Sunday, August 29, 2010
Life Has Its Little Bonuses
Both DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE and the remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, each film directed by John McTiernan, begin on a morning in a pre-9/11 New York that is currently in the middle of a sweltering Indian Summer. It’s curious why this is—maybe the director found the basic setup more interesting than just having it part of a regular hot summer day and since it worked well enough the first time he decided to do it again. There’s not all that much to actually say about this point of comparison but I bring it up because it’s one of any number of things in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE that play as kind of interesting but are still just sort of tossed in there to see if they’ll stick to the narrative. Released in May 1995, the third in the DIE HARD series came five long years after the release of DIE HARD 2 and was the first film directed by McTiernan, who sat out the first sequel, since the train wreck of 1993’s LAST ACTION HERO. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE feels like a calculated attempt by all involved to give the audience what it wanted while still tossing a few new elements into the mix and for the most part it pretty much succeeds at what it wants to do in its over-the-top fashion. It is a curious film, partly in how it drops the whole conceit of setting the film in an enclosed space on Christmas Eve (a version set on a cruise ship was scrapped when UNDER SEIGE hit, to later sort of resurface as SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL) and the departure of producer Joel Silver from the franchise affects the feel of things as well. McTiernan’s level of craft definitely helps but the film was made at a time when the ways that digital effects would alter the industry were still being formed so the film feels somewhat caught between eras, between optical and digital, between old-school craftsmanship and the all-encompassing hell of Michael Bay that was yet to come. All things considered it is certainly the second best DIE HARD film ever made but considering the competition that may not be saying too much—Renny Harlin’s DIE HARD 2 is a piece of hackwork that’s kind of watchable but hasn’t dated all that well and my complete hatred for the fourth film, which I maintain was made by people with contempt for the DIE HARD franchise and its fans, is equivalent to the heat of a thousand suns. The third entry isn’t without flaws and is probably a little all over the place but I liked it when I saw it on opening day and I still like it now. It’s sort of half a DIE HARD movie and half something else but that’s probably enough. The other half is pretty good anyway.
When a bomb explodes in New York early one morning, a mysterious man named Simon phones the police and informs them that he will continue to strike unless the one and only Lt. John McClane (Bruce Willis), currently suffering a massive hangover in the middle of a suspension from his job, performs several specific tasks. When the first thing McClane has to do goes dangerously wrong it results in an encounter with militantly angry Harlem electrician Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) whose role in assisting McClane catches Simon’s attention and insists Carver follow along with this ongoing game of “Simon Says”. After the next assignment the two men must follow results in a massive subway explosion down in lower Manhattan, the identity of Simon (Jeremy Irons) soon becomes clear to everyone although as McClane & Carver jumping through Simon’s hoops the ultimate goal of the mad bomber’s plan, which is bigger than anyone possibly realizes, remains secret.
For the first forty-five minutes or so DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE plays just swell, working as a canny character-based action thriller with two leads bickering nonstop that is tightly plotted and also manages to not seem like a retread, tossing in some decent New York flavor as well. Taking a script by Jonathan Hensleigh entitled SIMON SAYS and converting it into a DIE HARD entry with the screenwriter, the film barely stops moving once it revs up which is a good thing and easily the strongest elements of it are in the early stages that keep things on a more earthbound PELHAM ONE TWO THREE level. Even the scoring is fairly sparse during the first third and very well done, like the percussive nature of the taxicab trip through the middle of Central Park and as the sequence moves into the subway section it pulls off the feel of the music gradually building with the rising nature of the tension working extremely well. When the nature of Simon’s master plan becomes clear it all begins to shift into full-fledged DIE HARD mode as big as it can possibly be which is fine—it’s appropriate, after all considering what the movie is—but maybe because the basic plot involving the Federal Reserve is a little unwieldy, not to mention totally implausible, it never becomes quite as satisfying as what went on back in Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve. Watching this film where key sequences are set down in lower Manhattan with the World Trade Center visible in numerous shots (the 1993 bombing is even referenced in dialogue) also makes plain how much this storyline comes from another time for the city of New York, with even a jokey cutaway to financial bigwigs watching the goings-on from their office window, no real concern for what’s actually happening. Things were different then.
It needs to be said how much of the success of the film is due to the chemistry between the two leads. It’s obviously a marked change from the lone man DIE HARD formula and the ongoing arguments about each man’s racism feels too shoehorned in at times (somewhat dating things, keeping it back in the post-Rodney King 90s) but the different approach gives Bruce Willis different notes to hit in his character and he rises to the occasion in a story that puts John McClane in a bad place at the start but it feels consistent with what always seemed like a self-destructive nature in the character anyway. The backstory of whatever has happened to McClane in between movies gets kind of brushed aside and with Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly McClane absent I can’t help but wish we could have actually seen a movie detailing the breakdown of their marriage, which reminds me--what kind of paperwork is involved with a cop going from the NYPD to the LAPD and back again within just a few years? The two leads are definitely building on whatever energy they got from the recently wrapped PULP FICTION, a film they really had no scenes together in. There’s even some (probably ad-libbed) dialogue alluding to that film which hadn’t even opened when this began shooting and the way Willis & Jackson come off as fearless in bouncing off each other helps the movie past any number of its rough stretches.
Much as I enjoy it, I do wish that—yes, this would have required a totally different plot for the second hour and I have no solution to this problem—the film had found a way to keep itself confined to the island of Manhattan, which wouldn’t have necessarily violated the concept of a DIE HARD film in an enclosed space. The plot as it turns out dictates that things do have to veer away from the city, unfortunately, with some of the NY flavor falling out of it at this point (some shooting was done in South Carolina) and after all these years I still can’t figure out just where that bridge the two men spot the barge from is supposed to be in the reality of the film, with geography that doesn’t make much sense at all. There is some pretty decent plotting to keep things moving and unpredictable, particularly in the first hour, although McClane’s hangover that he keeps commenting on does play as a slightly contrived equivalent of having no shoes in the original. There’s also bits like Zeus Carver just happening to drive by as McClane shoots right out of the aqueduct hole which feels like the production just said “oh, screw it,” when trying to rationalize the moment. And the missed opportunity nature of the strangely brief Yankee Stadium sequence feels like they either ran out of shooting time or maybe rewrites prevented them from figuring out a way to actually utilize the location within the story.
On a deeper level than contrived individual moments DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE winds up not having very much depth to it in the end with the two leads eventually forgetting all the tension between them and getting along, well, just because. The pretense of the bad guys faking a political slant to their scheme is just too close to what Hans Gruber’s game plan was in the original—at least that was given a comic spin to it (“Asian Dawn?”)—so here the conceit doesn’t have any real teeth and it makes the bad guys not as strong as a result. By the time their full plan is revealed lots of narrative balls feel in the air anyway--as it goes on DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE contains numerous strands that increasingly feel like compromises between people who couldn’t agree on an ideal solution so in the end they had to shoot something, deciding to toss every possibility into the mix. The ok-but-not-great final sequence was shot months after the fact and feels it, but it probably delivers better than the discarded ending found on the DVD which is interesting, but really doesn’t feel much like part of a DIE HARD film. Frankly, there are probably other films where pieces like the whole subplot with Zeus’s nephews would bug me more than it does here but I suppose sometimes when you’re with a movie you tend to forgive certain things. And I could believe that multiple rewrites resulted in a few strands that don’t matter—Irons’ migraines seem to result in a payoff that feels hackneyed beyond words and the character’s stuttering trait serves no purpose whatsoever.
It’s not perfect but the film is extremely tightly paced throughout in all the right ways and since digital technology wasn’t being used as much just yet there are a great amount of impressive stunt work and physical elements on display—the subway explosion actually done on set is much more effective than a similar sequence in last year’s Nicolas Cage vehicle KNOWING which lamely did it with CGI. Now that I know a few of the shots in this film that do have digital enhancements to them (like a car effectively screeching to a halt right next to Bruce Willis’ head) I’m still pretty impressed by how they mixed things together. It’s not up to the level of the original DIE HARD (the events of which are referred to here as “that thing in L.A.”—the audience remains more impressed by what John McClane once did than anyone in the film is) and it doesn’t even always feel set in the same universe as DIE HARD but at least it doesn’t insult that film or its fans. As a giant action extravaganza it’s directed by someone who knows how to map these sequences out in the right ways and to deliver all the elements that are needed making for me what has always been an enormously satisfying 131 minutes. Even if it isn’t perfect. It has a healthy amount of disarming humor with bit characters and once things get going after the first act the DIE HARD style comes into play again full throttle—McTiernan’s wide Scope use, massive lens flares and roaming Steadicam work all help give it that feel of continuous excitement. Producer Joel Silver no longer being involved does change things in ways that seem to veer away from what was then seemingly the producer’s house style—that 80s-90s pop feel is long gone, not to mention how this film’s bad guys don’t necessarily kill everyone they come into contact with. This film also doesn’t bother with any annoying side characters that seem to exist primarily to annoy John McClane—all the professionals here, once the tension ratchets up, are completely willing and able to get along. Michael Kamen’s music, once it goes full steam in the second half, certainly helps a great deal with a bouncy quote of “Singin’ In The Rain” as the aqueduct gets flooded and while making the conceit of the score be “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” may not be quite up to the sophistication of “Ode To Joy” (I’m guessing part of the joke is that it can be connected to another Kubrick film) it still works off the visuals very well, correctly adding to the nonstop feel of things.
Bruce Willis expertly falls right back into playing his iconic role, reluctant as he is, and he comes off exactly as confident as he needs to be while Samuel L. Jackson’s racially charged electrician with Malcolm X-type glasses, both someone for McClane to argue with as well as being a slight audience surrogate at the time felt like a solidification of the actor’s stardom following the thunderbolt of PULP FICTION. Looking at it now some of feels maybe a little too calculated with a few speeches clearly designed for the way he could scream them but a small beat like the intensity of his saying, “Just go,” when the pair can’t deal with some handcuffs also shows how good he can always be with just a few tiny words to say. Jeremy Irons seems to be playing his role as kind of a lark but considering the way it was written I’m not sure there was really any other approach he could have taken—it’s more of a gimmick than a character and while Irons has his moments—moving from one phony character to another, calmly eating a hard-boiled egg as Jackson confronts him, the character is too often isolated from things playing his game of “Simon Says” and his lack of interaction with others (at least in person) means that the character isn’t as effective as he probably should be. Sam Phillips, a singer making what is practically her only acting appearance, doesn’t do all that much as the silent but lethal henchwoman Katya, complete with a love-triangle that barely seems alluded to, but she’s certainly striking to watch no matter what she’s doing and the film cuts to her so much within scenes it begins to feel that McTiernan is quite frankly fascinated by her. I’m not sure I blame him.
The supporting cast also brings added strength to some stock characters with McClane’s fellow cops Graham Greene and Colleen Camp (heavy on the New Yawk accent) bring weight to their minor roles—Greene crossing himself at a key moment and Camp cradling a few kids before she thinks something terrible is about to happen feel like genuinely human touches that never seem to turn up in these kinds of movies. Larry Bryggman brings believable concern to his role as McClane’s captain and Kevin Chamberlin is likable comic relief as the bomb expert, hitting just the right humorous tone with a touch of heroism. BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES screenwriter Michael Cristofer is the government official “with another agency”, Joe Zaloom gets some laughs as the history buff truck driver and Aasif Mandvi of THE DAILY SHOW appears for about three seconds as a taxi driver whose cab is hijacked by McClane. Apparently Dick Cheney is in the film as an extra—seriously—but when John McTiernan says, “There he is,” to point him out on the commentary it’s not entirely clear who he’s referring to. Exactly what this possible association says about John McTiernan, the director of one of the finest action films of the past thirty years and currently appealing his conviction for lying to the FBI in the Pellicano wiretapping scandal, is something I’d frankly rather not speculate on.
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE pulled in an even $100 million at the domestic box office (much more internationally) which wasn’t too much less than what DIE HARD 2 has grossed but it didn’t seem to make the same splash in pop culture. Even the ad campaign was somewhat subdued, possibly a result of the Oklahoma City bombing. Looking at it again now the film feels like one of the last gasps of the old school Hollywood action film, which by the time the late 90s were happening had begun to morph into a sort of Jerry Bruckheimer-Hans Zimmer fusion-of-sound-and-fury extravaganza, no matter who the director was. These days this type of well-crafted, non-ironic R-rated entertainment feels like an endangered species, surviving mostly in forms of unexciting, PG-13-rated, CGI encumbered nonsense (one even tried to pass itself off as a DIE HARD film) and I don’t have much hope that things will turn around. There’s always the small chance, I suppose, that a filmmaker will come along with the ability and know-how to do things right which would be one of the best things to happen to the action genre imaginable. Because this type of movie should always be around, to give us reasons to look forward to eating that popcorn amidst massive explosions, huge orchestral scores and one-liner quips as henchmen are dispatched. Like Lt. John McClane himself, the action genre as we will forever know and love it needs to die hard.