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Posts Tagged ‘Die Hard’

It’s always a sure sign that the year hasn’t got long left to run when the independent cinemas start cranking out their seasons of traditional Christmas favourites. Frankly, my response to this depends what they show: I was much taken by the Phoenix’s decision to revive Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves a couple of years ago, but more traditional choices seldom light my tree. Perennial over-exposure has left me indifferent to The Muppet Christmas Carol and even It’s a Wonderful Life, while they could put every copy of Love Actually into a shipping container and dump it in the ocean and I would not be especially troubled.

Die Hard, on the other hand – now that’s my idea of a proper Christmas treat, especially back on the big screen. I know that its status as such has been a bit debatable on occasion in the past – ‘it’s not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!’ is the considered judgement of, er, Bruce Willis – but in addition to leaving you with a warm feeling inside, it is ultimately about a family being reunited, the forces of goodness and justice being triumphant, and people recapturing the joy of living (by the end, Reginald VelJohnson has rediscovered how satisfying it is to gun someone down in the street). It’s still the only Christmas favourite to feature someone being repeatedly shot in the crotch at close range, but that just makes it all the more distinctive.

It seems a bit odd to recap the premise of a film as iconic as Die Hard, but the form demands it. Wiseacre New York cop John McClane (Willis) flies into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to attempt a reconciliation with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) – see how Christmassy this is already? – and is taken to the skyscraper where she works, where he mingles with various archetypal yuppie scumbags (this is 1988, after all) at her office party – see, yet more Christmasiness. Needless to say, not all goes well at the office party, with the appearance on the scene of a truck full of armed, mostly European miscreants, led by the eminently hissable Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Through sheer good fortune McClane manages to evade capture by the bad guys, and soon figures out there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Very soon the upper reaches of the building become a battlefield as Gruber’s men hunt McClane through the corridors, elevator shafts and air vents of the tower. How long can he manage to stay one step ahead?

Die Hard is one of those rare movies which, seemingly ex nihilo, manages to create its own subgenre – and one which was virtually done-to-death within ten years, with endless new variations on the formula – Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard up a mountain, Die Hard on a battleship, and so on. Yet the origins of the film are remarkably obvious once you become aware of them – author Roderick Thorp saw The Towering Inferno, had a dream where the fire was replaced by men with guns, and turned it into his 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was eventually turned into this film.

One consequence of this was that, for slightly obscure contractual reasons, they had to offer the lead role in the movie to Frank Sinatra. To say it is difficult to imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes hurling himself about in a vest and blowing away terrorists at the age of 73 is something of an understatement, but thankfully he said no. It seems like they offered almost every actor in Hollywood the part of McClane before they reached Bruce Willis, but reach him they eventually did, much to the film’s benefit. If nothing else this film shows that great Hollywood careers can start long before people reach Hollywood itself, for at the heart of Die Hard are two actors, neither of whom had starred in a major movie before, and one of whom had never appeared in a movie of any kind: Willis’s background was in American TV, while Alan Rickman had been a stalwart of the RSC and the BBC classic serial.

Much of the film’ energy and excitement comes from the clash of these two very different actors, playing very different characters. Hans Gruber is sleek, composed, and has clearly planned everything down to the last detail; McClane is sweaty, frantic, and obviously making it all up as he goes. There is perhaps the faintest touch of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in McClane’s characterisation, but apart from this he is a very different kind of action hero, compared to what had been seen prior to this point – he is defiantly rough around the edges, a blue-collar hero.

This element is essentially carried through into another of the film’s more crowd-pleasing features, namely the way in which it is openly scornful of pretty much every authority figure on the scene outside the tower: police chiefs, news reporters and FBI agents alike are all depicted as self-serving idiots who are really only pawns in Gruber’s elaborate scheme. (The film arguably improves and refines Thorp’s book, where it is implied that if the McClane character had not become involved, the situation would have resolved itself without anyone actually dying.) McClane is there with a pithy, probably profane wisecrack, keeping it real (I believe that’s what the kids are saying), doing what needs to be done to save the day.

McTiernan makes it all look very easy, naturally, although even the most cursory examination reveals that the script for this movie is every bit as clever and intricate as Hans’ brilliant plan to steal $640 million – both of them depend for their success on very specific things happening in a specific sequence. Quite apart from this, the director mounts some brilliant action sequences, which are still genuinely thrilling nowadays.

It is customary, when thinking of how the reputations of some genuinely great movies have effectively been slimed by their proximity to horrid, tossed-off latter-day sequels, to discuss things like RoboCop, Alien, Predator, and The Terminator – it does seem that eighties action movies are particularly prone to this sort of thing. And yet it does seem to me that Die Hard is very deserving of its place on the same list. True, most of the sequels aren’t too bad – although the most recent one was a bloody awful mess – but they still don’t come close to the immaculate near-perfection of the original. A tremendous Christmas movie, but also a film for all seasons, and the ages.

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Now, I like a bad movie more than most people. But I like a bad movie that’s energetically and inventively bad, a movie that has bold new bad ideas and executes them in an inventively misguided way. In short, I like a bad movie with panache and style and the courage of its convictions – and, what the hell, at least a minimal degree of technical competency.

goodday

A Good Day to Die Hard is not my idea of a bad movie. I mean, it’s not a good bad movie. It’s a bad bad movie. I would have ventured to suggest it might constitute a sharp, savage blow to the windpipe of the whole Die Hard edifice but for the fact that it is already $25m in profit less than a fortnight after its release. This would suggest we can anticipate yet further installments with painfully punning titles such as The Die Hard Is Cast, Die Hard Fliedermaus, and I Think I’d Rather Die Hard Than Sit Through Another Sequel As Rotten As This One.

Sigh. A distinctly unengaged-looking Bruce Willis is back in harness as NYPD cop John McClane, a man who really appreciates the value of wearing lots of layers. As usual, we don’t get to see him doing any NYPD cop stuff, for almost as soon as the movie starts (BBC newsreader Sophie Raworth’s family will be delighted as hers is the first face you see) he flies off to Russia, where his tearaway son John Junior (Jai Courtney) is in the clink for shooting someone, a crime it appears he really did commit (not that the film makes much of a fuss about it). He is driven to the airport by his daughter, who as before is played by the ever-watchable Mary Elizabeth Winstead. However, she is only ever-watchable in this movie for about three minutes, which is a shame.

Anyway, take your credulity by the neck and exert strong, steady pressure with those thumbs, as it turns out that McClane’s tearaway son is actually an undercover CIA agent, but has neglected to tell anyone this. His being in the Moscow nick is all part of a cunning plan to spring a political prisoner who… oh, look, I’m not going to bother with any details about the plot, as it is just silly and convoluted and borders on the very tasteless indeed.

All we get across the comparatively brief running time of this film is a succession of deafening and technically competent action sequences, all of which are overblown to some level. Bruce Willis occasionally shouts ‘I’m on vacation!’ between bouts of machine-gunning people in ski-masks. I suspect the Die Hard movies are where M Night Shyamalan got the idea for the indestructible Bruce Willis character in Unbreakable: at one point he is catapulted thirty feet through the air and smashes through what looks very much like a plate-glass window only to rise, grumbling, to his feet and get on with the excuse for a plot. His default expression for most of the movie is that of a man dragged out of the shower to answer the phone.

None of this is necessarily bad in an action movie, but the most basic elements of the story simply aren’t there, like characterisation, decent establishment of relationships and characters, signposting the plot, and so on. A lot of the dialogue at the screening I attended was actually unintelligible, though this may have been down to that particular theatre. Not only are the fundamentals of film-making only marginally present, but the movie appears to have only a passing acquaintance with the region in which it is set: Moscow and Chernobyl are well over 400 miles apart and yet the characters appear to drive between them in a couple of hours.

So, the plot is risible and occasionally hard to follow, the characters are shallow and irritating, there’s hardly any memorable dialogue, and there’s none of the wit or subtext that distinguished the best of the earlier films. The first film was about a skyscraper under the control of a dangerous criminal, the second about an airport under the control of a dangerous criminal, and so on. You’d’ve thought that bringing the series to Russia would have provided the occasion for at least something edgy and pithy to make it into the script, but no. This film just lurches from one ridiculous set of explosions to another, pausing only for an unconvincing piece of father-son bonding on the way.

As long as we’re talking superannuated action stars from the 1980s, then I think this movie shows the power of an existing ‘name’ franchise – Willis’ fellow Expendables Schwarzenegger and Stallone both brought out new movies recently, both of which mightily flopped, despite the fact that they were both narratively and creatively much more competent than A Good Day to Die Hard. Here, though, the studio looks like it’s going to make money, though at the cost of comprehensively sliming the name of a once-iconic action series. This movie is mechanical, joyless, tedious crap – a good day for the accountants, but a bad day for everyone else.

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