Tuesday, August 04, 2020

McClane Binge: Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)

The biggest problem with Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), perhaps, is that it follows on the heels of a legitimately great movie in its franchise.  

John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) is brilliantly constructed in terms of its character dynamics, its camera-work, and even its primal male fantasy sub-text. It's the gold standard in terms of the action genre, at least for its era.

Die Hard 2 is good enough to merit a positive review, and proved an even bigger success at the box office than Die Hard did. But watching Die Hard 2 today, one cannot help but feel that virtually every ingredient featured this time around is a bit less artfully calibrated.

The villains are a huge step-down from Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, for one thing. Similarly, McClane begins the slippery descent from Every Man to Super Man in this movie, and the supporting characters who make a return appearance -- like narcissistic Dick Thornburg (William Atherton) -- feel shoe-horned into the plot.  

When the movie culminates with the first Die Hard’s R-rated catchphrase, and the same closing song  too -- “Let it Snow” -- the impression of not a sequel, but a rehash, is firmly cemented.

By contrast, the next film in the cycle, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) throws out enough standards (the isolated location, the man-alone syndrome, and the Christmas Day setting) to transmit as a more legitimately original follow-up to a masterful action classic.

This first sequel, however, expertly solidifies some intriguing elements that, perhaps, aren’t always considered in regards to the Die Hard formula. I admire here, for example, McClane’s pattern of cooperating with other Every Men (and Women) such as Marvin (Tom Bower) the janitor, Barnes (Art Evans)  the airport engineer, and non-narcissistic journalist, "Sam" Coleman (Sheila McCarthy)  

They are all real people, working real jobs, often going up against the bureaucracy -- or Establishment --  a key obstacle, if not outright villain, of the overarching Die Hard saga.

Undeniably, Die Hard 2: Die Harder is impressively-made and boasts moments of pure exhilaration. It is also superior to some of the franchise’s later entries, so it has that going for it. Yet -- to quote again  Roger Ebert and his review of Halloween II (1981) --  this sequel is still a “fall from greatness.”

Perhaps this sequel is not a steep fall, or a crash on the runway, but Die Hard 2 nonetheless begins showing the incipient symptoms of franchise-itis.

“You’re the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

L.A. cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) waits in Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. for the arrival of his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) from California.

Unfortunately, the renegade Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) and his team of special forces troops take over the air-port, stop all incoming flights, and attempt to rescue an incoming American hostage, deposed strong man General Esperanza (Franco Nero).

McClane must now get Holly’s plane safely to the ground before it runs out of fuel, and defeat Stuart, Esperanza, and a fiendish double agent, Major Grant (John Amos).

“Another basement, another elevator…how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

Die Hard 2: Die Harder is based on the 1987 novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager, which concerns a retired police detective fighting to defeat terrorists who have seized an airport, and get his daughter --trapped on a plane overhead --  down to the ground safely.

So if Die Hard was a dynamic extension of The Towering Inferno (1974) paradigm, Die Hard adopts its setting from not only a novel (like Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever), but from the disaster genre too, namely Arthur Hailey’s Airport.  

In the Airport movies -- which were released from 1970 to 1979, approximately -- a plane in flight is jeopardized, and intrigue occurs at an airport. Die Harder adds to this common scenario seem key real life "current events."

Colonel Stuart, for example, is a clear corollary for convicted felon (and failed senate candidate), Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who lied to Congress, and was a “functionary” in the Iran-Contra Scandal, which was still big news in 1989, when Die Hard 2 was conceived.  

The film also recreates the international conspiracy angle of that illegal operation with the presence of Esperanza and Grant as shadowy colleagues. In other words, the villains in this piece are American soldiers who don’t view the rule of law as an obstacle to them. They pursue their illegal and so-called patriotic agenda anyway, which actually involves propping up right wing dictators in third world nations. American lives mean nothing to these vainglorious scoundrels.

The James Bond franchise also featured an Oliver North-like criminal -- Joe Don Baker's Whitaker -- in 1987, in The Living Daylights.But despite the intentional resemblance to such real-life malfeasants, Stuart, Eperanza and Amos -- three villains for the price of one -- still can’t match Rickman’s urbane, self-aware Gruber in terms of menace. 

There’s even an unnecessary scene here in which Stuart apes a fake accent (Southern) to trick a British plane into crashing. The whole attempt comes off as a pale imitation of the “Bill Clay” scene in Die Hard.  

All three actors are fine in their roles, I should hasten to add, and I’m a big fan of Sadler (see: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.) But three lesser-villains just don’t make up for one guy who is, essentially, the perfect bad guy. I believe it was a mistake dividing the villain role across three individuals, as not one of them offers the same kind of intricacy or three-dimensional personality as Rickman projected.  They don't have enough screen time, for one thing.

Renny Harlin achieves much directing Die Hard: Die Harder, but some of the core visual conceits here are quite different, and inferior to the original strategy. McTiernan’s furtive, desperate, rolling, tilting, panning camera is gone, and a consequence of that absence is that the action doesn’t feel quite as immediate. 

As I wrote in my review last week, Die Hard’s photography aped the man-alone desperation of McClane.  No such technique informs the action here.

Also, the camera-work and narrative details made it truly seem that McClane was in mortal danger throughout Die Hard.  He had to run across broken glass in one scene, and paid the price in blood. He was scared and desperate, and often won battles on the basis of pure grit and luck. In Die Hard 2, he has much greater -- and perhaps -- super-heroic luck.

For instance, there’s a silly scene set at the under-construction Skyway Annex. McClane is seen rolling across the floor -- in plain sight -- and terrorists bracket him. 

He rolls and pivots, in clear view, picking off the terrorists, and they don’t get in even one clear shot.  Not even a flesh wound!  Again, McClane is an obvious, slow-moving target.  

Even an Imperial stormtrooper would graze him!

The shot looks awesome, of course. McClane looks bad-ass slowly rolling across the floor, expertly picking off his nemeses, but the sense of furtive desperation is gone.

Similarly, in a later scene, McClane is trapped inside a grounded plane, as Stuart lobs a half-dozen or so grenades into the cockpit with him. The devices land next to his face, at his feet, and around the cabin. Yet McClane still gets ample time to strap himself into a chair, pull an eject lever, and escape the cabin before even one grenade detonates.

At most he would have 3-5 seconds, once the grenade lands.

He gets a lot more time than that to achieve his spectacular escape. 

Again -- mea culpa -- I love this scene in terms of the special effects presented, and Willis's spirited performance. It is fantastic and delightful to see the chair (with McClane strapped to it...) hurtle right towards the camera (taking up a position high in the sky), as an explosion blossoms below him. 

 But Harlin doesn’t get us to that great visual punch-line without cheating the set-up.

One is left to conclude that McClane has begun the journey from determined, gritty, human cop to Rambo-like super-hero. The slide is reversed a bit in the next film, which gives McClane a hang-over, and restores the furtive camera-work. 

But then the slide continues, unabated in the franchise.

Still, I appreciate how Die Hard 2: Die Harder sets out to establish or fully-cement some aspects of the so-called Die Hard paradigm. 

Here, McClane allies with people who, if not outright blue collar in terms of their jobs, are either cultural/gender minorities, or out of power, to achieve his ends.  

He befriends a reporter named Samantha, for instance, who comes through for him right when he needs her.  McClane treats her with respect (or at least more respect than Stuart does...), and Samantha gets him access to a helicopter when he needs it.

Engineer Barnes, largely ignored and considered unimportant by his superiors and Carmine, demonstrates ingenuity and initiative in finding the terrorists’ headquarters at a nearby church.  

And Marvin the janitor is crucial in leading McClane from one part of the airport complex to another. These three friends -- disdained, disciplined, and lacking privilege and/or authority -- are crucial to John’s success.

By contrast, Die Harder also diagrams the idea that there are two kinds of bad guys in these films.  

First, there are the terrorists who actually attempt to do evil, with finely-crafted strategies and brute force.  

And then there is the establishment, or bureaucracy, which prevents John from doing his job successfully.  

Representing the latter category, we meet two police officers, Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) and his brother, Vito (Robert Constanzo), who make one wrong-headed decision after the other, thoroughly gumming up the works and making it easier for the terrorists to complete their anti-social tasks.  

Trudeau (Fred Thompson) is a more neutral “establishment” figure, one who must be persuaded to trust McClane, but who then qualifies an ally of sorts.

Part of the Die Hard franchise’s Every Man appeal involves this “Fighting City Hall” story angle. John makes friends and enemies as he fights the good fight. And he has a perfect barometer in choosing his friends. They are are usually lower-level, disenfranchised people who nonetheless know their jobs, and clearly see right from wrong.  

Yet the nearer the distance to power someone becomes, these movies tell us, the harder it is for people to embody that kind of clear-headed thought. They are bogged down in red tape, and lose their clear moral compass.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder succeeds as much as it does because the location/setting -- a snowed in airport -- is unique and intriguing, and the danger to the planes overhead is palpable. It is a horrific scene, indeed, when the terrorists trick a plane into landing…and it blows up on the tarmac. 

We all harbor a fear of flying, at least at some level, and Die Hard 2 absolutely taps into that universal dread.

Yet still, by the end of the film, I felt that the sequel had failed to tread boldly enough into new territory. Having John note “how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice” is meta and funny, I suppose, but  the in-joke doesn’t cure the film of its particular deficit: repeating too many of the ideas that informed John McTiernan’s original.  It tells the same jokes, in other words, but tells them less effectively and artfully.

For purposes of franchise building, I absolutely believe that McClane can -- and indeed, must -- get himself into danger again.  

I have more trouble believing it would occur again on Christmas Eve, and so intimately involve his wife Holly and journalist Thornburg. The movie’s choice to end again with fire and “Let it Snow” is also a sign of creative exhaustion.  

Too many notes are, literally, repeated.

Clearly, Die Hard 2: Die Harder got the job done, both at the box office and in terms of fan expectations. I can second-guess it all I want, and the facts don't change.

It’s a solid sequel. But at the same time, some of Die Hard’s inspiration clearly didn’t make the flight with the rest of the luggage.

Monday, August 03, 2020

McClane Binge: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard is the movie that launched a hundred cinematic knock-offs or so. 

John McTiernan’s blockbuster 1988 so dramatically and thoroughly revolutionized the action genre at the end of the eighties in fact that -- for at least half-a-decade -- virtually every new entry in the genre was described as “Die Hard in a (fill in the blank.)”

Movie-going audiences soon saw Die Hard on a Bus (Speed [1994]), Die Hard on a battleship (Under Siege [1992]), Die Hard on a Train (Under Siege 2 [1995), Die Hard on a Plane (Passenger 57 [1992], Executive Decision [1996]) and even Die Hard in a Hockey Stadium (Sudden Death [1995]).

The film is very closely based on novelist Roderick Thorp’s (1936-1999) literary work, Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), which in turn was inspired by the author’s viewing of The Towering Inferno (1974).

The novel concerns a retired detective, named Leland, who visits the L.A. high-rise HQ of a company called Klaxon Oil. He is there to visit his daughter Stephanie, for the Christmas party, when a German terrorist, Anton Gruber, takes seventy-four hostages.  

Many elements in the film, including a barefoot hero, the gun taped to the protagonist’s back, and the use of explosives in an elevator shaft, recur directly from Thorp's written words.

Rich in invention and humor, Die Hard (1988) succeeds on many levels, and remains today much more than a thrilling fusion of disaster film and thriller tropes.

First and foremost Die Hard is absolutely dazzling from a visual standpoint, in large part because director McTiernan eschews excessive and unnecessary cutting, and preserves the space or geography of the action by utilizing tilts, pans, and other, often extreme or sudden camera motions. 

Not only is the space of the action preserved in this fashion, but the rapid camera motion accelerates the film’s sense of pace.  

Our view of the action literally banks, turns and performs barrel rolls. It’s as if we’re seeing through the furtive eyes of the desperate hero, registering everything, everywhere, in an effort to endure and survive.

Secondly, for all its bells and whistles, Die Hard essentially boils down to a battle of wits between two evenly-matched opponents, one ruthless, intellectual and urbane (Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber) and one wide open: Bruce Willis’s John McClane. 

At times it actually feels like a realization of destiny that these two resourceful, ingenious, determined characters should face each other, “mano e mano” at the Nakatomi Plaza. No other place in the world is tall enough for both of their egos and self-confidence, perhaps.

Yet in terms of its pure, psychic appeal, Die Hard is actually something more than a great and eminently satisfying action movie. 

It is undeniably a primal male wish-fulfillment fantasy that was forged in a time when masculinity was facing existential questions about its value and worth in the larger American culture.

John McClane’s battle in this film is not simply to defeat Hans Gruber or rescue the hostages in Nakatomi Plaza, including his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia).

No, his battle, as I hope to explain in this review, is to redeem himself as an alpha “male” and showcase his viability as such.  

Some might suggest that this leitmotif renders the film sexist in some way. I’m not here to make any particular conclusions or social judgments about that notion, only to draw your eye and your intellect to the argument the film crafts on both a visual and often sub-textual level.

“Just a fly in the ointment, Hans, just a monkey in the wrench, just a pain in the ass.”

For Christmas, the NYPD’s John McClane (Willis) flies to Los Angeles to be with his estranged wife, Holly (Bedelia) and his two children, John and Lucy. A limousine delivers him to the high-tech Nakatomi Plaza, where Holly works a successful and high-powered career executive.

When John and Holly reunite, they argue about their marriage, and the fact that Holly now uses her maiden name, Gennero, rather than her married name, McClane.

Their personal differences must wait, however, because a group of European terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Rickman) invade the building, cut the power, and take seventy-four Nakatomi employees hostage, including Holly.

John seizes an opportunity to escape the offices, into the larger building. Almost immediately, he begins taking on the terrorists, one-at-a-time, much to the irritation of the erudite, well-organized Gruber.

John also gets a call outside of the building for help, and ends up teaming via walkie-talkie with L.A. cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).

Before long, news crews, and the F.B.I. are also on the scene, but McClane is the only man on the inside of the building, the only man who can stop Gruber’s plan. 

That plan involves explosives, a bank vault and much deceit…

“It’s Christmas time, Theo. It’s a time for miracles.”

It is plain to see how Die Hard adopts many key elements from The Towering Inferno. There’s a rooftop rescue that goes awry in both productions, for example, a lot of fire, and the same central location: a Los Angeles high-rise building. In both productions, helicopters are destroyed too.

Die Hard takes that setting and those creative elements, however, and creates something new for the cinema, an action movie in which the hero is an “every man” who is outnumbered, out-gunned, and cut-off from authority He is tested quite egregiously, and must succeed based on nothing but his wits and his cunning. 

McClane is a man alone.

The highest plateau of film quality, for me, arises with the idea of visuals mirroring or reflecting thematic and narrative concepts. We see this idea play out in Die Hard as director John McTiernan deploys a kinetic, almost constantly-in-motion camera. Objects -- like a whirring table saw, for example -- loom suddenly in the foreground. Or the camera suddenly shifts on its axis, and goes plummeting down a basement staircase the viewer has not yet detected.

This approach possesses two virtues.

The first is that this brand of camera motion preserves the space of the battlefield, to adopt a war metaphor. Were the film to feature an over-abundance of cutting, the space (and time) would feel fractured. But by whirling to register objects, or tilting and panning to see things, McTiernan makes us feel like we are trapped in the building with McClane. 

The second virtue is connected to the first. The camera’s movement -- always “discovering” new objects, rooms, and enemies -- recreates the mental state of the film’s characters. Around every corner could be a threat or an opportunity, and the camera work expresses a kind of nervous energy as Gruber and McClane both harness the (same) environment to win the day. 

The camera-work also is adrenaline-provoking. We are never sure what we will see next, and so we start paying attention to every detail, every moment of the action. This is reflected in the character dynamics in so many ways. Hans picks up that McClane is walking barefoot, and in the next moment, orders his henchman to shoot out the glass from a nearby pane, creating an impediment for his opponent. The camera and the characters learn things at the same time, and seize on that learning for their game of chess.

Sometimes, the camera moves brilliantly to  reveal the proximity of danger. At one point, for example, cinematographer Jan de Bont's camera tilts up from a smoldering bullet-hole in a vent shaft to a close-up of a vulnerable McClane, perched inches away. The director could have cut to a reaction shot, instead, of his hero. But that simple tilt tells us just how close McClane came to death.

The whole movie is filled with anxiety-provoking moments such as that one. As a result, Die Hard is fun to watch -- a veritable roller-coaster ride of a movie -- and that’s primarily because of the ingenuity and efficacy of so many compositions. The visuals engage us, and demand attention.

As I noted above, Die Hard is also a primal male fantasy. 

It is about a man who grew up with heroes like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers and James Arness (Marshal Dillon) discovering, as an adult, that men like that are no longer called for in American society. 

Those cowboys were protectors and patriarchs, but Gruber dismisses them all as products of a “bankrupt culture.”  Even other 80s male icons such as Rambo are name-checked, and Lee Majors’ The Fall Guy is seen on TV at one point.  The idea, I suppose is that American culture has changed radically in the 1980s, but no one has bothered to tell the movies about that fact. We still raise our boys into men thinking they can be cowboys. They still kill the bad guy, get the girl, and ride off into the sunset.

Yet just consider for a moment the shift in demographics and the economy that occurred in the eighties and how they changed the picture for masculinity in this country. 

By 1985 half-of-all college graduates were women, and women with outside-the-home careers jumped to 49%. Women moved successfully into traditionally-male held jobs in banking and white collar management too. 

On one hand, movies like Working Girl (1988) epitomized the era. On the other, efforts such as Mr. Mom (1983) dramatized the opposite side of that equation: a stay-at-home Dad raising the kids.

Die Hard, very simply, concerns a man, John McClane (Bruce Willis) who doesn’t cope well with this shift in cultural expectations, and what that change means for his ego and self-respect. His journey in the film involves a successful attempt to re-assert his role, value, and place in the American family when he is no longer the primary bread winner or the "hero."

That opportunity occurs at the workplace of his wife, Holly, who has moved out of John’s home in New York with his two children, and earned kudos as an executive at a Japanese-run corporation. Holly is a complete success, and is so confident in that career success that she goes by her maiden name, “Gennero” instead of her married name, “McClane.”  

Several times, the film gives us visualizations of that name, Gennero. We see it in the building registry and on the door to Holly's office. In a very concrete, visible way, then, Holly has separated herself from her marriage, and her husband.

But then John ultimately saves the day, and Holly introduces herself to Al Powell not as Holly Gennero, but as Holly McClane. 

That, right there, is the the punctuation of the whole movie. That’s the whole wish fulfillment aspect in a nut-shell: the idea that John can bring his wife around to his “idea of what this marriage should be.”  

He doesn’t do this by being a good listener, by being a shoulder to cry on, by being a good dad, or by being a partner in the work-force, an equal earner.

He does it by being just like those predominantly cowboy heroes of yesteryear.  By besting the bad guys, getting the girl, and riding off into the sunset.

Yippy-kay-yay, motherfucker.

The sub-text, of course, is that John McClane and other men have been somehow emasculated by the rise of women in the workplace in the 1980s. John is rudderless and alone, and must re-assert himself and his male-ness.  

This idea gets a surprising amount of visual play in the movie because of a nifty little bait and switch trick.  John keeps seeing gorgeous, often naked women, and though he registers them, he doesn’t act on his sexual impulses to conquer them.

What type of shot or sequence or shots recurs in Die Hard quite frequently?  

Well, it is a shot of a beautiful woman who is “seen” by McClane either in the same shot, or in cutaway reaction shot.  Then, he kinds of sighs, and moves on, with resignation, after noticing her allure

This happens again and again in the film, and one must ask why. Why does this composition recur?

Let me give you the examples before I answer that question.

In the airport, McClane sees a women in tight-white pants leap effortlessly into the arms of her boyfriend. Her rear-end appears to defy gravity.

At the party, McClane ogles a woman standing beyond a fountain, in long-shot.  Here we get both the object of his gaze, and a view of his gaze.

Then, in Holly’s office, a sexually available woman bursts in with her lover. John sees her, through the mirror, so that we get his gaze, and the object of his gaze in the same composition.

Immediately after McClane escapes from Holly’s office, John heads to a floor upstairs. He looks out a window, and sees an apartment across the way. A half-naked woman is lounging there, in front of her window. The camera moves in on McClane as he registers her presence.  Again, this encounter features two shots: the object of McClane's gaze, and a view of him gazing at that object.

And, finally, during his chases back and forth through the infrastructure of the Nakatomi Building, McClane twice sees a pin up of a nude woman. She catches his eye on one occasion, and he cranes his neck to look at her. On another occasion, he speaks to her like an old friend.

There are no fewer than six instances, then, in Die Hard, wherein John’s gaze is explicitly connected to the visual of a sexually-desirable woman.

What does it mean? 

Quite simply, there’s the idea here that marriage and society -- and modern convention too -- shackle men, and prevent them from being their true selves. These things hold them back, rendering them impotent, just as new-fangled 1980s ideas about women in the workplace take away their manhood too (by the movie's way of thinking; not mine).

And how does John exert or assert his manhood, if not by conquering these available, luscious women he constantly encounters?

 By shooting guns. A lot.  By killing terrorists.

In Die Hard, McClane asserts his masculinity not by having sex with all the abundantly desirable women he miraculously keeps casting his eyes upon, but by committing bloody violence and re-taking his place as a powerful alpha male.

Now, no man is an island, of course, and John still requires emotional support, even while doing things that a man must do. He turns not to his wife (who is unavailable to support him), but to a "bromance" with Al Powell. McClane finds that for his emotional needs in a time of crisis he needs, simply, another man, and one who is, importantly, a cop like he is.  

Al Powell has been rendered impotent by society too. He’s a desk jockey who hasn’t fired his gun since an accident years earlier.  

How does he get his groove (and masculinity) back?  

Again with a pistol, by killing someone.

Once more, I would like to stress that I’m not rendering any kind of judgment, pro or con for the argument that Die Hard so carefully constructs. However, it is abundantly plain the message is there, and part of a wish-fulfillment fantasy aimed straight at men in the eighties. 

They have been held back too much, and if they want to earn back the respect of women and men around him, they have to be gun-toting heroes in the mold of John Wayne, Rambo, or any of the other heroes that Gruber names.

The appeal in Die Hard, not entirely unlike the appeal of the Dirty Harry films, is the characterization of a male hero -- in a time of change -- reverting to "simple" cowboy form. Die Hard makes that characterization funny by references to Roy Rogers’ sequin shirts, and by McClane’s foul-mouthed but nonetheless immortal catchphrase.  

In other words, Die Hard is a movie that is both primal male fantasy and simultaneously smart enough to be self-aware about it.  

It would be easy to write much more about this film. 

For instance, Die Hard is one of my favorite Christmas movie of all time, because -- again -- it deals so ironically and with such self-awareness about the contradictions between a holiday celebrating love and peace and the bloody violence in the Nakatomi Building. 

This conceit, this juxtaposition, reaches its zenith of brilliance in the film’s final shot. Nakatomi burns and smolders, and the soundtrack plays the song “Let It Snow.” The lyrics, in case you have forgotten, commence with: “The weather outside is frightful. But the fire is so delightful.”

The fire at Nakatomi Plaza is delightful? 

Hell yeah it is. For John McClane, who has won back his wife, defeated the bad-guy, and is horizon-bound.

When I first devised the idea of writing about Die Hard (1988), I thought about all the approaches I could take, and realized just how brilliantly the film fulfills multiple functions.  

It’s an ironic Christmas story. 

It’s a development of the Towering Inferno setting. 

It’s a primal male fantasy about re-asserting manhood according to the Hollywood definition of that term, and, finally it’s an elegantly-shot action film too.  

But the passing of Alan Rickman demands that I add one more paragraph to an already too-long critique of this film.  

His Hans Gruber is, without exaggeration, the perfect movie villain. Not because Gruber can shoot. Not because Gruber threatens people. But because Rickman projects so much intelligent, wit, and cunning.

At one point, Rickman's Gruber quips about the “benefits of a classical education,” and that dialogue makes a valuable point. 

Rickman, a slender intellectual sort is able to project so much cerebral menace as Hans Gruber that we feel the muscular, t-shirt clad McClane is in constant danger from him. 

In short, Rickman proves that not only is smart sometimes sexy, smart is also sometimes damned scary.  

His best scene in the film involves Hans’ on-the-fly adoption of an American accent when he unexpectedly encounters McClane. This scene is rife with tension because we don’t know what John knows, and we didn’t expect Hans to prove quite so…adaptable in the field.

Gruber also gets a death scene that has yet to be topped in the action film genre (pictured above).

So if my description of Die Hard as a primal male fantasy is somehow disturbing or uncomfortable for anyone, there’s no need to focus exclusively on that aspect. 

Die Hard features so many other virtues -- from its stirring fight scenes, accomplished camera-work and great performances to its brilliant Michael Kamen score -- that’s it difficult to choose which one really makes the movie soar.

So the year 1988 and the dawn of Die Hard? 

A “time of miracles” indeed.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: the King Kong Show (1966)

"You know the name of King Kong..."

In the autumn of 1966, ABC TV first aired the American/Japanese co-production called The King Kong Show (1966).  The companies involved were Videocraft, and Toei Animation. Arthur Rankin and Julie Bass served as executive producers.

The series ran for 25 episodes, and was a sort of omnibus show. By that I mean that each twenty minute show featured three stories.  Two were devoted to Kong, and one was devoted to a different animated program called Tom of T.H.U.M.B.

As far as the premise goes, The King Kong Show saw the mighty ape of the movies transformed, essentially, into the friendly over-sized pet of the globe-hopping Bond family.  The family consisted of a father, Professor Bond (Carl Banas), a teenage daughter, Susan (Susan Conway) and a pre-teen boy, Bobby Bond (Billy Mae Richards).  Kong and Bobby were playmates, and especially close.  Bobby was too "young" to consider Kong dangerous, and so became his friend, instead.

Kong, meanwhile, was described as being "ten times as big as a man."

So the Bonds found Kong on Mondo Island, and took care of him, only to become involved in numerous adventures with the giant ape and those who sought to control or dominate him. The adventures concerned aliens ("The Space Men") the evil-mastermind, Dr. Who ("Dr. Who," "Rocket Island") and other challenges.  A supporting character, Captain Englehorn, came straight from the 1933 King Kong.

And, of course, elements of this cartoon re-appeared in the live-action King Kong Escapes (1967), particularly the character Dr. Who (visualized differently in the film), and the Mondo Island setting.

Here's a look at the famous theme song from the series:

Today, I'll look at two six minute segments.  The first is "The Horror of Mondo Island."  in this tale, the discovery of a "rare and important element" known as "Fantasium" -- which can make steel elastic and bendable -- brings a mining crew, and their destructive vehicles, to the island.

Seeing Kong's island paradise spoiled by strip-mining, Bobby warns the workers about "the Horror Mondo Island" in an attempt to scare the out-landers away.  He describes a monster that attacks by night, and then disguises Kong as the fearsome beast, painting him white.

The ruse is successful, and the miners are driven off.   The episode' s highlight is a scene in which Kong battles a bull-dozer or crane, and makes short work of it. Since this is a kid's show, however, he only crushes the vehicle after the driver has vacated.  It's also intriguing that Kong, in disguise, actually resembles the character's son, as seen in the 1933 sequel to the original film.

The episode ends with the miners realizing (thanks to Captain Englehorn) that the island possesses "natural obstacles beyond our control."  In other words, Bobby has saved the beautiful island both for Kong, and future generations.

One can see how this six minute story is simple, and aimed at children. The message, about conservation, is plain, and Bobby is the protagonist, the one who -- independent of his father's wishes and plans -- saves the day.

The second six minute story I'll look at for this special Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging is "Dr. Who." This is the tale that introduces the mad scientist villain to the series.  He is visualized as a very short, bald man in a lab coat. He also wears thick, black glasses, and thick black gloves.

As the story begins, Professor Bond introduces Dr. Who to Bobby. Dr. Who wants to take Kong away from the island, on a two day trip. Bobby refuses to give permission.  Dr. Who then holds the family at gun-point, and launches an attack on Kong.

Helicopters assault Kong, but fortunately Captain Englehorn arrives to help, and Kong breaks out of his prison aboard a ship.  The episode ends with the foreboding (and accurate) observation that "we haven't seen the last of Dr. Who."

This episode does a good job of establishing the friendship and symbiosis between Kong and Bobby. One would assume that Kong is the great protector in the relationship because he is strong and, well, gigantic.  But here we see that Kong must also be protected too, and that Bobby steps into that breach. He is Kong's guardian as much as Kong is his.

Both of these episodes from the 1966 animated series are short and sweet, and filled with adventure. Kong himself is portrayed as a gentle giant, which is appropriate, given the intended audience.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Harryhausen Binge: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974)

Released in 1974, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is my Sinbad movie.  I saw it theatrically as a five-year old, and was absolutely mesmerized by the sword-fights, the Ray Harryhausen monster action (filmed in stop-motion called "Dynarama") and the fantasy setting, on the lost island of Lemuria.

Even though I  boast a strong childhood connection to this film, however, I still maintain that it is actually superior, quality-wise, to both its predecessor, 1958's 7th Voyage of Sinbad and its successor, 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.  

This is so largely because the screenplay is far more consistent regarding its villain, Koura (Tom Baker) and his powers, and even is largely consistent in terms of the monsters Sinbad encounters: they are manifestations of the sorcerer's power, not just random beasts walking around.

In the film, Koura establishes that to "summon the demons of darkness there is a price...it consumes part of me," and that line is a key to much of the film's action and narrative.  Koura seeks an ancient Lemurian amulet (shattered into three pieces) because by using his dark forces, he has aged himself...his life-force ebbs.  The tablet will lead him to a fountain of youth where he can rejuvenate himself.  

In terms of the monsters, save for a centaur and a griffin, Sinbad battles monsters that Koura puts up to block the sailor's path; to stop him from finding the fountain first.  These monsters include a tiny, flying harpie (shades of Jason of the Argonauts), a ship's mast/statue come to life, and a multi-armed statue of Kali.  The lengthy, incredibly-rendered sword-fight with Kali is the undisputed highlight of the film, a terrific set-piece that still captures the imagination. 

But the point is that Koura's magic is used to a specific end, and consistently so, throughout the film.  If you look back at Sakurah in 7th Voyage of Sinbad (played brilliantly by the great Torin Thatcher), he merely wanted a genie lamp and would stop at nothing to get it, and then happened to keep a dragon as a pet in his subterranean headquarters on the island of the Cyclops.

These ideas didn't stick together as well as those you find here, and we did not understand the nature of Sakurah's evil; his motivation for it.  His power also seemed to have no downside or cost.  Worse, Sinbad seemed to interact with Sakurah as if he trusted him for much of the film, when it it was obvious to everyone with eyes that he was evil...or at least scheming  There was some screenplay...muddle there.

In The Golden Voyage, Koura's quest is plain, and he even becomes a somewhat sympathetic character because we know and understand what he is after, and what is at stake for him if he fails.  He's a great villain, and Tom Baker is terrific in the role.  After watching Dr. Who for all these years, I had forgotten how masterfully he could turn his charismatic screen presence sinister.

Unlike its predecessor, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad also reveals some of the flavor of Sinbad's ancient world -- like the fact that he is a Muslim -- by allowing him to utter comments about and proverbs from Allah.  This may sound like a small or inconsequential thing, but 7th Voyage of Sinbad essentially made Sinbad an American cowboy in classical Baghdad, one heading-up what became a 1950s American nuclear family.  He had no colors, no shades, no sense of being from somewhere other than America.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad isn't about Islam in any meaningful way, but it acknowledges at least, the truth that Sinbad originates from a different cultural tradition than many of those in the audience.  Today, with all the rampant Islamophobia, I doubt even the harmless mentions of Allah and religion in Golden Voyage of Sinbad would be permitted in a mainstream film, which is a sad development.    The history of the world, and the history of mythology, shouldn't be a football for contemporary ideological differences...but they are.  Sinbad comes to us from a defined time, place and tradition in the world, and to ignore his place of origin is like ignoring the fact that Clark Kent was raised in Smallville, or that James Bond is English.

I also appreciate The Golden Voyage of Sinbad more than the other Sinbad films for two further, specific reasons.  First, it actually differentiates between the crew men on Sinbad's vessel, offering us some comic relief in the form of one man.   This is important. In the other two Sinbad films, the crew men have no personalities, no differentiation, and no memorable identities.

And secondly The Golden Voyage allows Sinbad -- this time John Phillip Law -- to be a little less wholesome and pure.  Here, he brings Caroline Munro's slave girl, Margiana, along to Lemuria, and it's not because she plays a good game of chess, if you know what I mean.  There's some (harmless) sexual innuendo, obviously, and as an adult, that's far more interesting to watch than the innocent, "pure" love of Sinbad and his betrothed (nowhere in sight here, by the way....) in 7th Voyage.   

What I'm getting at in this review, without offending anyone, I hope, is that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad -- perhaps owing to its post-James Bond milieu -- is a bit less simplistic in narrative, in style, and in detail than its esteemed and rightly-appreciated predecessor.   

The message here is that evil -- though powerful in allure -- carries a "weight" or "cost," and that's a terrific message to impart to children learning the differences between right and wrong.   The sub-plot involving a prince in a mask, Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), also conveys a nice little lesson.  Though ugly on the outside (because of burns inflicted by Koura), Vizier is beautiful on the inside...and that beauty eventually comes to the surface.  

And by the way, I noted with interest that the moment here wherein Vizier removes his golden mask and stuns the hostile natives of Lemuria was repeated hook, line and sinker in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode "Journey to Oasis," with Mark Lenard.  

Good ideas in the genre never die...they just get recycled.

McClane Binge: Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)

The biggest problem with  Die Hard 2: Die Harder  (1990), perhaps, is that it follows on the heels of a legitimately great movie in its...