Friday, December 25, 2009

John McClane and the Engine of Doom

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Merry Christmas to all of you out there who are reading the newly invigorated (or so I'd like to think) My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second!

I'm not one to go all-out on Christmas; my parents never did when I was young, and so naturally I have taken up their non-example. (They never even bothered to try to fool me with the Santa Claus thing.) And being that the Fujishima family network doesn't extend much beyond our East Brunswick, N.J., home in the United States, we're haven't partaken in the massive Christmas-shopping push either.

Thus, on the theory that "It's the thought that counts" still means something these days, the one gift I plan to give out guessed it: a special Christmas blog post on one of my favorite movies to watch on Christmas!

Yep, that's Bruce Willis you see in the image above, in his now-iconic role as supercop John McClane. But the image is not from John McTiernan's original 1988 Die Hard, a film that, even now, still holds up as a classic of the action genre. It's from Renny Harlin's 1990 sequel Die Hard 2, a follow-up that many might say is the original's retarded evil twin. Well........

I wrote an appreciation of Die Hard more than three years ago for The House Next Door, and while I haven't seen the film from start to finish in a while, I find no reason I can think of, off the top of my head, to retract anything I set forth in that piece. Especially in the context of the Hollywood-blockbuster genre, the original film is still a rich and witty concoction, delivering the goods in the action department while lavishing more-than-usual attention to character development, humor and even self-satire. You believe in the characters onscreen as three-dimensional people—a rarity for these kinds of mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters. It's just about perfect—in the context of the genre and outside of it.

Many argue that Die Hard 2, on the other hand, is a crasser, cruder rehash of the original, emphasizing the action spectacle while downplaying character development, and upping the ante on violence and gore. All of that is indeed true. And yet, in the right mood, I find that Die Hard 2, in its own caveman way, provides more sheer pedal-to-the-metal excitement than the relatively sober-suited original. In fact, I would go so far as to put forth this notion: Die Hard 2 is the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom of the Die Hard series.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, of course, is Steven Spielberg's 1984 sequel to his 1981 adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark; it also has a rather low reputation among many Indiana Jones fans, with many considering it either the worst or second-worst (depending on what one thinks of the recent Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Guess what? I like Temple of Doom a lot as well, perhaps even more than I do Raiders. Coincidence? Maybe not...

Both films occupy an interesting place in the context of their respective franchises; after the hugely popular successes of their predecessors, no doubt studios demanded sequels to try to rake in more cash. So how do both Renny Harlin with Die Hard 2 and Steven Spielberg with Temple of Doom decide to approach their follow-ups? By basically turning everything to 11: upping the ante on violence, exploding notions of plausibility set out by their predecessors, and generally pushing the boundaries of good taste and sense.

Start with the "Anything Goes"-in-Mandarin musical number that audaciously opens Temple of Doom.

Not only does it feature Kate Capshaw breaking the fourth wall winking at the camera at one point...

...but Spielberg then leads us into to some unseen backstage space where the dancers continue to perform, for no apparent audience whatsoever.

Raiders of the Lost Ark started in media res, with Indy already knee-deep in adventure; in Temple of Doom, Spielberg the showman steps in to open up the proceedings in spectacular style.

There's a much briefer moment like that in the opening moments of Die Hard 2 that similarly suggests a more playful style to this follow-up. After our main villain, Col. Stuart (William Sadler) has been introduced—doing calisthenics in the buff in a hotel room across Washington's Dulles International Airport—he, now fully dressed, comes out of his room...

and, two-by-two, his henchmen come out of their respective rooms...

...with what seems like clockwork timing. Unless Col. Stuart, for some bizarre reason, wanted this mass exodus to be as well-orchestrated as his traitorous terrorist plot, there's no plausible way to explain the perfect timing of the henchmen's exits from their rooms. Could Renny Harlin have found inspiration from Temple of Doom? Take away composer Michael Kamen's ominous low rumblings and replace the moment with, say, something Broadway-brassy, and who knows? You could quite possibly have Busby Berkeley in miniature.

Both these moments of what-the-hell invention suggest that the rest of these films will follow suit in their throwing of caution to the winds—and so it proves. While, in Temple of Doom, its disregard for plausibility and tastefulness mostly manifests itself in extravagantly staged settings, situations and set-pieces (with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe capturing the film's extraordinarily vivid and evocative production and art design in the Panavision widescreen format), Die Hard 2's disregard manifests itself mostly in its winking, self-referential recognition of the implausibility of it all. Thus: "Another basement, another elevator," says McClane at one point. "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" In another throwaway moment, he mutters to himself, "Oh, we are just up to our ass in terrorists again, John!" If Die Hard insisted, in spite of all of McClane's cowboy humor, that we in the audience take these characters and situations seriously, Die Hard 2 revels in its inherent ridiculousness, disarming criticism by essentially poking fun at itself, and to a great extent its genre, for being so ridiculous. Not even Spielberg in Temple of Doom quite dares to toe the line so dangerously between triviality and gravitas. (Even Sadler's Col. Stuart gets into the act, shouting "Time for the main event!" just before he and McClane face off in its climax.)

That over-the-top feel also manifests itself in the level of violence in both films—more brutal and horrifying, sometimes appropriately so and sometimes not. Temple of Doom's more memorably sadistic moments of violence are mostly concentrated in its second act, a physical and spiritual trek through an underground Hell that finds Indy tortured and hypnotized into doing head Thuggee Mola Ram's bidding before being redeemed and "reborn" into the Indy we all know and love. What was before a high-flying adventure yarn has become a supernatural horror film. Die Hard 2 has a section like that: a midpoint suspense set-piece that ends tragically with the crashing of a planeload of innocent passengers, all victims of Col. Stuart's cruel attempt to prove to his Dulles control-tower hostages that he's not to be fucked with. It's a stunning moment that, like that entire underground section of Temple of Doom, reverberates throughout the rest of the film, raising the stakes for the characters. Both sequels, though, also have moments of "fun" grue: a villain gets a shish kabob thrown into his chest in Temple of Doom, while another villain gets an icicle stabbed into his eye in Die Hard 2. (The violence in Temple of Doom was enough to raise MPAA eyebrows and lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating; Die Hard 2, suffice it to say, deserves its hard R.)

What I think attracts me to both of these sequels in comparison to their originals is precisely that sense of reckless excess. If Temple of Doom can be seen as an unadulterated peek into Steven Spielberg's subconscious, then I would argue that Die Hard 2 is just as much of a blast from Renny Harlin's id—an id fueled by fascistic/jingoistic '80s-era trashy action-movie bloodthirst and machismo rather than "classier" racist/imperialist '30s and '40-era pulp serials. Maybe it's no surprise that, in Harlin's 1993 film Cliffhanger, he comes up with the image of a baddie getting skewered on a stalactite, or a good guy getting kicked repeatedly in the torso like a soccer ball; that's clearly the same adolescent Roman-circus sensibility behind some of the more outrageously gory moments of Die Hard 2. (Hey, I'm not telling you whether you should approve of that kind of sensibility in movies or not; that's up to you to decide.)

Also worth touching upon are these two films' positions in their respective franchises, especially in light of the films that came afterward. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and ...Crystal Skull (2008) both pull back from the unapologetic excesses of Temple of Doom, but while they may feel mild compared to Doom, that's merely a reflection of not only an older and wiser director at the helm, but also of an older, wiser and wearier hero. In the climax of Last Crusade, he finds the Holy Grail, but then comes to understand that there are things in this life worth more than even the cup's promise of everlasting life. Crystal Skull, in its own unassuming way, finds Indy coming face-to-face with his mortality in that indelible image of him shielding himself from a mushroom cloud; by the end of that film, he has seemingly dealt with that realization by re-forming a family unit he thought he had lost.

Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) and Live Free or Die Hard (2007) aren't nearly so rich in humane wisdom and insight, but that same sense of weariness still hovers over these two, primarily through Bruce Willis's aging features. Vengeance finds him alone and apparently estranged from his wife for good; in Live Free or Die Hard, he's not only estranged from his daughter, but also from the technologically savvy world around him (the latter aspect proves to be the film's richest source of comedy). Both Hollywood blockbusters in mentality through and through—of course the analog man will win out in the end—they nevertheless manage to offer the kind of tantalizing suggestions of bruised and battered depth that Die Hard had in abundance and that Die Hard 2, in its gleeful adolescence, chucks out the window right from the beginning.

Look, I'm not here to make any grand claims about Die Hard 2 as some underappreciated masterpiece. To be perfectly honest, it probably is the least of the series (and Harlin, needless to say, is no Spielberg), and my attachment to it is probably more nostalgic than anything else; it's the kind of film I used to watch repeatedly as a younger film enthusiast, back in high school. But I still get a kick out of it the same way that I still get a kick out of Temple of Doom: it grabs you by the throat within its first few minutes and rarely ever lets up, like a rolling juggernaut that keeps accumulating energy scene-by-scene until its arrives to a big-blowout finish. No, these kinds of entertainments ain't the height of cinema, but it's the kind of high-flying entertainment that, when it works, you're sorry to see end. When I think about these two towering action franchises as a whole—source of some of the most entertaining Hollywood action-adventure moments in cinema history—the second installments are the ones I feel most like rewatching—not because they're necessarily the best films of their cycles, but because they're the ones that I remember as the most far-out, the most intense, the most exhausting and exhilarating. For better and/or worse, they are just about free of inhibition; that's their spiritual (if that's the right word for it) connection, and that's what I respond to—maybe against my better judgment, but hey, judgment isn't what makes these sequels as fun as they are, right?

And on that note: Happy holidays!

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