24 May 2008

DIE HARD (Dir. John McTiernan, 1987, US) - Is this the greatest Action Movie of the 1980s?

‘When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer’, so says the super suave and sophisticated terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) as he outlines his intentions to the soon to be dead, Takagi, the head of Nakatomi Corporations.

Alan Rickman had the British writer Tom Stoppard (another overpaid Hollywood script doctor) rewrite most of his lines and it is of little surprise why Rickman walks in and simply steals this film from Bruce Willis, making his character one of the most charismatic and enduring screen villains for a long time.

2007 saw the post modern reboot of the Die Hard franchise and though the film triumphed in terms of it’s international box office appeal, it was a disappointing addition to a series of what are regarded by many as superior action films – particularly Die Hard & Die Hard with a Vengeance which were helmed by the under rated mainstream director for hire, John McTiernan. Die Hard 4 could not resist opting for the dumbed down version of screen violence and colourful swearing that had defined the earlier films and the addition of the youth element was purely a cynical ploy on part of the producers to widen the demographic appeal of the film.

The other elements severely lacking from Die Hard 4 was the absence of Michael Kamen’s wonderfully bombastic score for the first 3 films (unfortunately he has passed on) and a competent director who simply was not being told where to point the camera and come up with ridiculous ways of crashing cars and blowing up helicopters. The other major problem with Die Hard 4 was that unlike the earlier films, this was made within a post 9-11 context and the producers could not help extenuate jingoism as some kind of defining characteristic associated with McClane’s hardened personality.

Alongside Predator and The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard formed a trilogy of action films all directed by McTiernan at the peak of his creative powers and they helped set a remarkable precedent in terms of intelligently crafted mainstream entertainment. Die Hard continues to stand out as McTiernan’s best film simply because it was able to redefine the conventions of the adult action oriented action film by presenting us with characters who were not only deeply flawed but for once, given room to develop and breath, becoming more than just devices used to advance the narrative so that the film could get to the next action sequence.

Though Die Hard has some superbly executed set pieces, it is the mutual relationship between Hans Gruber and John McClane that prevents the film from becoming just another empty concept. The constant exchange of dialogue between them that borders on the disdain is used extensively to sustain dramatic tension and manipulate audience expectations. Alan Rickman’s pulsating and dynamic performance ensures that the spectator is never entirely sure if they should only identify with McClane’s romantic and idealistic cop.

Die Hard helped to make Bruce Willis a major star in Hollywood and he was cast against type in a role that we would traditionally associate with more conventionally physical actors like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. The film has been unfairly compared to the 1960’s disaster film, The Towering Inferno, and the only similarity is location as both films are set in high-rise buildings. In the age of green screen CGI fakery, the age of traditional stunt work is gradually becoming an extinct way of accomplishing an action sequence.

In Die Hard, McTiernan constructs a series of beautifully staged and intensely choreographed sequences that are not only boldly operatic in their use of editing and sound, but illustrate how violence is endemic to how we judge a great action movie. Other than straight to DVD action films, very few mainstream Hollywood action films are being produced for an adult audience as producers feel nervous about the chances of a film that has high levels of violence. But isn’t that the whole point of making an action film? To represent violence on screen and then test what kind of reaction it provokes within the audience, and subsequently to determine what violence says about today’s society.

The plot of Die Hard centres around a group of German terrorists who on the eve of Christmas take over a corporate building and hold hostage the people who work there and then go about staging an elaborate bank robbery that involves stealing negotiable bonds which can be exchanged for money anywhere in the world. Of course, this being a movie and this being a Hollywood movie, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) fails to take into account the presence of John McClane, a New York police detective who takes on the challenge of bringing down the bad guys and reuniting himself with his estranged wife turned corporate executive.

McClane’s embittered cop persona is very much in the tradition of the Hollywood gunslinger present in the Western genre, and the references to Gary Cooper and John Wayne suggest an affectionate link to images of stoic masculinity. Released in 1987, Die Hard is a film that reflects the attitudes of a Reaganite America, and a number of real life ideological issues like the break up of the nuclear family, the rise of hostile corporate Japanese take over’s, and the role of the media’s sensationalist approach to reporting real life crime are buried within the subtext of a hugely entertaining film.

The most accomplished and breathtaking sequence is the roof sequence – this is when Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) gives the orders to detonate the roof of Nakatomi Plaza which has been prepped with explosives. The sequence is visceral cinema and relies greatly on dynamic editing that juxtaposes a number of parallel plot lines together to create the idea of an apocalyptic spectacle.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger seemed to dominate the action film in the eighties but whilst many of their films lacked any real substance, Die Hard rewrote the rules by returning to the traditions of the ordinary citizen who becomes the unlikeliest of heroes. Though I am not a huge fan of dumb Hollywood action films like The Transformers Movie and XXX with Vin Diesel, Die Hard illustrates how certain films are able to transcend the limitations of a genre that continues to hold very little cultural credibility except in terms of escapism.

1 comment:

  1. Three movies later, his indestructibility has become something of a joke, and McLane has morphed into a de facto superhero, sure to survive every chopper crash and five-vehicle pile-up.