Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 4: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

When Live Free or Die Hard was about to come out, it was a pretty big deal for me. I had seen the three previous Die Hards numerous times and loved them - and this would be the first Die Hard  I was old enough to see in theatres. Admittedly, for me, Live Free or Die Hard couldn't quite live up to the original trilogy, largely because a Die Hard film made in 2007 is a completely different animal than a Die Hard film made in the late 80s or early to mid- 90s, when the first three films where made. Of the Die Hard sequels I've seen (haven't seen A Good Day to Die Hard), it's my least favourite, though I feel number 5 will take that spot soon enough. The film suffers from a villain that's interesting in concept but not executed as effectively as he could've been, especially with a solid actor in the role. It's reconciliation story between father and daughter needed more development as well- since it comes across as more a plot device. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this film. It's actually a pretty good action film. Director Len Wiseman stages some memorable action sequences. The film also has some nice emotional beats and an intriguing plot.

The film begins with John McClane (Bruce Willis) being sent to pick up a computer hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) and bring him to DC. A computer outage at the FBI has led the FBI to seek out known computer hackers, finding them dead. Farrell is being taken in to protective custody. McClane finds out Matt was a pawn in a scheme by a man named Thomas Gabriel (tImothy Olyphant) to start what is known as a "fire sale," in which America's computer controls are hacked, meaning "every thing must go." Gabriel is a former expert for the US Defense Department. After 9/11 he tried to convince the higher ups that America was vulnerable. When he used his laptop to hack in to the the defense system, he was fired. The fire sale is Gabriel's way of proving he was right, as well a way to steal a lot of money.

I like the concept of Gabriel. He basically threatens the security of the United States in order to prove how vulnerable it really is.  I wished they had devloped Gabriel's character a little more and expanded upon the theme of terrorism in a post 9/11 age and what that means for a series like Die Hard and the character of John McClane. Gabriel calls out McClane for being out of date- which is an interesting idea for the Die Hard series to confront- what happens when McClane gets older and his past glories are behind him. Unfortunately, the series doesn't seem to ever want to become a melancholy, introspective look at the decline of the 80s action hero, an ironic concept in regards to John McClane, who was the antithesis to that kind of hero- but he more or less became part of that group of guys as he slowly, or maybe not so slowly, evolved in to one of those iconic bad asses. The franchise just seems content to blow stuff up real good, as Roger Ebert would say. And on that level, it works pretty well. At this point in the franchise, they're not aiming for much semblance to the real world- so you basically have McClane drive a car in to a helicoptor only about half an hour in. You just killed a helicoptor with a car" Matt says. "I was out of bullets'' McClane replies. It's a nice punchline to the scene, letting us know the filmmakers, and McClane, know how ridiculous this stuff is.

A big criticism of this film revolves how McClane seems more like a super hero than the regular cop he was in the first film. And that's true. But there is one scene in this film that I think really nails McClane. It's when Matt tells him McClane that's he's not like McClane, not the hero type. McClane then tells Matt that while he doesn't want to be a hero, some one has to do the right thing. If someone else could, he'd let them. This scene really encompasses what John McClane is all about- the reluctant hero who rather not have go through these crazy adventures but has to because, ultimately, he's a good guy, and no one else will. "That's what makes you that guy," Matt says- John's speech has proved Matt's point.

Back to the action! The fight between McClane and Gabriel's lover/henchwoman Mai (Maggie Q) in an SUV hanging in an elevator shaft is really well executed, and the climax involving McClane in a truck facing down a fighter jet, while ridiculous, is spectacular. The henchman Emerson, who's jumping around like Spider-Man, still feels out of place for me in a Die Hard film, but the stunt choreography in his scenes is pretty great.

The subplot involving McClane's attempt at reconciling with his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), felt like it needed to be a bigger part of the film. At the heart of the first film was McClane trying to save his marriage- it was the metaphor of the first film. In this film, when Lucy is kidnapped, it feels more like a plot device then something that becomes an organic part of the film. I like Winstead and am glad they gave Lucy an assertiveness that becomes an amusing running gag in the third act- like father like daughter.

Overall, I don't have too much more to say about Live Free or Die Hard. I enjoy it, but I wish it felt a little more like the previous films. It still has the relentless pacing, the face-offs over the phone between McClane and the villain, but it feels a little too detached from the universe of the first three films. Still, I like Willis in this film, and his chemistry with Long. Olyphant is pretty solid and director Wiseman stages the action pretty coherently and with aplomb. I enjoy the film, but I think it'll always be somewhat of an outlier for me.

So, the retrospective is done. My ranking goes like this: Die Hard, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Die Hard 2, Live Free or Die Hard. Even without seeing A Good Day to Die Hard, I feel it'll probably come in dead last, due to what I've heard. It's been fun looking back at this franchise. I love it, and hope that when there's a sixth film, it's the last and takes the franchise out with a bang.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 3: "Die Hard With a Vengeance" (1995)

While rewatching Die Hard 2 I found myself liking the film more than I had before. Still, Die Hard With a Vengeance has a special place in my heart as my favourite of the Die Hard sequels- mostly because it gives itself more breathing room than Die Hard 2 did to be its own film. While Die Hard 2 is its own film, sometimes it does feel a little too sel-conscious of the original film, especially with its meta references to the "same shit happening to the same guy twice." Die Hard With A Vengeance definitely feels like the first Die Hard sequel that could've gotten by as another Bruce Willis action film (It was based off an original script that almost became Lethal Weapon 3) but this is what actually makes the film feel a lot fresher and inventive than most third installments. I think it's the funniest of the Die Hard films and also an interesting experiment in playing with audiences' franchise expectations.

The film begins with The Lovin' Spoonfuls' "Summer in the City" playing over images of a New York City day. This intro automatically sets the first apart from the Christmas settings of the first two films and also establishes that we're finally going to see John McClane (Bruce Willis) in his usual stomping grounds, whereas he was a fish out of water in the previou films. I love when the song is cut off by a store exploding- setting up the relentless pacing of this film. A man calling himself Simon (Jeremy Irons) calls Inspector Walter Cobb and tells him that he'll strike again unless the suspended McClane stands in the streets of Harlem with a sandwich board that says "I hate N-----s." McClane is spotted by a shop owner named Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), who saves him from a gang. Simon then makes Zeus part of his game as he makes him and McClane solve riddles in order to stop more bombings.

The beginning of this film plays mostly like a psychological thriller and the film itself is psychologically playing with the audience's expectations of what a Die Hard film is like. We know ths franchise is a lot more than John McClane solving riddles- so we wonder what Simon and the film's endgame is, as well as how the scope scale of this film will expand. Of course, before long, McClane is jumping on the top of subway train that has a bomb in it. It's eventually revealed that Simon is Hans Gruber's (Alan Rickman) brother, which in itself is also a red herring. We begin to think that Simon wants revenge against McClane but a big joke near the end is that Simon didn't really like his brother. Of course, as Simon says, "There's a difference between not liking your brother and not caring when some Irish flatfoot throws him off a building." The whole riddle nonsense, the supposed bomb at an elementary school, the idea that Simon wants revenge on McClane- it's all a cover for Simon to steal gold from the New York federal reserve.  While a big criticism of this film could be that it has too much bait-and-switch going on, I think it's this quality that makes it such a fascinating action film- as well as sequel. For the first time, it really feels like the villain gets the better of John McClane. In the first two films, McClane took th bad guys by surprise- this time the tables are turned.

While much of the film is a ruse, what I think will keep me coming back to the film is the throughline of McClane and Zeus' relationship. Zeus is somewhat of a racist- something that's both played for laughs but it also disquieting in its own way. Zeus' arc through the film involves get past his prejudices and learn to work with McClane. He's a fascinating character and I think this stands as one of Jackson's most vivid performances. The chemistry between him and Willis is sharp and funny- I love when McClane calls him "Jesus" because he thinks that what the gang was calling him. "They weren't saying 'Jesus,' they were saying "Hey, Zeus," Zeus tells him. "Father of Apollo. Don't fuck with me or I'll shove a lightning bolt up your ass." It's one of thos great details that's always brought this franchise to life. While a lot of people seem to hate the water jug riddle scene, I like how it brings to head the tensions between McClane and Zeus, with McClane finally calling him out as a rascist.

Who's awesome enough to play Alan Rickman's brother? Jeremy Irons of course. Just hearing his voice over the phone in the first act of this film gives me pleasure. It's fascinating how our impression of Simon changes over the course of the film- from a smart but random psychopath to a vengeful brother- to something else entirely. Like his brother Hans and Colonel Stuart from Die Hard 2, he's an extremely smart villain- one who we know is a formidable foe for McClane.

Admittedly, I don't like the action in this film as much as I do the the second film, but having John McTiernan, who directed the first film, back behind the camera is great. He brings a ruthless intensity to the staging of the action. I love the elevator fight between McClane and Simon's men who are pretending to be police officers- especially that final shot, the close-up of McClane as he fires his gun and blood sprays all over his face. The race to get to the subway- with McClane and Zeus driving a cab through Central Park is also pretty fun. The ending of the film does feel a little abrupt and not quite as memorable as the first two- the alternate ending is more interesting- but tonally I remember it not fitting with the rest of the film.

 Die Hard With a Vengeance stands for me as one of the better third installments in cinema. While it's not as lean as its prequels, it's a consistently entertaining, very funny and structurally interesting take on the Die Hard franchise. And as an end to the original "trilogy," it's a good capper. Of course, while it would take 12 years, this wouldn't be the end of the Die Hard franchise, not by a long shot. Next up: Live Free or Die Hard.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 2: "Die Hard 2" (1990)

For better or worse, of all the Die Hard sequels, Die Hard 2 feels the most like a sequel to the original film, in terms of its tone, atmosphere, and returning characters. With this sequel we begin to see the problem, further highlighted by the next two installments, of making a sequel to Die Hard. Make a film too close to the formula of the original film, like Die Hard 2, and it makes the audience conscious of watching a sequel that's similar but not as great as the original. Make a sequel that's tonally and structurally different from the original, with Die Hard With a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard, and it feels like the series is departing too far from the original premise. All that being said, Die Hard 2, while sometimes feeling too conscious of being a sequel, and repeating several of the elements from the first film, manages to balance those formula elements while still feeling like its own film. It's as rock solid as a sequel can get and is one of the most entertaining action films of the 1990s.

The plot of the film revolves around General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), drug lord and dictator, who is being extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking charges. Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), of the US Army Special Forces, and his men take over Washington's airport systems from a church and demand that Esperanza's plane not be met by anyone and also demand a plane so they can all escape to another country. Of course, guess who's also at the airport. That's right- John McClane (Bruce Willis). It's Christmas Eve again and his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is on one of the planes that can't land wiithout landing lights and is running low on fuel. Once again McClane is "up to his ass in terrorists" and has to use his wits, and his gun, to save his wife and the other people up in the air as well.

This is where one of the problems of Die Hard 2 comes in. As I said earliier, the film is very conscious of being a sequel, particularly in McClane's reaction to the situtation. It's not a completely bad thing. We hear, in the confrontation between McClane and Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), captain of airport police, that McClane became famous for a while after the situation at Nakatomi. And Colonel Stuart tells McClane he thought he was out of his element while being interviewed on Nightline. These references give some nice texture to the Die Hard universe and grounds the film in reality- of course people would know who McClane was, even if they didn't respect him. On the other hand, when McClane says the line  Oh man, I can't fucking believe this. Another basement, another elevator. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" It feels like the screenplay is laying it on a little too thick, and being a little too meta. While the line suits the everyman quality McClane posseses, it lends itself too much to parody and plays up the absurdity of the situation that would best be left unsaid.

I think Die Hard 2 is the most unnerving and terrifying of the Die Hard films, which is largely due to the scene is which Stuart, in response to McClane interfering, makes a plane crash by talking to its pilots. It's a harrowing and devastating scene, particularly in how McClane tries to make it pull up but fails. It's actually surprising that this scene made it in to the film- and in our post 9/11 age, it's even more unsettling. It's also in this scene where we see how ruthless Stuart can be. Sadler is utterly convincing as the calculated Stuart. He makes you really hate him, and as an aspiring actor myself, I admire him not being afraid to play such an unlikable character. He also has one of the most memorable introductions I've ever seen for a villain (nakes ti-chi!). He's not as great a villain as Alan Rickman's Hans but he's very memorable.

This film has some pretty strong action scenes, such as the catwalk ambush and the snowmobile chase. I love the scene where McClane has to eject himself from a plane cockpit to escape the villains' grenades. It provides the most memorable shots from the film. Renny Harlin, the finnish director who almost directed Alien 3 and would go on to direct the Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger, handles the action pretty well for his first big budget action film.

An essential component of the first Die Hard was the claustrophic surrounding that also allowed enough movement to create thrilling action. I like how this feel generates claustrophobia for McClane by having his wife stuck in the air- an interesting twist on the situation from the first film. McClane can leave the airport but he still needs to see this adventure through to the end. He also has to clash with Lorenzo, who wants nothing more than to kick McClane out of his airport. Franz is perfect as the arrogant blowhard Lorenzo but the character is pretty monotonous. I do like that when McClane finally makes Lorenzo take him seriously- via the blanks the supposedly "good guys" led by Major Grant (John Amos) were using against Stuart (Grant and his men are in cahoots with Stuart)- Lorenzo simply says "It's time to kick ass." It's a nice and simple way to show Lorenzo finally trusting McClane as well as ready to show he's not just a bureuacrat.

The film isn't quite as soulful as the first film, which at its heart was about a guy trying to fix his marriage. That was the metpahor for the entire film. In this film, Holly and McClane's marriage is doing well so having Holly being on board one of the planes is more of a plot device-albeit a relatable and emotional one for McClane. The movie isn't entirely soulless- McClane not being able to save the plane shows how McClane isn't the perfect action hero who can save everyone- and the reunion between Holly and McClane is touching. I do wish Richard "Dick" Thornburg (William Atherton) went through an arch of redemption rather than just be the same slimy reporter he was in the first film but I'm glad Holly is portrayed as an assertive woman rather than a damsel in distress.

Die Hard 2 is a very entertaining and well paced action film that's very lean and brutal- as well as unpretentious about what it wants to be. It's also arguably the only Die Hard sequel that feels like a sequel to Die Hard. It doesn't match the greatness of the first film but it's still a damn good film. Next up, probably my favourite of the Die Hard sequels: Die Hard With a Vengeance.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 1: "Die Hard " (1988)

As a franchise goes along, it's sometimes hard to look at the first film in a series without thinking about the franchise's legacy and its evolution. Die Hard is one of those franchises that has gone so far past its initial premise and tone that one really has to put the first film in its proper context to fully appreciate what it was doing in regards to its central character, New York city detective John McClane, and the casting of Bruce Willis in the part. When Willis was first cast in the role, he was not the iconic action star we see him as now. He wasn't an action star at all back then- he was mostly known for his work on the TV show Moonlighting. Willis wasn't made in the Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone  mold, both who defined the macho, unstoppable action hero of the 1980s. He was just a regular joe who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is what the original Die Hard was all about, a regular guy who has to step up and be a hero. And, after rewatching it, it's a great antithesis to the over the top action movies of the 80s as well as the James Bond films which had made Ian Fleming's creation more superhero than spy. Though, to be fair, by time Die Hard came out, Timothy Dalton was bringing Bond back down to Earth with his underrated portrayal of the character. But I digress. Die Hard is arguably the definitve action movie of the 80s, in that, as I said before, it subverted audience expectations of what an action movie could be .

The plot is simple. John McClane is a New York City detective who is visting L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who works at Nakatomi Plazza under her maiden name, Gennarro-due to it being a Japanese company for which she works. After they get in a fight over her using her maiden name and leaving New York with their two children, a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) takes over the building to break in to its vault.  McClane hides while hostages are being rounded up and precedes to start a one man war against the terrorists.

The Nakatomi building is a great one-location setting for the film, in that it allows for a claustophobic, grounded environment to stage the action, but is also big enough for the action to build as the LAPD and the FBI arrive and try to solve the situation. Over the past several films there's been a lot of talk about the realism injected in to the Batman and James Bond franchises, as well as the new Spider-Man film. And while it's true that Nolan's Batman trilogy and the Daniel Craig Bond film feel more grounded in reality than many of their predeceding films, I think Die Hard pre-dates those films in terms of creating an action film and hero that feels grounded in reality. I'm not saying everything in the film is completely realistic- McClane jumps from the rooftop just as it's rigged to explode with a fire hose wrapped around his waist- then it supports him even as the rooftop is on fire. But the thing is, it feels grounded in reality- which I think is largely due to Willis' performance- the way he says "God please don't let me die" before he makes the jump. It's an incredibly human moment and makes the jump/explosion all the more spectacular. This is a real guy escaping death by the skin of his teeth- and Willis sells that. Willis balances the wisecracks and one liners, his confidence in facing Hans, as well McClane's vulnerbility, his unsurety that he will survive this ordeal. It's a performance that I would argue was worthy of an Oscar nomination.

And speaking of Oscar snubs, where was the nomination for Alan Rickman's performance as Hans? Part of why Die Hard will always be the best of the Die Hard films is that Hans is still the best villain of the series. Rickman makes Hans surprisingly likable, despite being very ruthless. Much of this is due to his dry sense of humour. I think my favourite scene with Rickman is when one of the hostages, Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) tries to negotiate with Hans by telling him he can get him McClane. In this scene, while Ellis is putting on a show for Hans, Rickman has a "Is this guy for real?" look on his face which is priceless. What I also like about Hans is he's pretty smart- he doesn't really do anything in the film that stupid, which makes him a formidable foe for McClane. And just how McClane isn't a superhero, Hans isn't a super villain like some of the James Bond villains, he feels grounded in reality.

I also think Die Hard is actually one of the great unsung buddy cop films. Throughout most of the film, McClane communicates via cb radio with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the only one outside the building who supports McClane and knows he's trying to help.While they don't meet face to face until the end, they form a connection and we learn about Powell's tragic past- he shot and killed a kid at night whose toy gun looked real. After that, he tells, John, he could bring himself to pull his gun on anyone. At the end of the film, when the last remaining terrorist Karl (Alexander Godunov), who we believed was killed by McClane, reappears, Al is finally able to fire his gun again. It's a great character payoff and is enough to give you goosebumps.

While Die Hard is a pure action movie, it's also a lot about the build up to the action, and suspense is expertly handled by director John McTiernan. The concept of "chaos cinema," meaning action films that have incoherent action, is one that's prevalent in our discussion of modern action films. With Die Hard, the action is coherent and classically staged. There's a great overhead shot early on while McClane is shooting at terrorists on the roof. We see where everyone is and the shot is  fascinatlingly detached, particulalry in this era of action film where the acton is so hetic and has no breathing room.

Die Hard is pretty much a perfect action film- and just film in general- It blends intense action with genunine poignancy- McClane and Al's face to face meeting is beautiful, as well as McClane telling Al to tell Holly he's sorry- and is intelligently staged in terms of its action. While I enjoy the sequels, none has been able to completely recapture the original's magic. Those are my thoughts for part 1. Next time: Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Monday, 4 February 2013

Some Thoughts on Paul Giamatti and Felicity Jones' Casting in "The Amazing Spider-Man" Sequel


Last week, some big casting news was announced regarding the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man. Paul Giamatti is in talks to play one of Spider-Man's villains, the Rhino. For those who don't know the Rhino, here's a brief summary via The Hollywood Reporter:

"The Rhino first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #41 in 1966 as a thug from a Soviet Block country who wore a superhuman suit that made him invulnerable while giving him super-strength and super-speed. It also had a deadly horn
on top. In more recent comics, he became a sympathetic figure who found himself allying with Spider-Man."

What's fascinating about the inclusion of the Rhino in the film is certainly the casting of Giamatti, not a psychically intimidating actor. With Giamatti in the role, the film will probably emphasize the suit's ability to give him super strength, providing a contrast between the ordinary man Giamatti starts out as and the unstoppable force he becomes.

Giamatti will be joining Jamie Foxx as Electro, another of Spider-Man's rogues gallery. With two villains, along with the inclusion of Dan DeHaan as Harry Osborn and Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson, as well as Felicity Jones in talks for an undisclosed role, it's starting to feel that the film may be juggling too many balls. And the idea of a Spider-Man film cramming in too many characters and subplots brings to mind Spider-Man 3, which suffered from not being able to weave its multiple plotlines together coherently. Now, I'm not trying to be an alarmist- it's just that I felt The Amazing Spider-Man script didn't quite flow narratively or click together thematically as well as it should have. I hope the script for the next film is tighter and works really well as a stand alone film.

For one thing, it's important to know how to use your villains. One needs to be the central villain, which I presume will be Electro. It's apparent that Harry's father, Norman Osborn, is the one pulling the strings in this new franchise, so it's important to keep that villain structure in mind while still having Electro be a fully developed character rather than just a henchman. Foxx has talked about Electro's origins, saying at the beginning of the film that Max Dillon, Electro's real name, will be a Spider-Man fan:

"You'll see that in his whole life, no one is talking to him. People have stolen his ideas at the big company. He's a nobody. At a certain point, Spider-Man bumps into him and says, 'You're my guy. You're my eyes and ears on the street.' And he says his name - no one has ever said [Max] Dillon's name. He goes, 'Wow' and, when Spider-Man leaves, he sort of thinks that, 'I am Spider-Man's partner!' He's cutting out Spider-Man's face and pasting it on all his boards..."

Could Rhino be an established villain at the beginning of the film, with Electro getting the main villain origin? Possibly, especially since, judging from Foxx's comments, Max will have an emotional connection to Spider-Man that will put his orgin front and centre. Then again, if Rhino has any connection to Oscorp and Curt Connor's cross species genetics work, we could definitely be seeing an origin on screen for him as well. Will there be a team up between Electro and Rhino?- if director Marc Webb is leading up his version of the Sinister Six, then a relationship between Electro and Rhino could be planting the seeds for a future installment also featuring the return of Curt Connors/the Lizard. Critic Sean O'Connell recently wrote an article about the possible universe Marc Webb is mapping out:  While I have disagreed with O'Connell regarding certain aspects of The Amazing Spider-Man, his article is definitely worth checking out.

So, who will Felicity Jones play? People are throwing around two big names-Felicia Hardy, aka the Black Cat, the Marvel Universe's version of Catwoman and Betty Brant, who in the comics works at the Daily Bugle. While I kind of love the idea of Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man interacting with Black Cat, I wonder if Black Cat fits in with what this franchise is doing right now. It may also be a little too soon after The Dark Knight Rises and Anne Hathaway's performace as Catwoman to bring in another cat burglar character. And finally, the romantic dynamic of this new film already seems to be set up as a love triangle involving Peter Parker, Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy and Shailene Woodley's Mary Jane. Felicia/Black Cat was one of Peter' romantic interests in the comics, so the filmmakers may want to avoid putting in another possible love interest. This isn't to say that Felicia is only defined by a romantic relationship with a man.

I'm leaning a little towards Betty Brant. The Daily Bugle will probably feature in some compacity in the next film, which would lead to Betty having a role. Elizabeth Banks played Betty in Sam Raimi's trilogy and the character may have a larger role in this film. In the comics, Betty was actually Peter's first love, even before Gwen. It wasn't essential to Raimi's trilogy and it may not be of importance in this trilogy, since as I mentioned earlier, the romantic triangle centres around Peter, Gwen, and Mary Jane. And like Felicia, Betty doesn't need to be defined by a romantic relationship with Peter.

So, those are pretty much my thoughts as of now. Despite my issues with the first film, I'm very intrigued by what direction this sequel, and franchise, is going.