(SPOILERS) I suppose an inauspicious beginning to a directorial career is better than never again challenging one’s first-time-out-of-the-gate success. After all, nobody was on tenterhooks for Cameron’s next movie after Piranha II: The Spawning (then again, neither is anyone now). In his autobiography, Arnie tells how he caught John McTiernan’s Nomads and, impressed by his ability to ratchet up tension, suggested him for Predator. If this is true, the Austrian Oak has (had, judging by his last 20 years of movie roles) a rare eye, as it would be all too easy to come away unimpressed with the picture’s sub-MTV rock video, sub-Mad Max stylings.
Which isn’t to say there’s isn’t something here. The basic concept is distinctive, and McTiernan’s way into it is intriguing enough; when Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan, who would reteam with the director thirteen years later for the altogether more successful Thomas Crown Affair remake; sporting a Die Another Day beard, Pierce’s French accent would have been rejected by the ‘Allo ‘Allo cast as ludicrous) dies in an LA hospital emergency room, he mysteriously passes on his experiences to Dr Eileen Flax (former "Britain's Most Beautiful Teenager" Lesley-Anne Down), who understandably can’t cope.
We learn, through Flax’s eyes, that UCLA anthropologist Pommier had been doing what anthropologists do and studying primitive groups and their beliefs. This appears to have led to the arrival of a tribe of novelty nomads in his near vicinity. On taking pictures in which they fail to appear, Pommier concludes they are Einwetok, Inuit trickster spirits looking to silence him (“The problem now is not what you know. It’s what they know. You looked too closely”). They are “supposed harmful spirits”, who “brought down disaster and menace” on their victims, and Pommier’s death doesn’t seem to have abated them, as they start menacing Flax and Pommier’s wife Niki (Anna-Maria Monticelli).
Credit to McTiernan, he adopts an oblique dream-like approach that makes it a challenge to piece together precisely what is going on. But it isn’t always merit-worthy to make your audience do the hard work; one has to be rewarded by in some way by all that nebulousness. The parallel narratives, in which Flax finds herself suddenly dropping into Pommier’s prior experiences, are nicely achieved. McTiernan even includes a frisson of lesbian subtext in Flax’s newfound relationship with Niki, which put me in mind of another debut feature, Tony Scott’s atypical (for him) The Hunger, a more studious and rewarding blend of style and story.
There are also some strange and arresting interludes; Pommier’s encounter with a (ghostly) nun achieves a sense of the uncanny much of the movie (sadly) lacks, and the final reveal that he has now joined the ranks of the Einwetok is a solid, if inevitable, twist (it appears to signal the spirits are confining their activities to California, for whatever reason, as he turns back when Flax and Niki cross its boundary).
Unfortunately, Nomads often looks more like an extended pilot for The Equalizer than a prepossessing debut feature. There is much in the way of dry ice and deserted back alleys, suggestive not so much of an eerie atmosphere as zero budget for extras and locations. The style-conscious Einwetok include Adam Ant (who, we learn, was a killer in human form) and Warhol/Corman cult actress Mary Woronov among their ranks, and are consequently pitifully unmenacing. Visualising them as a leather-clad biker gang, driving around in an old van, McTiernan succeeds in robbing his concept of any mystique (“These people live in parking lots!”). Since much of the picture is based on the act of observing them, or their observing/threatening others, it’s rather a fundamental problem.
So too, McTiernan’s attempts to render an unnerving, twilight urban landscape are continually undermined by the Bill Conti/Ted Nugent rawwwk soundtrack, further adding to the sensation that this is more like a feature length music video than a coherent movie (the use of a heartbeat effect at various points is much more effective and unsettling).
There’s curiosity value here (where else will you get a chance to see 007 beating Prince Charming with a crowbar?) but McTiernan mistakes ceaselessly cryptic pseudo-mysticism for layered and challenging storytelling. Consequently, he elicits mere indifference, and it isn’t too great a surprise Nomads bombed. I’d been intrigued to see the movie, which is currently on YouTube, for a good long while, buoyed by its director’s subsequent credentials and the premise, which sounds so much better on paper – and likewise looks on the poster – than it turns out on celluloid. The most impressive thing about Nomads is that you never would have expected its director to deliver something so accomplished – if from a far less imaginative premise – only a year later.