Monday, December 21, 2009

“Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho.”

I have a confession to make. I’ve never seen any of the Die Hard movies. Well, since its Christmas time, I think now’s as good a time as any to change that. I think its time for an X-MAS X-PLOSION X-TRAVAGANZA! So strap yourselves in, ladies and gents as we kick off Christmas week with a boom with John McTiernan’s 1988 movie about a Christmas party gone wrong.

We have a New York City detective landing in L.A. to meet up with his somewhat estranged wife (who moved out west for work and took the kids) for Christmas. After getting picked up in a limo and driven to the unfinished skyscraper where her company’s Christmas Party is being held, there is a brief reunion that shows their relationship is in trouble, when suddenly…Terrorists! Well, not really terrorists, since they’re only interested in the millions that are being held in the vault downstairs, which makes them super thieves. Anyway, our everyman cop ends up the only one loose in the building who’s either not a crook or a captive, so its up to him thwart their evil plans. With bullets. And Explosions. And taunts. And Christmas Spirit.

John McClane: Bruce Willis in the role that shifted him away from comedies and cemented him as an action star. McClane’s a New York cop on a trip to L.A. to see his wife. The relationship’s a little strained, but the two do seem to love each other. John’s an everyman who’s not a fan of heights. Its mostly luck that keeps him from being caught when the bad guys show up, but its his sheer tenacity and resourcefulness that keeps him alive (well, and a lot of luck) through the movie. John’s a great character, and while he manages to survive stuff that in a real world would kill him, at least he does get the shit kicked out of him. It’s a tough call, but he’s the biggest badass of the film, largely because he does everything barefoot.

Holly Gennaro McClane: Bonnie Bedelia is the wife of John, and a very strong, stubborn woman and bucks the whole “damsel in distress” thing. When the bad guys take over, she keeps her cool and rises to a position of leadership within the hostages.

Argyle: De’voreaux White is the limo driver who picks up John at the airport and brings him to the skyscraper. A decent guy, he offers to find John a hotel if things don’t go well with the wife and consequently spends most of the movie in the parking lot in the basement, completely oblivious to everything going on above him.

Richard Thornburg: William Atherton (Walter Peck from Ghostbusters, only without a beard this time) is a muckraking television reporter, not a major character, but they guy is fantastic at playing a douchebag.

Harry Ellis: Speaking of douchebags Hart Bochner plays Holly’s sleazy co-worker. Basically he’s all of the stereotypes of a sleazy 80’s businessman, he’s a fast talking, insincere, sycophantic and (heavily implied) coke snorter.

Sgt. Al Powell: Reginald VelJohnson (Carl Winslow himself) plays an L.A. cop who happens to be close enough to the skyscraper to investigate the possible disturbance. Long story short, he becomes John’s only real ally on the outside and they feed information to each other. Al is awesome.

Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi: James Shigeta is Holly’s boss. He doesn’t last long.

FBI Special Agents Johnson and Johnson: Robert Davi (Big J) and Grand L. Bush (Little J) show up when the threat of the bad guys gets real, but they’re more interested in gung-ho explosions and flying choppers and firing machine guns and other manly things than actually trying to help all the hostages survive.

Hans Gruber: Alan Rickman is one hell of a Villain in this movie. Rocking a beard and German accent, he’s a mastermind of a villain, ruthless, but civilized. Willing to sacrifice his men in the line of duty, but not to throw them away for simply displeasing him. He’s a perfect foil for John’s blue collar schlub and runner up for badass of the film. He’s evil. Classy evil.

Karl: Alexander Godunov is Hans’ number two guy. A big, mean, blonde he starts behaving…unprofessionally when the first bad guy John kills happens to be Karl’s brother.

John McTiernan, as we’ve established before, is a very, very solid director. Pacing is wire tight, tension is palpable and the action sequences are logical explosions of that tension. Keeping all of that together is a rock solid visual direction that really knows how to frame a scene. I now understand why this movie is held up as one of the gold standards of action movies.

Based on a novel by Roderick Thorp (“Nothing Lasts Forever”) and screenplay by Jeb Stuart (probably no relation to the Confederate General) and Steven E. de Souza, the characters, dialog and plot are all skipping merrily along at rocket fast speeds. True, most of the movie is a collection of action movie tropes, but it plays all of them up with complete conviction, and the character development is so well done that you’re actually delighted when the last bad guy is shot by a character who its been revealed earlier in an offhand way hasn’t been able to fire a gun in a long time thanks to psychological issues. Incredibly cliché in retrospect, but my God, it actually works here.

Michael Kamen’s score is incredible for this movie, especially in how subtle and restrained it often is. Probably the most memorable bit is all of the quiet variations on “Ode to Joy” that Kamen quietly inserts as Hans Gruber’s theme, eventually soaring to the full fanfare as the vault doors finally open up and he gains access to all that money. It. Is. Glorious. There are also several appropriately Christmas-y songs, like “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “Winter Wonderland” and “Christmas In Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. (it was the late 80’s and white folks were starting to take notice of rap).

I may have been late to the Die Hard party, but damn am I glad I finally showed up. Not much to say other than it was everything I was led to expect, and more.

Trailer music doesn't get any more 80's than this.

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