Friday, December 25, 2009
Treason Is Merely A Matter Of Dates
I’ve seen DIE HARD 2 so many times by now that I barely know what to think of it. The original DIE HARD is one of the greatest action movies ever made and I don’t wish to hear otherwise. No, seriously I will not listen to dissenting opinions on this point. Coming just under two years after the release of the film which promised to ‘blow you through the back wall of the theater’, the sequel which pledged to ‘blow you sky high’—and, contrary to the advertising, not actually called DIE HARDER—was no doubt one of the first times a follow-up turned out to be more successful, in this case partly due to how huge the original had become on VHS after its theatrical run. If anyone out there was complaining about the ridiculousness of John McClane being sucked into another terrorist assault on Christmas Eve they couldn’t be heard over the excitement the film engendered—this thing was huge whent released over the July 4th weekend in 1990. Gene Siskel somewhat infamously proclaimed it as “the best film of the summer” finally placing it at #6 on his year-end ten best list and with all due respect to the late critic he did overstate things on a few occasions. I’ve seen this film and hated it, I’ve seen it and enjoyed it, but when it comes right down to it when compared to the stunningly well made original, DIE HARD 2 comes off as more of a piece of hackwork than anything else. With super producer Joel Silver bringing in hotshot director Renny Harlin (who had just helmed THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLAINE for Silver—the two films wound up opening a week apart) to take the reins. It’s slick, it’s expensive looking and it does get the job done for 124 minutes. It still kind of bugs me.
One year after the event at Nakatomi Plaza, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is now an L.A. cop but is spending the Christmas holiday near the nation’s capitol with the parents of wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). At Dulles Airport to pick up Holly (who pages him on an airplane phone to tell him the plane will be late—because airports don’t have any kind of system in place to inform people if the flights are on schedule) McClane notices some odd activity going on and his snooping turns out to have to do with the incoming General Esperanza (Franco Nero), South American drug lord and dictator being expedited to the US for trial—naturally, the state department is flying him into a crowded airport on Christmas Eve, with one lone soldier guarding him on that plane, no less. McClane runs afoul of Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) leader of a group of mercenaries (which include Robert Patrick, John Leguizamo and the guy who played ‘Meat’ in PORKY’S) intent on rescuing Esperanza and they’ll do anything to keep it from happening, starting with taking over the airport’s control systems so they’ll be unable to communicate with the planes so none can land. As the planes become increasingly low on fuel and with seemingly no one listening to him, McClane is intent on doing whatever he can to stop the terrorists and therefore save his wife, along with everyone else trapped up in the air.
The film recently screened at the Cinematheque on a double bill with DIE HARD, of course, appropriate for the season and a good opportunity to see these bigger-than-big action movies on the big screen for the first time in a while—at their release it played like a stylistic touch how both films used the full Twentieth-Century Fox fanfare as if to state flat out how big the coming film was going to be. Nearly twenty years after its release what is now interesting about this sequel is looking at how it tries to addresses the then-coming nineties and how old-school John McClane will deal with them but it also gives us a Hollywoodized look at what now seems like a quainter time in airport terrorism. This comes complete with a security chief played by Dannis Franz who never wants to take a single thing McClane says seriously, an old woman who brings a taser onboard the plane with her and a enormous airline crash figuring into the plot which could either be looked at as a low point for this sort of entertainment or a case of upping the action-stakes as high as possible for 1990. That summer also included hundreds of people getting killed in TOTAL RECALL and ROBOCOP 2 so this subject was getting a lot of ink at the time. I have to admit that I never really mind DIE HARD 2 particularly when compared to sequels that are genuinely lousy (like, say, SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL) but it doesn’t really come close to the first film and I’m always surprised how it seems to rank so highly. There’s very little credibility from the big points (why do they tell the planes to hold at the ‘outer marker’ instead of immediately sending them to another airport?) to the small (why is Dick Thornburgh being moved from First Class to, I assume, Business during what’s supposed to be the last half-hour of the flight? Why does Security Chief Lorenzo tell McClane that he just broke five District of Columbia regulations when they’re in Virginia?) but even on a purely stylistic level things it doesn’t feel like it measures up.
The elegance that McTiernan and company brought to that film amidst all the mayhem still makes it extremely satisfying to see and one of the reasons it plays so great at Christmas is that it keeps the notion of the holiday alive throughout, from witty dialogue to Michael Kamen’s music. Part 2 doesn’t really pay much attention to the holiday after the first few minutes and unlike McTiernan’s confidence in how his scenes, both dialogue and action, are staged to use the entire frame at times, Harlin’s approach seems to be to shoot every scene from as many angles as possible and he uses every single one before the scene ends and as a result the whole film has a very ‘cutty’ feel to it (Stuart Baird is oddly credited as both Supervising Editor and, with Robert A. Ferretti, editor). In his film McTiernan stages whole scenes with multiple actors from one angle and is willing to let it play out. Harlin barely lets a dialogue exchange, let alone an entire scene, go by without several cuts and this approach just becomes less satisfying as the film goes on. He holds it all together, but there’s no real wit or style to it and most of the ‘funny’ dialogue feels pretty crass this time (points for 'Just the Fax,' however).
Unlike the very specific L.A. setting of the first film, which still plays great today, the setting of Dulles International Airport just winds up feeling like a generic snowy location in comparison. I always enjoy flying in and out of Dulles, a very cool place which wasn’t used by the production—such a thing probably wasn’t possible but using that unique architecture and layout would have been cool and they don’t even bother to try to make it seem like the real place (the particularly sizable disclaimer over the end credits indicates that it wasn’t easy putting all this together considering all the real-life agencies they probably couldn’t name or even thank). Exteriors were shot at various points throughout North America as the production went hunting for snow but airport interiors were clearly shot in L.A., as evidenced by the famous blooper showing Bruce Willis clearly speaking on a pay phone labeled ‘PACIFIC BELL’ in big letters, something I remember spotting on the day it opened. Much of the time the overriding feeling from the script by Steven E. de Souza and Doug Richardson (from the Walter Wager novel “58 Minutes”) is one that is intent on racing to get itself done unlike the layered thematic elements of the first film. Look, I’ll admit that DIE HARD does actually have a few flaws but even the broadest characters in that film feel like vivid characterizations. Here, for the most part they feel like, at best, non-entities and, at worst, written as idiots. Some of the action does feel staged in a listless kind of way but I’ll admit that once we get to the fight-on-the-wing climax it really manages to deliver what it promises and in keeping all the narrative balls in the air throughout it does get the job done. Thing is, it doesn’t really do much more than that, so it all feels kind of empty. I know, clearly very few people have cared about these nitpicks through the years. Besides, it works up to a point…and since much of the mayhem still had to be staged for real at this point in time that certainly adds to the excitement watching it now as well.
Bruce Willis is once again fun as McClane and, totally freed by TV by this point, he clearly has the confidence throughout in the role even though by the film’s nature he doesn’t have as much dramatic stuff to play. At the least, his character is still not portrayed as a super hero at this point and that level of humanity is certainly something. The other actors do what they can with the script but it’s not their fault that the material isn’t as vivid as the other film. Fred Dalton Thompson maintains his dignity and projects quiet authority as Dulles head Trudeau—few people deliver a line like “That stupid, arrogant son of a bitch” like he does. Dennis Franz certainly makes an impression as Carmine Lorenzo but that’s partly due to his shouting. Spaghetti Western mainstay Franco Nero makes zero impression as Experanza and William Sadler, who has done lots of great work over the years, is fairly bland as Colonel Stuart when compared to Alan Rickman—I get the feeling that Harlin and D.P. Oliver Wood enjoyed framing the contours of his face to project how evil he is, but that’s about it. John Amos plays the leader of the Special Forces unit called in to handle the crisis and Tom Bower, seen recently as Nicolas Cage’s father in BAD LIETENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS plays Marvin, the airport janitor because, of course, an airport this size only needs one janitor. Bonnie Bedelia (nothing to do, but she still manages to make it credible), William Atherton and (briefly) Reginald VelJohnson reprise their roles from the first film. Tons of familiar faces appear throughout, including Dick McGarvin, Ted Farley in Michael Ritchie's SMILE, as an anonymous air traffic controller. At least it’s well cast and this film is an enjoyable reminder of a time when using such familiar faces was more the norm, instead of just hiring cheap non-entities to back up the film’s star. Michael Kamen’s score does away with the arch Christmasy licks that helped make the first film stand out so what’s left is the same type of straight action music which is still good, but, like the film itself, not as noteworthy. If Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was the big musical concept in the first film, here it’s “Finlandia” by Sibelius which is probably a nice in joke for the film’s Finnish director and works fairly well but it’s still not quite the same thing.
The double bill at the Cinematheque was introduced by co-screenwriterwriter Steven E. de Souza who talked about the creative genesis of both films, including how they really did approach Frank Sinatra first for DIE HARD to get him to reprise his role from THE DETECTIVE as the source novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorpe was a sequel to the book that film was based on. Even crazier, when the studio was trying to get costs on the sequel down on the sequel they explored the possibility of doing it without snow. Since the film revolves around planes that can’t land due to a snowstorm the temporary solution was to have them unable to land due to heavy fog. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed even if the resulting shoot was apparently pretty hellish. For whatever reason, the DIE HARD series went in a different direction after this film which I’ve always suspected had more to do with things going on behind closed doors (I assume resulting in how Joel Silver was never involved from this point on) than with any feelings of creative stagnation. I admit I’ve always kind of liked 1995’s DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE but thought the fourth film, which has a title I can’t bring myself to type out, was a reprehensible insult to anyone with any fondness for the original and I maintain that it was made by people who hated DIE HARD. Some things I do not forgive. Anyway, DIE HARD 2 comes from a time when you could have a giant plane crash killing hundreds of people then an hour later everyone’s smiling and grinning as the credits role. The world has changed considerably since then but back in 1990 we could avoid thinking about those possibilities for a few hours. Besides, Dennis Franz says at the very end, “What the hell! It’s Christmas!” and that line could sum up everything about the first two films in the series as well. Vaughn Monroe is of course famously heard singing Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow as the end credits start up…and, even now, DIE HARD 2 doesn’t want to say anything more than that either.