As a director of primarily action-oriented films, Renny Harlin began his career in the late 1980s on a promising note with the lucrative "Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" (1988). Immediately following the highly profitable fourth installment to the horror series, Harlin - previously a successful filmmaker in his native Finland - suddenly found himself to be Hollywood's go-to director of action movies. He kept expectations high with "Die Hard 2" (1990), another box office success that gave many the impression that this was no one-hit wonder. But Harlin started to falter a bit with "Cliffhanger" (1993), a Sylvester Stallone vehicle that performed well with audiences, but earned particular scorn from critics. The façade crumbled for good with "Cutthroat Island" (1995), perhaps one of the most derided film ever made. In fact, never before was there a film that bombed so utterly and completely as "Cutthroat Island," which became at the time a Guinness Book of World Records holder as being the biggest financial disaster in Hollywood history. Not only did the film tank, but it forever dulled the sheen of Harlin's golden boy status, not to mention ruined the feature career of former wife, actress Geena Davis. Though Harlin continued to regularly make films, he never again reached the initial promise he displayed at the start of his career.
Born on March 15, 1959 in Riihimaki, Finland, where his father, a physician, and his mother, a nurse, raised him as an only child. Harlin's mother frequently took her son to the cinema, where he first developed a love for film. By the time he was 15 years old, Harlin was determined to be a filmmaker - particularly an American director. Harlin began making shorts and documentaries in his native Finland and worked as a commercial director for Shell Oil. In 1979, he wrote and directed "Huostaanotto," a six-minute short that was aired on television, then a few years later, directed the short documentary "Hold On, which won the Finish Film Board Award as Best Short Subject in 1982. With intentions of fulfilling his youthful ambition of becoming an American director, Harlin moved to the United States in the mid-1980s and crafted the violent and atrocious "Born American" (1986), bankrolling the first 20 minutes with his own money before acquiring the financing to complete it.
Banned in his native Finland, "Born American" received little play in America, though it did attract the attention of producer Irwin Yablans who enlisted Harlan to direct "Prison" (1987), a project ideally suited to someone whose father had been a prison doctor. Distribution headaches kept this movie from a wider audience, but earned Harlan the chance to direct "Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" (1988). Harlin's "Nightmare" cost a scant $6.5 million and brought in nearly $50 million, prompting eager producers to besiege him with offers in the hope that he could wring the same results from a larger budget. Though one of his biggest bombs followed - the decidedly unpopular "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane" (1990), starring obnoxious comedian Andrew 'Dice' Clay - Harlan had little time to sulk, immediately plunging ahead on the incredibly successful sequel "Die Hard 2" (1990). Harlin debuted as a producer with the gentle "Rambling Rose" (1991), starring his then-love interest Laura Dern, as well as Diane Ladd and Robert Duvall. Meanwhile, he returned to action with the high-budget Sylvester Stallone vehicle "Cliffhanger" (1993), which earned respectful box office despite hoots and hollers from critics.
Harlin formed Forge Productions - aka The Forge - with his new wife, actress Geena Davis, but their short-lived partnership proved to be lackluster at best. The company's first effort, "Speechless" (1994), which Harlin only produced, was the best of the lot. A cheerful comedy reminiscent of the 1930s-era screwball comedies that poked fun at politics and news media, "Speechless" depended on the strength of leads Michael Keaton and Davis to overcome its rampant unevenness. But nothing could save the disastrous pirate flick "Cutthroat Island" (1995), short of Errol Flynn returning from the dead. Officially the biggest movie flop of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, which also declared it to be the first film to ever lose $100 million, "Cutthroat Island" devastated all that laid in its path. Carolco, the production company and primary financier previously responsible for the "Rambo" series and "Basic Instinct" (1992), was forced into bankruptcy; Geena Davis' image as a bankable feature star suffered a staggering blow from which she never recovered; Matthew Modine's rising star fizzled; and Hollywood put a moratorium on making pirate films for almost a decade. In a short period of time, Harlin went from being a golden boy to Hollywood's whipping boy. The only one who emerged unscathed was actor Michael Douglas, who was originally cast as the lead, but left the project before production started.
The final production for The Forge was the ridiculous, but stylish comic-book thriller, "The Long Kiss Goodnight" (1996), another flop that nailed the coffin shut on Davis' viability as a box office draw. A year later, the actress filed for divorce, which was finalized in 1998. Meanwhile, Harlin retained control of The Forge, which was renamed Midnight Sun Pictures. After a brief stint in movie jail, Harlin returned for the bizarre, pulpy, yet surprisingly entertaining "Deep Blue Sea" (1999), a sci-fi adventure pitting humans against scientifically engineered sharks with enhanced intelligence. Enhanced intelligence was nowhere to be seen in his next effort, the high-octane, but dim-witted race car drama "Driven" (2001) starring Sylvester Stallone and Burt Reynolds. With more time logged in exile, Harlin was tapped to replace Paul Schrader when the latter was deposed as the director of the horror prequel "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" (2004), which required him to start the entire movie over from scratch, with the exception of retaining actor Stellan Skarsgard in the Father Mirren role. Despite the fresh start, the movie was drubbed by critics.
As his career progressed, it became apparent that Harlin's early promise was never truly fulfilled, especially in regard to his box office potential. Given yet another chance to make a hit, Harlin directed "Mindhunters" (2005), a crime thriller about a team of elite FBI profilers tracking a serial killer that made less than $5 million in total box office receipts. Harlin directed another critical and box office dud, "The Covenant" (2006), a teen supernatural thriller about four prep school students who discover they have supernatural powers, which leads to the teens using them for less-than-altruistic purposes. Returning to more adult action fare, Harlin directed "12 Rounds" (2009), a crime thriller about a New Orleans detective trying to track down his kidnapped wife.