Richard Donner’s greatest films – from ‘The Omen’ to ‘Lethal Weapon’

A useful guide to the late director's biggest popcorn moments

Horror, action adventure, comedy and Mel Gibson – the filmography of Richard Donner, who has sadly passed at the age of 91, dominated cinema screens for decades. He was a director with vision and guile – and as crucial to the telling of ’80s Hollywood as any filmmaker who doesn’t have the surname Spielberg. Here’s a guide to his very best work…

X-15 (1961)

Credited here as Richard D. Donner, the director’s first picture is difficult to find even now. Rarely shown on TV, there was a VHS available in 1983, an out-of-print DVD release in 2004, and yet the film is deserving of your attention. As well as giving America’s sweetheart Mary Tyler Moore her big screen debut, the film tells a fictionalised account of the X-15 research rocket aircraft programme and was praised for its accuracy in depicting space flight. Not surprising, given NASA’s role as consultants during production.

How many explosions? Mild, propulsion-based explosions (and real NASA stock footage too).

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Richard Donner movies
‘X-15’, Donner’s first film. CREDIT: Alamy

The Omen (1976)

Released on the very eve of the ‘Satanic Panic’ that tore across ’80s America, there’s a school of thought that says Donner’s adaptation of David Seltzer’s script could have been a very different movie to the one that grossed over $60 million in ticket receipts in the summer of ’76. It’s been said that Donner favoured an ambiguous reading of the movie where Damien Thorn wasn’t explicitly the spawn of Satan. Seltzer pushed back and producer Harvey Bernhard agreed. Regardless, the result was one of the 1970s’ slickest scares.

How many explosions? No explosions. A dude does get decapitated by a sheet of glass though. Cool.

Superman (1978)

Cinema’s first run at DC Comics’ flagship character was, at the time of filming, the most expensive movie ever conceived, with a budget of $55million. The principal issue was how to suspend the audience’s grasp of physics when the titular character took to the skies. ‘You’ll believe a man can fly’ ran the posters tagline. “Nobody knew how to go about it,” said Donner. “It was the blind leading the blind, all experimentation… One of my greatest attributes on the picture was I knew what I wanted. I didn’t know how to get it, but I wouldn’t accept anything until I saw it.” Most believed; the picture grossed $300million and received a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects.

How many explosions? A decent amount, though Superman stops more from happening. Booooo.

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The Goonies (1985)

Donner bounced back from the critical misfire of 1982 Richard Prior vehicle The Toy – “My mind wasn’t simply wandering during the film – it was ricocheting between the screen and the exit sign”, wrote New York Times’ critic Vincent Canby upon release – with a film now beloved by millions. Goonies really do never say die; special anniversary events for the film, hosted by the city of Astoria, regularly take over vast swathes of the town, while the Walsh family house has become a tourist attraction. Last year there were two virtual reunions – including Donner – to raise money for charity. And yet that sequel remains (maybe for the best) illusive…

How many explosions? Poor Troy, reading Guns & Ammo, sat on the country club toilet…

Ladyhawke (1985)

This dark medieval fantasy, starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, and Michelle Pfeiffer, is a much overlooked curio from Donner’s filmography. Donner had fought to get the film financed for years, almost coming close twice, with the location of the film’s shooting proposed as England, then Czechoslovakia. In the end Donner settled on Italy, and the film’s ragged Mediterranean beauty steals the show throughout.

How many explosions? No explosions. But a sexy hawk!

Lethal Weapon (1987)

$120million on a budget of $15million is a pretty sweet return on a film that was originally scheduled to be directed by Leonard ‘Spock’ Nimoy (he was busy with 3 Men and a Baby). And yet, it’s impossible to think now what one of the 1980s’ boldest blockbusters would look and feel like without Donner at the helm. His relentless bombast, and the on-screen chemistry of leads Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, elicit warmth and charm throughout. The film saw the start of a working relationship with Gibson that lasted decades.

How many explosions? Many explosions.

Scrooged (1988)

This sharp and savage modern-day retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol marked lead Bill Murray’s return to acting after a four-year post Ghostbusters hiatus. Murray had found the hit paranormal comedy “overwhelming”; he didn’t find his experience on the Donner-directed Scrooged much better, describing his time on set as “misery”, with director and star reportedly clashing over their vision for the film. Donner called Murray “superbly creative but occasionally difficult”, claiming that “you don’t direct [Murray], you pull him back.” And yet Scrooged remains an effective antidote to saccharine Christmas-themed cinema.

How many explosions? No explosions, but fake snow that allegedly made Murray cough up blood.

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Though the film that appeared on screen owed little to Shane Black’s original script – Donner rejecting the writer’s screenplay for being too bloody, and, with an eye on establishing a franchise, not wanting Riggs (Mel Gibson) to die at the film’s climax – Lethal Weapon 2 serves up more of the high-octane chaos that made its preceding film such a hit. Intrigue remains about Black’s original script, originally titled Play Dirty. Black has said the script remains “the best thing I ever wrote.” It remains unreleased, despite repeated attempts by fans to find a copy of it.

How many explosions? More than Lethal Weapon.

Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)

The third instalment of the buddy cop franchise is notable for adding Joe Pesci to the mix – rarely an unwelcome addition to any movie, and certainly not here – though elsewhere the film delivers everything fans liked so much about the preceding entries in the series. A note though on Donner’s personal politics being inserted into the film: Donner, a noted animal rights and pro-choice activist, placed multiple posters and stickers celebrating these causes throughout the film’s 118-minute running time. Liberals might want to keep an eye out for the t-shirts worn by Murtaugh’s daughters, the side of the 18-wheeler and the stickers on the lockers of the police station.

How many explosions? More than Lethal Weapon 2.

Conspiracy Theory (1997)

The ’90s and ’00s weren’t terribly kind to Donner’s output and by 2006 the director was out of the game, serving primarily as an executive producer on Free Willy, Tales From The Crypt and X-Men films. But the first half of this overlooked Mel Gibson joint is some of the best work both Gibson and Donner ever did together. That said, it’s been proposed that the success of the movie first put many of the conspiracy theories that infest today’s culture on the radar of the gullible and the lost. So there’s that.

How many explosions? Just the one, going off in Mel Gibson’s brain.

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