ripley character. Everyone else, however, was speaking either French or German. With Hammett, Wenders worked under Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, Zoetrope Studios. The entire cast speaks English, and the story is distinctly American, focusing on an American literary figure.
The film isn’t that good, as Francis Ford Coppola and Wenders later revealed that the studio forced them to reshoot and edit the film, unsatisfied with Wenders’s original cut. What’s released doesn’t feel as contemplative and loose like Wender’s road trilogy, only retaining some of his signature aesthetics. The color in this film pops, especially in the reds and greens, colors that’ll define his later masterpiece Paris, Texas.
Of all the films on this list, Hammett is slightly weaker in quality, but Wenders’s films are an acquired taste, academic when discussed. Hammett is much more digestible, and Frederick Forrest as Dashielle Hammett is a lot of fun to watch. Although Sam Shepard didn’t the play the lead role in the finished product, if he hand’t tested for Wenders, they might have not made the relationship that would go on to create Paris, Texas.
While Wenders hasn’t done a film that’s resonated deep within popular culture, cinephiles can appreciate his attempt at the studio film, respectfully going back to what made his work great rather than quitting altogether. A somewhat happy ending for the filmmaker where many similarly placed filmmakers were not as fortunate to receive.
14. Stoker (2013, Park Chan-wook)
Film prior: Thirst (2009)
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and her mother Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) are struck with the horrifying death of the father and husband, Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney). From this sudden death marks the sudden appearance of Charles Stoker (Matthew Goode), a mysterious and enigmatic uncle who’s been away for all of India and Evelyn’s lives. As mysterious things start happening to the people around them, India must figure out the secret behind her uncle as he gets more interested in his niece.
While Stoker didn’t receive the love and attention compared to Bong’s release, it’s nonetheless a Park Chan-wook film, despite being written by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller. The cinematography and the direction of the film look gorgeous, gothic and colorfully with purpose. Whether it’s an umbrella, a crawling spider, or India’s hair, Park as a visualist hasn’t been diluted with a new language and setting. However, it doesn’t hit as hard as Park’s previous films, even to point of Stoker feeling much simpler, not quite nailing the “nurture of evil” theme that Park stated was his goal in subsequent interviews following the release.
It still feels like a Park Chan-wook film though, with a shower scene specifically that’s could’ve been easily a part of his Korean tragedies. The soundtrack and score by Clint Mansell (with a track from Phillip Glass) is unsettling in all the right ways, with the sound design being as important as the visual, reflecting India’s heightened sense of sound. Again, not the strongest film in his library, but definitely a good effort in a totally new language, one that was good enough to get Park talking to Hollywood for another one.
13. The NeverEnding Story (1984, Wolfgang Petersen)
Film prior: Das Boot (1981)
Bastian Balthazar Bux (Barret Oliver) is a bookworm who’s the target of bullies at his school. Bastion frequents a bookstore when this happens, escaping into any novel or storybook that interest him. When he comes across a mysterious and “dangerous” book from the owner, he “borrows” it and hurries to the school attic. He’s immediately drawn into the world of Fantasia, where a young warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) must find a way to defeat the “Nothing”: a dark cloud of darkness that consumes everything in its path. But as Bastion reads further, he becomes more and more involved in the story.
Wolfgang Petersen has made some solid blockbusters in his career, but they’re far from perfect, and the man hasn’t directed a feature since 2006’s Poseidon. When he released Das Boot, Petersen got much acclaim in telling a thrilling, claustrophobic look into a German submarine and the toll it has on the men operating it. It’s probably still considered the best film about submarine life. Who knew he’d follow it up with what would eventually become a beloved, 80’s children’s film?
The NeverEnding Story has mostly aged well, and the practically-built sets and creatures add the tangibility that’s missing in today’s films. Although it’s different from the source material, fans generally don’t dislike this film for taking creative liberties. The NeverEnding Story is still an awesome film that brings you back in the right way possible. Let’s not forget the cheesy awesome theme song as well.