Monday, September 19, 2011
I didn't want to see Die Hard when it first came out.
Mostly it had to do with a strong distaste I had for Bruce Willis, whom at the time I only knew of via Moonlighting, which was a show that I just could not stand. Even with one episode ending with a fantastic pie fight, I just never warmed to that show, and I saw Willis as a crappy actor whose only facial expression was a goofy smirk. So I didn't see Die Hard for a year or two, not until home video, when my sister rented it and forced me to watch it. Yeah. Damn her!
Initially I wasn't thrilled. I mean, our very first glimpse of Bruce Willis in the movie has him on that jet liner, smirking away the same smirk that bugged the hell out of me on Moonlighting. But the movie soon won me over. Took about, oh, ten minutes.
The first Die Hard is one of the best-made films I can think of. It is just competent, from beginning to end. We get the blanks filled in very quickly: why John McClane is estranged from his wife, and we realize that it's not really for the best of reasons, which he himself seems almost willing to admit to himself – note the way he scolds himself after he and Holly have yet another iteration of the same old argument. And there's a skyscraper that is nearly deserted and is still under construction. All that's important.
Anyway, the plot was startlingly original at the time, wasn't it? I don't think it would even get green-lit today, but back then – terrorists take control of a skyscraper, with an off-duty cop on the loose in the building? Wow, what a plot. Such a simple little hook, but the film is a lot more complex than that. We don't get standard-issue terrorists; we get a guy named Hans who has a very definite plot in mind, and it's a lot more devious than just taking hostages and demanding that prisoners in Israel get released.
Hans is, of course, played by Alan Rickman, in one of the great performances of villainy of all time. Hans Gruber is fiercely observant, ruthless, calm under pressure, and deeply intelligent. Very little phases him, and he thinks very quickly as he works to fit every single mishap into the plan. He also has a sense of humor – a violent and twisted sense of humor, but a sense of humor nonetheless – and he is willing to show his frustration at times with the knowledge that his minions just aren't as smart as he is.
What also stands out for me is that Hans Gruber isn't a killing machine. Lots of action movies in the post-Die Hard era really seem to want to establish their villain's evil by having him do quite a bit of gratuitous killing, but sometimes all that killing can really make a movie a downer. A good example is the Gary Oldman character in Air Force One – he's already taken the airplane and killed someone just to show he's serious, but there's a truly awful scene in which he counts to ten before killing a woman. This made it hard to cheer Oldman's later demise – it was just a feeling of, "Oh, finally." Hans Gruber, however, personally kills only two people: Mr Takagi, the obligatory "kill to show he's serious", and then Ellis, who puts himself in harm's way, anyhow.
What makes Die Hard really work is that hero and villain really are just about as smart as the other. Hans, of course, must underestimate John McClane, but it's such a tiny underestimation, based more on his own stereotypical hangups on Americans than anything he knows about McClane. Die Hard is a good action film because its action sequences are thrillingly staged and magnificently filmed, but it's a great movie because of the handle it has on its characters.
And then, a few years later, the sequel arrived. This one I did see in the theater, and I was thrilled to do so. I'd seen a teaser trailer months earlier, that had John McClane running through another industrial-looking subbasement or some such thing, with plumbing and electrical piping and conduit everywhere, at which point he says, "How can the same stuff happen to the same guy twice?!" That trailer indicated that this time, the setting is an airport. Bring on Die Hard 2: Die Harder. (Even though "Die Harder" never appears onscreen.)
Die Hard 2 isn't as good as the first film, but it's still plenty good. What's nice is that it doesn't try to tell the same type of story as the first film, so there's no "lock McClane in a tight spot with a different bunch of terrorists" thing. This time, our terrorists take control of Dulles Airport in Washington, DC in order to rescue a Central American military leader who is being flown to Washington to stand trial for drug charges, or something like that. Unfortunately, the movie damages itself by inventing a fictitious country for our General to hail from, but that's not that big a deal.
McClane is at the airport on a snowy day to pick up Holly, who is flying in on another flight, when the terrorists strike, shutting everything down and keeping planes in the air, circling as weather worsens. It's a nice new way of creating tension, also factoring in that the planes will be running out of fuel.
Die Hard 2 takes longer to get started, really – there's a lot, toward the beginning, that has McClane doing his own investigative stuff after he notices a couple of guys handing each other packages under a table. It's a while before the action really kicks in, this time really putting the airport setting through the paces. Our villain this time is a guy named Colonel Stuart, played by William Sadler (better known as Heywood from The Shawshank Redemption). He's suitably cold and ruthless and also intelligent, but he's not nearly as charismatic as Hans Gruber.
If Die Hard didn't give us gratuitous killing by Hans, this film more than makes up for it. There's a scene where, to make his intentions plain, he deliberately causes a 747 with 200+ people aboard to crash. And the movie underscores the point by showing us, just before the crash, the flight attendants comforting the passengers minutes before their fiery deaths. The scene is really numbing, it's so awful. (It's also implausible, as there is no way a plane with no fuel left explodes into that large a fireball.) And it's almost not worth mentioning that, through no fault of the film's, the realities of America after 9-11-01 do cast a pall over it.
There are quite a few twists and turns, mainly involving who's a villain and who's not, and some filler involving Holly being on the same plane as the nitwit reporter from the first movie. There are also more stupid cops, with Dennis Franz now playing a well-meaning but inept Italian-American version of the first movie's Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson. Die Hard 2 doesn't work quite as well as the first film, but it's still an above-average action flick.
And then there's Die Hard With a Vengeance, the third one. This one is really a mixed bag.
There's a lot that I like about it. In fact, there's a lot that I like a lot about it. Our villain this time is played by Jeremy Irons, and he turns out to be Hans Gruber's brother. He's got his very own scheme, but part of it involves torturing John McClane by making him do weird things and solve puzzles that any kid who ever owned a book of brainteasers will remember. If McClane fails to do what he's told, though, Simon – the Irons character – will detonate a very big explosive somewhere. This all culminates with a threat against one of New York City's public schools, while Simon and his small army of cohorts stage an extremely impressive bank robbery.
Plot-wise, Die Hard WAV is really very well constructed (for the most part). Everything happens for a reason, and nothing is wasted in terms of the machinations of the story. Some of the puzzles and tasks set for McClane are truly diabolical, including one that seems virtually impossible – until McClane realizes that it was virtually impossible, and that therefore it was set up to be virtually impossible.
McClane is also given a sidekick this time: a Harlem shop owner named Zeus, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who ends up involved when he gets in the middle of Simon's first assigned task for McClane (to walk ten blocks in Harlem wearing a giant sign that declares a personal distaste for black people). I love the interplay between these two guys, even if it's nothing we haven't seen before a lot of times – two guys who hate each other have to work together or a criminal does something very bad. Zeus is also really smart, but he has zero experience, so it's fun watching McClane try to keep him from screwing everything up or getting killed, even as he has to admit how much he needs the guy around.
One other thing I really loved about Die Hard WAV is that it dispenses with the stupid other cops of the first two movies. This time, McClane's fellow cops are also smart, competent, and toward the end, heroic. This movie really does away with the idiots, and it's a very wise decision.
What's not so wise, however, is what's done to John McClane himself. This is what really bugs me about this film. In the first two, McClane was a family man who had some struggles but who put things back together; but by this time around, while he's still intelligent and skilled and quick with the funny wisecracks, he's also estranged again and something of a drunk. He's back with the NYPD, although he's on suspension, so we get the obligatory bit where his Captain slaps his badge on the desk and McClane says, "Am I a cop again now?" I hated that aspect of things. If they wanted to set the movie in New York, I can think up a dozen ways to get McClane there off the top of my head without making him a jerk who has ditched his family. It ends up feeling like some kind of alternate universe John McClane, instead of the real thing.
The movie's climax is also something of a disappointment, when it arrives. Die Hard WAV is a very exciting film that peters out before the end, unfortunately enough; it almost feels as though the writers couldn't figure out how to end the movie, so they just tacked on an ending and called it good. But still, on balance, I do like the film quite a bit.
I never saw that fourth one, so there is where my opinionation on the Die Hard flicks must stand....