- Director: Richard Donner
- Writers: Screenplay by Chris Columbus, Story by Steven Spielberg
- Starring: Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, Jeff Cohen, Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton, John Matuszak, Anne Ramsey, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, and Mary Ellen Trainor
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
Richard Donner, director of many classic movies like Superman, Lethal Weapon, The Omen, and Scrooged, died over the weekend at the age of 91. He was born in the Bronx to Jewish parents. He broke into directing on television starting in the late 1950s, with credits on more than 25 series including Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, Kojak, and several episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the famous one with William Shatner on a plane. He had directed a few feature films you never heard of before getting his big break in 1976 with the horror classic The Omen. This led to him directing the 1978 Superman film with Christopher Reeve, and led to a long a diverse career. Late in his career he mostly transitioned to producing (including the 2000 X-Men movie), but still directed a few movies, with his last film being the much-derided Bruce-Willis-in-real-time action flick 16 Blocks. His autobiography was titled You’re the Director… You Figure It Out. One film historian called him, I would say correctly, “one of Hollywood’s most reliable directors of action blockbusters.”
Among the most beloved of Donner’s major hits is 1985’s The Goonies, for which he was hired by Steven Spielberg, who had come up with the story. A medium-sized hit at the time, it has become a major cultural touchstone for those who grew up at the right time. To me it feels like the sort of movie, like the prior year’s Gremlins (also written by future Home Alone and Harry Potter director Chris Columbus) and a few other movies, that could only have been made at a very specific time. I personally was one year old in 1985, and didn’t come to this movie until later in my life, so it has always felt sort of bizarre to me. It’s definitely a kids movie, except the kids are constantly swearing and there are mean grownups who threaten to do things like put their hands in a blender. Early on, one of the kids accidentally breaks the penis off of a Greek-style statue, to which another kid complains, “That’s my mom’s very favorite part!” Which is to say, despite being very clearly aimed at kids who are about 10, this movie could never get below a PG-13 rating today. Which honestly is why I think a lot of people like it. It’s a kids movie that feels, for better or worse, very much like a bunch of eleven-year-old boys made it.
It also features two popular actors, Sean Astin and Josh Brolin, in their first movie roles, as two brothers who make up part of the titular group of friends. Discovering a treasure map in the brothers’ attic (it is vaguely implied their dad is a museum curator), the group sets out to look for the buried treasure of the pirate “One-Eyed Willy” (I just got that this is also a dick joke). They hope that the treasure will provide their parents with enough money to stave off mass foreclosure to build a golf course. They end up going through a long series of vaguely Indiana Jones-y booby traps, all while pursued by a bumbling but completely amoral family of criminals called the Fratellis. The Fratellis also keep another, deformed brother, Sloth (former NFL #1 Draft Pick John Matuszak, under a pile of makeup), locked and chained in a room watching TV, leading him to turn against them and help the Goonies when he escapes. The ending, which is admittedly one of the great set pieces in almost any movie I can think of, involves a full-on pirate ship (which they actually built for this movie) in a huge cavern with a big waterfall.
I was occasionally annoyed, particularly in the first act before the actual adventure starts, by one of my usual problems with kids, which is that they are pretty awful to everyone around them. These guys are ostensibly friends, but spend much of their time making each other’s lives miserable. I found the Corey Feldman character, “Mouth,” the most annoying, particularly during the weird joke where he offers to translate for the mom (Mary Ellen Trainor) to her new maid (Lupe Ontiveros), who speaks only Spanish. While the mom is nice, “Mouth” tells the woman that if she doesn’t do a good job they’ll lock in the closet “with the cockroaches.” He’s not really nice to his friends, either, and his main character arc seems to be that at one point someone tells him to shut up.
None of this turns into as much of a flaw in the movie as it might for me, since after about half an hour things pick up and never slow down. The Indiana Jones-y stuff is very silly, but also somehow effective. There’s a long scene where they have to play a specific set of chords on an organ made out of bones, which one of the girls who tags along (Kerri Green) can do because she vaguely remembers piano lessons, but whenever she plays a wrong note part of the floor drops out. The movie takes this completely seriously. And for the most part, so do we. The constant yelling from the kids of the group is still annoying, but at least it’s generally for understandable reasons.
One screenwriter I saw on Twitter paying tribute to Richard Donner wrote that, for him, The Goonies remains the gold standard of storytelling, the movie he thinks about every time he sits down to write. For me, it has a series of iconic moments and scenes, but as a movie I’m not sure it’s ever really hung together. I find the first act, before the adventure starts, honestly barely watchable as an adult. But those bits that are good are really, really good. When Sloth suddenly appears to save the day and yells “HEEEEY YOUUUU GUYSSSS!” or when Data the inventor (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, who had played Indiana Jones’ sidekick Short Round in Temple of Doom) starts screaming, “I’m so tired of skeletons!” the thing is undeniable. Nor can I deny that The Goonies has been heavily influential on a whole series of other media, including, of course, long sections of Stranger Things. It’s not one of my all-time favorites, but it does leave me with a smile on my face.