Saturday, September 04, 2004

die hard

forgiveth me this string of action flicks. you gotta understand, they formed my cultural backbone as a kid.

i'm hoping down the track i can sift thru the current-day implications of an 'action-film', or, moreover, a 'hollywood' upbringing. i'd hint at this early stage that, for example, montage has had an semi-negative affect on my workaday perspective. i.e. action/drama characters seemed to do things so easy via montage. hard work compressed into 2 minutes of well-edited glimpses + fast-tracked score. why can't my working/academic/poetic life function thus?

right now, allow me to treasure the occasional hollywood gem for surprising reasons. 'die hard' is a gem. much like 'the fugitive', it's carried over that line between unwatchable dross & re-watchable formulaic class because of certain production subtleties. little things. unblockbuster-ish things. let's list them.

a) the support cast. basically, bruce willis ain't much of a leading man (critically he hit his peak on the back of a bit-part in 'pulp fiction'). in spite of the dirty-singlet/greasy bicep chic, he needed a good support crew around him here. he gets it. few action films manage to pack in so many memorable side-characters. first & foremost of course is alan rickman as the bad guy, 'hans gruber'. surely one of the best villains in action-film history, he is much less 'hateable' than the average bad guy, simply because he's so bloody 'watchable'. he is skilfully introduced into the film via silence - he says nothing for quite a while, instead ordering his troops around via underhand glances & little shifts in his facial hair. when finally he does open his mouth, the cinematographer (who i'll laud later) frames him in such a way as to reveal rickman as the REAL star of this film - standing behind an invisible pulpit, bible-diary held gracefully in one hand, addressing his captive congregation. wisely the writer grants rickman (an established shakesperean actor & reputed bastard, from all reports) a chance to give the gruber character a bit of depth - some funny, classy, witty lines (quoting the classics, praising the tailored suit of a hostage etc), some flashes of near-humanity (the genuinely anguished look on his face when he's told one of his hostages is a heavily pregnant woman), & signs of instinctive intelligence (the way he shifts so quickly into the cowering american businessman-role as a disguise). efficient, intelligent but insecure (read: HUMAN) villains are the best, & gruber is great because he's basically a better-than-average bank robber with the manner & dress-sense of a nasty executive.

(to digress, the 'bank robber' bit need not be underplayed: the slapstick-ian nature of certain moments (a SWAT team member stopped in his tracks by a rose thorn, a mean-looking henchman distracted in the heat of battle by a chocolate bar, the crazy limo-driver kid) makes one wonder if 'die hard' isn't just a funny/serious bank-heist movie writ large. either way, the light-heartedness of certain moments distracts us from the silly un-reality of several things; willis & his mate, 'al powell', having extended, sentimental conversations over a walkie-talkie; the lunacy & impossibility of certain stunts; the way willis is taken so un-seriously by 'deputy chief dwayne robinson', another semi-slapstick-ian character)

as well as rickman, there are numerous other side-characters i can go on about (as mentioned earlier, what other action film gives us such an array of minor figures?). holly, willis's ex-wife - a hard-nosed & eloquent & intelligent character. mr.takagi (spelling?), the executive of the nakatomi corporation, played with a really genuine dignity & integrity early in the film. ellis (spelling?), the corporate lowlife who we see sniffing cocaine at one stage - a high-strung idiot, killed prematurely during a memorably tense scene between him & rickman. the similarly intense & idiotic newsreader, played by the guy who played a near-identical idiot in 'ghostbusters'. the long-blonde-haired maniac henchman who battles valiantly & madly with willis towards the end of the film (incidentally, the actor who played this guy died in about 1995/96; for some reason i remember a really gentle, moving obituary to him in melbourne's 'age' newspaper; you see, people came to love these characters). even the two FBI agents - who arrive on the scene with a real over-bearing sense of seriousness - are brought down to earth, made memorably human: riding in a chopper at full-tilt towards the nakatomi building, one screams 'wooohooo! this is just like nam!', to which the other replies, very smoothly, 'i was in junior high, dickhead'.

b) the second 'subtle' reason why this film is so effective: the cinematography. the director of photography on 'die hard' was a bloke named jan de bont (i think that's how you spell it), the same guy who went on to direct 'speed', an equally superlative, if not slightly more serious, action film. i implore you to watch closely some of the cinematographic work done in this film - it makes such a difference to the overall class & feel of the picture. from the wonderful opening ten minutes or so, which are bathed in a beautiful semi-hellish natural californian corporate light, right up to the climax - the super, super slo-motion shot of gruber falling from a 30th floor window (i can't say i've seen this shot bettered by any action film since - it still looks so real) - the whole film is so dramatically shot, capturing so well the complete neatness & under-contrstruction aspects of the office building.

c) fundamentally, the film is incredily fun (the same virtue that made 'die hard 3' so enjoyable, even if the jeremy irons villain was somewhat too virile & serious for my liking). watch it again & again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It certainly does stand as a bank heist film writ large.
And it is not bathed in racisim like some other action films.
compare it to 'true lies' which none to subtley immerses the viewer in racist stereotyping iconography that would make Goebell's and Reinfenstahl bow down in awe at the almighty propagandising power of Hollywood.

I would rate 'true lies' as the greatest 'racist' film of all time.

If the third reich were alive thriving and creating a nazi hollywood they'd be slugging it out toe to toe with movie releases to equal films like 'true lies'.

When did the tradition start in Hollywood of portraying all other cultures as corrupt decadent and vile except WASP american society?

American heroes happily remove from the planet, asian and chicano drug dealers, crazed terrorist arabs, even slimey perverted limey's sometimes get their cum uppance as they are part of the gang about to blow up an airliner or bus or boat.

Can you think of other classic hollywood action films that fit into that slick Reinfenstahl genre of portraying other peoples and cultures as the festering sources of all that is violent and damned across the planet???

Jerka's Shoulders.

4:46 PM  
Blogger focy said...

cheers for commenting - you make an interesting point. funnily enough i've probably seen true lies about 20 times; it was a massive hit among middle-schoolers when it was released. & yes, as you say, it does depict the arab (are they arabs, middle-easterners?) villains in a harshly farcical light. does a good job of harnessing fear of the 'other' for dramatic effect.

but from memory it's also a fun & sometimes funny film. i'll have to watch it again.

12:50 AM  
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