Monday, September 6, 2010

"Sit Down, We're Not Going Anywhere" Movies: Die Hard With a Vengeance

This feature will start with a simple premise: think of the movies you adore, and then maybe figure out why. Movies you'll stop and watch when you see them on cable, no matter what's going on or where you have to be (as a friend of mine would say, "Sit down, we're not going anywhere"). Movies that may or may not be pieces or artistic genius, but that pull you in every time. Movies that you may know inside and out, and yet are surprised by something you've never noticed before.

I have a large, amorphous list of movies that fit this qualification, so source material won't be the problem. The challenge will be to translate the reasons I watch these films over and over again into coherent thoughts that are accessible to the world at large. Now, maybe no one will care why I've seen Independence Day at least 100 times, but some just might see it because I've explained myself (though that would probably just encourage Roland Emmerich to make another turd like 2012). And, since I'm sure everyone has their own list, the comments sections can easily become a sounding board for your own favorites, and why. This is really a formality, since most of these films have been around a while, but THERE WILL SPOILERS. Each time I pop up with this irregular feature, I’ll drop that warning early, to avoid angering anyone who’s been purposefully avoiding talk about Back to the Future for 25 years until they get time to watch it.

As a starting point, some may question Die Hard With a Vengeance.  "But Jon," these hypothetical skeptics are saying, "why would you begin with the second sequel to what was surely one of the most pivotal action movies of all time?"

Well besides the fact that it's my list, damn it, I happen to consider it the best of the trilogy (yes, trilogy--DH4 didn't happen for me. It had the Mac kid in it, for God's sake...), with the most consistent tone set throughout, and more mature performances from the much larger cast. And I think I’ll probably write up the original Die Hard nearer to Christmas, as a cheery holiday special. So, critics answered.

Having never lived in New York City, I can’t really testify to what the place is like in summer, but it seems to me that from the opening credits, we are there. It probably helps that the opening music is actually “Summer in the City” by The Loving Spoonful. Still, blunt soundtrack choice aside, the audience is immediately placed right in the middle of a sweltering weekday morning in Manhattan, traffic snarled along teeming streets. And then, the thick atmosphere is shattered by that first explosion.

It struck me recently, upon rewatching DHWAV, how much September 11th has changed that city, or at least our perception of it when viewed through the lens of pop culture. Assuming that the film gets the environment of mid-90’s New York right, I can’t imagine some of the cavalier attitudes on display as the apparent terror plot unfolds throughout the day. That opening bomb scene should bring back a lot of stomach-clenching anxiety for anyone who remembers where they were on 9/11: billowing clouds of smoke and dust rolling down narrow canyon streets, panicked crowds of people stampeding in all directions. And yet the NYPD to which John McClain belongs just treats it like a shittier day than usual at the office, with a lot of phone calls to answer. To wit:

“Who would blow up a department store?”

“Have you ever seen women at a shoe sale?”

Obviously a movie made today, no matter how campy or comedic, would never dare treat an apparent act of terrorism on America’s largest city so flippantly. But here, in the more…innocent?...time of 1995, it just seems like a way of lightening the mood. It’s interesting, though, that I now notice a lot of poignant reminders of what the city was before those bastards crashed the planes. At one point, Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus is trying to navigate as quickly as possible (in a stolen cab) to some point in lower Manhattan, and looks up to use the twin towers as a convenient landmark. Not so anymore. Later in the film, when Jeremy Irons’ fake city engineer crew arrives at the Wall Street subway station bomb site, one of the cops, showing them around, mentions almost offhand, “well you guys were probably at the World Trades, you remember what a mess that was,” in reference to the first attempt on the buildings in 1993. Just another pain in the ass for New York’s finest. After nearly a decade of national frustration, anger, and fear concerning the subject of terror in America, it’s actually kind of refreshing now to watch the way the movie’s attacks are treated as something that will simply be fixed and left behind.

However, some things haven’t changed. Samuel L. Jackson plays Samuel L. Jackson flawlessly, and his proud black electrician Zeus is one of the most memorable characters in the film, if a bit one-note. Zeus, roped into the plot simply by being a good Samaritan, saving McClain from a terrible wardrobe choice for Harlem. He eventually learns a lesson about diversity, but still manages to get in a few of those catchphrases we’ve come to expect from him (you know the ones, but this is a PG-13 blog). Jeremy Irons—playing the brother of the first movie’s thrown-off-roof-syndrome victim Hans Gruber—clearly relishes his chance to do some serious scenery-chewing. His German accent could charitably be called “shaky,” but really, American movies tend to treat British as the catch-all foreign accent, so it’s fine. And his murderous Dutch-girl henchwoman…let’s just say I’ve never seen a bank guard so gracefully dispatched in a movie before, or since.

The villain's grand plan of course isn’t an act of political terrorism, or even primarily revenge against McClain. Just like the first movie, it’s again a massive robbery plot, this time for the billions in gold bullion housed in the Federal Reserve Bank on Wall Street. That sums up what the film makers were trying to do, after the goofball disaster that was Die Hard 2 (“Die Harder”…ugh). It even includes the obligatory scene of McClain in a ventilation duct, and another of a gun taped to his back. That, I think, is what I like most about it…it’s comfortably part (and for my money, peak) of the franchise. And no Mac salesmen in sight.

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