Phil Noyce‘s career, like the careers of George Miller and Gillian Armstrong, is typical of many Australian directors who started off in the 1970s: small local films, maybe some television work, the film that suddenly grabs everyone’s attention, and then the call from Hollywood to direct films with huge stars and huge budgets.
Not everyone successfully makes the transition from popular local filmmaker to popular international filmmaker, but Phil Noyce is one of those who did. Capable of making thrillers like Dead Calm, big action flicks like Salt, and human-interest stories like Rabbit-Proof Fence, Noyce is also adept at moving between the big and small screen. What follows is Phil Noyce’s most critically acclaimed films on Rotten Tomatoes.
10 ‘Blind Fury’ (1989)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 56%
You’re going to need two things to make a film about a blind American Vietnam veteran who becomes a master swordsman and rescues his best friend (and his best friend’s son) from a Reno crime boss: a Dutch leading actor to play the veteran and an Australian director.
Made in 1989,Blind Fury actually works as a decent if not brilliant martial arts flick, with its tongue firmly planted in one of its cheeks … or possibly both. Rutger Hauer has no problem handling the fighting and joking side of things, he was a wonderful actor; and as his later work shows, Phil Noyce knows how to direct an action film. Still, Blind Fury just misses out winning Rotten Tomatoes’ ‘freshest’ rating (over 60%), but perhaps with just cause.
9 ‘Mary and Martha’ (2013)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 56%
More deserving of winning the ‘freshest’ rating, however, was this film made in 2013. Mary and Martha is a story about two women who each lose a child to malaria in Africa, and subsequently decide to do something about the terrible toll the disease wreaks on that continent.
The film, based on a Richard Curtis script, was made for television, and although based on a true story and generally well received by audiences failed to really grab the critics. When it comes to ‘freshest’, deserving sometimes isn’t enough.
8 ‘Salt’ (2010)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 62%
This 2010 film is an impressive vehicle for Angelina Jolie, letting her show off not only her acting skills but also her ability to pull off some amazing action stunts. Jolie plays a double agent who ends up being a triple agent, or maybe just a double agent who changes her mind … it actually gets hard to tell because as the plot gets more convoluted it also becomes more absurd.
Salt allows Noyce to again prove his skill at directing an action thriller, never losing the audience no matter how many unlikely twists and turns it’s asked to follow.
7 ‘Catch a Fire’ (2006)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%
A thousand movies about how the people of South Africa finally rid itself of apartheid would still only tell a small part of the whole story because every South African who lived through that time has a story to tell. 2006’s Catch a Fire is one of those stories, showing how Patrick Chamusso, played by Derek Luke, became radicalized after he and his wife are brutalized by white police.
Noyce, working from a script by Shawn Slovo, shows the audience glimpse of what it was like to live under, resist against, and be punished by an apartheid regime. Catch a Fire also shows how autocratic governments relying on violence to stay in power often beget violence and so bring about their own end.
6 ‘Patriot Games’ (1992)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%
Author Tom Clancy wasn’t happy with the movie adaptation of his Jack Ryan novel Patriot Games. He didn’t like the way the script changed the original story, and apparently was also unhappy about the change in director and lead actors from the first Jack Ryan film, The Hunt for Red October.
But despite Clancy’s misgivings, Noyce – coming straight from his first real thriller, Dead Calm – showed what he could do with an action thriller and actors the caliber of Harrison Ford and James Earl Jones. 1992’s Patriot Games pleased both critics and audiences enough for Noyce to be brought back for the sequel two years later, Clear and Present Danger.
5 ‘Newsfront’ (1978)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
A 1978 film that made a major contribution to the revival of Australian cinema in the 1970s, Newsfront is about the newsreel camera operators who covered Australia in the post-war years before the advent of television. The newsreels played before the major feature at cinemas and kept audiences up-to-date with often dramatic footage of what was happening around the country, such as floods and bushfires.
Noyce’s surefooted direction together with a great script and wonderful acting from the likes of Bill Hunter and Bryan Brown ensured modern audiences were able to connect with the past, a past most viewers were too young to see otherwise.
4 ‘Clear and Present Danger’ (1994)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
As with Patriot Games, author Tom Clancy wasn’t happy with the original script for 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. Changes were duly made and this, the second and final outing for Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, proved to be even more popular with critics and audiences.
As Ryan fights America’s enemies not only overseas but inside the CIA and the White House itself, Noyce successfully builds the film’s tension as much through Ryan’s tracking down information from computers and files as he does from its well-paced action sequences.
3 ‘Dead Calm’ (1989)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Featuring Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane in their breakout roles, Dead Calm sets them against each other on a small sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Zane plays Hughie, a psychotic killer, and Kidman plays Rae, his potential victim. Sam Neil plays Kidman’s husband, John, stranded on Hughie’s original boat and desperately trying to reach his wife before it sinks.
If films like Clear and Present Danger allow a director making an action thriller to stretch their canvas across multiple locations with a big cast and crew and an expansive storyline, the best psychological thrillers like this 1989 film demand exactly the opposite: a tight, confined stage, a handful of actors and a single storyline that sharpens to a deadly point. Noyce proved with Clear and Present Danger and Dead Calm that he can handle both.
2 ‘The Quiet American’ (2002)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
If author Graham Greene spoke to the angst and bewilderment of the 20th-century white male, then the war in Vietnam spoke to the angst and bewilderment of 20th-century Western civilization. The two clash in this film based on Green’s novel The Quiet American, a story about colonialism, imperialism, distrust, frustrated love, and the terrible consequences of absolute certitude.
Noyce deftly maneuvers Greene’s story through the political and social thicket of 1950s Vietnam, represented by the weary if not yet outright disinterested journalist Fowler (Michael Caine), the keen and determined CIA agent Pyle (Brendan Fraser) and their common love interest, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Chillingly, the tragedy that unfolds in this 2002 film foreshadows the tragedy that unfolded in Vietnam in the following decade.
1 ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ (2002)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Made the same year as The Quiet American, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two films, both dealing with misguided, interfering and unreflective policies of governments that lead to dire consequences for the very people they claim to be helping. In Rabbit-Proof Fence it’s the disposal of ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children, stealing them from their families and placing them in settlements where they can be trained, often brutally, as servants for white families. Three children escape from one of these settlements and make their way back to their home by following the rabbit-proof fence of the title, the longest fence in the world.
While Noyce has proven he can direct a thriller or action film that wows audiences and critics alike, it’s with films like Rabbit-Proof Fence and Newsfront that he shows his true skill as a director and storyteller: these are films about ordinary people achieving extraordinary things and surviving extraordinary times.
NEXT: 10 Great Directors Who Mastered More Than One Genre