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Die Hard (#110 of 9)

Summer of ‘89: Lethal Weapon 2

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Lethal Weapon 2</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Lethal Weapon 2</em>

If there’s one constant in Mel Gibson’s film career, it’s vengeance. The actor has starred in at least half a dozen films as a “man on the edge” forced to transform into a ruthless killing machine to avenge the loss of an innocent loved one. This screen persona began with the Mad Max films and was further honed with Lethal Weapon 2, a film that curiously isn’t as readily placed in the Mel Gibson retribution-action category as some of the actor’s other work.

One of the reasons Richard Donner’s follow-up to the gritty buddy-cop film Lethal Weapon stands out from other revenge tales in Gibson’s career is that it possesses a decidedly comical tone, particularly more so than that of its predecessor. It boasts as many chases and explosions as any other film of its kind from the era, but what’s most impactful is the rapport between Gibson and co-star Danny Glover. Almost every scene in Lethal Weapon 2, from the opening car chase through L.A. to the toilet-bomb explosion, finds a rhythm by centering on officers Riggs (Gibson) and Murtaugh (Glover), specifically their verbal exchanges and expressions. A late twist turns the film into a vengeance parade for Riggs, but Donner doesn’t stop long enough for the film to become too dour. Rather, he uses these scenes to anchor the third-act conflict.

The story sees Riggs and Murtaugh take on a gang of South African drug dealers led by a consul-general (played with relish by Joss Ackland) with “diplomatic immunity,” who eventually declares war on the police. It’s fairly ordinary stuff, with some elements especially feeling like leftovers from Die Hard, which had come out only one year earlier. Most notably in both cases, the main villain is a sophisticated suit-wearing man with a foreign accent. Additionally, each villain has an intimidating sidekick that gets off on violence. Ackland and Derrick O’Connor may not look like Alan Rickman and Alexander Godunov, respectively, but they serve much the same capacity here.

Understanding Screenwriting #113: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, & Unfaithfully Yours

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Understanding Screenwriting #113: <em>The Bling Ring</em>, <em>The Heat</em>, <em>White House Down</em>, <em>Monsters University</em>, & <em>Unfaithfully Yours</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #113: <em>The Bling Ring</em>, <em>The Heat</em>, <em>White House Down</em>, <em>Monsters University</em>, & <em>Unfaithfully Yours</em>

Coming Up In This Column: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, Unfaithfully Yours, but first…

Moving on: This is going to be my last Understanding Screenwriting column for The House Next Door. Don’t worry, it’s not going away for good, just moving to a new location. Earlier this year, I got an announcement from Erik Bauer, founder, publisher, and editor of Creative Screenwriting magazine. In addition to writing for the magazine, I was on the editorial board from 1994 to 2008, when the board was dissolved. Erik had sold the magazine and the Creative Screenwriting empire (website, screenwriting expo, etc.) to another man in 2007. Unfortunately, the recession came along the next year, and the magazine closed down in 2011. This spring Erik had what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to buy back the Creative Screenwriting empire, and his announcement said that he’s intending to revive the magazine, beginning in 2014. In the meantime, he’s reviving the Creative Screenwriting website in August, and my Understanding Screenwriting column will be moving to it then. The new address will be www.creativescreenwriting.com, and he hopes to have the new website up the first week in August. I trust you will all come and visit and leave the kind of intelligent comments you’ve spoiled me with for the last five years. And I must finish my work here at the House with a great big “thank you” to both Keith and Ed for their support over the years.

Fan Mail: “shazwagon” raised the question in regard to the close-up of Jesse at the end of the opening scene in Before Midnight: “How do you know that it was the writer’s decision to show the close-up later?” That’s an easy case; since both the actor involved and the director were also the writers, we can pretty much be sure it came from them. In other cases, it can be a tricky question. Generally writers will make an effort to write in reactions for the characters (but not camera directions, since directors pay no attention at all to writers’ suggestions in that area). If, as in the close-up in Before Midnight, the reaction is related to everything else going on in the scene (here the counterpoint to the dramatic action with Jesse and Henry), then it almost certainly comes from the writers. If actors and directors in general are at the top of their form, you feel that the moment is happening now right in front of your eyes. Look at Jeff’s (James Stewart) reaction to the itch in an early scene in Rear Window. It seems the camera just happened to catch him when the itch did. Not so; it’s all laid out in John Michael Hayes’s great script.

David Ehrenstein is back to disagreeing with me and all’s right with the world. He thought Behind the Candelabra was better than I did. He especially liked the performances by Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. I liked the performances, but felt the script didn’t give them as much to work with as it could have.

The Bling Ring (2013; written by Sofia Coppola; based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales; 90 minutes.)

Sofia Coppola, meet W.E. Burnett and John Huston. You may remember that, in US#68, I found Coppola’s Somewhere very disappointing, but I also said we shouldn’t give up on Coppola. The Bling Ring shows why, and it’s one of her best films yet. Never give up on talent. Here Coppola’s minimalist style, which was a little too minimalist in Somewhere, is perfect for the subject.

Summer of ‘88: Die Hard

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Die Hard</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Die Hard</em>

The following Alan Rickman quote appears in the text commentary on one of the many DVD versions for John McTiernan’s Die Hard: “People get involved here, and that’s the thing. If people are patronized, if a film is geared toward a short attention span, then it’ll have a short shelf life. Films that involve that audience and embrace that ’once upon a time’ principle have a chance of lasting…We’re storytellers and we forget that at our peril.” When Die Hard exploded into theaters in the summer of 1988, I didn’t rush to see it. The reviews were mostly mixed to negative, and the action films of that era were low on my priority list (especially since, back then, I had to pay to see movies). When I finally ventured out to see it, it had moved to a dollar theater and a group of my bored friends and I decided to check it out for lack of better options. We arrived late, so it wasn’t until seeing the film again on video that I caught the foreshadowing of the airplane passenger advising John McClane (Bruce Willis), as they’re arriving in L.A., that the best way to readjust to Earth after a long flight involves removing your shoes and socks and making fists with your toes in carpeting. It takes more than one viewing of Die Hard to truly appreciate how much work and thought went into its construction and composition and to catch all the allusions (not just the obvious ones) to classic films.

Much of Die Hard’s criticism focused on how the film turns those who should be in a position to help McClane from the outside (the LAPD, the F.B.I., etc.), once they become aware that Hans Gruber (Rickman) and his gang have seized the building, into a hindrance for the New York cop trying to stop “the terrorists” from the inside. However, a great deal of the film’s appeal lies in watching an isolated McClane battle the bad guys, while the minor characters on the outside behave as imbeciles. In fact, their behavior makes the audience root for McClane, and part of the film’s subversive nature even makes the viewer unconsciously cheer for Hans when he succeeds in his quest to open the vault. While Gruber might be the villain of the piece, he also happens to be more charming and more fascinating than anyone on screen.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions Sound Mixing

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

It’s at this point we had to ask ourselves, “Is Argo really going to end up a two-Oscar Best Picture winner?” Because while it seems almost certain to buck all sorts of precedent and take Best Picture, which of its six other nominations will be there to back it up? Honestly, the way things have been developing among the guild awards, the only nod that seems entirely out of reach is Alan Arkin’s bid for supporting actor. We’ll cover Best Editing in the next few days, but the movie still seems more of a spoiler than a frontrunner for original score and adapted screenplay*. In theory, that leaves Argo’s two sound bids to prevent the movie from achieving a dubious feat not achieved since Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Some of us are going to hedge on our Oscar-pool ballots and give Argo one or both of them, but unless the topsy-turviness of the race infects every category, both it and Lincoln seem to lack the “bigness” this category seems to require.

On Trend Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the Rise of the Over-50 Action Hero

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On Trend: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the Rise of the Over-50 Action Hero
On Trend: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and the Rise of the Over-50 Action Hero

You might have noticed that Hollywood’s superhero well is running a little dry. If a comic book legend hasn’t made it to the multiplex, he’s found a home on the small screen (see The CW’s Arrow), and high-flying favorites who only just resurfaced are getting pushed back through the sausage factory (see The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel). Box-office returns are surely holding steady, as The Avengers’ $600 million-plus is history’s third-biggest domestic haul, but this party can’t last forever, and Tinseltown knows it. As usual, the dwindling resources have left industry bigwigs scrambling for the next bankable formula, and in a rare twist, one such formula involves ditching fresh faces for weathered ones. Thanks to the success of the Expendables franchise, which Sylvester Stallone fashioned into a frat party of over-the-hill meatheads, yesterday’s action stars are back in vogue in a big way, as proven by all the over-50 fare that’s followed Stallone’s guns-and-grunts series. The world needs new heroes. Will its old ones suffice? What can be learned from their resurgence?

Versus the Audience: Alien vs. Predator: Requiem & Fanboy Cinema

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Versus the Audience: <em>Alien vs. Predator: Requiem</em> & Fanboy Cinema
Versus the Audience: <em>Alien vs. Predator: Requiem</em> & Fanboy Cinema

Though it probably amounts to the equivalent of cinematic racism, I can’t stand fanboys, and this comes at least in part from having formerly been one. Anyone who knew me during the summer of 2003 must surely recall my gung-ho Matrix sequel attitude, an outpouring of adolescent enthusiasm that I can only hope will never manifest itself again in a fashion even remotely similar to the shamelessness I once exhibited (defend the films, yes; dress up as Neo for the midnight premiere, no). In this mindset, be it for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or even the broader, artier bases of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, liking a film/film series isn’t so much a matter of taste (that indefinable beast of burden that reflects as much as it obscures) as it is a religion one defends blindly, nationalism for the cinephile. Hence Kevin Smith’s juvenile (albeit intentionally self-aware, thus self-critical) pitting of his beloved Star Wars against Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations (sorry, Silent Bob, but the ring is mightier than the ’saber), and countless similar confrontations that go utterly nowhere. Question even one hair on Frodo’s left foot, and it’s off to the stocks for the newfound heretic.

Everyman as Superman: Live Free or Die Hard

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Everyman as Superman: <em>Live Free or Die Hard</em>
Everyman as Superman: <em>Live Free or Die Hard</em>

In the original 1988 Die Hard, Alan Rickman’s bad guy, Hans Gruber, taunts stalwart hero John McClane by asking him if he’s “another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne…Rambo…Marshal Dillon…” McClane jokes that he was always partial to Roy Rogers because “I really liked those sequined shirts,” then ends the conversation with the now-iconic kiss-off, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

The repetition of that phrase in three Die Hard sequels helps explain why I never really warmed to them. They’re lively smash-and-burn adventures that leaven their brutality with self-deprecating wit and something vaguely resembling a human touch; each boasts wittily choreographed action sequences, and even the worst of the lot, the sadistic and borderline-retarded Die Hard 2, pulls you in. But whatever their merits, each sequel—including Live Free or Die Hard, which opened this week—does more to undercut what made the original, and its hero, seem special. That’s a sin that no amount of boisterious ingenuity can erase. “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” wasn’t just funny because it was a blue-collar, East coast, wise-ass response to a James Bond baddie’s effete condescension. It was funny because it sounded like something a real person might say if he got caught in a situation that ludicrous. McClane’s comeback was a tonic, a contrast to all the other badass one-liners we’d heard up to then: James Bond’s icy British witticisms; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lame, mechanical approximation of same; Sylvester Stallone’s dead-eyed homicidal pledges (“I’m comin ta get yew”).

Appreciation: Die Hard

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Appreciation: Die Hard
Appreciation: Die Hard

Everyone knows about Die Hard. Director John McTiernan’s 1988 smash made a bona fide movie star of its leading man, Bruce Willis. Some of its dialogue—particularly John McClane’s trademark “Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker”—became legendary, and did some of its setpieces. The film spawned not only two sequels, but a host of wannabes, very few of which came close to matching the original. But while the film’s showstoppers still dazzle, Die Hard isn’t a great film simply because it delivers bang for your buck; it’s great because its action is built atop a foundation of wit and emotion.

Die Hard is, in a way, three movies in one. Chiefly, it is a big-scale (admittedly overscaled) action spectacle, typical of the era where such films ruled the box office. But it’s also involving and even occasionally touching melodrama. And, most sneakily, it also manages to be a winking sendup of the action genre in general.

Movie No. 1: Action spectacle

Though most of the action is set in and around a Los Angeles skyscraper, the film manages to wring many convincing sequences out of such a claustrophobic setting, from one-on-one fights to an explosive last-act rooftop setpiece. Each action sequence is scaled larger than its predecessor, until, by the finale, Nakatomi Plaza experiences some serious property damage. The actual climax, though, isn’t the standard brawl-to-the-finish between hero and the villain. Instead, hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) and main villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) engage in a Western-style staredown with John’s wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) caught in the middle. The suspense is not in seeing who gets beat up or killed first; it’s in what trick each man has up his sleeve.

In fact, the entire film is less about escalating bouts of violence than about seeing who outthinks the other. The McClane-vs.-Gruber struggle is a classic example of brains against brawn, with both hero and villain possessing a fair amount of brains. But the hero has more brawn, and that, coupled with empathy and street smarts, ensures his victory over a coldly intellectual foe. To accommodate this interest in tactics, the film is structured as a series of waves: each action sequence is a peak, which is then followed by troughs of character development and more modestly-scaled suspense scenarios.

Movie No. 1 is what most subsequent Die Hard imitators have tried to emulate: the claustrophobic setting, the film’s general shape. But whereas imitators have focused almost entirely on the action, Die Hard places just as much of an emphasis—and an important one, in this case—on the people involved.