Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Die Hard (1988) Review...Again

I know, I know. I've already reviewed Die Hard before; in that series retrospective I did shortly before the fifth movie came out. However, it is possible to do things the same things several times - just like how you're allowed to have sex more than once in your life. Who knew. Besides, I now know what commas are, and thus this review will be infinitely more readable. More importantly, however, the legend that is Alan 'Potter' Rickman died last month, prompting me to want to revisit one of his more iconic roles - the villainous Hans Gruber.  

Like many a pyramid scheme, a good action film plot has to stand on the villain behind it. This action movie law is axiomatic, like how you should never fart when in the bath with your partner. As a bare minimum, a decent bad guy must be engaging and one of the most memorable aspects of the film. Take The Running Man’s Damon Killian, for example, he was a smarmy bastard whose every alcohol-fuelled sociopathic quip served to highlight a society in decline. A meta joke which worked rather well because Richard Dawson had the experience of a game show host behind him. Thus, the film edged alongside Robocop with its cynical depiction of contemporary culture. Speaking of which, Clarence Boddicker was another iconic villain. One who personified an entire decade of excess and thuggish economic principals, but at the same time was simply a powerhouse performance by Kurtwood Smith.

Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, however, was perhaps the first action movie villain whom I became attached to simply because he was such a magnificent bastard. A professional and a class act. He oozed charisma like the sweaty kid in class oozes friend repellent. Also, I like to think he’s the Eurotrash host gone postal after suffering an existential crisis. In eighties action movies there are particular categories of terrorist villain: the classically educated foreign men in elaborate attire, and the ones who resemble how you think you look when starting a metal band in college. They’re hardly the modern day's Jihadi John or Mujahideen Morris. Or Showaddywaddy Steve (I’m sorry for that one).

One of my favourites was the hulking rival to John Matrix in Commando. Bennett, with his chainmail vest and sleazy ‘tash, looked like Freddy Mercury as depicted by the Village People. And only in the eighties would a villain threaten to shoot the protagonist in the bollocks. There’s also Scorpio from Dirty Harry. Akin to my early compulsion to eat the family home’s plasterboard walls, the man couldn’t stop chewing the scenery. Scorpio, ever the badass, took beatings from black thugs almost as well as Rihanna. Gruber, however, differed in that the viewer got to spend time with him as an entity distinct from McClane. By limiting the contact between Gruber and McClane to walkie-talkies, Die Hard became a battle of the wits and it is here where Rickman’s performance truly shined

"So I see you've been trying to nob my daughter..."

The reason that Gruber stood out where other villains didn’t, was due in large part to how Die Hard set itself apart from its contemporaries. The original Die Hard - a schooling in the art of guerrilla warfare - made the conscious attempt to distance itself from the hyper-masculine eighties action movie landscape. You know the ones I mean. Stallone vehicles like Rambo III, featuring an unstoppable brick shithouse responsible for killing more nameless goons than the Department of Work and Pensions. All the really awesome films with ace one-liners (Lethal Weapon 2’s “It’s just been revoked”, for example) like Twitter for bad-asses. Die hard took the explosions, ultra-violence, taunting, and macho posturing, and put them in a gruelling setting alongside pragmatic combat. A setting in which averagely built comedic actors could play the hero role usually reserved for beefcakes like Arnie.

I have said previously that Die Hard has a 'Space Invaders' plot: the hero archetype pits off against aggressors, and the concept is so minimal any backstory and setting can be attached to it. This only proved more accurate as the series dragged on. John McClane, the everyday hero always in the wrong place, has a habit of getting into trouble: like a Renaissance era Florentine scientist with negative views on the papacy. Die Hard saw its Everyman cop protagonist trapped in an office block, the Nakatomi Plaza, on Christmas Eve as it is taken over by terrorists. To make matters worse, McClane was only there to reconcile with estranged wife Holly at the Christmas party. I'd rather endure the Christmas tradition of an awkward game of Monopoly to be honest.

The set-up highlights the film's approach to its action. McClane shouldn't even be there, and only escapes capture with the rest of the hostages due to circumstance. Thus, we have an ill-prepared and out-hunted protagonist - the antagonists are firmly in control and outnumber him thirteen to one. Gruber seems a more credible threat when the only challenge to his coup comes in the form of a man who spends more time crawling around in a vest than my Parkinson's stricken granddad does after trying to get up and grab the remote. Outnumbered, out-gunned, but never out-vested (yes, I made that joke last time too), McClane is forced to engage in guerrilla warfare against a more powerful force. This made for a well-constructed action narrative of witty retorts and lightning skirmishes.

Told you Die Hard is a Christmas movie, mum.
The other thing director John McTiernan and co did to create credible tension was have the villain hold all the information. Gruber has a pretty good idea of who McClane is, which leads to the excellent scene where he attempts to pass himself off to McClane as an escaped hostage. [Fun fact: John McTiernan extended that scene purely because of Rickman's fantastic acting turn as a terrified American hostage]. He and his group are the only ones who know their act of 'terrorism' is actually a sophisticated robbery, further hampering the efforts of the useless law enforcement agents outside. Honestly, Gruber's like when your girlfriend is mad at you but won't tell you why; instead opting for the "like you don't know," shtick. The only area where Gruber doesn't possess a complete advantage is that he doesn't know McClane's wife is one of the hostages. But then it'd be a shorter film than The Bill Crosby Appreciation Society's highlight reel.

Well up until now I've mostly discussed the film's action and Gruber's badassery, but that's only because what else is there to say about Die Hard that hasn't already been said? It's a minimalist plot after all; a journey from memorable set piece to memorable set piece. There's the "Welcome to the party, pal" scene in which McClane throws a body out of the window like a citizen of the Middle Ages emptying their shit bucket. There's also the first "yippee-ki-yay" scene, where Gruber performs an excellent character analysis of McClane's hero employing expert use of film theory. Also, let's not forgot the fire hose roof jump and ventilation crawl. The aforementioned set pieces are all iconic and fundamental moments in action film history. None of Die Hard's many clones ever quite managed to recapture what made the film so damn good. I suppose that was the problem really: instead of focusing on making their an iconic movie of their own filmmakers became obsessed with stealing away its magic, like it's a sexy kid stood outside of a school and they're trying to bundle it into a white van.

Die Hard will remain the de facto action film for many for decades to come. Compared to everything else that went on in the eighties action film landscape, Die Hard stood in its own corner. The violence, while occasionally stretching the boundaries of plausibility, had a sense of gruelling reality to it that films like Commando just didn't have (or need). I may sound as though I've constantly been ripping on Commando, but this isn't the case. I fucking love that film. My entire first year of college was spent quoting the shit out of Commando. It got incredibly awkward when trying to chat up girls with the "let off some steam...Bennett" line. I just use it as my litmus test because of how excessively insane it is: look at the scene in Commando where Arnie gets tooled up with more guns than there are in an average US Government ISIS resupply.

In Die Hard, I think McClane only uses two guns (a pistol and a hard-won machine gun), some explosives, and a few improvised weapons. McClane's a sweaty, bloodied mess - with feet torn to shreds by shards of glass - by the end. His victory feels deserved. Not many other pure action movies of the time actually evoked such a feeling in the viewer. In that respect, it would have been incredible to have seen Frank Sinatra in the role - as was originally planned. "Yippie-ki-yay ya' schmuck".

                                                  Arnie: Putting the man in Commando since '85

As much as I enjoy Die Hard there are still things which piss me off about it. I am about as agreeable as a Somalian pirate on a ship hijacking ban, after all. The main thing is that, being an eighties action movie, Die Hard has more cheesy characters than a Cheesestring advert starring Nicolas Cage. Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) may be a fan favourite, but I found his Twinkie obsession and bumbling to be more than a little grating. As though Frank fucking Spencer was given a badge and a gun. He does provide light relief to the movie, and his interactions with McClane add much-needed humanisation - so he gets a pass I suppose.

The same doesn't apply to De'voreaux White's limousine driving Argyle, however. An obnoxious, out of place character who was Chris Rock before Chris Rock was a thing. Argyle's bopping around to a Run DMC song at the beginning is highly annoying and instantly lets you know he's going to be more irritating than the sound of Jar Jar Binks and Crazy Frog fucking. Some of the terrorists are a bit odd too. Karl, Fritz, Alexander, and Heinrich all look like they are part of an all terrorist hair metal band - Cycle Sluts from Hellzbollah? Tony resembles a spree killing Milky Bar Kid; while James seems like the type of person who wouldn't legally be allowed to work as a school janitor.

All in all, Die Hard holds up well and probably always will. Its real strength lies in its villain and thoughtful approach to action. One thing which occurred to me while watching A Good Day to Die Hard – other than finally knowing how Sylvia Plath felt all the bloody time – was how it represents the series’ transformation into the very thing it hated. Everything about A Good Day to Die Hard is the antithesis of the original's guerilla spirit. Screenwriter Skip Woods clearly didn’t get the whole Die Hard on an X trope, as (once again) it's not set in a single location. This time, it's set in the land where subtlety died – the fucking Soviet Bloc. So influential was the original’s approach, that it spawned scores of successors (Speed, Con Air, Olympus Has Fallen, etc.). Making the decision for the series to abandon its own formula just like the content of Polly the Parrot’s dreams: entirely crackers. 

Gone is the lone hero, mostly improvised weaponry; skewered odds, and combination of grittiness and black humour. And in its place there's John McClane's meathead son; an entire arsenal of weapons, and Bruce Willis cracking skulls and his arthritis plagued joints. There’re more fiery explosions than a documentary about a Norwegian black metal band’s trip to the Vatican. Add to this all the armoured cars, helicopters, sexy, badass Russian women. Yadda, yadda, yadda. It relishes in the tired tropes of the homogenised eighties action landscape packed with rugged, one man army anti-heroes. The difference being while those sort of movies were awesome works of cultural excess, A Good Day to Die Hard is just lazy. A rather saddening regression. It's like when your devoutly monogamous girlfriend suddenly wants to take a break and ends up with more dicks inside of her than a stadium during a Donald Trump rally. 

The eighties were friggin' awesome.

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