Wednesday, June 23, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 109: Alias (2002): "The Box"

I've probably written about this before here, but I once pitched a book project to a publisher entitled "Die Hard in a Book" and its intention to was to survey all the Die Hard (1988) films, and also all the Die Hard rip-offs, tributes and off-shoots.

Let's see: there was Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57), Die Hard on a bus (Speed [1994]), Die Hard on a cruise ship (Speed 2 [1997]), Die Hard on a Train (Under Siege 2), etc.

One chapter of that proposed book would have been called "Die Hard on the Tube," because over the years so many TV programs have also re-purposed the sturdy Die Hard premise (terrorists take over an isolated setting, grab hostages, and end up battling an action hero like Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal or Wesley Snipes).

Just off the top of my head, I remember Captain Jean-Luc Picard battling terrorists for control of the evacuated starship Enterprise in the Next Gen episode "Starship Mine." And then there was an episode of the 1990s Glen Larson superhero show, Nightman, called "I Left My Heart," in which the hero had to combat a terrorist gang in a high rise building, in a plastic surgeon's office.

Probably the finest and most exciting television variation on Die Hard, however, arrived in early 2002, on the ABC J.J. Abrams spy saga Alias, starring Jennifer Garner as secret agent Sydney Bristow.

In "The Box," written by Jesse Alexander and John Eisendrath, and directed by Jack Bender, guest star Quentin Tarantino portrays the Hans Gruber/mastermind, antagonist role in the by-now familiar Die Hard scenario. This time, the character's name is McKenas Cole, and he has endured torture, humiliation and guilt after a failed overseas mission and a lengthy imprisonment. He blames SD-6 director Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) for his suffering.

Beginning in the parking garage of SD-6 headquarters (from a van labeled with the legend "McTiernan," after Die Hard's director...), McKenas and his machine-gun-armed terrorists began a ruthless, violent take-over of the high-tech offices. SD-6's staff is held hostage, abused and threatened with death. McKenas seeks -- again in old-school Gruber-style -- something important (and secret...) from SD-6's impenetrable vault. In Die Hard, of course, opening up the Nakatomi Building's computerized vault was a lengthy, elaborate process, and "The Box" keeps that aspect of the story to help ramp up the tension.

Our John McClane (Bruce Willis) in this variation of the form is lovely and lethal Sydney, who returns to SD-6 HQ determined to quit, only to find an emergency already-in-progress. In short order, Bristow takes to the vent shafts and begins eliminating Cole's operatives one at a time. Just as McClane had some crucial help from outside, provided by Officer Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), so is Sydney assisted in her efforts here by her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). But, in the tradition of Powell, Vaughn must cut through infrastructure and bureaucracy, plus the efforts of a wrong-headed superior, in order to join "the party."

The core concepts of the Die Hard prototype are popular and oft-utilized for a reason. The story sets a loner and law-enforcement official against superior numbers, gives him or her a unique central location (high rise bldg., ship, bus, etc.) to grapple with, and then provides an obstacle that holds him/her back: the safety of hostages. In Die Hard, of course, John McClane had to worry about his captive wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia). In Alias's "The Box," Sydney's Dad, Jack (Victor Garber) -- a fellow agent -- is among the hostages.

Quentin Tarantino is probably the undisputed contemporary king of movie homage, so it is appropriate that this particular director should be a guest star in the very Alias episode that most closely pays tribute to what is today considered an action-movie classic. But "The Box" is a laudable episode of Alias not merely because it adopts the Die Hard template, but because it so cannily re-purposes the ingredients of the Willis film to the specifics of its own storyline.

For instance, "The Box" opens at a low time for Sydney. She has just learned in the previous episode ("The Confession") that her mother was not a school teacher, but rather a murderous KGB agent in America. This knowledge has caused Sydney to question her work in the intelligence community, her continuing education to become a teacher herself, and much more. The unexpected take-over attempt at SD-6 by Cole is thus the very thing that jolts Sydney out of her self-doubt and self-recriminations. Her friends (including Dixon) and father need her help now....or innocent people will die.

More interesting, however, is the fact that Sydney realizes during the course of "The Box" that her agenda (to bring down Sloane and SD-6) actually aligns with Cole's (Tarantino's) agenda. In other words, Sydney has a moment of realization in "The Box" during which she realizes that Cole and she, in some sense, want the same thing; and are on the same side. Should she join him in taking down SD-6 -- her ultimate goal -- or stand firm and rescue the very man she hates, Sloane?

This is a very clever updating of the Die Hard concept: the notion that the hero and villain are joined by a common goal, but, for whatever reason, still must fight. This is part of the reason why Alias remains such an interesting series: Sydney is a double agent, and must constantly consider not only how her actions affect the real C.I.A., but how they will play out in the crucible of SD-6. Add her personal life to the mix, and Sydney's life is a delicate, split-second dance of lies, secrets, and feints. This episode, "The Box" really expresses that idea well.

I also find it intriguing that so much of this Alias episode involves Cole's "enhanced interrogation" (torture) of Sloan utilizing a box filled with acupuncture needles. Again, Alias has spent the first dozen episodes of the first season making viewers aware of what a terrible, villainous person Sloane is. He is, without a doubt, the big bad of the series (the man who had Sydney's fiancee killed). And yet, "The Box" goes out of its way to make audiences feel first sympathy and then respect for Sloane as he is tortured ruthlessly by Tarantino's character. The sympathy is bad enough...but then Sloane volunteers to have a finger chopped off (so as to de-activate a bomb with a computerized fingerprint read-out) in order to save the lives of his people. Suddenly, the bad guy seems...selfless.

In other words, "The Box" makes things even more murky for Sydney. She finds herself sympathizing with Cole's agenda; and then learning that the "monster" she hates actually features some admirable human qualities.

What I'm getting at, I suppose, is that Alias knowingly uses the Die Hard template as a starting point and then launches into some great and valuable character territory based on the specific elements of the series' narrative and overarching purpose. Like most episodes of Alias, the pace here is breathless; the action is endlessly intense. In particular, I enjoyed the final battle between Quentin Tarantino and Jennifer Garner. His character, Cole knows how to land a punch, and Sydney's a deft kick boxer, so it's fun watching their diverse fighting styles in action. Sydney moves with grace, like a dancer, but Cole hangs in there, blocking and punching away. Tarantino is clearly having the time of his life playing a smarmy bad-ass here, and the scene in which he makes Sydney drink his backwash (!) from a champagne bottle (in lieu of a kiss....) is classic.

I watched the first two seasons of Alias when it aired on ABC in the early years of the 2000s, and episodes like "The Box" still really get the blood flowing. I guess there's been serious talk of a series re-boot in the last few weeks, and I can't comment on that idea too much except to observe that today Alias holds up remarkably well. It looks like it was produced last week; not eight years ago. A re-boot so soon sounds unnecessary, and I'm not certain that anyone could portray Sydney Bristow with more verve, more humanity, than Jennifer Garner brought to the role.

Why not an Alias feature film reuniting the original cast, instead?


  1. I wish someone had picked up your book proposal; the Die Hard formula almost invariably produces a good movie - it's even Van Damme-proof. On of my favorites is No Contest (it's Die Hard at a Beauty Pageant!) with Shannon Tweed and a surprisingly effective Andrew Dice Clay as the Gruber. Also worth seeking out: Automatic (it's Die Hard with robots!), with Oliver Gruner and John Glover as the villain (not really a Gruber in this one). Has anyone done Die Hard with Zombies yet? It seems inevitable.

  2. Hi DLR:

    I always thought my book idea was a great one, but it had no takers, sadly!

    I agree with you, the Die Hard scenario is a good crucible for tension (I love your comment that it is "Van Damme"-proof -- outstanding!) I haven't seen Automatic, but now I absolutely must do so...

    Thanks for the comment.