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Terminal Velocity
  • Composed by Joel McNeely
  • Varèse Sarabande / 1994 / 33m

Undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made, Deran Sarafian’s 1994 action movie Terminal Velocity starred Charlie Sheen – has there ever been a bad film starring Charlie Sheen? – and Nastassja Kinski.  Sheen’s character is called Ditch Brodie.  Let me repeat: Ditch Brodie.  He plays a skydiving instructor who doesn’t notice that his student (who happens to be a former KGB agent, and beautiful) jumps out of the plane without him.  They end up trying to stop the Russian mafia, as you do.  Rarely since the heyday of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker has a motion picture crammed so many gags in per minute – it’s a joy to behold.

Along for the ride and providing sturdy (and entirely serious) musical support was Joel McNeely, not long into his career as a film composer at that time.  A few years later he would provide one of the most entertaining action scores of the 1990s for another of the decade’s worst action movies (Soldier) and while this isn’t quite at that level, it’s really not far behind.  The composer did have something of a reputation at the time for his very able impersonations of John Williams in some of his scores and there’s a bit of that here, but really – does anyone mind someone trying to sound a bit like John Williams?

Joel McNeely

Joel McNeely

The album’s first couple of cues present very different takes on its main theme, a muscular but surprisingly low-key melody introduced in dark fashion in “Desert Landing” before taking up its more usual guise in the stylish guitar-laden “Aerial Ballet”.  A second theme, full of Copland-esque Americana and dripping with patriotism, is introduced in “Airborne”.  It’s fine music, perhaps so far a little more in the wake of Jerry Goldsmith than John Williams (particularly Chain Reaction, though for McNeely to have copied that would have been truly impressive since it hadn’t even been written yet).

The score’s real attraction comes from its three spectacular action set-pieces in the middle of the album – “The Second Plane”, “Christa is Caught” and in particular “Cadillac Freefall”.  It’s here that the Williams influence is felt – in particular Raiders of the Lost Ark – but this isn’t blind temp-track copying, McNeely brings an awful lot to the table himself.  The music is bold, brassy and ballsy, muscular and masculine and hugely satisfying.  The orchestration is so intricate, allowed to shine thanks to Shawn Murphy’s recording; and for all Williams’s well-acknowledged brilliance, actually it’s been surprisingly rare over the years to hear anyone trying to write a film score in his style, so it’s a treat to hear McNeely do it so well.

The score concludes with the attractive, rousing “Russian Gold” before a proper end credits piece which focuses on the terrific main themes and brings proper closure to the score.  Terminal Velocity is a hugely entertaining action score with a very well-done album presentation that sees me frequently returning.  It’s not the most original thing in the world but frankly it’s hard to care when the result is this enjoyable.

Rating: ****

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  1. Matt on Monday 5 May, 2014 at 22:36

    McNeely is highly underrated. I have a majority of all his scores and they are always such a good listen. Hopefully the “Million Ways To Die in the West” will bring him some more high profile projects.

  2. Rob on Monday 5 May, 2014 at 23:16

    Ever heard of his soundtrack for Star Wars: Empire of Shadows?

    Entirely different take, but still blends in perfectly with in the ‘operatic’ parameters of the John Williams musical universe.

    Even though thematically not as impacting, the utilization of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is incredible sounding like London Symphony Orchestra’s competitive brother not as articulate but grabs your attention regardless.

  3. J. A. J. on Tuesday 6 May, 2014 at 01:32

    “Has there ever been a bad film starring Charlie Sheen?”

    Well, let me answer it this way: do dogs crap on grass? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0249516/

  4. Jens on Tuesday 6 May, 2014 at 15:40

    Empire of Shadows? Never heard of it.

  5. Jake on Sunday 11 May, 2014 at 00:35

    Shadows of the Empire is a soundtrack to a Star Wars novel.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars:_Shadows_of_the_Empire#Soundtrack

  6. Rob on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 00:40

    With Joel McNeely working for Disney for years and Disney now purchased Star Wars, I think this has put him back in the spotlight to going back to Star Wars soon in one form or rather. Cause I think he has more the John Williams’ chops than Michael Giacchino does.

  7. James Southall on Monday 12 May, 2014 at 00:46

    I hope he gets a shot, Rob. One of the ancillary films between the new trilogy, maybe. Would love to see it.