Five great movies from Jewish director Richard Donner

“Dick made it fun, and that’s why the films turned out that way, too.” — Gene Hackman on Richard Donner.


Warner Brothers Pictures

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

When a director accumulates 82 directing credits in his career, you can tell they did things the right way. Richard Donner passed away this week at the tender age of 91 but left plenty of wicked pieces of entertainment in his wake.

The Jewish director — Donner was born Richard Donald Schwartzberg to Jewish parents in New York City in 1930 — made the kind of adventure films that swirled around inside the heads of kids, teenagers and adults. What started with a 1960 episode of the TV series “Zane Grey Theatre” and ended with one of Bruce Willis’ finest roles, Donner made something for everybody. Let’s talk about the best, including that 2006 film that paired Willis with Mos Def.

“16 Blocks” (Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV)

Compellingly written and acted all around, Donner’s last directorial effort was released 15 years ago, but it holds up quite well today. Willis played a down-and-out boozing cop tasked with getting Mos Def’s witness to a courtroom 16 blocks away in one piece. With David Morse as the heel and the movie star lead looking more haggard than usual, Donner’s film surprised and intrigued to the end. Like most of his films, it was exciting and heartfelt at the same time. One of Bruno’s best and a legit statement that his musician co-star could hold the screen.


“Lethal Weapon” (HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video)

No list of Donner films would be complete without the original buddy cop thriller. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover were the perfect odd couple with badges and guns, blazing through Los Angeles during Christmas time looking for Gary Busey’s bad guy. One of the first movies to feature Gibson’s crackerjack talent and Glover’s assured presence, this action-adventure carried more pathos and poignant notes than expected–along with the glorious gun battles and hand-to-hand combat scenes between its gung-ho characters. Again, like Hackman said up top, this was Dick making things fun—even a suicidal detective saving a jumper by throwing them both off the top of the building.


“Superman” (HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Apple TV)

Before Brendan Routh and Henry Cavill came along, the late Christopher Reeve donned the cape with the giant S and alien DNA. For a kid, this was a film that marked the time. For the director, it was setting the stage for so many superhero stories to come. Featuring aged-out technology and a superb Hackman as Lex Luthor, the juice of this film carries over to this day, 43 years after its release date. Unlike “Superman II,” which was halted mid-production and featured two different released cuts of the film, the original is Donner’s baby and proof that he could make a big-budget and organic take on Krypton’s most cherished son.


“Radio Flyer” (Amazon Prime Video, YouTube)

At the heart of this coming-of-age tale laid two brothers fighting back against bullying and trying to get the best out of a rugged childhood. When the real world dims for Mike (Elijah Wood) and Bobby (Joseph Mazzelo), they decide to turn their toy trolley into a plane to whisk the younger kid’s worries at school away. What follows requires the viewer to leave realism and a lack of imagination at the door. One of Wood’s best performances and an endearing film with a little magic attached to it. While Donner made a lot of adventure films, the cast and inner dynamics always seemed to change from project to project.


“The Goonies” (HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video)

No matter how many years pass by, this film still abides. It’s hard to leave this one off the list, even if I don’t absolutely love it. The young cast — featuring Josh Brolin and Sean Astin — stuffed with kids and teens endures to this day as something for the whole family to take in together. Playful, hilarious and full of life, this was the “misfit best friends go off on a perilous adventure” kind of entertainment. Another movie where young minds escaped the torturous areas of their age of innocence, eschewing the bullies in favor of friends who would never leave their side, including one or two who may look a little different. I like to think all of us share something in common with that band of treasure hunters.

Donner sure did. Every great director has a key to the audience’s heart, an easy-to-find unlocking of feelings and emotions that may have been buried before watching. All of his films still play well, a sign that he left something worth pursuing. Go select one of his films and enjoy an escape.